For those of us who don’t follow football, the Super Bowl can be an annual exercise in frustration. The best sports let us find freedom, power, and capacity in our identification with talented athletes, but this outsized spectacle inevitably leaves the untutored feeling helpless. Watching, you’re all but imprisoned by the erratic stop-and-start rhythms of the game, trapped by its baroque rules. If, as the NFL slogan has it, “Football is family,” then the Super Bowl is our near-obligatory reminder that hanging out with your family is almost always terrible.
Why else would we fixate on commercials? Here, at least, is something for the rest of us. In them, we find the illusion of agency, of choice. The halftime show plays a similar role, or at least it should. But—and here I admit I’m no scholar of the genre—it seems unlikely that any did so better than the one that arrived in the middle of the first Super Bowl in 1967, when two jet pack—or “rocket belt”—pilots danced in mid-air around the stadium. Their flight speaks to the very thing some of us need most when we’re watching football: a fantasy of escape.
As Rick Maese reported in the Washington Post in January, the pilots in that long-ago performance dressed in costumes representing the American Football League and the National Football League. After taking off, the pair stayed “50 to 60 feet above the field, the two men circled back inward and landed near midfield. The AFL and NFL shook hands at the 50-yard line,” Maese writes.
The jetpack was a fitting enough image that the game’s organizers would revisit it in 1985, which featured another aerial stunt. Here, the surrounding production was far more elaborate, and arguably far sillier—so much so that Business Insider’s Rob Wile places it beside some of the worst halftime shows of all time. In Smithsonian, meanwhile, Matt Novak writes of that latter-day flight, “it feels less spectacular … in 1985 than it does to see the footage from 1967. Maybe it’s because there was sadly no real technological progress made on the jetpack in those 20 years.”
Perhaps it was also that some of the jetpack’s emblematic appeal had faded by 1985. As one of Maese’s sources suggests, jetpacks were symbols of the Space Age. But it wasn’t that era’s accomplishments that they represented so much as its promise: Bulky as they were, these devices suggested that we might be able to break free from the prison called gravity—and that each might do so according to according to our own fancies. In that sense, the jetpack was still more liberatory than the rocket. It offered a vision of radically personal agency, one that never quite arrived—hence their status as enduring symbols of disappointment with failed futures.
At the Super Bowl, however, such fantasies may still have a place. Every Super Bowl should feature jetpacks, if only to let us imagine flying away from whatever’s happening in the second half.