On this episode of The Nightly Chill, we look at the much maligned, highly flawed, but wholly enjoyable Howard the Duck!
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.
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 comes 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.
THE FAIL AWAKENS
Brought to us by none other than the creator of Star Wars himself, George Lucas, this cinematic failure (according to both critics and general audiences) came at such a high cost that it ultimately forced George Lucas to sell off what would later became Pixar.
And, if nothing else, it’s rather neat to think that a movie about a foul-mouthed fowl kinda-sorta, but not really sleeping with an absolutely adorable Lea Thompson is what ultimately allowed Disney to own Pixar, Marvel, and Star Wars.
THE LESS THINGS CHANGE
Now, that strange bit of trivia aside…
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 more–for the time, at least–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, Lucas and director Williard Huyck instead chose to present 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, highconcept 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 budge. Because this film went so overbudget and flopped so hard that 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.
OH BOY, GEORGE
And I want to say that this should come as a surprise given that this is the George Lucas around the time of the original Star Wars and Indiana Jones films, a period in which he was damn-near infallible.
But when you take into consideration that the first Star Wars film was a blatant rip off of The Hidden Fortress, the other two were handed off to other writers, and that the prequels were all personally handled by Lucas himself–much like how he stepped down from running Lucasfilm to personally oversee production of Howard the Duck–it all starts to make a bit more sense why Howard’s cinematic debut was also his last. At least, it was until his recent cameos in both of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy films.
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.