Howard the Duck

Given the imminent release of Avengers: Infinity Wars, what could be more fun or appropriate than revisiting all the Marvel Cinematic Universe? (We'll see how I feel three weeks from now, spent, burnt out, and shuddering in dread at the very word "Marvel.") But to help chart the sheer impact of the series, and to add to the fun, I'd like to start at the beginning, with the first attempt to turn a Marvel comic book into a big Hollywood blockbuster: Howard the Duck.

Setting aside early serials, low-budget children's films, or failed attempts, comic book movie history splits pretty straightforwardly into decades. The first era begins in 1978 with the titanic release of Richard Donner's Superman: The Movie. Exhilarating, heartfelt, and spectacular, it was a cultural phenomenon, and everyone wanted in on it.

Unfortunately, only Richard Donner seemed to know the magic formula. Rather than heart and verisimilitude, film makers focused on the mostly lighthearted tone and flashy special effects. Where Superman had, for all its humor, taken the character of Superman and his world seriously, subsequent genre efforts seemed to be looking down at the material, dumbing it down seemingly out of a belief that it really was that dumb. Superman II still had enough Donner in it to work, but the campy Superman III barely made half its' predecessor's gross, and, while not exactly hated, left its audiences with a profound sense of "meh". Robert Altman's Popeye, starring Robin Williams, made good money, as did Flash Gordon, but Swamp Thing was barely released, and Sheena and Supergirl both flopped spectacularly. When Superman IV made barely 1/10 of the first film's gross, the genre probably seemed virtually dead.

Howard's first appearance
Between Supergirl and Superman IV, the first film adapted from a Marvel comic was released, based not on any of their front line heroes, but on an obscure cult character who had a short run in the late '70s. The snarky, cigar-chomping extraterrestrial fowl found his comic canceled after only a few years, but did pick up one influential fan: George Lucas. As executive producer, he handed the writing, directing, and producing duties to his film school friends Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, who had cowritten American Graffiti with him and wrote Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Universal, stinging from having turned down multiple Lucas projects that made all of the money, not only agreed to make it, but poured a fortune into it, the film ultimately costing $5 million more than Return of the Jedi.

It did not go well.

Some of this can be leveled at the studio - Lucas, Huyck, and Katz wanted to make an animated film, but Universal insisted on a live-action film. The massive budget meant the film needed massive set-pieces to justify the expense for marketing reasons, and the studio was pushing for a family blockbuster-type film when the filmmakers wanted to do something weirder. Finally, to ensure it came out in time to be their big summer 1986 release, the production was rushed, with the crew figuring out how to execute the elaborate animatronic and puppetry effects for Howard on the fly. But the real problem is more fundamental: Huyck and Katz did not, it seems, understand the character of Howard the Duck, ditching the comic's social commentary and diluting the snark, yet never replacing the lost elements with much of a vision for the project other beyond a vaguely absurdist comedy. 

The film's tone is all over the map. On the one hand, Howard's sarcasm and attitude are greatly toned down from the comic, and much of the plotting and low-grade puns seem to be aimed at children; Howard saves girl band rocker Beverly (Lea Thompson) from a group of very broadly played punks with "Quack-Fu", and the resulting puppet-on-human violence, played more-or-less straight, could only be aimed at kids. Thomas Dolby's songs fit this. On the other hand, there are wall-to-wall sex jokes, and not subtle ones; the film opens with Howard reading a Playduck magazine, and when he's out of Duckworld to Earth, he passes over a female duck in the bath, exposing very mammalian breasts. (Yes, that actually happens.) This raunchy sensibility never lets up. The sets and cinematography start out gritty and shadowy, like this is a light noir throwback, before turning bright and sunny in later segments. And John Barry's score doesn't match any of these; his soft, romantic jazz seems to belong to a light period romance, though it occasionally wanders into equally inappropriate slowly sweeping suspense that seem like outtakes from one of his later Bond scores.

