On IGN Assemble! and IGN Comics in general we talk a lot about the greatness of The Rocketeer by Dave Stevens and everything that IDW has done with the character since the artist’s sad passing. The basic appeal of the story, to me, is that it’s inherently accessible. There is no continuity to restrict him. Every single story is contained within itself; all you need to know is “a pilot has a jet pack.” Not only that, but he’s a love letter to the Golden Age pulp heroes in such an effective manner that it’s so easy to forget he was only created in 1982.
What I’m saying is: if you’ve never read Dave Stevens’ original Rocketeer stuff, do so.
But I got to thinking about The Rocketeer movie for various reasons today — I fell into a YouTube vortex and ultimately somehow landed on The Rocketeer score which then snowballed into planning a tweet-a-thon of the movie tonight at 7 PM PST (join in, hashtag #TheRockAWho). The Rocketeer was pretty much panned when it was released in theaters in 1991, directed by Joe Johnston (also the director behind the similarly under appreciated superhero period masterpiece Captain America: The First Avenger).
I was born in 1985. Star Wars is my favorite thing on the planet, and Superman: The Movie is what led me to comics. As you’ll note, the time period of my birth and those movies don’t quite match up. Most people recall seeing Star Wars for the first time in 1977 as a kid and being blown away, their lives changing forever. But I didn’t have that moment with Star Wars or Superman, at least not on the big screen. I do of course remember the first time I saw both, but on my TV at home. Certainly defining moments, but that shock-and-awe moment of utter fascination with movies and superheroes came to me with The Rocketeer, seeing it in the theater with my parents as an impressionable 6-year-old.
I came out of that movie with stars in my eyes; though it’s just as unrealistic, the Rocketeer flew not because he was from another planet or because he was exposed to radiation or something, but because of technology. He was a regular dude. Not long after that first viewing, I had a a giant Rocketeer movie poster in my room — that awesomely designed art deco one — and any Rocketeer merchandise that was available, I sought out, including a not-very-articulate Rocketeer action figure that remains on my desk to this day.
I got The Rocketeer NES video game for my birthday that following year, and a few years after that I would finally get my hands on an SNES and buy that version, too. I colored every page on the Rocketeer coloring book, I made my mom make modifications to a cheap cardboard cutout Rocketeer mask so it would have tinted eye lenses like the real helmet instead of eye-slicing cut out holes.
I read and reread The Rocketeer: The Movie Storybook and constantly flipped through that 3D book that came with an audio cassette. I am also the proud owner of the complete set of The Rocketeer trading cards, which I meticulously collected more than any other thing at the time, and the sticker cards that came with that set can still be found on random objects around my parents’ house.
I was fortunate enough to take my first trip to Walt Disney World around that time. Because of the timely trip, Disney-MGM Studios was still pretty new (it opened in 1989, now called Disney’s Hollywood Studios) and had a bunch of Rocketeer stuff on display — including the costume. I think I wasted an entire disposable camera on those pictures alone. The point is that seeing The Rocketeer was my “seeing Star Wars” moment. It took hindsight of adulthood to realize how much I love the character and really pinpoint why.
Just like a hero should be, Cliff Secord is fallible (even sometimes borderline incompetent). People often cite Batman as “a hero without super powers,” but if we’re being honest, the dude’s pretty stacked in terms of beyond-normal capabilities. Plus, he’s got such clear motivation to be a hero that we don’t really know how things would’ve turned out for him had the Waynes lived. I’m sure he’d be a perfectly decent human being, but he certainly wouldn’t be sticking up for the little guy on the streets every night.
But what I love about Cliff is that he is the little guy; he’s kind of a schmuck, in fact. He’s a stunt pilot that spends his life on an airfield, hardly making a name for himself let alone any cash. He’s got no prospects beyond flying, and he’s okay with it. He’s doing what he loves. He’s got a great gal that he doesn’t appreciate as much as he should. He’s oblivious to the rest of the world most of the time. He’s surrounded by people that love and care about him, despite his (many) shortcomings.
But when this rocket comes into his life, he uses it to help people at very great risk to himself. There’s no tragic backstory or blatant motivation for what Cliff does other than it’s the right thing to do. Sure, he’s used the rocket for some self-serving reasons on occasion and it’s certainly served as a wedge in his relationship, but that all adds to the intense humanity of Cliff and his cast. He’s just so remarkably average, proving that even just being average can be amazing in and of itself.
Plus, if Cliff can land a lady like Betty/Jenny Blake, so can the rest of us hopeless schmucks.