Over the last few decades, comic book movies have reached heights of storytelling and spectacle that readers could never have DREAMED of. But for every triumphant high—The Dark Knight, The Avengers—there have always been a good number of stinkers… some bad enough to become punchlines or talking points, but most mediocre and ultimately forgotten…
Until they end up here.
The Discount Spinner Rack is where you’ll find the worst, the weirdest, and the most puzzling of comic book movie misfires. We’ll take a look at the things that actually work and the parts that absolutely don’t, and decide whether it’s worth your time and your dime. In the end, movies will be marked down on a scale from $1.00 (a surprise gem) to $0.05 (better used for kindling). This time around the Rack, let’s go back to look at the first live-action Marvel film EVER produced for the big screen: that’s right, it’s Howard the Duck!
What comes to your mind when I say the name “George Lucas”?
Do you think of a young, trailblazing filmmaker—a contemporary of Spielberg, De Palma, and Coppola? A visionary whose offbeat sensibilities and love of genre fare changed the course of cinema? Or do you picture a company man; an out-of-touch millionaire producer who cared more about developing new special effects and selling merchandise than about telling stories? To put it bluntly: do you picture the man who gave us Star Wars, or the man who gave us Jar-Jar Binks?
It’s hard to imagine that these two very different creators could be the same person. It certainly caught everyone off-guard when The Phantom Menace dropped—Lucas’s first film as a director since the 1977 original—and made it clear that this new George had very different sensibilities than the director of old. But if you’d been paying attention throughout the ‘80s, the signs were there that the man was losing his edge—that the toys, both the ones behind the camera and the ones marketed to children, were becoming more important than the tales.
And for the first red flag, you didn’t have to look any farther than a certain infamous talking duck.
Howard the Duck was the creation of writer Steve Garber and artist Val Mayerik, who debuted the cigar-chomping mallard as a secondary character in their Man-Thing feature in Adventure into Fear #19. Soon enough, the character scored his own back-up features in Man-Thing, and then eventually his own self-titled solo comic.
Howard was, from the outset, a satirical character—the snarky outsider who could poke holes in the absurdity of the world around him. The comics had a biting and off-color sense of humor, each issue usually riffing on a trope-heavy genre (swords ‘n sorcery, kung-fu flicks, monster movies) while doling out anti-corporate sentiments and existential musings with cunning efficacy. Howard himself was rude, cynical grouch, but his grousing was a product of his disappointment in the hypocrisy and stupidity of the world around him1; beneath it all was the inevitable heart of gold, but you sure as hell had to dig to find it. Along for the ride was Beverly Switzler, Howard’s gal pal/straight man/conscience/on-and-off actual girlfriend (the books don’t dwell on it), who gives Howard a place to stay and a sidekick (and, yes, occasional damsel in distress) for his bizarre adventures.
The comic was a hit with readers and gained some traction with the ‘70s counter-culture; during the 1976 U.S. presidential election, Gerber had Howard run for office in a storyline about the youth-driven “All-Night Party” (even selling merchandise for the campaign through a mail-order vendor)… and come election day, voters across the country turned in thousands of REAL write-in ballots for “Howard the Duck”2. The character was making an impression.
And one of the people he’d made an impression ON? You guessed it—Frank Stallone George Lucas!
Lucas became a fan of the comic while still working on American Graffiti, and introduced it to his two writing partners on the film: Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz3. Over a decade later (after Lucas had successfully conquered Hollywood and founded Lucasfilm), the trio reunited with the intent to turn Howard the Duck into a feature film. While Katz and Huyck were interested in producing the film as an animated feature, however, the rights ended up optioned by Universal Studios, which needed a live-action summer release for 1986. So Lucas suggested that they could create Howard in live-action via puppetry, special effects, and little people in animatronic duck suits (Lucas having worked extensively with little people in his Star Wars films)… and so, the die was cast.
Huyck and Katz wrote up a screenplay together4, with Huyck taking on directing duties and Katz producing; Lucas was only aboard as an executive producer, but Lucasfilm Ltd., ILM, and all of their considerable resources were at the filmmakers’ disposal. There was really no talk about this being a “comic-book movie” as far as publicity was concerned (Marvel Comics was still very much an untested entity in the broader pop-culture world5); advertising pitched the film as the next big George Lucas blockbuster (despite his having no direct creative input on the film after suggesting that they DO it), and expectations shot through the ROOF. Universal posted a billboard in Times Square! Audiences were convinced that they’d be getting the next Star Wars, the next Raiders of the Lost Ark, the next great American blockbuster entertainment!
… And in a way, I suppose it was like a sneak peek at the next Star Wars movie. After all, THAT one had an annoying, unfunny duck-person in it, too.
