With the influx of superhero movies these days, it’s easy to forget that there was once a time when superhero movies were hit or miss…and by that I mean mostly miss. And this time was the 1990’s.
Superhero movies were constantly mishandled, overcompensating in tone, under compensating in dialogue, and being really dated in retrospect. Movies like The Phantom, Steel, Spawn, Batman and Robin, The Shadow. I could go on, because it was a really bad time for superhero movies.
However, given the right circumstances, the right direction, and the right story, and you could have a really nice one out of that era.
You know…maybe not, like, immediately, but in about twenty years, it’ll be generally regarded as pretty nice. Case in point: The Rocketeer, a movie that didn’t get any critical acclaim upon its release, but managed to age extraordinarily well, and has become a bit of a cult classic these days.
Now, one of the main comparisons people have been making to this film, you know, once it resurfaced from the depths of the bargain bin, was to a more recent superhero movie: Captain America: The First Avenger.
And that’s a pretty nice comparison. Both movies contain a similar backdrop, the mid-40’s, both contain hints of nazism and glimpses of the 40’s glamour. Both have that sort of underdog story featuring someone who in no means could have been pictured as a superhero. Both have an over-the-top villain disguised as a normal person.
And, of course, it helps that Joe Johnston directed both of them.
In terms of story, The Rocketeer is pretty basic. Our hero, played by Billy Campbell in his first, and only, taste of big-screen glory, works as a pilot with his father-figure, played wonderfully by Alan Arkin. Through a series of events, Cliff, our hero, comes into contact with a jet-pack, and eventually uncovers a Nazi conspiracy through Hollywood. The story is not what makes this movie great, especially in today’s era of superhero movies every five seconds.
I’ll explain it like this. This is a very 1940’s movie, and it completely nails a ton of the 40’s tropes when it comes to making a superhero out of this period. Heck, it’s astonishingly similar to Captain America in this fashion, because they both have the same tone, the same washed out colors, the same underdog story, the same ties to Nazism. Heck, maybe Joe Johnston brought more than star creed to Captain America.
I have to point out the supporting cast here, because it helps make this movie so strong. I already talked about Alan Arkin, and this is way before he became the requisite ‘crotchety pessimistic old sidekick’ in movies. No, Alan Arkin’s great here, because he’s a sympathetic character who has a lot of fun moments.
Jennifer Connelly’s great as the female lead. Paul Sorvino has a nice role as (what else?) a mob boss. But there are two performances I want to zero in on before I go any further. Because they make this movie.
I’m a fairly huge Lost fan, so it’s always wonderful to see Terry O’Quinn in other movies and shows, because I tend to forget how good of an actor he is. I mean, aside from the Emmy. He was in the Stepfather, for crying out loud. He’s a really good, believable actor, and he can give a great performance when you least expect it. Here, he plays Howard Hughes. And…with apologies to Leo, he does a pretty damn good job of it.
I mean, yes, this is a slicker, more stereotypical portrayal of this era’s Howard Hughes, and he’s very stern and serious, but there’s something so fun about Howard Hughes helping out a superhero, and it’s great that O’Quinn is so good as him.
But he’s not the best performance in this film. Oh, not by a longshot.
Why, that would be Timothy Dalton, of course.
I’ve been vocal about the fact that being James Bond sort of ruined Timothy Dalton’s career. Yes, he’s a wonderful actor, and can give amazing performances, but for a five-year-period he was typecast as the everyman do-it-all super spy. And that’s…really not what Timothy Dalton specializes in.
He’s great in playing eccentric geniuses, and great characters, and ESPECIALLY great villains. I even think he was better suited playing Damien Drake in the Looney Tunes movie than playing James Bond, because his Bond was so emotionless, so ruthless, that it barely gave Dalton any reason to emote.
HERE…HE EMOTES. OH, DOES HE EMOTE!
He plays an Errol Flynn type here who is secretly communicating with the Nazis. He’s charming, conniving, and is absolutely loving the role. He’s just having so much fun being the villain. You get a taste of this in Hot Fuzz, but you get even more of a taste here.
Now, the one complaint people have of Dalton’s character, and also the entire movie, is that it’s too over the top, and too campy for a 1990’s movie. And to that, I say… aren’t you missing the point??
This is a throwback to the serials and movies of the 1940’s, the heroes of that time, when heroes could be over the top and campy. Think George Reeves’ Superman, or Flash Gordon, or Adam West’s Batman. They were campy as all hell, but they didn’t know how to do it differently.
The Rocketeer is Joe Johnson’s tribute to this time, and it’s done with the kind of attention to detail that makes it more admirable. Yes, it’s campy, but it’s campy by design. Yes, the plot sounds kind of goofy, but so did a lot of 40’s and 50’s plots. Yes, Timothy Dalton chews the scenery like no one else in the third act, but so would Ming the Merciless.
Joe Johnston used The Rocketeer, and Captain America 20 years later, as a way of trying to replicate how fun and how campy the heroes were portrayed onscreen in the 1940’s. And in my opinion, this works. Extraordinarily well.
Again, the visuals and the lighting in this movie are pure nostalgia, pure 1940’s. It does this better than Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy did, which is pretty great.
Of course a few things bring it down. Billy Campbell’s not perfect as the main character, and can be wafer thin. The special effects are pretty cool, but not all of them have aged very well.
But the action, the supporting cast, and the amount of love for the era it’s based on definitely make up for it.
This movie is not for everyone, but I certainly enjoy it, and hopefully the cult numbers will grow a little more.