"The Condor": Paved with Good Intentions
One of the most mocked and reviled superhero cartoons is Challenge of the Super Friends, and no characters received more scorn than the politically correct superhero additions. Apache Chief, the Samurai, and El Dorado may have been created with good intentions, but any goodwill they generated was far outweighed by their propagation of exactly those horrific ethnic stereotypes they were meant to counter. However, Challenge of the Super Friends may be one of the most influential superhero cartoons ever made. For better or for worse, the show defined superheroes for a generation, and nearly every superhero cartoon since has had to escape its shadow to be taken seriously.
Thus, it is deeply unfortunate to report that Stan Lee Presents the Condor ultimately fails to avoid the curse of noble intentions poorly executed. Maria and George Valdez (Maria Conchita Alonso and John Novak) are a husband and wife team running a robotics company. Their only son, Tony (Wilmer Valderrama), is a college dropout who spurns the family business for a skateboarding career. Straddling this generation gap is Sammi (Mary Elizabeth McGlynn), the Valdez’s daughter in all but name, who is a tinkerer and robotics genius equally adept at maintaining Tony’s skateboard and the Valdez’s advanced nanorobotic technology. A tragedy instigated by a mysterious armored figure soon strikes the Valdez family, leaving both parents dead and Tony possibly crippled for life. Luckily, a quick modification to Sammi’s nanobots gives Tony his mobility back, plus the ability to temporarily boost strength and agility. Add a souped-up skateboard and the requisite long underwear, and the Condor is born.
Stan Lee has stated on several occasions that he created The Condor with the intent of fostering a Latino superhero, and the good news is that Tony and Sammi defy the usual Hollywood image of Latino characters as poor, urban, and uneducated. Simply seeing the Valdez family as wealthy industrialists in the suburbs is progress of a sort. Unfortunately, Tony spends most of the movie as a grandstanding, insensitive jerk, and his transformation into a hero is sudden and unconvincing. The Valdez parents aren’t on screen long enough to make much of an impression—the mother is generically pleasant and the father’s only defining trait is the workaholism that has alienated him from his son. Sammi is a little more interesting, but she’s straitjacketed by the two truly thankless roles of “technobabble exposition delivery” and “friend secretly pining for someone else who doesn’t know she exists.”
Sadly, once you get past this quartet of main characters, it seems that The Condor never met a stereotype it didn’t like. If the Valdez family and Sammi avoid the typical Latino stereotypes, Tony’s cousin Reuben more than compensates by having nearly every insulting Latino trait Hollywood has ever thought of. His nemesis Chato is barely sketched out as anything more than the suburban nightmare of a Latino gang leader. The voluptuous Valeria fills the Asian character quota as the man-eating Dragon Lady; she is only outdone as a gross stereotype when her Fu Manchu-styled grandfather appears. Z-Man is the token black character, who initially comes off as an extreme-sports bad boy in the Dennis Rodman mold; to be fair, he may be the only one of the supporting cast who manages to stretch a little outside his designated stereotype. The Valdez’s crooked British business partner Nigel is the only white person in the entire cast other than a few skateboarding extras, but he is the kind of irredeemably nasty, mustache-twirling villain who made “comic book” and “cartoon” derogatory adjectives: Only by kicking a puppy or tying Sammi to the railroad tracks could he be more dastardly. Dogg, Tony’s physical therapist, is a truly ludicrous Hawaiian man-mountain of fortune cookie wisdom. An Arab terrorist and a Russian mobster are on screen just long enough to insult our intelligence. The only stereotypes left out are the Native American Medicine Man, the Hasidic Jew, and the openly gay friend.
It’s also worth pointing out that the creators’ concern over a lack of Latino or Hispanic superheroes didn’t seem to extend to casting choices. Except for Valderrama and Alonso, none of the major characters are voiced by Latino or Hispanic actors. It’s true that voice acting should probably be the most color-blind of all the acting disciplines, but the casting choices in Justice League demonstrated that there are plenty of minority actors perfectly capable of doing the work. None of them were cast for The Condor, which favors accent-affecting gringos.
Creator Stan Lee, director Steven E. Gordon, and screenwriter Marv Wolfman have all done much better work in superhero animation, which makes it even more disappointing to see what a mess the movie is beyond its ethnic stereotypes. It takes far, far too long for Tony to become the Condor, and, as mentioned, his transformation seems obligatory rather than organic. By the time he appears in costume, there is too little of the movie’s 74-minute running time left for him to do a whole lot. Reuben’s subplots, involving his conflicts with Chato and Tony, are cliché and underdone. Time seems to pass at different rates for different stories throughout the movie; every other plot seems to stop while Tony is going through his physical rehabilitation. The racy, single-entendre relationship between Valeria and Tony is an update to the usual superhero love triangle, but I don’t know how Sammi can watch the two of them and still long for Tony while preserving any sense of self-respect. And I’m still scratching my head trying to figure out how two people in a car can be run off the road by two kids on skateboards, even if those kids are pumped up on nanobots.
The most frustrating thing about The Condor is that the bones of a much better movie are in place here. It’s an incredibly fine line between cliché and classic, and The Condor manages to dance over it a few times. Tony Valdez seems frustratingly close to an ethnic update of Iron Man’s Tony Stark. The opening sequence of the movie, where we witness crimes being committed by nanobot-enhanced homeless people, is moody, atmospheric, and creepy, even if it ends up making a promise the movie doesn’t deliver on. It must also be emphasized that the few segments when Tony puts on his Condor helmet and zips off to battle evildoers are truly thrilling, creating a nice adrenaline buzz. The skateboarding angle has a whiff of slightly stale, manufactured hipness about it, but turns out to be a lot more fun than expected. The animation is serviceable, if not top-drawer, but it does make clever use of digital effects to provide occasional stylistic flourishes.
The toughest challenge The Condor faces doesn’t come from evil industrialists or bad guys in battlesuits. It comes from the competition. By now, the number of superhero cartoons that have managed to escape the black hole of silliness of Challenge of the Super Friends have fundamentally changed the rules of the game. Movies like The Incredibles and TV shows like X-Men Evolution or the DC shows from Batman the Animated Series through Justice League Unlimited show how to treat superheroes with enough seriousness to satisfy more sophisticated audiences without losing the whimsy behind the concepts that made them appealing to begin with. In contrast, The Condor is still playing the old game by the old rules, which is why it is so unsatisfying in the end.
The Condor DVD presents the movie itself in a sharp, anamorphic widescreen format with an English soundtrack in 5.1 Dolby Surround and 2.0 Dolby Stereo, and a Spanish 2.0 Dolby Stereo soundtrack. Extras include a brief introduction to the movie by creator Stan Lee, a fluffy and vapid 11-minute “making of” featurette, a DVD skateboarding game, and a character gallery. For the most part, the major appeal of these special features is Stan Lee’s hucksterish clowning. The disc is also packaged with a limited edition comic book for Mosaic, Stan’s other direct-to-DVD superhero.
I don’t doubt that everybody involved with this production had the best intentions in mind from the start, and that there was no intent to be malicious. But The Condor‘s attitude recalls that of the Streak from the Justice League episode “Legends,” who ends up inadvertently insulting Green Lantern John Stewart with the intended compliment, “You’re a credit to your people, son.” It’s an incredible disappointment.