Still, the whole thing is so bafflingly strange that it has a certain oddball charm to it for a while. The effects bringing Howard to life are a little rough in spots, but it's largely a very impressive achievement, and it doesn't take more than a scene or two to just accept him as a character. It took an array of puppeteers to bring him to life, (Ed Gale, Tim Rose, Steve Sleap, Peter Baird, Mary Wells, Lisa Sturz, and Jordan Prentice, plus the voice of Chip Zien) and they pull it off well. It would be better if Howard was a more appealing character, of course; his wit and con-artistry is virtually eliminated from the comics so that he's never particularly funny, just leaving a character who's kind of a bad-tempered dick. But the performers and puppeteers do all they can.

The opening scene, on Duckworld, is disappointing. Rather than present us with an intriguing alternate world, they just give us "generic Earth city, but everyone is ducks and everything is duck puns". It doesn't find anything satirical here; Katz and Huyck just seem to find Breeders of the Lost Stork an inherently hilarious spoof title. We learn nothing about Howard's life on his planet other than he seems to be fairly lonely, and possibly likes it that way, given that he ignores the message from a ladyduck who wants to get back together with him. Then, as soon as the credits end, he's sucked off his world and to ours, accompanied by inexplicably heroic music. 

Fortunately, his relationship with Beverly is more engaging. Lea Thompson is absolutely delightful as the young rocker, and she somehow manages to build actual chemistry with Howard. She tries to help him get home by bringing him to scientist friend Phil (Tim Robbins). Phil turns out to be less a scientist than an aspiring scientist who does janitorial work in a lab. Robbins is a little too unhinged here, tending more toward annoying than funny, but that's definitely the fault of the script and director rather than Robbins; even in a performance that doesn't work, you can see the charisma and energy that would make him a star a couple years later. 

Phil doesn't immediately figure out precisely how to get Howard home, so Howard throws a hissy fit and strikes off on his own, landing a job at a hot tub brothel. If you had to read that more than once to absorb it, believe me, it's much harder to believe when you're seeing it. He abandons that soon, and instead goes back to Beverly, Quack-Fus the feathers out of her thieving manager (in the one action scene here I actually like; it's honestly not a bad fight), and befriends her band, the Cherry Bombs. If this sounds like the movie abruptly jerks from one plot to another at random, that's exactly what happens; the first half can't decide if it's a fish out of water comedy, a light kids' adventure, or a raunchy sex comedy, so it just kind of does all of them (poorly).  

Still, the Cherry Bombs feel like a genuine band rather than a movie band. Dolby worked hard with Thompson and the other actresses to pull this together, and they're a delight. The story seems to finally be coming together, and this thread seems rather promising. It might be even more promising if the movie would just ditch Howard and follow these girls trying to make it in Cleveland, but hey.

Then it gets to the infamous scene where Beverly tries to go full Shape of Water on Howard, who starts out into it, then freaks out while still plainly into it. The scene is infamous for obvious reasons, but it's honestly one of the film's best scenes, one of the only sequences that just works on its own terms. Of course, the humor and tension come directly from playing it as just regular love scene, and leaving the audience squirming as they wonder if it's really going to go for it. Thompson perfectly rides the sexy/funny line here, and the scene is all the funnier and more unnerving for somehow managing some actual heat in the horror. Even Barry's love theme, far too tender for most scenes it appears in, fits here.

Unfortunately, it's at this point the film abandons all the previous threads, including any mention of the Cherry Bombs until the epilogue, in order to suddenly become a big '80s blockbuster, with huge chase scenes, a spectacularly evil villain, and state-of-the-art special effects. While testing the laser that would send Howard home, another alien has transported to Earth the same way Howard did, inhabiting the body of actual scientist Dr. Jenning (Jeffrey Jones, who's having fun being an alien-possessed creep, but is frankly pretty creepy before getting possessed). The plot is abandoned for the last hour of the film, as it lurches from badly-executed set-piece to badly-executed set-piece.

After some tedious faffing about to get the story in place, Howard and Beverly end up at a Sushi/Cajun fusion diner (a gag that doesn't impress me anyway, since that's pretty close the stuff we actually have in Austin, but even so, it's weird that they do so little with that setup) with the increasingly crazy Jenning. Jenning claims to now be the Dark Overlord of the Universe, and (after a very tedious build-up) shows escalating powers of destruction, eradicating the diner in scene that does have some fun for fans of '80s effects, but plays out in a long and clumsy manner. The Dark Overlord then kidnaps Beverly because... reasons, and Howard and Phil are now wanted by the cops as well because... reasons, and need to find a way to rescue Beverly. before the Dark Overlord can execute his fiendish plan of bringing more Dark Overlords to Earth. (Allegedly, the reason he needs Beverly because Overlords can only come to Earth by possessing people, but the climax completely forgets this halfway through.)

