The Rocketeer: Cult Classic or Forgotten Flop? (movie retrospective)

Ah, the early 90s—when the internet was barely a whisper, Michael Jackson was still moonwalking, and Disney was on a mission to turn every comic book and fairytale into a cinematic sensation. Enter The Rocketeer (or The Adventures of the Rocketeer for our international friends), a film that promised to rocket us into a thrilling world of 1930s Los Angeles, complete with Nazis, mobsters, and a daring stunt pilot. Spoiler alert: it didn’t quite land with the box office kaboom Disney had hoped for.

Plot Twists and Rocket Packs

Set in the glamorous and gritty 1938 Los Angeles, The Rocketeer follows the misadventures of Cliff Secord, a stunt pilot who stumbles upon a rocket pack, because apparently, that’s something you just find lying around. This nifty little gadget allows Cliff to soar through the skies sans airplane, leading him into a whirlwind of heroic escapades. Of course, it’s not all fun and games; he attracts the unwanted attention of Howard Hughes (yes, the eccentric billionaire), the FBI, and a bunch of Nazis. Because what’s a superhero story without some Nazis?

The Journey from Page to Screen

The character of the Rocketeer was the brainchild of comic book artist and writer Dave Stevens, who dreamt up this jet-packed hero in 1982. It didn’t take long for Hollywood to sniff out the potential, and by 1983, the film rights were sold. But transforming this tale from comic strip to silver screen was akin to flying through a thunderstorm with a faulty rocket pack.

Steve Miner and William Dear flirted with directing before Joe Johnston finally took the reins. Along the way, screenwriters Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo faced more creative differences with Disney than Cliff faced Nazis. At one point, Disney CEO Michael Eisner even wanted to redesign the Rocketeer’s iconic helmet into something resembling a NASA prototype. Luckily, cooler heads (and better taste) prevailed.

Casting Conundrums

Casting Cliff Secord was as turbulent as his aerial stunts. Kevin Costner, Matthew Modine, Dennis Quaid, and even Johnny Depp were considered before Billy Campbell won the part. But not without some Disney execs kicking and screaming—apparently, they were hoping for an A-list star. Meanwhile, Jennifer Connelly graced the screen as Jenny Blake, Cliff’s aspiring actress girlfriend, a character tweak to avoid any comparison to the more risqué Bettie Page.

Filming Fiascos and Special Effects Galore

Production was no smooth flight either. Filming stretched from September 1990 to January 1991, going over schedule by 50 days due to weather woes and mechanical mishaps. Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) was brought in to work their magic on the visual effects, ensuring that Cliff’s high-flying antics looked somewhat believable. The final product was a mix of live action, stop-motion animation, and a very expensive Zeppelin explosion that cost a whopping $400,000.

From Silver Screen to Cult Classic

Released on June 21, 1991, The Rocketeer received positive reviews but stumbled at the box office, grossing $46 million against a $35 million budget. Sequels? Abandoned. Merchandise? Scattered. Yet, despite its financial woes, The Rocketeer found a second wind as a cult classic, particularly among those who appreciate a bit of Art Deco flair with their superhero tales.

In a twist worthy of its own plot, the Rocketeer resurfaced in 2019 with a Disney Junior series, featuring Cliff’s great-granddaughter donning the iconic rocket pack. Talk about keeping it in the family.

The Legacy That Almost Was

If The Rocketeer taught us anything, it’s that the path to superhero stardom is fraught with peril—both on screen and off. But it also reminds us that even when a film doesn’t hit its mark, it can still leave a lasting impact. So, here’s to The Rocketeer, a film that aimed for the stars, even if it ended up in development hell along the way.

Now, if only someone could find that rocket pack…


Colonel Frog is a long time science fiction and fantasy fan. He loves reading novels in the field, and he also enjoys watching movies (as well as reading lots of other genre books).

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