IN THIS ISSUE: Lucasfilm takes a subversive, absurdist satire and twists it into a brainless, literal-minded, kid-friendly romp.
With sex jokes. A LOT of sex jokes.
Howard the Duck commits a cardinal sin of adaptation by taking the source material COMPLETELY at face value. Huyck and Katz had one look at this comic book featuring a talking, anthropomorphic duck who smoked cigars and got into fights with monsters, and assumed it was a one-dimensional goof about a duck from outer space. Hell, Katz even said exactly that in interviews: “It’s a film about a duck from outer space… It’s not supposed to be an existential experience.” A statement like that is about as insightful as saying that Moby-Dick is just a novel about whale hunting. Or maybe that Animal Farm is a fun romp about talking animals, too!
As a result, a good chunk of the movie is explicitly built around the single, weak gag that Howard is a duck from a planet of ducks. We open on Duckworld6—which the filmmakers have gone through a stunning amount of effort to make seem textured and tactile—and immediately, the bird puns start to fly7. A poster on the wall advertises a “Mae Nest”/”W.C. Fowls” movie called “My Little Chickadee”. Another promotes the “Indiana Drake” film “Breeders of the Lost Stork”. A magazine titled “Rolling Egg” promotes “Willy Waddle”—who I think is supposed to be Billy Idol, but by this point my brain has already turned to mush over the sheer, punishing tedium of these half-assed word plays. And the thing is, they keep going for the whole movie—because the filmmakers think that Howard being a duck is his hook, the thing that draws people in to the stories.
But Howard’s duck-itude was always just one absurd gag in a deluge of absurd gags. To keep bringing it up like this is to keep telling the same joke over and over and over and OVER again, without any kind of elaboration or twist. After five minutes, it gets old; after NINETY minutes, you start wish you were dead.
Our titular “hero” is considerably softened up as a character, presumably to make him an easier sell with kids; movie Howard is less gruff, less confrontational, more self-deprecating, and more cowardly (the character spends a good chunk of the film wailing in terror as he gets flung around by humans, or whimpering in fear at every single threat that rears its head). The changes are completely at odds with his defining personality traits (smokes cigars, talks tough, plays at being a ladies’ man), so overall Howard feels inconsistent and poorly sketched out… this is watered-down Howard, weak and ineffectual as a comedic lead (and not even TRYING to be a voice of social critique). It certainly doesn’t help that vocal performer Chip Zien’s nasal, whiny delivery is one of the first things to become unbearably annoying as the movie progresses.
The film is tonally and structural a typical ‘80s family movie: that is to say, full of cheap slapstick and generic padding8. The second half of the movie is endless set piece after pointless set piece: an escape from the cops, an uncontrolled car ride, a fight in a diner, and a plane chase back to the point where it all started—everything goes in a big, meaningless circle. The ultralight plane sequence is probably the WORST offender as far as “hollow spectacle” goes; Howard and a friend named Phil (played by Tim freaking Robbins in the first and worst film role of his career) fly an ultralight to escape from the cops and make it to a laboratory to rescue Beverly—skimming across a pond, riding through town, and evading traffic as they go. Now, first of all, this sequence has no effect on Howard as a character (the closest it comes to thematic relevance is when Phil coaches Howard to “trust his bird-ness”, making the whole thing ANOTHER duck joke), and it’s neither funny nor particularly exciting. But more importantly… they’re in a plane. They can fly above traffic. They can EASILY avoid the police, and all the obstacles they have to dodge around.9 The only reason they’re flying so close to the ground is so that they can get into wacky hijinks, swerving to avoid trucks and flying through a moving train, all while wailing in terror (this is a very LOUD movie).
So between the softened up main character, the constant shouting and flailing about for comedic effect, the tedious and insubstantial action set pieces, and the PG rating… Howard the Duck was definitely designed with a younger audience in mind, right? Like, this seems custom-made for undiscerning little kids to glom onto.
… So why is there so much sexual content and horror in this movie?!?
Three minutes and thirty-eight seconds into this film, Howard pulls a dirty magazine out of a brown paper bag in his apartment. Of course, it’s titled “Playduck”. He opens it up, flips open the centerfold… and there it is. A naked lady duck. In garters. With mammalian, feather-covered… duck tits10. A sight as shocking as it is nonsensical—after all, ducks DO NOT PRODUCE MILK OR NURSE THEIR YOUNG. But here, in this ostensible family entertainment, the filmmakers saw fit to include mallard pornography at the soonest possible moment, and to humanize the lady ducks to the extent that you feel sleazy for even looking at it. And then, in case you missed them the first time around or you weren’t too bothered because they were just in a magazine, the film sends Howard and his armchair—drawn from his living room by an unknown force and flying off to Earth—through the bathroom of ANOTHER humanized naked lady duck… this one sitting in a bubble bath, drinking wine, and singing showtunes to herself. She’s not even particularly fazed by a stranger in a recliner chair flying through her bathroom walls; she’s just enjoying her wine in a relaxing bath. And yes, we can see her duck tits11, too. They’re lovingly framed in both her medium close-ups.
