Vroom!

Notes from Captain Obvious: The Rocketeer is a good movie! I’ve known it since its release in 1991 and I suppose everyone else has too.

For those who don’t know, Dave Stevens’ two The Rocketeer graphic novels are classics of the 1980s, and also a painful case study of a comics concept’s traverse through nearly all the company meltdowns of that decade, specifically (let’s see if I get this right) Pacific, Eclipse, Comico, and, fortunately, eventually Dark Horse. All of it and some tribute stories are now available through IDW. The trouble with writing about the Rocketeer as a comics title is simply that there’s nothing to say: it’s beautiful, expert, wonderfully fun work. What’s to blog about that, then?

Instead I’m talking about adaptation, regarding the Disney film released in 1991, and it is way high on my list, maybe even at the top if I think about it, of superhero cinema. It’s also kind of weird as far as adaptations go, because it’s neither …

  • only nominally and barely inspired by the source comic, e.g. Mystery Men goes off on its own road from the mysterymen characters pretty much from the ground up (see Pinky fingernail o’doom which discusses the film alone for exactly that reason); nor
  • carefully recreated as a moving version of the comic, as with Sin City; nor
  • preserving the characterizations and story, or mostly, while updating to a contemporary setting, as with Spider-Man (2003) and Iron Man (2009).

(I know neither/nor is supposed to be just two alternatives, shut up)

Clearly, faithfulness in and of itself isn’t an important variable. You can get a good or bad film from a good or bad comic using any of the above.  But what’s going on with The Rocketeer? It’s none of the above: the plot is pretty close to the origin story, with a certain increased emphasis on villainy, but the characterizations are different in an interesting way. They’re not utterly different, nor a full 180 degrees opposite, but turned just 90 degrees. Cliff is a plucky go-getter with a mere touch of arrogance, instead of a stubborn if likeable git. Jenny is an equally plucky reasonably-good girl instead of (cough) a naughty-pictures model – and no, I didn’t pick those images selectively to make my point, but rather selected defining character moments from each story. In the comics, Cliff and Jenny are both positive characters, but they do exist in the rough-and-tumble, do what it takes 1930s, and neither minds a rule if it gets in the way. In the movies, they retain their general pluck but are sufficiently Disneyfied to do the Disney job, fortunately not to an objectionable extent.

There’s faithfulness in this adaptation, but specifically to what makes the story good rather than to precise details of events or – surprisingly – characterization. What’s the “good,” then?

I could say how enjoyable it is as a period piece, especially regarding aviation, but I looked at little closer at that, and found something neat. There are two difficulties facing Cliff: the first is simple and remarkably evil, i.e., the Nazis and their plans for the jetpack; and the other is complicated and as depicted, not evil at all, only powerful, i.e., Howard Hughes. His whole deal is to resolve how Jenny’s been swept up in the former, to discover the weak spot in the Nazi plan (specifically that the other bad guy might be a ganster but ain’t no Nazi), and to win Hughes’ respect even though he, uh, stole Hughes’ thing. Toward these ends, the period setting also helps refine and focus the superpowers into a single, simple, but unique ability, which allows for cleaner focus on the problems rather than the powers.

The outcome, for both the comics and the film superhero? He’s the maverick sworn to no one, he won’t quit, and especially, he’s not a Mary Sue. Doing the right thing is due to coincidence as much as character, and yet he also makes a difference in the important fight that probably no one else could have at that moment.  That doesn’t change – how and why he’s the one guy no one wanted to have in the mix, and yet turns out to be the hero we’re all grateful was there.

The net effect for me at least, when I look at comic and film, is to ask, how did they manage to change it so much and yet have it stay so much the same? I hope this time I was able to stammer out why, and to raise a cautionary eyebrow at over-rating strict faithfulness as the key to making a great comics-adaptation movie.

Next: Your mama’s Oh Wow

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About Ron Edwards

Game author and publisher via Adept Press / Biology author and former professor

Posted on March 10, 2016, in Filmtalk and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. This is one of my favorite movies, and IMO one of the best comic adaptations ever brought to film (though I can never figure out why they changed Betty’s name to Jenny). I was in my twenties when I saw it in theaters, and I swear, on my way home, I was jumping in the air going “Vroom!” like an eight-year-old. I honestly don’t totally get why this wasn’t a bigger hit than it was, nor why it didn’t start a franchise, nor how it failed to rocket (hehe) Billy Campbell to leading-man-dom. I can only assume that it was too full of pluck and good-‘ol American heroism for the nascent ’90s.

    My memory of the comic is fuzzy, but I think the film actually manages to present a stronger, tidy beginning-middle-end origin story and adventure than the comics, if only maybe because the comics are sort of incomplete, given Stevens’ publishing woes.

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  2. To what extent have people seen 30’s era-serials? Circa ’76 public UHF station T.V. Ontario had retro movie shows and I could get a little bit of Flash Gordon or what have you on weeknights and Sundays. And other channels would fill air time with episodes of serials. And if you were lucky, you could catch the pastiche burlesque of the genre by the Firesign Theatre, “J-Men Forever.”

    Did Stevens dig much into the filmic past or was he just grabbing some ambient 30’s colour and fusing it to his own story?

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  3. Wait, does anybody *not* think this was a great film? Holds up really well, too. And inspired the zeppelin level of TimeSplitters 2.

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    • It did sink out of sight for many years, despite an Oscar nomination, and no particular franchise or pop memes emerged. I think it’s mainly appreciated due to reflection and long-term comparison. (Don’t ask me why; I agree with you that it’s a super flick.)

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