Condorman: Disney's forgotten superhero movie may have been ahead of its time.

1981's Condorman was a flop film that's mostly forgotten but this underrated spy spoof was ahead of its time as a parody!

Ronnie Corbett Memorial Service - Arrivals
Ronnie Corbett Memorial Service - Arrivals / Max Mumby/Indigo/GettyImages
facebooktwitterreddit

The late 1970s and early ‘80s is a fascinating period for Walt Disney Productions. The studio was in a strange flux, still trying to have the usual family fare of Walt’s heyday but dealing with the changing times of Hollywood and culture while the animation division was…let’s just say, not that good. 

That led to odd experiments, movies that were trying to capture what seemed hot at the time but often fell short. They tried to capture the Star Wars heat with The Black Hole and horror with The Watcher in the Woods but both movies failed.

But overlooked is Disney’s attempt at creating their own superhero character long before cult favorites like The Rocketeer. And while ignored today, in some ways, this movie was ahead of its time in a comic book feel along with a spy spoof.

Condorman

Its poster’s line of “an action-adventure romantic comedy spy story” shows this was meant to be a mix of genres. While it doesn’t always succeed, it still has a charm to it as a film that never takes itself seriously and even plays on an idea that would later become popular: What happens when a fanboy gets his chance to live out a real spy adventure? 

The Condorman plot

Based on a novel by Robert Sheckley, the movie centers on Woody Wilkins (Michael Crawford), a comic book writer/artist who, you might say, is a “method writer.” He insists the only way he’ll have his superhero Condorman do something in the comic is if Woody could do it in real life. So that explains the opening scene of him trying to leap off the Eiffel Tower in a wing suit (spoiler: it doesn’t go well). 

Woody’s friend Harry (James Hampton) helps out of some scrapes as a strange side gig to his real job as a clerk for the CIA. When his boss Russ (Dana Eclar) needs a non-CIA operative to handle a simple paper exchange in Istanbul, Harry suggests Woody.

Woody shows up like every spy cliche imaginable, including an overcoat, hat and glasses and couldn’t be more conspicuous if he tried. He hits it off with the Russian asset Natalia (Barbara Carrera) and ends up saving her from hitmen by sheer accident. He tells her his code name is “Condorman.” They part with Woody, inspired to create a new character based on Natalia.

It turns out Natalia is a KGB agent who, tired of her boss/lover Krokov (Oliver Reed) , decides to defect to the West on the condition that “Condorman” be in charge. Russ is not happy to learn Harry’s comic book buddy is this “agent” and tries to talk Woody into it. At first, Woody refuses but agrees on the condition that the CIA outfit him with gear of his own designs. Amazingly, Russ agrees to that. 

This leads to a genius touch in that Woody’s gadgets are exactly what you’d expect of a comic book writer given a black ops budget. It starts with him disguised as an old man with Natalia, set upon by assassins and driving them off with his machine gun cane (which nearly shoots his own head off). They are then chased in a truck, only for Woody to break it into the coolest car imaginable. 

The pair are hunted by Krokov and his aide, Morovich (Jean-Pierre Kalfon), who, like any decent evil henchman, has a glass eye. Obviously, there’s good chemistry between Woody and Natalia, but before it goes further, Natalia sees kids in Switzerland with copies of Woody’s comic and realizes the truth. At which point, Morovich manages to capture her after sending Woody and Harry crashing a few hundred feet into snowbanks. 

Despite being promised to be sent to Siberia, Natalia is allowed to attend a big party Krokov is throwing for some evil folks. Woody and Harry infiltrate in some actually not-bad disguises as Arab sheiks. Woody then breaks out the entire full-scale Condorman costume with wings to fly him and Natalia away to a boat where we get a speedboat just as cool as the car. 

A speedboat chase begins (of course, the bad guys have a fleet of readymade black boats all set to go) with Woody firing back with his laser cannon (of course, he has a laser cannon). Krokov and Morovich follow with a CIA helicopter plucking the Condor-boat out of the water. Krokov bails while Morovich’s boat hits a cliff in a slightly anti-climactic finish. 

The final scene shows our trio at a baseball game as a blimp flashes a message welcoming Natalia to the U.S., which seems to be a strange thing for a top-secret mission. Ah, but it’s to cover Harry whispering to Woody that the CIA wants Condorman on another mission. 

The movie’s fun charms

The movie was slammed by critics in 1981 and a box office flop, which seemed to show Disney behind the times. But it has its charms, mostly thanks to Crawford. He was already known for musicals like Hello Dolly and the British sitcom Some Mothers Do Have ‘Em, and his mix of physical comedy and eagerness as Woody makes the character a fun one.

It’s terrific seeing him realize at first how over his head he is but never wavers and how his sheer luck managed to win the day. Crawford (who later became known for creating the role of the Phantom of the Opera on Broadway) is the linchpin to the film. 

There’s also the fun vibe as, again, the movie rests on the conceit of an adventure writer living out a real spy caper. That's been used since yet something so hilarious about the CIA deciding to give a comic book writer the resources to carry out this mission. It's too bad we never got to see the Q to his Bond as the scene of the CIA guys having to craft Condor-themed vehicles would have been fun.

The film never really takes itself seriously, with touches like Reed completely losing it, realizing his men are being outwitted and outmatched by a writer, even as Morovich is convinced they have to be dealing with some top operative. The movie could have gone further with a Bond-like insane plot yet the explosive finale is good.

Carrera is mostly just there to look good, but the nice scene of her realizing she’s put her life in the hands of a guy who is no spy. Sure, the FX are obviously bad green screens, yet the Monte Carlo setting is well done and a fun score, including the title song. 

The movie has mostly been forgotten (of all things, a Toy Story short had a reference to it), although the old Condorman suit was shown at the Planet Hollywood at Pleasure Island for years. It’s not on Disney+ or DVD, yet still worth a watch as its clever conceit carries it as a spy spoof with a unique superhero edge that deserves more attention.