Rather than steal a cop car, they stumble across an ultralight plane, and decide the situation isn't nearly urgent enough that they shouldn't spend the hours until bright daylight fixing it up so they can fly it. The resulting plane chase theoretically adds a fun touch, since Howard the flightless duck gets to fly this way (and if you missed this, don't worry, Howard and Phil scream at each other about it). It's clearly an immensely expensive sequence, full of genuinely impressive stunts, but it goes on for literally 12 minutes, with no arc, no buildup, and little tension. As the "chase to get to the actual climax" part of the movie, there's no reason for it to be longer than 3-4 minutes even if it was a well-structured scene, but at this endless length, it's just tedious. And why, if the cops are following them in cars and shooting at them, do they insist on flying directly over the road? 

The tedium is interrupted only by an equally tedious and nonsensical sequence where the Dark Overlord sucks some power out of a nuclear reactor, and a less tedious scene where his truck is stopped by a surprise smog inspection (... yes, really), and he responds by blowing up all the cars in front of him.

Please just let ET go home.

Unfortunately, when it finally arrives, the climax, too, is a poor set-piece that mostly involves Howard driving a small vehicle down a warehouse a couple of times while everyone else politely looks on. Perhaps the sections biggest failure - and a condemnation of the weak characterization of Howard - is that there's nothing Howard-specific about defeating the Dark Overlord; freaking Phil could have pulled it off. Beverly could have done it faster and better than Howard if her brain hadn't switched to Damsel In Distress Mode, as we all know women's brains automatically do when a bad guy shows up, right? 

Still, at least we get the Dark Overlord's true form. And holy crap, is the Dark Overlord an ugly, repulsive beauty of a beast.

The great Phil Tippet created the Dark Overlord with his signature variation of Stop-Motion - Go-Motion. Tippet added a remarkable smoothness to the technique, and the Dark Overlord is one of the most impressive examples. He also, of course, brilliantly designed his creatures, and the Dark Overlord is just a wonderful mass of spikes, mandibles, clawed tentacles coming out of hands, mouths inside of mouths and arachnid legs. Its jaw seems to have multiple joints and to unhinge like a snake's, so that its outer mouth opens up to nearly the full height of its' body, and swings around in delightfully unnerving ways. 

And they say Marvel has a villain problem.

If only everything else in the scene wasn't terrible, that sucker could have just about single-handedly saved the movie. 

At any rate, Howard saves the day, destroying his only chance of returning home, and the movie ends with him managing the Cherry Bombs and joining them on stage at one of their concerts. It's kind of a fun way for the movie to go out, or would be if it hadn't been wandering all over the place and 20 minutes too long and Howard was appealing.

Still, whatever its failures, there is something strangely likable about this woe-begotten disaster. The whole thing is such a weird, misguided mess that it sticks in your head. Thompson is immensely appealing, the production values are massive, and the Dark Overlord is awesome. It's still a bad movie, mind, but it's kind of a fun one, sometimes on very bad terms, and just occasionally on its own.



Director: Willard Huyck
Producers: Gloria Katz
Writers: Gloria Katz
Cast: Chip Zien, Lea Thompson, Tim Robbins, Jeffrey Jones

MPAA Rating: Rated PG for puppet cussing, mild violence, and a ton of raunchy sex jokes.

Budget: A then-massive $37 million, at a time when most big movies cost $15-$25 million; it was the second-most expensive film of 1986, just behind, weirdly, Legal Eagles.

Box Office: A massive flop. $16 million in the US, $38 million worldwide. Keeping in mind that studios only get back about half the gross, and the budget doesn't include marketing costs, this probably lost Universal a good $25 million+.


  1. This review will give me nightmares for weeks. Well done, you jerk.


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