Nope, nothing existential here, folks: Howard the Duck in Marvel’s first movie

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Howard the Duck movie 1986

Howard and Beverly, before things start to go sideways.

An existential, cigar-smoking anti-hero was the first Marvel comics character to make it to the big screen. Take that, Spider-Man!

In my look back at the superhero movies of the 80s, it seems like I’ve been circling around Howard the Duck. Maybe that’s because I have much more of an emotional commitment to the character than I do with Superman, or Supergirl.

When I was a kid, preteens and early teens it would’ve been, I loved the Howard the Duck comics written by Steve Gerber. I have a vivid memory of asking my dad to take me to the comic shop after I had my tonsils out, so I could dish out $20 for issue #1 (I don’t recall what had happened to my original copy). It was an outrageous sum at the time, especially to my father.

Looking back, I think I encountered them at exactly the right time, when my conception of the adult world, and what was funny, and what was permissible, was still forming. Introducing characters like the Kidney Lady, who serves only to harangue people on public transit, to preteen minds seems like a truly subversive act – whether or not the comics themselves actually stand up as being funny today. I don’t know; it’s been a long time since I read one of those old issues.

Anyway, a little back story: Howard first appeared in 1973, in the pages of a Marvel horror comic called Adventure into Fear. He was a walk-on in a comic that featured a silent swamp creature with a trunk for a nose as the main character.

The talking, cigar-smoking duck quickly became a fan favourite and was given his own title. Gerber, who’d created the thing, wrote 28 issues of the comic and an annual before he left, acrimoniously. He also wrote a newspaper strip featuring Howard.

Think about that for a second. Here’s a visual aid:

This ran in newspapers. Daily.

After Gerber left/was fired, Marvel gave the character over to another staffer, Bill Mantlo, and stuck Howard in a series of black-and-white magazine-size comics aimed at a more adult market. Over the years, the company has brought Howard back now and again, including in a recent reboot scripted by Chip Zdarsky (Sex Criminals). You can read my interview with Chip (real-life Torontonian Steve Murray) about Howard, Lea Thompson and Marvel here. This followed Howard’s cameo on following the end credits in the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie. (Gerber kept writing comics, and even returned to Marvel to write a limited-run series featuring Howard. He passed away in 2008.) 

By the time of the movie’s release, in 1986, Gerber had been off the book for eight years. Howard, in a move that might appeal to his sense of irony, had ignominiously been reduced to the status of a mere property. And the man who would bring him to movie theatres was George Lucas, the man behind a movie phenomenon (Star Wars) that Gerber had satirized in the pages of Howard the Duck.

Speaking of ironies, let’s keep in mind that Howard the Duck was the first Marvel character to ever appear in a major motion picture. That’s right – thirty years ago, the company responsible for modern-day box-office honey like Iron Man, Captain America, Spider-Man and Thor couldn’t get one of its characters onto the big screen to save its life. Except, that is, for Howard. (What must Stan Lee, the co-creator of all those Marvel icons, and a man who spent years trying to convince Hollywood of their commercial viability, thought?)

The big “unfortunately” here is that the movie sucked. There’s no getting around it, and no amount of brain-twisting revisionist thinking can convince me otherwise. I watched it again last week, and it’s as bad as I don’t remember (the only other time I’d seen it was upon its theatrical release).

The way I see it, the movie has two fundamental problems:

1. The screenwriters just didn’t get it. Gloria Katz and William Huyck co-wrote the screenplay (Huyck directed). In a making-of-featurette, Katz explained that they wanted to make a fun, entertaining movie, not something existential. WHEN RIGHT FROM THE OPENING PAGES OF HOWARD THE DUCK #1, THAT WAS THE WHOLE POINT! (As a side-note, who writes a comic for kids where the main character is contemplating suicide ON THE FIRST PAGE OF THE FIRST ISSUE!?)

What, me worry? The splash page from Howard the Duck #1 (1974).

2. The Duck itself. Originally, Lucas had wanted to make an animated film. This MIGHT have worked (with a different screenplay). But his contract stipulated a live-action feature. Technology hadn’t quite caught up with putting an animatronic talking duck onscreen, but by the time everyone realized this it was too late. To give the effects team credit, they tried everything before settling on a little person in an animatronic costume controlled by five puppeteers. If that sounds awkward to see onscreen, it is, though perhaps not as awkward as the love scene between Howard and Lea Thompson.

That said, there are a few moments sprinkled throughout that give glimmers of what the movie could have been.

For instance, the opening. Howard the Duck begins with a clever, film noir-ish introduction that only gradually reveals the character. Later, there’s a diner scene with some of the film’s most human moments between the Duck and Thompson’s Beverly Switzler (Howard’s unemployed artist’s model friend in the comics, a singer in an all-girl new wave band in the movie). There’s another scene where a seen-it-all bureaucrat at the unemployment office tells Howard she has his number: “You think that by looking controversial, you’re never going to find a job!”

Scene – Coramae reads Howard the riot act:

And the stop-motion monster at the end, created by Phil Tippett, stands up (no pun intended) in today’s CGI-saturated world.

Howard the Duck movie review

Howard confronts the horrors of a pre-CGI world.

The songs, by Thomas Dolby, are fun, including the theme song. (It comes at the end of the movie, when Beverly’s band Cherry Bomb is playing and Howard duck-walks across the stage with a guitar, Chuck Berry-style). And Thompson is still one of the original manic pixie dream girls.

That’s about it, though. Everything else is lame, weird, or a combination of the two. Strangely, a National Lampoon (and later, Spy Magazine) writer named Ellis Weiner was able to separate some existential gold from the dross in a novelization of the screenplay. The book is actually pretty good, a meta post-script to Gerber’s run. If the movie had been half as good, this would be a far different review. Then again, there are worse legacies than a decent novelization.

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