Science-Fiction

Condorman Flies Again

As I am now, so too was I as a child: a forgiving viewer. I’m sure there is some sort of mathematical algorithm that can predict exactly what amount of cool stuff (as defined by me) a movie has to have to make me forget the probably greater amount of boring stuff in it. I haven’t been good at math since seventh grade, so I’ll leave it to the eggheads with their supercomputers and pulsating frontal lobes to figure that one out. Suffice it to say that my brain, caffeine-addled place that it is, has a tremendous capacity for screening out the crap in a movie and only remembering the bits it thought were entertaining. It’s the sort of mental agility that allowed me as a child and continues to allow me as an adult to squeeze enjoyment out of bloodless stones that crush others.

And so it puzzles me, given the churning sea of garbage that I so easily accepted as a kid, that I should have had such a vigorously negative reaction to—bordering on outright hatred of—Condorman back then. What was it about this harmless Disney movie that so anrgied up my blood? The most obvious answer is that all of the stills, all of the television commercials, all of the marketing materials Disney fired into my face in 1981, promised be an action-packed superhero movie. That is not, however, the movie they delivered. What they gave me instead was a quirky, breezy spy movie in which the Condorman superhero outfit so prominent in all the ads played almost no role. That made small me very upset.

Keep in mind that this is Disney in the early 1980s, a former powerhouse studio that found itself unexpectedly floundering and unsure of what to do. Their animated films weren’t garnering the audience acceptance or critical praise they had once assumed was the birthright of any Disney cartoon. Their live action division was faring even worse and had entered into what many people regard as “the weird years.” They were making a lot of movies that, in retrospect, were ambitious and risky for a studio with the family-friendly reputation of Disney. While I admire the chances they took on strange, darker material, the studio had no idea how to sell it once it was complete. So a gory, grim fantasy film like Dragonslayer gets marketed as a whimsical movie that will remind you of Pete’s Dragon. The similarly dark and psychological Black Hole gets marketed as Disney’s answer to Star Wars, complete with cute wise-cracking robots. TRON gets marketed as… well, no one knew how to even fake market TRON. And Condorman gets marketed as a superhero movie along the lines of Superman. The bait-and-switch is nothing new, of course, but Condorman was the first time I remember it suckering me specifically, and I was not forgiving.

I’m no Disney hater. They’ve done some great work, and they’ve done some terrible work, and they’ve done a lot of mediocre work. Many of my favorite adventure films are Disney productions. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Treasure Island, Scarecrow of Romney Marsh—I love these movies. Even many of the lesser adventure films make me happy. And I like a fair number of Disney animated works. Pinocchio was the first movie that ever terrified me (seriously, that whale… that part where they turn into donkeys…), and I love when movies terrify me. And don’t even get me started on Disney parks. I could visit them every week and never get bored or lose that sense of wonder. Almost everything Disney did during their rudderless weird years got a huge seal of approval from me. I loved TRON, Black Hole, Something Wicked this Way Comes, and Dragonslayer—saw each of them multiple times in the theater. Their animated film from 1981, The Fox and the Hound, is one of my favorite Disney cartoons. I even enjoy the much-maligned The Black Cauldron.

But Condorman…man, that thing just set me off.

And it did it probably because, in my limited experience at the time, the gulf between what it promised and what it delivered was so much more substantial than the gulf between the promise and the reality of any of the other movies I mentioned. I didn’t mind that any of those live-action movies had screwy advertising that promised something a little different than what was actually delivered, because they still delivered me basically what I was expecting. Dragonslayer may have been gorier and darker than I expected (or parents wanted), but by that time I loved gory and dark and so was happy to see guts and blood and Peter MacNicol’s naked ass. Black Hole may have been less action-packed that the ads told me, but it was still all full of space and creepy robots and Norman Bates getting ripped to shreds by propeller arms. So again, I was happy. And TRON? TRON was just full of awesome weirdness.

By adulthood, I couldn’t even remember why I hated Condorman. I could only remember that I did. That was just too much like those stories where two sides have been killing each other for so long that they can no longer even remember why they are fighting. So I decided it was time to sit my pouting former self in the corner and take another look at Condorman. I mean, it does have Oliver Reed in it.

It turns out that, while no lost work of great art, adult me had a rare disagreement with nine-year-old me. Knowing now that it wasn’t actually a superhero film, and loving now the breezy Eurospy films of the 1960s as I do, I found revisiting Condorman to be an insubstantial but thoroughly enjoyable espionage adventure. Actually, looking back at it, it’s surprising just how prescient some of Condorman‘s ideas were.

The hero is Woody Wilkins (Michael Crawford), a cartoonist who’s most popular character is Condorman. However, we learn in the film’s opening scene that Woody is as insistent as Christopher Nolan that his comic book hero be as grounded in reality as possible. So committed is Woody to this that he has built himself his own Condorman outfit—which looks as absurd as spandex comic book superhero costumes always do when actual people put them on—and attempts himself any feat he might want Condorman to do, verifying that it could actually be accomplished before it gets into the comic book. This was at a time when the notion of “realism” in superhero movies and comics wasn’t exactly high priority. Wally’s best friend, Harry Oslo (James Hampton), happens to be a low-ranking nobody at the CIA. When a simple exchange of information job comes his way, the Russians with whom the CIA is doing the deal demand that the hand-off be made by two non-agents. Harry figures his pal Woody is perfect for the job, and after some token protests about safety, Woody accepts.

