A Second Glance: Howard the Duck (1986)

Nick Peron
Movies Comics
Movies Comics

In 1986 Howard the Duck graced the silver screen. It was a film based on the subversive Marvel comic book of the same name. It starred Lea Thompson, Jeffrey Jones, and Tim Robbins. George Lucas put his name and special effects studio behind it. What could have possibly gone wrong? If you listened to the critics, all of the things went wrong.

The irony is Rolling Stone gave the movie a bad review.

Search for “critical flop” in Google and it will bring up a poster of Howard the Duck. People remember it as one of the worst comic book movies ever made. That’s a pretty harsh indictment for a movie. Does it deserve such harsh criticism? I re-watched this film to find out if the criticism is valid.

The Comic

"Howard! What is best in life?" "To crush your enemies -- See them driven before you, and to have Spider-Man as a guest star!"
"Howard! What is best in life?""To crush your enemies -- See them driven before you, and to have Spider-Man as a guest star!"

To better understand the movie, you have to know the source material. Created by Steve Gerber, Howard the Duck first appeared in Fear #19 published in 1973. After a few short appearances in the pages of Man-Thing, Howard got a series in January of 1976. Incredibly popular, it became a cult hit. Although it took place in the Marvel Universe, it wasn’t typically a super-hero book. It tackled issues like personal debt, the glorification of violence in media, unemployment, religious cults, among other topical issues. Not even the 1976 presidential election was safe when a story about Howard running for president came out (Spoilers: he lost to Jimmy Carter).

Still a better option than Drumpf.

It was an unusual choice for a mainstream comic book. Gerber wrote the first 29 issues of the hit series until there was a dispute over ownership of the character.  However, that’s a story for another time. What matters here is that in its early days, Howard the Duck sold like wheat cakes.

The Movie

Not the best use of product placement.

The movie loosely follows the premise of the comic book. Howard the Duck (Ed Gail/Chip Zien) finds himself transported to Earth by accident. Finding himself in a world he never made, Howard makes fast friends with aspiring musician Beverly Switzler (Lea Thompson). Beverly tries to help Howard get back home by putting him in touch with Phil Bumburtt (Tim Robbins). Bumburtt as his name thinly implies is a bumbling idiot.

The baseball cap and dorky glasses sold the whole character.

After a series of misadventures and tomfoolery, they discover that an experiment by Doctor Walter Jennings (Jeffrey Jones) was responsible for bringing Howard to Earth. Things go wrong while Jennings is trying to send Howard back home. An alien called the Dark Overlord possesses Jennings, in order to conquer Earth.

The alien from Predator really let himself go in later years.
The alien from Predator let himself go in later years.

This leads to a strange chase where the Dark Overlord tries to destroy Howard and his friends. In the end, Howard sacrifices his ticket home to stop the evil aliens from taking over the planet.

Fowl Play

I think the biggest problem with Howard the Duck is that it can’t figure out who the audience is. Is it appropriate for children? Is it for adults? What is even happening here? It does seem somewhat kid friendly, until you see Howard leafing through an issue of Playduck, followed by a scene of a topless duck woman in the bath.

Then there’s the sexual tension between Howard and Beverly. It’s about as subtle as a crowbar in the face. Especially in a scene where Howard and Beverly are sharing a bed together.

It was at this point, back in 1986, that my mom hit the stop button so hard she broke the VCR.

It’s not that outlandish: In the comic books, Howard and Beverly have a relationship. However, I suppose there is a big difference between a comic book and a movie. On the one hand, Lea Thompson convincingly sells her character as a woman considering having sex with a duck, on the contrary, it is incredibly sleazy to be watching these moments. Somehow, this was creepier than Jeffrey Jones being in the movie.

What doesn’t help is the fact that I had a massive crush on Lea Thompson growing up. Between this movie and Back to the Future….

…. I’ve got a lot of conflicting signals going on in my head. If you ever see me wearing a duck suit and insisting you call me “son,” please don’t judge me, I’m a product of the 80’s.

What the Duck is Even Happening?

This move clocks a little under an hour and a half, and it could have been half that length.

The first part of the movie works well in having Howard try to find his place in this world. Show how hard it is for people to take a talking duck seriously. However, the spend so little of the film’s runtime on this concept. That takes away from the whole point of the character. Social commentary should have been the focus of the film as Howard the Duck is supposed to be a mirror that reflects the inequities of our society. Instead, the movie goes from “Howard can’t get a job” to “Look he keeps a condom in his wallet, JUST LIKE US!”

Although it did accurately depict racial profiling.
Although it does accurately depict racial profiling.

The pathos that is Howard the Duck is reduced to “Look, A duck that does people things! That’s crazy!” before thrusting us into awkward sexual tension.

After that, the movie is all about trying to get Howard back to his home world. However, by this point of the film, couldn’t they built some conflict to make it more exciting? Our heroes get to the science lab, and the Dark Overlord possesses Doctor Jennings, they are chased out by security. This leads to an additional scene at a Cajun Sushi restaurant where the Dark Overlord blows the place up. While this shows off some of the beautiful special effect budget for this film, it does nothing to advance the plot.

Also, get a bowl of popcorn ready for the police chase with an ultra-light. It’s 10 minutes of Howard and Phil shouting at each other and almost crashing into things.

10. Solid. Minutes. Of. This.

The film ends with Beverly’s band, the Cherry Bombs, singing a song about Howard the Duck. Good luck getting that ditty out of your head.  That song got stuck in my head. I pray for merciful death every waking hour.

Okay there Marty McFly, calm down.
Okay there Marty McFly, calm down.

The Verdict

Howard the Duck is not a good movie by any stretch of the imagination. Is Howard the Duck the worst comic book movie ever made? I don’t think so. There are worse ones out there: Spawn, Steel, Man-Thing, Daredevil. I could go on.

However, the movie is an utter failure. It stood as George Lucas’ most embarrassing work until Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. The reason why it failed is that it completely missed the point of the comic book. It also came out a decade too late. To do a faithful translation would have been lost on the audiences of the 1980’s because Steve Gerber’s work was a product of the 70’s. They also couldn’t find the proper tone, focus on an audience, or have enough of a story to match the run time.

I understand how critics would have panned the movie when it first came out. However, as time has gone on, the movie has aged, and it has that nostalgia factor to it now. With a decent special effects budget and a cast of iconic 80’s actors, Howard the Duck has gone from a critical flop to 80’s camp.

In summation: Howard the Duck is a fun watch, provided you don’t take it too seriously.

It took many years before Howard could get more dignified roles.
Nick Peron
Stand-Up Comedian from Ottawa, Canada. Long time contributor at the Marvel Database Wiki. Banned in China.
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