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SECOND LOOK: Howard the Duck (1986)

Before Iron Man kicked off the MCU, before Spider-Man broke box office records, before Roger Corman made the “good” Fantastic Four movie, the first major Marvel Comics property to get a live-action movie was none other than…Howard the Duck, a character who not many people nowadays have heard of. Howard the Duck, released in 1986, is a strange movie that is hilariously cheesy and is regarded as a wacky cult classic. It was also the first major failure of a comic book movie, long before all the other ones that followed. Howard the Duck made a surprise cameo at the end of the equally strange but more successful Guardians of the Galaxy, which had a talking raccoon and a tree as heroes. So why is it that Howard fell into such obscurity while the Guardians are now household names? Well, let’s take a second look at Howard the Duck and find out what drove people so quackers about this movie.

To start things off, we should look a little bit into the history of Howard. Howard is a talking anthropomorphic duck created by Steve Gerber and artist Val Mayerik. Born as a parody of the “funny animal” character type, Howard is an ill-tempered, smart-alecky character who smokes, drinks, and is a bit of a jackass, but is also a master of Quack-Fu. Oh, and he has some minor magical skills. Howard debuted in 1973 in the comic Adventure into Fear, debuting in a story starring the Man-Thing. In the comics, Howard is abducted from his homeworld and is stranded in Cleveland, befriending a woman named Beverly Switzler, and they go on a number of zany adventures. At one point, Howard even ran for U.S. President!

In the industry, Howard went through some rough times. His creator Steve Gerber clashed with the publishers with creative decisions and was eventually removed from the series, leading to a highly publicized creator’s rights lawsuit. Gerber even made several parody characters to fund the lawsuit, most notably Dangerous Duck, a G.I. Joe-like duck co-created by Jack Kirby. The lawsuit was eventually resolved and peace was made. Disney then targeted Marvel, complaining Howard was a ripoff of Donald Duck. Thirty years on, Disney now owns Marvel, so who knows if we’ll ever see a crossover between two of the most infamous ducks in fiction. Hey, if Donald can have a piano duel with Daffy, why not get into a fist-fight with Howard?

Now we come to the film. It was directed/written by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, and produced by George Lucas. Good thing he made Star Wars beforehand or his career would’ve been over rather quickly. Originally, the film was going to be a direct adaptation of the comics and Howard would be animated. But somewhere along the line, they decided that because Howard was the only one of his kind in the world, they would make the film live-action and use animatronics and puppets created by Industrial Light & Magic. And you know what, Howard actually works as a live-action character, even if the film makes it its mission to point out via every character that he is a duck. They run the joke into the ground, though it is amusing seeing the various reactions to the character.

Howard is played onscreen by a number of dwarf actors, most notably Ed Gale with vocals later dubbed in by Chip Zien. In the film, Howard lives in an alternate world of intelligent ducks, but he is randomly zapped from his world to Earth where he meets Beverly (Lea Thompson) who is lead singer of a band called Cherry Bomb. Beverly initially takes him to her friend Phil Blumburtt (Tim Robbins), an eccentric neurotic scientist whose ambition to become famous causes Howard to leave and eventually get a job in a love hotel. Yeah, this film has a lot of adult humour in it despite feeling most of the time like a children’s movie.

We spend a good five minutes with Howard as he does his job in the love hotel, but the jokes don’t stop there. In the opening, he reads a “Playduck” magazine, a girlfriend sends him a phone message essentially inviting him to get jiggy, and when Howard is being sucked out of his house, he crashes through a bathroom where a female duck is naked, and she has… yikes! Beverly also finds a damn condom in Howard’s wallet. And, of course, there is the infamous near-bestiality scene where Lea Thompson looks like she is willing to get it on with a duck. Thankfully, that awkward scene is crashed by the arrival of Phil and Jeffrey Jones as Dr. Jenning, who explains to Howard he was summoned accidentally to Earth by an experimental interstellar laser.

In a second attempt to use the laser to send Howard home and open a permanent connection between the two worlds, Jenning is slowly possessed by an evil alien called the Dark Overlord, who intends on using the laser to release his species from limbo to conquer the world. Jeffrey Jones is just amazing in this film, hamming it up, slowly undergoing heavy makeup changes, speaking like Cobra Commander swallowed an entire cigarette factory, and gaining destructive psychic powers that allow him to trash a diner by blowing up condiments. He takes Beverly prisoner and it is up to Howard and Phil to save both her and the world.

There is a very entertaining sequence where Howard and Phil steal an ultralight aviation machine to fly to the lab and destroy the laser. Howard has a habit of getting into fights in the movie, which are quite fun. Yeah, the third act feels completely different from the first two. As bizarre and weird as the first two acts were, they did have a slightly more serious tone to them, with a number of scenes of Howard being uncomfortable in the world being treated as the freak-of-the-week, accompanied by jazz music you would find in a detective or noir film. There is one scene where Howard recalls the trauma of his sudden transportation to Earth, freaking out and having an anxiety attack.

However, not all ducks take to water and the movie bombed at the box office. It became a black mark on George Lucas’ career, though Steve Gerber believed it successfully honoured the characters. The film’s dismal performance led to poor Howard becoming all but forgotten by the world, making minor appearance in Marvel Comics. But nearly thirty years on, just about all of Marvel’s second tier characters were brought to the spotlight, and even the Guardians of the Galaxy took off, becoming a box office smash. And right at the end of the film was Howard the Duck, voiced by Seth Green, in a brief but memorable cameo. His return caught the interest of the comic veterans and the curiosity of the newcomers. So who knows? Perhaps Howard will return to the big screen in a new movie or have a larger role in the second Guardians of the Galaxy. Only time will tell.

Is Howard the Duck the worst superhero movie ever? Could it have been a better adaptation? Can Jeffrey Jones get an Academy Award for a role he did thirty years ago? Leave a comment below or on our Twitter feed.

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Mark Russell

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