Only he lets himself get a little too into the role, pretending to be America’s number one superspy in order to impress the beautiful Russian (Never Say Never Again‘s Barbara Carrera) with whom he is supposed to meet. It turns out the lovely Natalia (because all Russian women in spy movies are named Natalia or Tatiana) actually is a spy. When Woody puts on his act and accidentally foils an assault, she and her superior Krokov (mighty, mighty Oliver Reed) become convinced that Woody is indeed a top CIA operative. Which means when Natalia decides she wants to defect, she demands that her savior be the one American spy she knows can best anyone and everyone the KGB can throw at him: Woody Wilkens, code name Condorman.

Going into it this time, knowing that it wasn’t a superhero movie, I was pleasantly surprised with it being a spry, action packed spy film that has quite a lot in common with the finger-snapping, tongue-in-cheek Eurospy films of the ’60s. It has the same jokey tone while being a fun example of the genre it’s spoofing. Hampton and Crawford look about as far away from James Bond-esque spies as you could possibly get, and I think that works in the film’s favor. I always like when an action movie casts a lead who doesn’t “look like an action star.” Because very few people who perform feats of heroics and derring-do in real life look like action stars. Tough guy action star John Wayne stayed at home during World War II and pretended to fight it on screen, but lanky goofball Jimmy Stewart fought and came back a decorated hero. What I really like most about Crawford’s performance though is that he doesn’t play it incompetent or silly. He can’t win a one-on-one fight, but he can think and improvise his way out of a situation. Thrown into the deep end of the spy game, he falls back on simple determination and a host of tricks gleaned from comic books to emerge as a slightly harried and sometimes panicked, but almost always competent, hero.

Barbara Carrera, who would appear in an actual (if unofficial) Bond film a couple of years later, is great, but the film comes up with very little for her to do beyond stand around waiting for Woody to come up with some crazy scheme to get the two of them out of a pickle. I don’t expect her to go all Fatima Blush (a shame that one of the better female Bond villains was relegated to one of the lesser Bond films), but it would have been nice, given that she is supposed to be an accomplished Soviet agent, to see her a little more active. I guess this is sort of a modern-day “boy’s own adventure” kind of story, made at a time when effective female heroes were being phased out after having had some fun in the 1970s, so just about everything that gets done in the movie gets done by Woody.

Pursuing the both of them across Europe is Oliver Reed. His appearance in Condorman is a smaller but not unsubstantial role, and for the most part he turns in a pretty good performance. He’s definitely not giving it his all, but then I don’t think it’s the sort of movie that could have withstood full frontal Oliver Reed. He spends much of the movie in pretty much the same way lots of disgraced former stars spend their time in goofy movies: loitering behind a desk. I was afraid this was all we were going to get of him, but once the final act kicks into gear, Ollie dispatches himself into the field and gets to blow some stuff up while looking enraged and/or exasperated.

With a game cast, Condorman goes about the business of trying its hardest to be a kid-friendly take on the James Bond franchise without being the pandering sort of kids’ spy film we too often had to endure. I appreciate any kids’ film where the lead actor isn’t a kid, or where no children at all are present, as is the case with Condorman. It’s obvious that Disney spent most of the budget on the jet setting location work and a fleet of Porsches. The special effects, when they rear their heads, are pretty bad. But that really only happens at the very end, when the corny Condorman suit makes its appearance. Funny that when I was a kid, I demanded this movie be full of the Condorman suit, and as an adult, I think the film’s only real weakness is the appearance of the Condorman suit. Cut it out entirely and sell this to me as a straight up spy adventure, and I’m good. It has a lot of gadgets, including a ridiculous looking car, and it was made at a time when stunt work was still accomplished by stunt people rather than computer animation, so you get a lot of pretty good stunts, including an awesome car chase in which the movie demolishes…what was it? Half a dozen Porsches? There’s also a pretty great boat chase scene, complete with rocket launchers and laser cannons.

Upon its release, I was hardly the only person disappointed with the film. It was almost universally panned and died a swift death at the box office. To this day, it’s one of the only film’s from Disney’s weird period that hasn’t managed to build up much of a cult following. Dragonslayer is pretty well beloved these days. Black Hole has a legion of fans to go along with its legions of hecklers. TRON managed to build so much pop cultural cache that they decided to make a sequel to it thirty years after the fact. But Condorman has not enjoyed the same level of reputation rehabilitation, even though as I discovered, it probably deserves it. It might surprise you as much as it did me.

2 replies »

  1. I had the View-Master reels of Condor Man long before I saw the film and, even having seen 3D stills, I was disappointed. I’m glad to read that your re-assessment was slightly more positive. I will revisit it myself. I’m shocked that Disney has yet to remake this, if only because it is “superhero” IP that they already own. To my mind, this is precisely the kind of film that should be remade – one that wasn’t made particularly well the first time.

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    • I guess they figure, when you have Marvel, why compete with a different superhero line? Maybe he can join the next phase Avengers. But yes, I agree — good ideas that weren’t executed as well as they could have been are prime remake material. At least they have it on Disney+.

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