Have you seen… Howard the Duck (1986)

BY MICHAEL GRANT

Never in my life did I ever think I would ever have to watch this movie. 

“One of the most talked about movies of all time,” according to the back of the DVD case: Howard The Duck. This movie is based on the Marvel comic book character created by Steve Gerber, who first appeared in Adventure Into Fear #19 in December 1973. While he’s not a top-tier character today, Howard was actually a very popular character back in the day. In fact, in 1976 Marvel did a story where Howard runs for president, and this actually got him real votes in the actual 1976 US Presidential Election (which, given the choice between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, I would also vote for Howard). 

The first time a Marvel property was adapted for film was a Captain America film serial. Film serials were a series of short films that were played before a film. They told stories that typically ended in a cliffhanger. If you wanted to know what happened next, you had to come back to the theater the next week to find out. It was actually film serials like Captain America that partially inspired the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films, so it’s a little fitting that George Lucas produced the first full-length Marvel film.

This is the first full-length film ever made about a Marvel character, not counting the 1944 Captain America film serial and a few made-for-TV films in the 70s. The film was executive produced by George Lucas, of all people, who first became interested in the comics after reading them in the mid-1970s. Lucas thought the comics’ combination of film noir and offbeat humor would make for a unique film, and he got his friends Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck to write a screenplay based on the concept. After a long lengthy production process (at one point, the film was supposed to have been fully animated), the film was released in 1986 with Huyck directing. 

Howard and Lea Thompson in her most questionable role yet.

The plot of Howard The Duck is about an anthropomorphic duck named Howard, who is from a world where everybody is a duck. One night he gets zapped into our dimension. Specifically, he gets zapped to Cleveland (at least it’s not Detroit). Howard meets a struggling musician named Beverly (played by Lea Thompson, the mom in Back To The Future) who he has a romance with (I wish I was joking about that), and she also tries to help him get back to his home world with the help of her sort of scientist friend Phil (played by Tim Robbins in one of his early roles). Oh, and then there’s this alien demon thing that wants to kill humanity. If you think that last part feels tacked on, well, it kind of comes out of nowhere in the middle of the film.

In the year 1996, Howard creator Steve Gerber had this to say about the film: “It sucks.”

It goes without saying that this film is weird. Really weird, and its tone is all over the place. It feels at times that they wanted to make this a fun family film (where there are elements of fantasy and fun thrown in), and then they also wanted to make it an adult comedy (lots of sex jokes in this). If you’re familiar with the original comics or the work of the comic’s creator Steve Gerber, this might not be a shock. Gerber had a very unique sense of humor, and his work reflected that(for example, he once wrote a Batman story where Batman fights a farmer who makes giant insects). So with that in mind, the tone does make a bit of sense, but I feel they should have done either one or the other. I could’ve seen this film work better as either a family film or an R-rated comedy.

The characters in the film are all over the place. Howard is…normal. He is portrayed as a relatively normal person (for the 80s) despite the fact that he’s a duck. It’s rather a one-note joke. When the film was shot, they had little people in costume as Howard, and a crew member read Howard’s lines as the actors acted out the scene. Howard was voiced by Chip Zien and later dubbed in, but originally they had Robin Williams set to voice Howard. Williams quit after a week, because he was frustrated as he had to stick to the script, leaving him no room for improv. 

While Chip Zien voiced Howard, Ed Gale primarily acted as Howard in costume. Soon after this film was released in 1986, Gale was cast in Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs, as according to Mel Brooks, “Anybody who’s in Howard the Duck can be in my movie.”

Howard’s girlfriend Beverly isn’t that great. She’s kind of just the love interest and a damsel in distress toward the end and also might not be the sharpest knife in the drawer. When she and Howard first meet, he asks her what planet he’s on, and her response is “Earth…I think?” (I think?!) Also, let’s not forget that she has a romance with a duck. Like, eww. Tim Robbins’ character is kind of an annoying comic relief character. It’s hard to think that just a decade after starring in this, he would star in The Shawshank Redemption, one of the best films ever made.

