So, Disney’s looking to make another Rocketeer movie?
Okay, I’ll bite. I have fond memories of the 1991 film, based on the comic by the late great Dave Stevens, directed by Joe Johnston, and starring Billy Campbell, but I was eleven when it came out. I rewatched it recently and it holds up pretty well, it’s still a fun and gorgeous movie about aviator turned superhero Cliff Secord who discovers Howard Hughes’ prototype jet pack and uses it to fight Nazis, but it’s hardly a perfect movie and a new version could do a few things to really improve on the old. Like….
1. Cast a better lead.
This is going to come across like I’m pooping on Billy Campbell, and the fact is in The Rocketeer he’s fine. He’s handsome. He’s charmingly affable. He plays brave and determined well and mugs for the cameras. He has adorably floppy hair. But really, he’s only adequate to the job, and at every turn he’s outshone by an otherwise stellar cast that includes Jennifer Connelly, Timothy Dalton, Paul Sorvino, and even Terry O’Quinn in a cameo as Howard Hughes. Watching Cliff’s scenes with his mechanic and sidekick Peevy… it’s sometimes painful to watch Alan Arkin do the acting for two.
A stronger lead, someone with more personality and more charisma, would center the new movie, ground it, and give the audience someone to root for. If rebooting The Rocketeer is Disney’s attempt to capture the success of Iron Man, then they have to realize that said success is based on the man in the iron mask. Robert Downey Jr. plays such a great high functioning addict and narcissist that you immediately like the guy, even if, like most of America, you didn’t already have an emotional attachment to the Iron Man property.
Casting an established movie star in the lead also gets around the “mis-marketed” problem. Most of America has never heard of the Rocketeer. Heck, I am clearly the target demo for this movie, as a fan of the first movie and the original comics, and even I’m not going just because it’s a new Rocketeer movie. But cast a star I like, such as Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jeremy Renner, or, and this is an out of left field suggestion, Daniel Radcliffe, and I’m already there. Relying on the strength of a not-that-well-known property without any bankable star is how you get flops like John Carter (or the original Rocketeer). It doesn’t matter how good the film is, or how much you market it, if no one cares enough to see it.
2. More Rocketeering
Watching the film again I was struck by how little time Cliff Secord spends flying around in his jet pack, which is nominally the reason for the movie. There’s one great five minute sequence where Cliff wears the jet pack for the first time to save his friend from a plane crash. It’s exciting and funny, but that’s it. Otherwise Cliff uses his jet pack to get from one scene to the next, and most of the film is devoted to Johnston’s loving recreation of Los Angeles in the late 1930s.
And the period filmmaking is fantastic, really, it’s what makes the movie as good as it is. I’m not going to complain about anyone spending too much time dressing up Jennifer Connelly and shooting her in soft focus at a glamorous night club. And Johnston would put his period recreation skills to even better use in 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger.
But if I’m watching a movie about a guy with a jet pack, I want to see that guy use his jet pack. A lot. Possibly the lack of rocketeering can be explained by the state of special effects in 1991, so a new film can take advantage of the quantum leap in computer technology that has happened since then. Get a good cinematographer who can choreograph lyrical, graceful flights over the Hollywood Hills, the Santa Monica Pier, and epic farmland, and you could make a magical movie.
Also, more rocketeering could help explain why the Nazis are so desperate to get their hands on the jet pack. From what we see in the movie, the jet pack is good for your commute and a slightly better parachute, but as a weapon of war it’s prone to setting its wearer on fire and slamming him (or to be fair her) into the Hollywood sign. Showing the Rocketeer effectively and repeatedly fighting crime would demonstrate that the jet pack is the technology that will win the Nazis the war. (This propaganda film only shows that Nazis are surprisingly good animators and, unsurprisingly, assholes.)
3. Do a sequel, not a reboot.
It doesn’t even have to be a real sequel, since doing a follow-up to a movie over twenty years old is a crazy idea. (I’m looking at you, Bryan Singer.) But instead of starting from the beginning and spending half the film getting the jet pack to Cliff and the other half teaching Cliff how to fly the damned thing, the new movie should just start with the premise that the Rocketeer is already a guy who uses a jet pack to fight crime, and dates a girl who maybe kind of looks like Bettie Page.
Not only does this get us right into the rocketeering (see suggestion 2), but it makes The Rocketeer an inclusive move. Look, the only reason to do a new Rocketeer movie, as opposed to a new Adam Strange movie or one about a totally original character with a jet pack, is to build on the audience, however small, that already exists for the comics and the earlier movie. To start with the idea “We’re going to do The Rocketeer, but good this time,” is alienating to the current fans, and for no really good reason. On the other hand, if you start with the premise “If you liked the earlier film, you can see this movie as a continuation, and if you didn’t see the earlier film, then you can see this as a whole new product,” you open up the new movie to everyone.
And more than anything, I just want the new movie to be good. The Rocketeer is already a great premise with a great design and a great set of characters. Add a great lead, a focus on the flying, and a story that moves us past the origin stuff, and I’m there. Joe Johnston can even come back to direct this one, too. Like I said, I really do like the first movie.