In a news item that had me jumping for joy earlier this week, Disney was revealed to be working on rebooting the Rocketeer for movie-goers everywhere. As a huge fan of the first movie, and even more so, the comics from which it originated, I thought it might be a good idea to take a look at what makes the Rocketeer such a valuable icon of adventure, and how Disney can be sure to knock this reboot out of the park.
First and foremost, the Rocketeer will not work in the modern era. The biggest mistake Disney could make is to have this be a “modern take” on Cliff Secord. Though the character was actually created in 1982, he’s an homage to the Golden Age pulp heroes of the ’30s and ’40s and is steeped in the sense of wonder that those heroes brought to the forefront of American pop culture. In the same way, the Rocketeer is an idea that is founded on Americana; with patriotism at a high in the midst and wake of World War II, the Rocketeer, as a symbol, is a representation of American idealism and progress. Those fundamental elements of the character wouldn’t translate into the 21st century, which would thereby result in a change, negating the very core concepts of this character.
Not to mention that, apparently, Disney is wary of Iron Man comparisons for this Rocketeer reboot. Well, the sure-fire way to get legitimate comparisons of the two franchises is to update the Rocketeer to the modern era. Iron Man’s creation is generally viewed as a mouthpiece for themes of cynicism surrounding the Cold War and the progression of technological warfare, whereas the Rocketeer is of an era that viewed technology as a benefit to the American ideal. There is nothing about the Golden Age influence of the Rocketeer that is even remotely similar to Iron Man – other than the two characters wear helmets and fly – so it’s only a boon to Disney to keep this a period piece. That way, fans get a true representation of the character on screen, and Disney doesn’t have to worry about castrating a third of the Avengers franchise.
The most important element of any superhero story is getting to know the man or woman behind the mask. A Rocketeer reboot doesn’t necessarily need to explore the “origin,” but let’s face it, it probably will. Getting to know Cliff Secord as a man, pilot, boyfriend, and friend should be the most important element. He needs to be a hero in or out of the rocket pack. Technology does not a hero make, but it can sure help their cause.
This is an area the comics have always been successful in exploring, the notion that Cliff – though sometimes pigheaded and selfish – is genuinely good and would do the right thing in any given situation, even if it meant risking his own life. With the discovery of the rocket pack, he’s able to do that on a more outgoing and regular basis. His equipment and career as a superhero should only enhance and underline Cliff the man, not change him.
This goes hand in hand with the discussion above. Much like Spider-Man – and many of the Marvel age heroes — the Rocketeer isn’t a character whose life is actually improved by his new role. In fact, being the Rocketeer only adds strain to his personal life, be that his relationship with Betty, his career as a pilot, or being in hot water with the authorities. Just as Spider-Man was given a great gift but left to continually struggle with real problems, so too does the Rocketeer need to struggle against the realities of being a superhero in our world.
In the Golden Age of comics, heroes were generally black and white. They loved being heroes and they could do no wrong. The Rocketeer takes the innocence of that era and infuses it with a bit of reality, which is why exploring Cliff as a person is far more important than his superheroics, because those superheroics are, arguably, more detrimental to Cliff’s personal life than they are a benefit. Spider-Man is endlessly interesting because of Peter Parker’s internal conflict of devoting his life to protecting the city, but still wanting to be happy in his life and relationships. More often than not, his career as Spider-Man gets in the way of all that; in essence, he can’t have his cake and eat it too. The same is true for Cliff Secord and the Rocketeer, he just might not be as intellectually savvy to realize it on his own. Which leads us to…
Though he saves people for a living, Cliff is still remarkably self-centered. It’s the help of his supporting cast that really keeps him grounded. Betty, his pin-up girl/movie star girlfriend, and Peevy, his best friend and mentor (and own personal Q), are just as important to the Rocketeer dynamic. There are other characters as well, around the airfield and the diner, that play a role, but it’s this trinity of characters that make up the core of the cast. Betty is a bombshell that stokes the fires of Cliff’s jealous/romantic side, always keeping his charm intact and making sure that Cliff’s got a reason to come back down to Earth after taking to the skies. The romance element of the Rocketeer is intensely strong, and the sparky on-again off-again nature of Cliff and Betty is one of the defining elements of the series that keeps it squarely rooted in the real world.
As for Peevy, he’s the mentor behind the superhero, sure, but he’s also the man that acts as Cliff’s conscience in many respects. He’s levelheaded and realistic, constantly reminding Cliff that Betty – who is often taking sultry pictures for millions of other guys to look at – is truly in love with him and that he needn’t worry about her. Perhaps more importantly, Peevy acts as something of a restraint for Cliff when he’s about to go off the deep end of his temper and make a poor decision, whether it’s personal or Rocketeer-related. Peevy and Cliff walk a thin line between a sibling and father/son relationship, but it’s always been a key aspect of the Rocketeer story and needs to remain a central focus of any new incarnations.
In keeping with the era of the ’30s/’40s, aside from the global situation of WWII, right on the homefront was another blossoming change: the massive evolution of Hollywood. Silent pictures were out and talkies were in, enormous movie stars were born, rumors of Nazi sympathizers within Hollywood abounded, the scale of films grew larger… Hollywood was erupting in a whole new way. Much like the Rocketeer mirrors the evolution and wonder of technology at the time, so too does it mirror the progression of Hollywood. Larger than life, grandiose special effects, melodramatic romance – it’s an analogue for not only what we saw in the pulp magazines of the time, but on screen as well.
Therefore, keeping a reboot centered in this era of Los Angeles culture is essential. Though I don’t think an alteration of locale would be as drastic a change as altering the time period would be, I do think the glitz and glamor of Hollywood at the time works to contrast the nature of working class hero Cliff Secord. After all, Cliff is anything but glamorous – it’s why his relationship with Betty works so well – and seeing this kind of hero, a hero based on his usage of mechanical, practical things (be it a rocket pack or an airplane), operate in this environment offers a nice dichotomy that serves to underline the very nature of Cliff’s character and his relationship with the rest of the ensemble.
Sure, it’s been over 20 years since the first Rocketeer movie – a movie that I think is a stunning representation of this character on screen – so having a reboot being an origin wouldn’t be all that surprising. However, the real beauty of the Rocketeer story is that there doesn’t need to be a detailed account of how he acquired the rocket and why he does what he does. If you understand he’s got a rocket and that he wants to do the right thing, you’re golden. Disney could take the “soft” reboot approach and perhaps establish how Cliff Secord came to be the Rocketeer during the opening credits (a la Spider-Man 2) and then have the story be off and running.
I think there’s this weird assumption nowadays that everything has to be told from Point A to Point B, from origin to conclusion, but that’s wrong. In fact, look at the other notable modern hero that was created as a throwback to the pulp era (though in this case, it was film serials) – Indiana Jones. Raiders of the Lost Ark didn’t have to show us how he got the hat and the whip, where he went to school, or how he first met Marion. It didn’t need to – the writing was smart and gave us what we needed for the story at hand as we went along. Future installments would flesh out the earlier days of Indiana Jones, but again, it was only relevant to the story of that particular movie. You can watch an Indiana Jones film without having to have seen the others – and the Rocketeer, at least in his comics, is the exact same way. There’s no reason a new movie franchise couldn’t take the same approach.
The Rocketeer, just like Indiana Jones, was created as an homage to a golden age of adventure stories, when the character was established quickly so that we could get to the meat (and fun and romance) of it all. Let’s hope Disney keeps that in mind as it heads into this reboot.
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