Flying High With The Rocketeer: A Vintage Gem Soaring Out of Iron Man’s Shadow

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| August 18, 2023
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“The truth is… I am Iron Man.”

With that single ad-libbed line, Robert Downey Jr. kicked off a decade of Marvel cinematic dominance that’s only just now starting to show the cracks in the formula. Regardless of these cracks, it looks like Disney‘s content to keep shoveling money into the gravy train, regardless of the fact it’s crawling across flat terrain. After watching Secret Invasion and being less than enraptured after the first episode I decided to switch across and watch one of my favourite superhero films – The Rocketeer.

Set in 1938 Los Angeles, California, a time in world history when nothing like a global world-altering conflict was right around the corner. We follow stunt pilot Cliff Secord (Billy Campbell) on the first test flight of his brand-new stunt plane. The test flight goes well until an unfortunate tangle with gangsters and police on the runway leaves the plane a smoking wreck and a fuel truck explodified. Now, with his air racing career over and his girlfriend, Jenny Blake (Jennifer Connelly) frustrated over their relationship, Cliff’s life isn’t exactly going how he’d planned.

However, we’re only twenty minutes into this picture, and it’s a Disney movie, not Requim for a Dream, so there must be something around the corner for our young pilot, correct? Turns out yes because shortly after, Cliff and his genius inventor/mechanic/father figure Peevy (Alan Arkin) discover a surprise left behind by the gangsters. It’s something out of this world, something out of science fiction… It’s a rocket pack.

Nothing more heroic than the bug eyes and engine exhaust look.

After testing the rocket and designing a helmet to disguise his identity (and protect him from traumatic brain damage), Cliff takes to the skies as a new hero, The Rocketeer, saving the day during an air show, preventing disaster. Excited by his new lease on life, Cliff slips onto the set of the latest Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton) film Jenny’s working on as an extra to tell her about the rocket. Unfortunately, Cliff makes a less than conspicuous entrance and gets Jenny fired from the set by an incensed Sinclair, only for him to recant that firing after overhearing Cliffs’ news.

Why would famous actor Neville Sinclair care about a rocket pack, you ask? Well, it turns out that Sinclair hired members of Eddie Valentine’s (Paul Sorvino) gang to steal the rocket from aviation innovator Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn) at the beginning of the movie. Sinclair then attempts to woo Jenny with his star power and general Timothy Dalton-ness, and for a time, it seems to be working (who wouldn’t be charmed by that smile). Cliff, realizing that Sinclair is involved with Valentine and overhearing that he has Jenny, flies off to save her from the former Mr. Bond.

Arriving at a fancy jazz club owned by Valentine, Cliff infiltrates the wait staff and tries to convince Jenny to leave before things get ugly. Things proceed to get ugly. Cliff manages to escape, but Jenny is captured by Sinclair, forcing Cliff to meet Sinclair and Eddie in the middle of the night while a massive Nazi blimp arrives on the shores of Mount Hollywood.

Why would famous actor Neville Sinclair care about timing the rocket swap to coincide with the arrival of a Nazi blimp? Is it because he’s a spy? A saboteur? A fascist? The answer to all of the above is because, surprise, he’s a Nazi!

Once that’s revealed, the rest of the plot plays out from there rather predictably. Sinclair is blown up by the very rocket he worked so hard to get. Cliff saves Jenny thanks to a deus ex machina from Howard Hughes, and Cliff ends up with a brand new top-of-the-line plane. The movie closes on our hero shot of Cliff and Jenny in each other arms and leaves you with that warm feeling of optimistic hope that years on this earth will try and rip from you.

With these as your two leads, you don’t have to do much to imagine these two are in love.

So why is this movie cooler than Iron Man? Well, for the first point, check out the cast list: you’ve got Billy Campbell, who would top the “perfect casting for Nathan Drake in an Uncharted film prior to the game’s creation” if such a list existed. You’ve also got Jennifer Connelly, who between this film and Top Gun: Maverick seems to have a real thing for flyboys, Alan Arkin as Peevy, Timothy Dalton oozing all the charm and charisma as his Hot Fuzz appearance, and a whole range of supporting cast that fit the tone of this film perfectly.

Secondly, while Iron Man’s suit is a sleek piece of hardware that is cool to watch fly around the screen, The Rocketeer’s suit and helmet have a timeless appeal, and the bug-like eyes and steampunk aesthetic has stuck with me. Whereas Iron Man’s suit was a dehumanizing metal face plate; there’s just no personality to it.

Also, can we admit to ourselves that it’s nice to have movies that end and don’t have to be setting up an entire cinematic universe? You pay for a ticket, watch the movie, it ends, and then you can let your imagination run wild instead of having to search on the web for all the easter eggs you missed. Yes, there was a sequel planned for The Rocketeer, but it underperformed at the cinemas, so you can take that objection and bury it alongside the sequel.

Timothy Dalton does a great job of making you love Neville Sinclair, even if he is a Nazi.

Is the movie perfect? No, far from it. As the damsel, Connelly doesn’t get a massive amount to do, but at least she gets to show off some wits and cunning when captured by Sinclair by duping him and trying to call for help. The CGI is, even by nineties standards, rough. There are a lot of effects that make my eyes hurt, and Cliff himself is a bit like your typical white bread All American hero. However, this doesn’t stop me from enjoying this movie every single time. It’s a nice, simple story with heroes you root for and villains you can’t help but shake your fist at. Sometimes it’s just nice to enjoy something simple.

Iron Man introduces the MCU, criticises the war in Afghanistan and arms dealing, and positions their arms dealing protagonist as a good person. It feels entrenched in 2008. Where later Marvel and Iron Man media have made better entries for the character, The Rocketeer feels quaint in a lot of its sensibilities. Yet somehow the down on his luck, Cliff Secord feels a lot more relatable than a billionaire tech inventor in an era where billionaires are less altruistic crime-fighting heroes and more insecure man-children making employees piss in bottles and trying to fight each other for someone’s entertainment.   

Have you seen The Rocketeer? What’re your thoughts on Billy Campbell as Nathan Drake? Let me know in the comments down below.  

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4 comments on “Flying High With The Rocketeer: A Vintage Gem Soaring Out of Iron Man’s Shadow”

  1. This was such a fun film. I remember seeing this in the theater when I was a kid. Billy Campbell back then, would indeed, make a good Nate Drake.

  2. I honestly really think this is waht really jet fuelled my love for superheros, especially for Iron Man (though, I am Team Cap)

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