Disney marketed the 1991 superhero movie to kids. But that’s not what killed it.
In 1990, Disney wanted a bankable franchise. The year before, the studio had pinned its hopes on Dick Tracy, a Warren Beatty vehicle that no one cared about except Beatty, his agent and, perhaps, Madonna. The movie did okay but it was no Batman. The year before, the superhero movie broke box-office records and woke up the film industry to the profit potential of established properties.
The Rocketeer was based on a series of comic books written and drawn by a young California artist Dave Stevens. Pacific Comics, a California-based indie, published the initial stories; one of the series’ calling cards was the hero’s girlfriend. Stevens modelled her after fifties pinup queen Bettie Page. This led to Stevens connecting with his muse. The artist helped the then-sexuagenarian Page get some of the financial renumeration owed to her.
Stevens saw The Rocketeer as a movie from the moment of creation, and sold the rights soon after. It landed at Disney, and director Joe Johnson became involved. He had just made Honey I Shrunk the Kids; before that, he had worked as a visual effects tech at George Lucas‘ Industrial Light & Magic.
Johnston, the movie makes clear, loved the material, from the period setting to the hero’s old-fashioned technology, the jetpack. The Rocketeer boasts =meticulously planned and executed action scenes and flying sequences.
in addition, the leads are charming. Billy Campbell (then known by the much more serious “Bill”) played the hero, Cliff Secord; Jennifer Connelly was Jenny, his girlfriend (an actor, not an artist’s model—this was a Disney film, after all). Just off his last James Bond movie, Timothy Dalton playd the villain, the (self-proclaimed) “number three box-office star in America,” Neville Sinclair. Alan Arkin was also along for the ride, mumbling his way through the role of a scientist helping The Rocketeer.
The script is filled with corny jokes, but is serviceable. And it has some nice touches. WC Fields (Bob Leeman) shows up for long enough to call Jenny “my little kumquat.” Clark Gable (Gene Daily) makes an appearance. Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn) is a supporting character. In a nod to classic horror movies, the filmmakers modelled the face of Sinclair’s henchman Lothar (Tiny Ron Taylor) after the features of acromegalic actor Rondo Hatton.
But, in the summer of 1991, The Rocketeer faced an unbeatable foe: technology.
Enter Arnold: Judgement Day for The Rocketeer
When the movie opened to disappointing box-office—it came in fourth its opening weekend, the kiss of death for a movie that cost upwards of $30m—Disney quickly recalibrated its strategy. For the overseas market, the studio changed the poster from the retro-cool graphic of The Rocketeer in full flight to an image of the three leads. It also released the film under its Touchstone imprint so as not to scare away teenagers for whom “Disney” was the epitome of uncool.
But the problems went deeper. Even with a better script or better-known actors than Campbell and Connelly, The Rocketeer didn’t stand a chance. Two weeks after its release, The Terminator: Judgement Day opened. It cleared over $50m in its first five days (well, it did open on a Fourth of July weekend. But still). Against the CGI menace of James Cameron‘s epic, the jetpack-wearing Rocketeer was instantly outdated. He was an analogue hero in a digital world, and the movie a final Betamax off the production line.
Director Joe Johnston eventually directed another superhero film, 2011’s CGI-filled Captain America: The First Avenger. Connelly tried to stop Eric Bana from going digital in Ang Lee’s 2003 Hulk.
Today, The Rocketeer is subject to revisionist love on the internet—but then, what isn’t. Horror director James Wan has expressed interest in a reboot. In 2016 Disney, which still owns the rights, announced The Rocketeers but, as of this writing, it has yet to get its own IMDB page.
Following the release of the movie, Dave Stevens only completed a few more Rocketeer stories before devoting himself to illustration and painting; He died from leukemia at the age of 53 in 2008. Later that year, Bettie Page also passed away.