Stan Lee Presents: The Condor (DVD)

When will Baskin Robbins bring back Condorman Crunch?

Even folks who’ve never opened a comic book in their lives have heard of Stan Lee, the prolific co-creator of famous superhero characters such as Spider-Man, the X-Men, and the Fantastic Four. Stan is still in the cape-and-mask biz with some original direct-to-DVD animated adventures from his new company, POW! Entertainment. This one features a young hero aboard a flying skateboard, who saves the day while overcoming some serious personal trauma.

Tony Valdez (Wilmer Valderrama, That ’70s Show) is the teenage son of two successful scientists, whose advances in nanotechnology could help millions. Tony, though, isn’t interested in the family business—he just wants to ride his skateboard. He’s on the verge of winning a national ‘boarding competition when tragedy strikes. His parents are attacked and killed while driving home one night. The same killers then attack Tony, brutally beating him to the point where he might never walk again.

Tony’s gal pal Sammi (Kathleen Barr, Class of the Titans), a scientist and friend of the Valdez family, uses the nanotech to whip up a pair of futuristic leg braces and a super-high-tech skateboard made just for him. Armed with these new devices, Tony declares himself “The Condor,” named after his mother’s lucky condor necklace. Before long, he takes on the sinister Taipan, a ruthless masked criminal with plans to use the Valdez nanotech for evil means, and the one behind the deaths of Tony’s parents.

Those of you hoping to see non-stop adrenaline-pumping action as soon as you put this disc in your player might be disappointed. The rest of you, though, will be pleasantly surprised by how much time The Condor spends letting us learn about the characters and their lives. It’s not until halfway through the running time that any superhero craziness begins. The Condor is an increasing rarity—a character-driven action flick.

In some circles, the phrase “direct to DVD” is considered the lowest of the low, the entertainment equivalent of sardines that have been left sitting under the Arizona sun for five weeks. But in this case, it works in the movie’s favor. If The Condor were a half-hour TV pilot, it would lose its emphasis on plot and characterization. The longer length gives the story a lot of breathing room. At the same time, the story never wanders, or feels padded. We’re with Tony throughout, from his devil-may-care attitude at the beginning, through his personal tragedy and recovery, to his final transformation into a hero.

Stan Lee, who gets a “story by” credit here, isn’t the only comic book legend involved in this project. The screenplay was penned by Marv Wolfman (Teen Titans, Tomb of Dracula)—and like Stan, he knows a thing or two about crafting a good tale. The focus of this story isn’t on the cool costume or the slick fighting moves, but on who the person behind the mask is.

Just when you start thinking that this is some sort of weepy animated drama, suddenly the action kicks in, and the animators don’t hold back. Maybe the Condor’s skateboard can defy physics a little too defiantly—it can fly, skate up and down walls, and he can fold it up and slip it into a pocket—but it’s still some pretty exciting stuff. The villain, Taipain, makes with plenty of high-flying martial moves that are also skillfully animated. There’s also a gaggle of super-speedy “dark riders” to go skate-to-skate against our hero. The highlights are a fistfight on the beach late in the film, followed by the big finale, with everyone duking it out at a construction site during sunset, eventually setting the whole place ablaze.

The visual style here is what most would consider “Saturday morning TV” quality. It’s far from terrible, but doesn’t have that extra “wow” factor we’ve come to expect from multi-million dollar feature animation. Some enthusiastic voice acting makes up for a lot, though. The Hispanic characters are all played by Hispanic voice actors, so accents come across as genuine. And, as expected, the actors playing the villains ham it up marvelously.

Like Mosaic, The Condor isn’t a toon for the younger kids. There’s a ton of sexual innuendo in this one, and it’s none too subtle. When Tony meets up with an older woman for a moonlight swim one night, as she peels out of her clothes to reveal an impossibly tiny bikini, it’s obvious that they both have a lot more than swimming on the agenda. This is the same woman who gives him an enthusiastic butt-grab when she first meets him, complete with a close-up of said butt-grab as it happens. (Is this the first onscreen butt-grab in the history of superhero animation? I’m going to guess…no.) A subplot about Tony’s cousin owing money to some gangstas won’t win this movie any points with parents, either.

The picture and audio on the DVD really shine, especially with all the bright, vivid colors on display, and when the rockin’ score kicks in. The featurette, based on a joke about Stan Lee and Wilmer Valderrama competing over who gets to provide Tony’s voice, is actually pretty good, with a look at the ideas behind the creation of the character, as well as thoughts from director Steven E. Gordon (X-Men: Evolution) about the production. For other extras, Lee provides a humorous introduction to the movie, as well as his own thoughts on each of the characters as you click through the still gallery. Finally, the “Outskating” game you play with your remote is one of the best DVD interactive games I’ve ever seen. It’s almost like playing an actual video game. As you guide the Condor around obstacles with the arrow keys on your remote, the onscreen character responds quickly and smoothly, making for a fun, addictive little game. Huge applause for whoever put this one together.

The creators of The Condor took quite a risk by making the human drama a higher priority than the superhero battles, but the risk pays off. Tony and his friends (and his villain) are all great characters, and the opportunity for further adventures seems limitless. I found this one enjoyable enough to look forward, hopefully, to more Condor action in the future.

The Verdict

Stan Lee Presenta: El Cóndor no es culpable.

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