This is the twenty-seventh installment in a series of articles tracing the complete history of superheroes in film and television, from the first superhero serial all the way to the current Marvel and DC cinematic universes. For the previous installment click here, for the first installment click here.
In 1982 cartoonist Dave Stevens published the first of his stories starring a character based on the various rocket men of the early movie serials. Audiences were first introduced to the Rocketeer in the second issue of the Pacific Comics series “Starslayer,” which itself was created by Mike Grell. Nine years after his first appearance, the Rocketeer soared into the mainstream when he appeared on movie screens everywhere courtesy of Walt Disney.
The Rocketeer character was first optioned for a motion picture in 1983 by Steve Miner. Miner had previously been the producer on the first “Friday the 13th” as well as the director on the second and third films in that franchise. Ultimately, Miner drifted too far away from the original source material and the rights reverted back to Stevens.
In 1985, writers Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo – who would go on to develop “The Flash” as a television series on CBS – were able to win the option on “The Rocketeer” from Dave Stevens for free because he so loved their ideas. Originally, Bilson and De Meo saw the film as a full homage to movie serials – specifically those featuring Commando Cody – and they even wanted to film the movie in black and white and on a budget comparable to the budgets of those serials, which wasn’t much.
Upon the hiring of William Dear as director, the idea of shooting a low-budget film in keeping with old time film serials went out the window. The trio stayed pretty true to the plot of the comic books throughout the scripting process. Where changes were made, they were to either flesh out the character more thoroughly or to make the film more family friendly. For example, Cliff’s girlfriend – Bettie in the comics, but Jenny in the film – was changed from a nude pin-up model to an aspiring actress.
Bilson and De Meo, along with Dear and Stevens, began shopping the property around to various studios as early as 1986, but they were turned down. Dave Stevens told “Comic Book Artist” magazine of their struggle, “This was 1986, long before “Batman” or “Dick Tracy” or anything similar. In those days, no studio was interested at all in an expensive comic book movie. We got there about three years too early for our own good!”
Stevens and company eventually found a home for “The Rocketeer” with the Walt Disney company. Initially, Disney planned to produce the film under their Touchstone Studios imprint and all four men involved in producing the film signed a three picture deal, guaranteeing a trilogy of Rocketeer films. Disney had originally opted to accept the property because of its toy and merchandising potential, and Disney president Jeffrey Katzenberg decided it was a better fit as a Walt Disney picture. Because of this, any adult elements the film might have retained under the Touchstone banner immediately went out the window.
Disney originally wanted to set the film in the modern day. The reason for this was that executives at the House of Mouse didn’t think a modern audience would be open to a period film. Bilson and De Meo pointed out that the Indiana Jones films were set in the same time period as the Rocketeer comics, and how successful those films had been. Disney agreed to allow the producers to set the film in the original time period.
Amid numerous production delays and endless rewrites, Dear ended up leaving the project. Producers then hired Joe Johnston to direct and in 1990 the film officially went into pre-production.
As with the casting of Superman and Batman before it, the casting of Cliff Secord proved to be difficult. Many A-listers were put forward, including Kurt Russell, Bill Paxton and Emilio Estevez auditioned, with Johnny Depp being the Disney favorite. Producers approached Kevin Costner, but he was already committed to “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.” Ultimately, Johnston and Stevens chose to cast Bill Campbell to the chagrin of the suits at Disney.
Jennifer Connelly was cast as Jenny with Alan Arkin cast as Cliff Secord’s mechanic friend. The cast was rounded out with a wide range of character actors including Jon Pulito, Eddie Jones, Ed Lauter, and “Tiny” Ron Taylor. Former James Bond Timothy Dalton was cast as the antagonist Neville Sinclaire, a Nazi spy loosely based on Errol Flynn.
Dave Stevens stayed extremely active during the production of the entire film. At first, Disney was reticent to have Stevens as involved as he was, thinking that he was there merely for the benefit of his own ego as the creator of the property. Stevens had to prove that he was there for the benefit of the movie, and was on set anytime anything was happening.
Disney had originally set a budget of $25 million, however the budget was almost doubled to $40 million after Disney was impressed with the film’s dailies. Suddenly, “The Rocketeer” had gone from being just a merchandising ploy for Disney to being recognized as a legitimate film. The entire film was shot in and around Los Angeles, including location shoots at Griffith Observatory.
“The Rocketeer” was released on June 21, 1991 but only grossed $46 million domestically. It was decided that releasing the film under the Walt Disney actually hurt the film, as many members of the teenage audience dismissed it as a kids’ movie. In response to this, the film was released overseas under the Touchstone, as was originally intended for the US. The film went on to earn another $23 million in home video sales.
The film received mixed reviews at the time, but has gone on to become something of a cult classic. Joe Johnston’s work on “The Rocketeer” actually earned him the attention of Marvel Studios, who hired him to direct the period piece “Captain America: The First Avenger.”
Cooke, Jon B. (transcribed by Sam Gafford).”Rocketeer creator Dave Stevens on his life as an artist.” Comic Book Artist #15
Schweiger, Daniel. “Rocketeer: Comic Book Origins.”Cinefantastique, August 1991.
“Blast off!” Entertainment Weekly, Issue #74, July 12, 1991.
“The Rocketeer.” Box Office Mojo.