Going into the Summer of 1991 was an odd year for American movies. The month of May had produced two movies with different outcomes no one anticipated.
First off, a little road movie called Thelma and Louise starring Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis had struck a nerve among many filmgoers and people who hadn’t seen it but were quick to comment and criticize it.
There was also Hudson Hawk, a movie that had been advertised as an action comedy but yet initial reviews by both critics and audiences weren’t so well-received. I remember hearing reports of people leaving theaters telling others not to watch it and buy tickets for something else.
Mind you, this was the same summer in which a little adult movie called Nurse Nancy would get the most unlikeliest person in trouble. But maybe having Paul Reubens, aka Pee-Wee Herman, caught masturbating at a Florida porno theater was the coup de grace for a summer movie season that a lot were wish to put behind them.
Some of those people were probably the executives at Disney as The Rocketeer was intended to be a huge blockbuster for the company. Not only that, but plans were already in the works to make a couple of sequels.
Unfortunately, that only works if the first movie is good. It would be ten years before a studio took a gamble and decided to produce a trilogy as New Line Cinema did with The Lord of the Rings.
Reports indicate that the movie cost $35-40 million, but only made about $46.7 million at the U.S. box office.
But The Rocketeer looked like a sure bet. It was an action superhero movie. There’s only one problem. Action superhero movies weren’t too popular. Disney’s 1990 Dick Tracy wasn’t too popular and The Rocketeer seemed to be another risk.
If audiences weren’t too interested in seeing a 1930s comic adaptation based on a well-known character, why would they want to see one based on a character they didn’t know to well? David Stevens’ comic had been published since 1982.
The first reason both movies underperformed is with the Big D itself. Disney was still only known for producing children and family movies even by the early 1990s. Despite their efforts to have more mature movies under the Touchstone Pictures and Hollywood Pictures banners (both of which are now defunct), seeing the Magic Kingdom at the beginning of a movie meant audiences were in for a very light action superhero movie.
And sometimes audiences want something more. I was 11 when Dick Tracy was released and 12 when The Rocketeer was released and I’ll be honest, even though the former interested me, I really wasn’t too interested in seeing the latter.
And I’m sure a lot of young audiences weren’t. Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Honey, I Shrunk The Kids could appeal to all audiences, but the PG-ratings of Tracy and Rocketeer might as well been a warning sign to stay away.
It was only a few years later, I would see kids still in elementary school piling into theaters to see Jim Carrey in The Mask. When you consider how sanitized the movie adaptation is compared to its very violent source material, the irony of critics saying it was too violent with its PG-13 rating wasn’t lost on comic book nerds.
But going back to The Rocketeer, it didn’t help that Terminator 2: Judgment Day had been heavily promoted and was opening two weeks later on July 3, 1991. And Arnold Schwarzenegger was a bigger draw than Billy Campbell.
I’m not sure any actor could’ve played The Rocketeer because the problem is in the plotting. It takes so long for him to don the attire.
Worse, the villain is far better. Timothy Dalton became a household name as James Bond in the late 1980s. And in my opinion, he is still one of the better Bonds. Watching him play it up as an Errol Flynn-type who is a major Nazi sympathizer and collaborator makes the movie worth watching.
But then again, he’s the bad guy and you really can’t root for the bad guy, especially if he’s on Hitler’s side. And knowing what we know about Hitler and Nazi Germany, it’s hard to want to watch this villain. And adding the Nazi element is both a cheap homage to the Indiana Jones trilogy and a tasteless plot device.
The Rocketeer is set in 1938 but there was already violence and hostile harassment against Jewish people in Europe at this time and the fact that America wasn’t too willing to allow them here is a black eye in America’s history.
But this movie sugarcoats its Nazi element too much. There’s also mobsters in the movie, led by Paul Sorvino, but the mobsters almost seem like they should be flipping coins in each scene. I understand it’s a movie but c’mon, this is way too Disneyfied.
The Indiana Jones movies never shied away from showing violence from people’s faces melting, to a man having his heart ripped out and another villain decomposing to a skeleton in a matter of seconds. The Temple of Doom gave us the PG-13 rating and it was a few years before I could watch the above mentioned heart scene, but I’m sure a lot of young audiences liked it.
And going into The Rocketeer, all audiences were given were a few comic book violence scenes and mostly slapstick violence.
Terminator 2 is very violent and grossed a lot of movie. But I don’t think it was the violence. T2 had a better story, better special effects and better acting.
Like I said, Campbell’s Cliff Secord just isn’t a fully flesh-out character and Campbell can’t help but act wooden. Jennifer Connolly looks glamorous but that’s her only function in the movie. They make her into a damsel in distress.
Remember this is the summer where Linda Hamilton kicked some ass and Thelma and Louise didn’t take no guff from vulgar truck drivers.
The Rocketeer is based on the old serial movies from the 1930s-1950s and that’s it’s main problem. The target audience is people whose parents probably weren’t alive when those serials were being shown. Yes, many critics and older audiences liked it but when you’re dealing with what they called the “MTV Generation,” nostalgia isn’t enough to warrant a big audience.
Since it’s Disney, it also sugarcoats Howard Hughes played by Terry O’Quinn. Yes, Mr. Hughes was a very skilled aviator and aviation designer, but his life is full of too many problems to somehow make him out to be likeable.
While Connelly has bounced back and became an Oscar-winning actress, Campbell’s career never recovered even though director Joe Johnston battled with Disney heavyweight Michael Eisner to cast him. Campbell was later cast in Bram Stoker’s Dracula but found more fame and success on TV.
Johnston himself would go on to make Jurassic Park III, Terminator 3 and Captain America: The First Avenger, which seems to finally showcase what Johnston had intended with this movie.
Don’t get me wrong. The art deco designs and wardrobes make this a great movie to look at, but that’s not enough to keep interest.
What are your thoughts on this movie? Please comment below.