How Bad Is…Howard the Duck (1986)?
Is this ugly duckling, Marvel’s first live action film, really such a rotten egg?
From The Avengers to Black Panther, Marvel’s cinematic universe has been kicking butt and taking names at the box office. It may surprise some younger viewers that things were not always so rosy for Marvel’s comic book adaptations. In fact, the very first live action film based on a Marvel comic wasn’t Spider-Man or Captain America: it was an obscure comedy spoof of the schlocky b-movies of the day starring a snarky duck named Howard. The comic itself was darkly satirical and often broke the fourth wall like a prototype for Deadpool. The resulting movie in 1986, executive produced by George Lucas and brought to life by the same special effects wizards who gave us Star Wars, was an epic bomb. 32 years later we ask the important question: How Bad Is It?
From Zero to Infinity!
What a long, strange trip it has been for Marvel, who went from the catastrophic failure of Howard the Duck to the vaunted heights of the billion dollar Avengers franchise. While our reviewer was less than impressed by Avengers – Infinity War, the general consensus is that Marvel Studios has been turning out quality films based upon their comic book properties for close to twenty years without incident. That’s a far cry from the early days for Marvel, when their properties were poison at the box office. Attempts to cash in on the success of TV series like The Incredible Hulk, Spider-Man, and Captain America went straight to VHS, and big screen versions of The Punisher and The Fantastic Four were dead on arrival.
Howard’s End (or: Don’t Trust George Lucas!)
Howard the Duck has the dubious distinction of being Marvel’s first comic to be adapted into a live-action feature film because of truly bizarre circumstances. Willard Huyck, a collaborator of George Lucas, wanted to make an animated adaptation of Howard the Duck, sticking to the zany and satirical tones of the comic book. While few know of Howard today, he was topical enough in 1976 to wind up as a write-in candidate for President! Lucas had shared the comic with Huyck, and they planned to bring Howard to the screen, but because of contractual obligations it was decided that the film needed to be live action. The project then morphed into an action comedy that continually baffled test audiences yet never got cancelled. Eventually the film went on to lose Universal Studios nearly a million dollars.
Howard the Duck (1986).
Howard is a mild-mannered, middle-aged duck from a planet where humanoid ducks are the top of the food chain. They drive cars, smoke cigars, and watch cable news in cruddy apartments just like people on Earth. One day, while relaxing at home to his latest issue of Playduck, Howard is caught in an intergalactic tractor beam and hurled, armchair and all, to Cleveland Ohio. There he meets a young musician named Beverly (Lea Thompson) who tries to get a friend (Tim Robbins) with connections to a major science laboratory to help Howard get home.
What Went Wrong?
- Confused Demographics. I first saw Howard the Duck as a kid when it made the rounds on cable television. Even I could sense that the tone and atmosphere were off. Howard is a sleezeball who plays a little like a dumpy Humphrey Bogart. Everything about him and his home feel like the scummiest parts of pre-clean up New York City. Come to think of it, the Cleveland in this film is a dump too! If you were hoping to rope in kids with an animatronic duck and zany adventures, you’d promptly lose them with the seedy and adult setting of the piece. Likewise, if you were hoping to do social commentary on the underside of modern city life, a pint sized protagonist with a feather duster for a keister was probably not going to resonate with your intended audience.
- Rude and Crude. Much like the intended audience problem, the film seemed really uncomfortable with its PG rating. We meet Howard as he’s settling in to read a porno after having ogled some lady ducks on an aerobics program. He’s a scumbag, is what I’m saying. Beverly is in a punk rock band and is surrounded by shady characters, including Howard, who basically leer at her all film long. There are lots of what we shall generously call “puns” in the film that are a good deal racier than what you’d expect for a PG rating. The special effects are also a bit scarier than you’d expect from Lucasfilm, but the MPAA gave Gremlins a PG rating, so what the hell do I know?
- Devoid of the Charm of the Comics. While I’d hardly suggest that people were clamoring for a faithful adaptation of a truly gonzo 70’s comic book like Howard the Duck, the whole reason Huyck and Lucas wanted to do the film was that the oddball premise and subversive satire had a definite appeal. The movie jettisons much of the creature feature nature of Howard’s adventures, ditches the fourth wall breaking, and loses most of the charm of the pseudo-noir atmosphere of the comics. Taking this away from Howard is like making a joyless Deadpool who has his mouth stitched shut…
What Went Right?
- ILM Knows Special Effects. One thing that stuck with me from my childhood viewing of Howard the Duck was how memorable the special effects were. The animatronics and suit work used to bring Howard to life are cool, and hold up much like other practical effects such as the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle movies. The trip Howard takes through space on his armchair is literally a blast. The final showdown with the monstrous villain feels like a mix of Ghostbusters and Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. Lucas’ Industrial Lights and Magic was the studio to beat for practical effects in the 80’s, and even on Howard the Duck they brought their A-game.
- It Can Be Delightfully Weird. When Howard the Duck is not being adult and pervy, the film manages to indulge some of the weirdness of the comic book that gives it a distinct personality. Once again, the ride through space lets us know early that this is going to be a really bizarre movie. When the film leans into this weirdness, as it does in the final act where an ethereal space demon is accidentally brought to Earth by the same beam that grabbed Howard, the film almost rises to the zaniness of the comics.
- Howard Has a Laser Bazooka.
How Bad Is It?
I can’t lie…Howard the Duck is pretty bad, but interestingly it is bad for different reasons now than the reasons most people panned it in 1986. Most of the charm that I vaguely remembered from seeing it in the 80’s has dissipated. A lot of the raunchiness and sexism that went mostly over my head is all too apparent when you re-watch this film. It’s tacky and crass in a way that you just can’t brush aside. Much like other 80’s comedies like Revenge of the Nerds and Porkies, the perpetual leering has not aged well.
There are still some aspects of Howard the Duck that I enjoy: the visuals are still inventive and cool (maybe more so since nobody does practical effects any more) and the story occasionally lets itself be weird enough to transcend the miscalculations. If Huyck and Lucas had let their freak flags fly like Tim Burton did in Beetlejuice or Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, than I think Howard would have earned his cult classic status. As it is, Howard is bad in a way that is regrettable but not monumental. For a Marvel movie so bad it’s practically legendary, I’d put my money on Wesley Snipes and the Blade trilogy.