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Friday, July 29, 2016

Disney Announces Rocketeer Reboot

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Edited by Robert Beach

Now that we’ve crossed the midpoint of the 2010s, one thing has become very clear: superheroes aren’t going away.  The genre never really went away after it emerged through Batman in 1989, but for a time, people were expecting there to be a peak or finale to things. However, after eight years of Marvel blockbusters coming out like clockwork along with FOX reviving the X-Men in 2011 and DC/WB getting their act together, the superhero has simply become a constant part of our cultural diet. While this is an exciting prospect, it does raise the question of what happens to those companies without access to the superhero IP of DC or Marvel. 

The answer, clearly, is that they’ll dive into lesser-known heroes, either from the public domain, smaller publishers, or creator owned. We’ve already seen this with the 2000s’ Hellboy, yet it seems the key people jumping on this bandwagon now are, shockingly, Disney. Yes, even though the house of mouse already owns Marvel, they’re hungry for more. Their first aim is a reboot of their 1990s underrated superhero classic The Rocketeer with the new Rocketeer allegedly being conceived as a black woman. 

Even though The Rocketeer was never really a major favorite with audiences, this is still a pretty big deal. To show how big it is, we haven’t seen a black woman-led solo super flick since Halle Berry’s Catwoman, and that was in 2004 and terrible. The big reason for that absence is the tragic fact that there just aren’t a lot of woman of color superheroes. Most people know the major ones like Storm, Vixen, or maybe Misty Knight if they’re cool. Other than that, there’s a scant few, and most folks aren’t aware of them. 

Seriously, there are less than 100 non-white women superheroes between DC and Marvel, , and I doubt most folks could even name 10. It also doesn’t help that FOX holds the biggest and best names like Storm. FOX has no idea what to do with their characters. If it takes Disney re-imagining characters to achieve diversity, well, I can’t say it isn’t called for. What’s more, it's a smart move when it comes to The Rocketeer.

See, even as someone who likes the original Rocketeer also has to concede that the Rocketeer is the most boring part of the Rocketeer. I don’t mean the character concept, giving someone a jetpack to fight Nazis automatically makes them cool. The guy inside the helmet is incredibly boring. In the original film, he’s framed very much like a milquetoast “good guy,” similar to how Captain America or Superman are imagined by people who hate those characters. 

Speaking of Captain America, his debut film First Avenger is The Rocketeer’s closest modern contemporary, which is clear when you realize both films were directed by the same guy: Joe Johnston. Johnston’s a master director. Without a talented lead like Chris Evans or Jake Gyllenhaal, his sincerity often comes off bland. And that’s the case with The Rocketeer. Even worse, The Rocketeer plays as more or less a rough draft of First Avenger, making a straight reboot of the original film is pretty much pointless. We already rebooted it well with Captain America.

All of that is why it’s such a brilliant lateral move to make the titular hero a black woman. Right off the bat, a black woman superhero in the midst of the early 1950s, the new film entitled Rocketeers is set in the Cold War, becomes an instantly different film, mainly because it has to be.  

If that’s the setting, you HAVE to address issues of the sexism the Rocketeer would face, especially if she’s a scientist and built the jetpack herself.  Addressing the racism endemic to that era automatically recasts the story in a very different light. Remember, the setting of the film would place this right around the first efforts to continue the process of integration started under FDR during wartime. 

It’s also been said that the film would be a sequel to the original with the alleged plot revolving around the new Rocketeer taking up the mantel after the original went missing fighting the Nazis. I’m not totally onboard with this idea. I get the impetus to frame it as a sequel to try and avoid the culture war you might see from the sexist and racist jerks that Ghostbusters had to battle. 

Speaking of, I do think that Ghostbusters was a big impact on this movie getting produced, especially after Disney allegedly pulling the plug on their action adventure films in the wake of several failures like John Carter, Lone Ranger, and Tomorrowland.  However, I do think that framing the film as a sequel puts the creators at a disadvantage regarding needing to explain jetpack technology to the audience as well as why that technology hasn’t been employed more. I do wonder if we’ll see the return of the jetpack’s inventor in the film’s universe: Howard Hughes. This new setting would put Hughes right in the middle of his movie-making obsession with RKO Pictures.   

The big downside of this announcement is that even though the new film will star a black woman, it will be written by Max Winkler and Matt Spicer, a couple of white men. This is one of the bigger problems swirling around the perception of diversity in Hollywood today, the idea that is simply representing characters on screen is the same as having diverse creators. 

It’s especially disappointing if you compare it to the really good work that’s been done when marginalized creators are given the reigns on more established franchises. Ryan Coogler worked similar wonders with his Rocky revival in last year's CreedComic author David F. Walker has been crushing it in this category lately, turning old standards like Powerman and Iron Fist or Shaft into comic series hits as well as imbuing forgotten old ideas like Nighthawk with an incredible new life.  

Like a lot of big announcements aiming for progressive points lately, we end with something of a wash. It’s great to see a woman of color headlining a superhero movie, for I’m certainly for a new period superhero film given how rewarding yet under-explored that niche is. But it’s hampered by the creative team behind the idea. 

It’s still possible Rocketeers will turn out to be really great. If this is the start of Disney actively producing action adventure movies for girls, I won’t complain. I just wish it was a stronger first step. Still, it IS a first step, or at least if very well could be, and I’m certainly intrigued to see what this Rocketeer might inspire. 

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