When you compare The Rocketeer to the other superhero films from its graduating class (this film, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Crow, and RoboCop all fall within a year or two of one another), it’s amazing how little it resembles them. The Rocketeer takes itself seriously as an action film, as a period piece, and finally, incidentally, ultimately, as a story about a superhero. In this regard, it looks a lot more like the best of contemporary big-budget superhero films — let’s say “superhero films post-Blade” — than it does anything that came before. Even the high-water marks of superhero cinema from the 80s, the first two Superman films by Richard Donner, and the first two Tim Burton Batmans, winked and nodded to the audience, apologizing for the corniness at the edges of their conceits. The Rocketeer lets us into the story on its own terms, the way any “normal” movie would, without any hint of surrealism (Burton’s distancing strategy) or stiffness (Donner’s). I’m not saying that those films weren’t great. I’m saying they don’t feel contemporary anymore, the way that The Rocketeer still does.
Now, don’t get me wrong: it’s very much a superhero movie, with all the insane comic book action that that phrase implies. Spoiler alert: the ending begins with a shoot-out between mobsters, Nazis, and the FBI, and ends with the main character and his girlfriend jumping off of an exploding airship onto a rope ladder dangling from an airplane piloted by Howard Hughes. If that doesn’t sound like your kind of thing you probably don’t like superhero movies.
The Rocketeer is so pitch perfect, so exactly what it should have been, that Marvel’s choice to call on director Joe Johnston to helm its own period superhero outing, Captain America: the First Avenger, twenty years later, seems inevitable. In some ways, it was a practice run (though, honestly, I like the earlier film more).
There is one flaw. When surrounding a house, and peppering same with machine gun fire, the FBI would probably watch the back door to make sure nobody escaped. I’m just saying.
As you might imagine from the title, this post is the sixth in a series of ten. You will find more posts in this series behind the “More” link, below.