There’s an odd quality to The Rocketeer that prevents me from feeling consistently about the film from viewing to viewing; sometimes it hits the spot, and other times it’s underwhelming. Before Disney made billions by acquiring the rights to Marvel, they attempted this flick as the next big comic book adaptation in the early 90s despite its obscure source material, and it flopped. Whether or not it deserved to flop I’m still not sure about.
Unlike the somewhat underappreciated Captain America: The First Avenger, which wouldn’t have been directed by Joe Johnston if it weren’t for his work on The Rocketeer, The Rocketeer is more of a World War II pulp adventure with superhero trappings than a superhero adventure with World War II pulp trappings, and perhaps that’s where the disconnect for me lies. My knowledge of classic pulp serials is limited, so The Rocketeer‘s nostalgic homage to those leaves me feeling like I’m missing something; not even Indiana Jones is my biggest cup of tea. With the plot revolving around a mysterious jetpack discovered by racing pilot Cliff Secord and sought after by feds hired by Howard Hughes and mobsters hired by a fictitious Hollywood movie star, the contrived script has a lot of characters and subplots but not much characterization, resulting in rocky pacing and an overall sense of silly fluff.
That’s not to say that there’s no charm. Bill Campbell in the lead shares his best moments with Jennifer Connelly as Cliff’s actress love interest and Alan Arkin as Cliff’s mechanic partner, and Timothy Dalton is pitch-perfect as the villain, even if his motivation is at times muddled; I wish there were more moments for Campbell and Connelly’s chemistry to shine since their onscreen relationship is put on rocky ground early by some inconsiderate decisions Cliff makes, and we unfortunately don’t get to see enough of Cliff at his smartest. More so than the attention to period detail, the biggest thing that sells the movie for me is James Horner’s musical score; the main theme is one of my all-time favorites, beautifully capturing the wonder of flight that Cliff would be feeling during the creative, literally high-flying action scenes.
Despite the story’s fluffiness, its feel-good denouement always manages to leave me smiling. An average Marvel movie would have a more substantial protagonist and would entertain me more as I’m watching it, but it would leave me feeling empty due to its need to tie into a larger universe; The Rocketeer is its own thing, not burdened by either setting up a sequel or being spun off from another superhero’s franchise. No matter its quality, it’s a movie I can rewatch.