Flashback Fridays: The Rocketeer

Nazis, the mob, secret spies, Hollywoodland, and action sequences that make absolutely no sense at all characterize this quirky superhero film. Disney’s 1991 comic book film adaptation “The Rocketeer,” delivers good old-fashioned pulp adventure that harkens back to silly action classics like the "Indiana Jones" franchise. Unfortunately, the film itself doesn’t quite reach that level of stardom; It always feels one note off for the majority of its running time. Right away the film dives into the world-building as bold white letters stretch across the screen, reading “Los Angeles, 1938”. Here we are introduced to not-so-mild-mannered Cliff Secord, a racing pilot who puts his life in danger every time he steps into a barely-functioning airplane to make money. As he’s flying over a police pursuit, Secord notices something very peculiar. To avoid its capture, the thief on the run from the law stashes a special-looking jetpack in the airplane shed. What a coincidence! It turns out our hero Cliff is just the right guy for controlling the powerful “weapon” that’s stashed in his airplane shed.

For the rest of the film, Secord is stashing away the jetpack to hide it from the villains and that was the film’s one fatal flaw. It doesn’t show us enough of the Rocketeer- and the first couple of times he does show up in costume, it’s hard to call him a hero, since he’s busy bumbling around being completely useless. He flies into clotheslines, crash-lands into ponds, and just all around is unfit for the hero business. Forget "Kick-Ass", it’s almost as if this movie set out to show us what would happen if some jerk really were to try and fly around being a superhero and fail hilariously.

Even then, some of the scenes presented in the film are just too ridiculous, even for a comic book movie. At one point, a character “fixes” a puncture in the Rocketeer’s jetpack with a wad of gum. In another scene, the Rocketeer flies around a room while wielding no weapons, which somehow scares a room full of hardened mafia thugs. And in yet another scene, a hulking disfigured mob thug interrogates our hero by slamming his head into the ceiling. Actually, that part's kind of awesome.

Regardless, “The Rocketeer” has an indisputable charm to it. The movie’s third act manages to salvage a lot of the dragging on the rest of the film did, inviting a crazy Nazi Zeppelin battle into the fray. That’s why the movie works on some levels. It’s afraid of getting ridiculous, and then when it does get silly, it’s so over the top it ventures into terrible territory and then comes back around to awesome.

The film is not a complete failure in that it perfectly captures the essence of pulp action comics of WWII-era America. Cheesy fun reigns supreme when the gold-helmeted hero leaps from an exploding Nazi Zeppelin over the Hollywoodland sign. Evil German soldiers leap out of bushes at a moment’s notice! Howard Hughes is trying to stop the Nazis from creating a super-army of jetpack soldiers! It’s all a bit nonsensical, but it’s honestly one John Williams score away from being a beloved classic. It’s almost as if the movie is speaking about itself when a character proclaims that even though they “don’t make an honest buck”, they’re “100 percent American.”

No one expects a comic book to be realistic or deep, and no one should expect “The Rocketeer” to be. In a way, it laid the groundwork for the fun Marvel movies that are being released today. In fact, “The Rocketeer” is directed by Joe Johnston, a man who apparently specializes in superhero period pieces, since he also directed 2011’s “Captain America: The First Avenger.” The world as presented in “The Rocketeer” and in the Marvel Cinematic Universe are in fact so similar that I wouldn’t hesitate to throw them into a shared universe.

Today’s epic praise of Marvel movies is evidence of the fact that “The Rocketeer” would thrive in today’s box office terrain. Despite recent rumors that the film would be remade soon, it doesn’t appear that Disney is actually moving forward with those plans. But who knows? Despite its problems, “The Rocketeer’s” plain fun might just be enough to propel it to Iron Man-levels of popularity.

If you want a glimpse of some more Rocketeer-related pulp action, then it’s best to read the comics or books revolving around him and his fellow period piece heroes. If you’d rather catch the film, it’s probably playing on a Spanish-speaking channel on a late Sunday night. But you can watch it streaming on Netflix, too.