I feel dirty. I feel dirty watching this. They should have sold this DVD in a brown paper bag.
And the sexual stuff doesn’t stop when Howard gets to Earth! Because once he gets there, he meets Beverly Switzler (played by a post-Back to the Future Lea Thompson)—here reimagined as the lead singer of a pop-rock band—and helps her out by, uh, fighting off a couple of wannabe rapists in a back alley12. She gives him a place to stay, they become friends… it’s sweet! (Thompson is great throughout the film—just bubbly and silly enough to keep the energy up13, and down-to-Earth enough to sell the few emotional bits… for what it’s worth.)
But things take a turn for the uncomfortable when, halfway through the film, Howard propositions Bev while they’re getting ready for bed… and depending on how you read it, Bev either calls his bluff or is totally into it, shedding articles of clothing and stroking Howard’s feathers seductively14. Movie-Howard, of course, freaks out and starts whining and trembling and trying to ward her off… which makes the whole thing even creepier, and forces you to think about what’s apparently going to happen for far too long. And then, of course, the feathers on his head stand up, because why WOULDN’T you end this on an erection joke?
And yes: Howard and Beverly are an item in the comics. And it’s implied in the books that they were sleeping together since day one15. But the comics are an absurdist satire; THIS is an all-too-literal movie about a duck-man from space, who reacts like a nervous teenager when the nubile human he’s shacking up with apparently decides to give bestiality a try. It’s TOO WEIRD.
Thank God almighty that the plot shows up just in time to keep anything from happening!
In addition to being hung up on what Howard is, the film is overly fixated on how Howard got here—to the extent that the entire second half of the movie and the central antagonist are all built around answering this question. Because of course, going into exhaustive detail explaining the logistics of an absurd joke makes it funnier, right?
Thanks to the investigations of Phil, the lab assistant (again: TIM FRIGGIN’ ROBBINS, shamelessly mugging for the camera), they find out Howard was drawn to Earth by a malfunctioning device called a Laser Spectroscope—essentially a giant telescope that can measure the density of gaseous bodies in space (though how such a device could function as a teleporter, I have no idea)16. With the aid of the scientists who run the Spectroscope, Howard prepares to make the trip BACK to Duckworld… but then the device malfunctions AGAIN, summoning an evil creature from the depths of space called the Dark Overlord of the Universe, which ends up possessing the body of the lead scientist, Dr. Jennings (played by… uh… er… Jeffrey Jones17). Once the Dark Overlord takes control, he kidnaps Beverly and plots to use the Spectroscope to bring down the REST of his kind (who are locked away in a prison dimension), and exterminate all life on the planet before conquering the galaxy. Suddenly it’s a whole different movie!
The Dark Overlord is creepy. Like, seriously creepy. He mutters about bringing about the end of the world constantly in a sneering croak of a voice. His face becomes more and more skeletal and discolored with every passing scene. He has demonic, telekinetic powers, and he glows red when he uses them. ILM does phenomenal work at making him seem as diabolical and terrifying as possible. Frankly… they do almost too good a job. The Dark Overlord stumbles over the line into Judge Doom18 territory: not overly graphic or extreme, but still genuinely unnerving and almost guaranteed to traumatize any poor kids unwittingly drawn to the silly talking-duck movie.
People don’t act like people in this film. Reactions to the talking duck-man range from the ridiculously hyperbolic (screaming, freaking out, pointing and shouting “That’s a DUCK!”) to the virtually nonexistent (a dismissive cop orders Howard’s arrest on the charge of being an “illegal alien”). Beverly’s first instinct when she takes him in is to feed him milk in a bowl19. Phil harasses Howard to see if he might have superpowers—because his being a talking duck isn’t scientifically astonishing enough, I guess. Then there’s THIS gem: while trying to get a bite to eat at a “Cajun Sushi” diner20, Howard gets into an awkward fight with a bunch of burly truckers; after dodging around the restaurant for a bit, upsetting plates of food and throwing pies in faces (because OF COURSE he does), Howard gets captured—and for some reason the EVERY PERSON IN THE RESTAURANT joins in to drag the guy back into the kitchen so that they can butcher and cook him. Because he’s a duck, and that’s what you do with ducks, apparently? No one questions the fact that he’s a sentient, talking anthropomorph… nor do any of them bat an eye at the fact that he’s pleading for mercy and calling for help. They just jam a stick of celery in his mouth and start sharpening a meat cleaver.