The practical special effects in the film are a bit rough. Howard was arguably the most important thing they had to get right, as he’s the main character. Now you take one look at him, and you just laugh. Today, Howard would be a CGI character, but back then, it was a little guy in a duck costume. And yeah, it doesn’t look like a great costume or anything, but I am impressed at the expression they were able to pull off with the face. Obviously, the face was all animatronic and compared to other films, it doesn’t look great, but I think it’s serviceable, working for the film and the strange tone it’s going for. At the end of the film, there’s the big alien monster, and those effects were done with stop motion, and it looks ok, kind of. It’s certainly not as good as the effects you would see in Star Wars. The design for the monster certainly makes up for it, but you can definitely tell that it’s not really there in the scene with the characters.

I feel that the duck world Howard is from should be talked about when talking about this movie. Clearly, the first five minutes that took place there was where most of the budget went. They had to scale it just right so it could be consistent with Howard’s height, they created dozens of duck-people costumes, and they made duck-themed posters and photos and television shows. It’s easily the most creative part of the film, even if most of the duck puns and jokes make you think to yourself, “What am I watching? What am I doing with my life?”

Animatronics and stop motion. Love or hate the effects in this movie, these are effects of a bygone era.

It’s no secret that when this film was released into theaters, it was just torn apart by critics. It grossed only $38 million on a $37 million budget, it won a Razzie for worst picture, and it became the butt of jokes for years. George Lucas said at the time that 30 years from then, it would be considered a masterpiece. Today, the film is considered one of the worst films ever made. 

Do I think it deserves that? Actually no. 

Call me crazy, but I personally feel like the only reason why this film gets such a bad rap is that George Lucas produced it. At this point, he had American Graffiti, Star Wars, and the first two Indiana Jones films under his belt. And now in 1986, he produced this giant flop. Obviously, that warrants people to be a little extra hard on this film.

Among the many duck puns in the duck planet, is this duck parody of Indiana Jones. Cute in-joke I guess, but it raises a question: in this world’s version of Lucasfilm, did they make a movie called “Howard the Human”? Am I thinking about this too hard?

With that said, it’s still not a great film. The plot, as stated earlier, basically gets hijacked halfway through by an alien villain plotline. To put it into perspective, the film starts with Howard getting zapped off to earth, he meets Beverly, and the first third is him reacting to the weirdness of our world. I feel like the first third of the film works the best, story-wise and in terms of comedy. Then after that, they go to the lab that apparently caused Howard to show up in our world, and they apparently zapped some other creature to our world, and it kind of goes downhill from there. I feel the film would’ve worked better if there wasn’t some threat that’s akin to a superhero film. I don’t know where the story should’ve gone, but the whole alien plot just felt out of nowhere to me.

However, I thought that the film was enjoyable in a weird way. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I can’t hate this film to the extent that people would probably expect. Maybe it’s because I can see that there was a lot of effort that was put forth in the production. Maybe it’s because I admire George Lucas for choosing to produce this after the success of Star Wars and Indiana Jones. Or maybe it’s because this is the first full-length movie based on a Marvel comics property, so there’s a novelty in fact that this film is almost nothing like any of the other Marvel films, especially the ones that they make today. Or maybe a combination of all three. It’s just this weird combination that makes this film the unique enjoyable bad film it is, and I can certainly see why it has a cult following.

Howard’s cameo in Guardians of the Galaxy ranks up there as one of the biggest surprises in a Marvel post-credits scene(at least in my opinion).

Overall, I don’t think this film is anything great (I hesitate to say it was good) but I thought it was at least enjoyable. I have also seen much, much much worse films than this. I feel like this film is best when you watch it with a group of people to just make fun of. If you want more with Howard in movies, he’s made cameos in Guardians of the Galaxy (both the first one and the second one) and Avengers: Endgame. Lea Thomspon pitched her own Howard the Duck solo film to Marvel, which they turned down, but she did say that they had more plans for the character. So maybe one day we’ll see the sequel to this film that no one asked for. In any case, stay tuned for more weird films in the future…

If you have any films suggestions to torture me with, please email me here: haveyouseen2224@gmail.com

Side note: This film’s score was written by John Barry, who also did the score for several James Bond films, even creating the iconic theme for James Bond.

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