Howard the Duck chronicles the adventures of the titular humanoid fowl from another world after he finds himself suddenly stranded in the middle of Cleveland, Ohio. But as Howard searches for a way home with the help of some new friends, they’ll also have to deal with the ancient evil that accidentally came to Earth with him.
Long before The Avengers, Spider-Man, the X-Men, or even Wesley Snipe’s Blade ever hit the big-screen, the first–and incredibly odd–choice for a live-action adaptation of a Marvel Comics property was none other than Howard the Duck.
Directed by Willard Huyck, the movie opens with Howard, a humanoid duck from another world, suddenly–and quite literally–dragged out of his apartment kicking and screaming, pulled through time and space, and ultimately crashing down into one of the worst places possible: 1980s Cleveland, Ohio. After meeting up with Lea Thompson’s Beverly Marsh, a struggling musician with a heart of gold, the two bond in a rather odd and creepy fashion before seeking out answers to the whys and hows of Howard being on Earth. And whether or not it might be possible to send him back home.
After meeting up with Lea Thompson’s Beverly Marsh, a struggling musician with a heart of gold, the two bond in a rather odd and creepy fashion before seeking out answers to the whys and hows of Howard being on Earth. And whether or not it might be possible to send him back home.
THE LESS THINGS CHANGE
Despite persistent fan claims to the contrary, the film actually manages to be impressively faithful to the source material…to a point.
In the comics, much like the film, Howard is most definitely a humanoid duck from another world dragged to Earth. He meets and buddies up with a girl named Beverly in Cleveland. And he is eventually troubled by a dark Overlord–Thog the Overmaster in the comics and the more lazily named “Dark Overlord” in the film–as he attempts to get back home.
However, unlike the movie, comicbook Howard is far more crude and foul-mouthed, from an alternate dimension (rather than simply another planet across the cosmos), and dragged to Earth due to some fault of Marvel’s Sorcerer Supreme, Doctor Strange. He’s also heavily styled after Donald Duck rather than the then-modern 80s look that we see in the film.
OUT OF TONER
Now, aside from these minor details changed in the translation from comic to film, the entire tone of the product was drastically altered as well. Howard’s creator, Steve Gerber, originally intended and wrote Howard as a sort of existential comic–one with no punchline and a desire to explore the medium’s many trappings.
But rather than adapt the comic’s desire to explore its own medium to the big screen, Huyck presents us with a tame, middle-of-the-road popcorn flick that’s an odd mix of romantic-comedy, sci-fi, and action-adventure.
And, really, in a decade filled with a number fun, high-concept releases hitting theaters year after year, such a strange mixing of genres should work–and sort of does in hindsight. But like many 80s films and early comicbook adaptations, a limited budget (or at least a squandered one) meant that certain cheats had to be made to keep the film under…well, not budget. Because this film went so over budget and flopped so hard that Executive Producer George Lucas (yes, that George Lucas) gave up the future money printer known as Pixar to salvage his studio. But I suppose certain cheats and concessions had to be made in regards to the not-so lavish and not-quite-special effects.
More so, taking such a large financial risk on such a property that, for the time, wasn’t exactly the sort of thing main stream audiences were all too interested in likely required replacing the source material’s darker, more absurd aspects with material that was simpler and more palatable for a general audience. Thus the broody, absurd exploration of comic books as a medium turned into a fairly straight-forward action-adventure comedy featuring a snarky duck instead of, say, a group of plucky kids.
IT WORKS, SORTA
That said, despite its troubled production, milquetoast presentation, and underwhelming if rather expensive special effects, Howard the Duck isn’t without its charm. Nor is it unwatchable.
Aside from the unsettling “we-should-have-just-called-Jim- Henson” Howard costume, the cast of characters are actually fun to watch on screen–from the way Howard learns to adapt to life on Earth to Jeffrey Jones making the best of a bad script to the most adorable use of Lea Thompson ever.
And for all the jokes of inter-species love making that movie has rightfully earned over the past 30 years, Lea Thompson really does do a fantastic job in her role as Beverly. Her acting talent shines like the stars both in the way she manages to play a believably strong, yet sweet-hearted equal to the brash Howard and in the way she makes you believe that 80s Tim Robbins is a real living boy.
The jokes land more often than not. The action sequences are fun and silly in that way so many movies from the 80s seem to be. The originals bits of music are worth finding for your own personal enjoyment after the movie ends. And the movie proves to be surprisingly sincere–if a bit melodramatic–in its emotional beats.
Howard the Duck is far from perfect, but it’s also far from unwatchable. It deserves a second-look by those who may have left the theater feeling scorned 30 years ago. And it definitely deserves a look by fans who are filling those same theaters now in support of Marvel Studios.
More so, this should not be the last big screen adaptation for Howard. With Marvel adapting more and more of its obscure properties into genre-bending productions, I want to believe that the tale of a pissed-off, existential duck lost in a world he didn’t create deserves a second chance.
Howard the Duck is, without any hint of irony, a big CHILL.