So who was Howard the Duck MADE for? Too horrifying and risqué to be a family film… too dim-witted and aimless to be an adult-oriented satire (and not NEARLY funny enough to be called a “comedy”). In the end, the film tries to be ALL things to ALL people, and successfully manages none of it. Howard the Duck is ‘80s Hollywood homogeneity at its worst, a cynically-constructed “four-quadrant” blockbuster with crazy special effects, trendy rock music, sex appeal, and a cute, merchandisable hero… all crammed together in a script that reads like it was written by aliens. It’s not a movie, it’s product—product that only exists to sell OTHER products, like action figures and dolls (which thankfully never materialized after the film bombed hard). Trailblazing filmmaker George Lucas may have had nothing to do with this travesty… but businessman George Lucas left his fingerprints all over it.
The real Howard would be ashamed.
IS IT WORTH YOUR DIME?: Look. You might get something out of watching Howard the Duck. After all, some people enjoy Showgirls. Some people liked Cats. Hell, maybe you’re just a masochist. But you’d best know going in that the film is a vapid, witless, creepy, homogenized corporate trash fire, because otherwise your standards might be set too high and you may expect some kind of an entertaining STORY.
DISCOUNT PRICE: $0.05 (RUN!!!)
- Duckworld: Yeah, as awful and repetitive as the duck puns become in this movie, the first few minutes where Howard settles in to his apartment in Duckworld are kind of neat. You can tell that a TON of time and effort went into producing this to-scale apartment, complete with meticulously labeled props, posters, books, etc. The TV shows Howard surfs by are cute, too—duck-filled replicas of jock-itch spray ads, game shows, a medical drama that plays like a five-second riff on Grey’s Anatomy, and one of those “crazy” appliance salesmen bits. Only two things really kill the sequence: the fact that all the ducks have the exact same face as Howard (with only hairstyles and clothing differentiating them)21, and the fact that we end up seeing not one, but TWO pairs of duck tits22 in a less-than-five-minute sequence. (Yeah, and the absolutely goddamn relentless deluge of duck-puns. It gets really old, really fast.)
- Howard’s Tongue: Look, the Howard suit isn’t terribly realistic—I’m not going to try to claim otherwise. But every time Howard’s mouth opens wide enough, or the angle is just right, I can’t help but fixate on the fact that Howard’s tongue is just a sculpted lump of latex inside his beak, painted to look separate, but not actually a separate piece. It’s a detail that just further adds to the “cheap Disneyland animatronic” aesthetic the suit has:
- Phil’s First Reaction to Howard: Tim Robbins’ frantic mugging may be painfully embarrassing to watch throughout most of the film’s run time… but his introduction is (dare I say) actually kind of funny! After getting a glimpse of Howard, he excitedly runs off and BURSTS into a meeting room filled with paleontologists and museum management, babbling “my God… Listen up everybody! This is IT… I’ve JUST seen it… it’s IN there! It’s a…” And then he pauses just short of saying “duck”, realizing how completely insane it sounds… so finally, he finishes up with “It’s nothing! AHAHAHAHA! It’s nothing, never mind! … Carry on, Dr. Schaffer.” What really sells it is the skin-peeling manic intensity of his laugh, as if his mind has broken in that one moment… and it stays broken for the rest of the film.
- “If It Ain’t Funk, He Don’t Feel It”: Because no talking-animal movie is complete without a dance party/rock song ending, the film wraps up with a big concert scene wherein Beverly’s band Cherry Bomb sing the title track to a cheering crowd. Philsy’s there as stage manager23, and Howard inevitably ends up on stage, jamming out a solo with a tiny electric guitar. Admittedly, the song isn’t too bad, in a cheesy ‘80s pop-rock kind of way24, but its placement at the end and its absurd subject matter almost make it seem like some revamped ‘50s novelty song that the movie was BASED on—along the lines of “The Purple People Eater” (which, yes, DID get a movie in the ‘80s).
- ILM Takes the Wheel: The second half of this film was basically conceived as an excuse to go absolutely nuts on special effects… so at the very least, the special effects themselves are pretty cool! The make-up effects on the Dark Overlord get progressively creepier and creepier (until eventually Phil Tippett takes over with his super gross, intimidating stop-motion maquette); the practical effects for his telekinesis are often quite impressive (they built a slanted set for the moment when he blocks the entrance of the diner with all the dinner tables on the floor); and the silly, almost cartoonish laser blast effects when he uses his full power are just downright awesome. All that money may have ended up flushed down the drain, but at least the guys from ILM actually managed to do what they were SUPPOSED to do: they made effects that looked really cool.
NEXT ISSUE: Speaking of satires taken at face value, let’s get a touch political with a look at the questionable Sylvester Stallone/Rob Schneider star vehicle, Judge Dredd!