When Disney Failed Superheroes: 1981’s CONDORMAN

REEL RETRO CINEMA: New looks at old flicks and their comic-book adaptations…

By ROB KELLY

Warning: There is no Condorman in this movie.

OK, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. There’s not no Condorman in Condorman, just very little Condorman in Condorman.

Future Phantom of the Opera Michael Crawford plays eccentric comic-book writer/artist/editor/publisher(!) Woody Wilkins, who insists on making sure everything he puts in his “Condorman” stories is believable. To test this theory, he goes so far as to create a fully functioning Condorman costume, and takes a leap off the Eiffel Tower to see if he can fly. The costume works, albeit briefly: After a few moments of slipping the surly bonds of Earth, one of his wings breaks and he crashes into the Seine.

Hopefully you like this action scene, because it’s gonna have to last you, kids!

Woody’s pal, a CIA file clerk named Harry (OG Teen Wolf dad James Hampton), soon asks him for a favor — to swap some top secret papers in Istanbul. While there, Woody meets Natalia Rambova (the vivacious Barbara Carrera), a KGB spy. Woody tells her he is a spy codenamed “Condorman”, and when he accidentally saves her life from being rubbed out by some fellow Russian agents (led by Oliver Reed!), Natalia decides to defect. She asks the CIA that this mysterious, brave “Condorman” be the agent that helps her get to the United States.

Woody, in turn, is so taken with Natalia that he uses her as the inspiration for a new comic-book character, Laser Lady. Woody then agrees to help the CIA again, in exchange for them bankrolling some cool gadgets based on his outlandish designs.

For most of its run time, 1981’s Condorman is a chase movie, as Oliver Reed’s character Krokov and his henchmen try and grab Woody and Natalia before they can escape to the safety of the U.S. There are scenes in Italy, Switzerland, France and Yugoslavia, where Woody’s clumsy bravery keeps him and Natalia from getting captured. In a last ditch effort, Woody dons a fully realized Condorman costume and flies Natalia to a speedboat in a final confrontation with the Russians.

The film ends in the United States, with Woody, Natalia and Harry at a Dodgers game. Harry gets a message from his boss, Russ (MacGyver’s Dana Elcar), instructing him to ask Woody if Condorman would like to go on another mission. Not the end!

Except, of course, it was. Disney gave it a full-court marketing push that involved a comic strip, a comic book, merchandise and contests, but Condorman was pretty much panned by critics and it laid an egg at the box office.

So despite it being a superhero movie—a rare thing in 1981—Condorman had an air of failure: Even though it seemed like it would be right up the alley of a young comic-book fan like myself, I never bothered to watch it, convinced it was awful. What the hell did Disney know about making superhero movies, anyway?

But it’s not awful, just dull. As I stated at the top, the big problem with Condorman is that there’s virtually no Condorman in it. There’s the brief scene at the beginning, and then the one at the end, and that’s it! In a 90-minute movie called Condorman, you need more actual scenes of the hero doing what his name suggests—flying.

Some of the effects for the movie were done by the same FX people who helped Christopher Reeve fly in Superman, but Condorman’s director Charles Jarrot didn’t learn an important lesson from Richard Donner—namely, once you have your costumed superhero on screen, you have to show him off. Most of the film, then, is basically a kid-friendly James Bond adventure, meaning mild action, no violence, and certainly no sex. Sure, Woody gets some fun Batman-esque gadgets (a CondorMobile, a CondorBoat), but I really think the movie’s fatal flaw is that it has so little of a man flying like, well, a condor.

On a more positive note, while Condorman does present Woody as a bit of a goofy bumbler, it’s actually pretty warmhearted when it comes to comic books as a medium. Woody cares about his young audience, and is so respectful of them that he’s willing to risk his life to give his stories verisimilitude. All the various government agents seen reading the Condorman books take them seriously, and there’s never any cheap gags aimed at the kind of people who read comics. We also get a brief scene of the imposing screen icon Reed actually reading a comic book, which is fun for its sheer uniqueness.

As a leading man, Michael Crawford doesn’t have much presence, so turning the movie over to him outside of his Condorman suit seems like a miscalculation at the screenplay stage (strangely, Condorman is based on a 1965 spy novel, The Game of X, which does not feature a Condorman at all). Barbara Carrera can’t help but be exotic and sexy, but her character is basically just a warm-up for a similar role she would play in 1983’s Never Say Never Again, Sean Connery’s last go-round as…James Bond.

Disney’s long-running Treasury of Classic Tales newspaper strip adapted Condorman into four-color form, drawn by the incomparable Russ Heath, which (oddly) ran and wrapped up months before the movie was released. There was a tie-in novel, and then a comic book published under the Whitman imprint, which ran for three issues. The first two issues of Condorman adapt the movie, and then the third continues the adventure, with Woody and Natalia now engaged. Since the movie had already come and gone by this time, it’s curious as to why a third issue was produced at all—perhaps to fill out the “three-pack” comics-in-a-bag format that was Whitman’s stock in trade for their main client, department stores.

Condorman received the standard home video releases during the 1980s and 1990s (when I worked at a video store, I remember seeing the big clamshell VHS box, only occasionally tempted to rent it), but was pretty much forgotten about. Nevertheless, time marches on and Condorman has shown to have some fans in high places.

A Condorman toy makes a cameo in the 2011 Pixar short Toy Story Toons: Small Fry, and when Disney purchased Marvel Comics in 2009, Amazing Spider-Man editor Stephen Wacker publicly lobbied to have Condorman brought into the Marvel Universe.

So far, none of this has resulted in anything, and Condorman, like the bird he takes his name from, remains a rarely seen creature. But the movie is better than its reputation suggests, and is mostly harmless fluff.

With the Fantastic Four and the X-Men undoubtedly about to be brought into the MCU, perhaps one day we’ll all be able to look up in the sky and see… not Superman, not a plane, but a bird!

Rob Kelly is a writer/artist/comics and film historian. He is the host or co-host of several shows on The Fire and Water Podcast Network, including Aquaman and Firestorm: The Fire and Water Podcast, The Film and Water Podcast, TreasuryCast, Superman Movie Minute, MASHCast and Pod Dylan.

You can read more of Rob’s REEL RETRO CINEMA columns here.

Author: Dan Greenfield

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5 Comments

  1. Loved seeing this cool collection of Condorman stuff….neat stuff! I love watching Woody helping Natalia defect and then watching them fall in love with each other. To me, that’s what the movie is really about…but I’m an old geezer who watched this as a kid and still enjoys it. 37 years ago and folks are still talking about this movie. Wow!

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  2. Wow! Until now, I’d never even heard of Condorman!

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  3. I have fond memories of seeing this in theaters with my dad. I haven’t seen it in a very long time.

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  4. I never saw the film, largely because at the time the idea of Frank Spencer* being a superhero just seemed excessively silly. I was 11.

    *Non-UK people may wish to check out the long-running British sitcom Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em, which made Crawford a household name here but also made him utterly implausible as anything else until Phantom came along.

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  5. as a kid i loved this, i may need to see it again to see how i feel now.

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