Howard the Duck (1986) From Comic Book to Screen

It’s hard to believe that the first Marvel character to make its way to the big screen was something as off-beat and off brand as Howard the Duck; both Spider-Man and The Incredible Hulk had earlier managed to make it to the small screen with varying degrees of success but no attempts at a cinematic venture for them were greenlit for quite some time. Now Captain America did have a Republic Pictures serial back in the 40s but it was Howard the Duck who became the first Marvel character to star in his own big budget movie. This was long before Marvel Entertainment existed as a movie studio and for years Marvel Comics was known mostly for selling their intellectual property rights to their characters to anyone who could sign a check. Enter George Lucas, Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz.

A little history on Howard the Duck; he started off his career in comics as a secondary character that Marvel writer Steve Gerber created for an issue of Adventure into Fear, where due to multiple realities colliding poor Howard found himself working alongside Man-Thing, a barbarian and an apprentice sorceress in attempt to stop an demonic Overmaster from conquering the multiverse. The Marvel heads at the time asked Gerber to kill off Howard, they thought he was too silly and thus distracted from the main story, but when they started to get flooded with fan outcry they okayed his return within back-up stories in issues of Man-Thing until he was eventually granted a title of his own.

During the making of American Graffiti George Lucas went to his writing partners and old college mates Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz and told them about this very funny and brilliantly subversive comic book that he thought could make for a good movie. Flash forward a couple decades and Universal Pictures greenlit a Howard the Duck movie with Huyck at the helm, but sadly something happened in the years between George reading the comic and the movie finally being made that caused those who thought a movie about a talking duck, one who railed against kung fu revenge films, took on political parties and the media for their blatant stupidity, and made them decide to remove the subversive elements of the comic, boiling it down to the basic elements of a talking duck who hooks up with a chick, thus forgoing the satire aspect that is intrinsic to Howard the Ducks character. Everything that made the hot-headed anti-conformist nature of Steve Gerber’s creation interesting and relatable was removed and replaced with generic action scenes and cool ILM light shows.

We also got an actor in a $2 million dollar duck suit.

Animation was the obvious medium for such an enterprise, photo realistic CGI was years away, and it was the format all agreed would be best but unfortunately animation takes years and the studio wanted a film for a summer release and so Lucas then assured everyone that doing it as a live action movie was possible. How different this movie would have been if they had stuck with animation we will knew know, it still would have been terrible if they’d used the script we end up with for the live action version, but with the freedom of animation to do anything one can only assume the final product would have differed vastly from what we ended up with.

Would Lucas have allowed something like this into his movie?

Even the marketing of the film hinted at something quite different as the teaser trailer for the film consisted of Lea Thompson lying alone in front of a Sears’s photo backdrop extolling the virtues of her boyfriend, ending with her saying, “I would give anything to run my fingers through his…feathers.”   We see her blow feathers of her hand but we don’t see Howard, and when I first saw this trailer back in the day I assumed that they would be going the route that Robert Zemeckis did with Who Framed Roger Rabbit with Howard being traditional cel animation while the rest of the cast would be live action actors.

Wouldn’t this technique have worked so much better?

The movie is your basic origin story with it opening on how Howard the Duck got to Earth, Man-Thing and the “Nexis of Realities” obviously jettisoned in favor of a more simple explanation, no longer is Howard the hapless duck who was caught up in a fantastic battle for the very fabricate of reality instead he is yanked from his Duckworld home by a mysterious power source that simply plops him down in alley somewhere in Cleveland. I will say that the props department for this film must have had a lot of fun creating all the things that make up Duckworld such as all the books and movie posters found in Howard’s apartment like Breeders of the Lost Stork and Splashdance” as well as a disturbing look at duck porn.

File this under things we didn’t need to see.

On Howard the Duck’s arrival on Earth (Ed Gale in the duck suit with Chip Zien providing the voice) he encounters a nasty group of punks, a lesbian biker gang called “Satan’s Sluts” and then a couple of would be rapists who threaten the beautiful Beverly Switzler (Lea Thompson), but Howard being a “Master of Quack Fu” he is able to handily defeat the cretins. Movie Beverly is the lead singer for an all-girl rock band called “Cherry Bomb” whereas Beverly in the comic paid the rent by working as a nude live model, which I personally would have preferred but that could just be me, now in both movie and in the comic Howard does rescue Beverley but in the comic she was being held by Pro Rata the Cosmic Accountant and forced to dress like Red Sonja while in the movie we just get a scientist possessed by an alien force. So right off the hop we clearly see that the movie is not going in the absurdist direction of the comics but is instead keeping most of the elements somewhat down to Earth.

Note: In the comics Howard didn’t learn Quack Fu back on Duckworld but instead he took a three hour course at a strange martial arts studio here on Earth that mysteriously vanished after he graduated.

In the movie the relationship that builds between Howard and Beverly is handled with a deft hand, with Beverly teasing Howard into thinking she wants sex with him, but like in the comic it’s clear that she does really care for Howard and this is the one element the movie kind of nails. Whether movie audiences at the time were ready for bestiality jokes is another thing altogether. This is a case of what works in the context of an off-the-wall comic book being a lot harder to translate to a live action movie. Would this have worked better if the film had been animated who can say but for me the “love scene” in the movie is about the closest it gets to feeling like the comic book.

The love that shall not speak its name.

The next day Beverly brings Howard to The Natural History Museum and Aquarium to meet her scientist friend Phil Blumburtt (Tim Robbins), in the hope that this guy can figure out a way to get Howard back home, but unfortunately Phil is not so much a scientist as he is a lab assistant/janitor. Furious that Beverly would subject him to this overenthusiastic crack-pot, who is clearly more interested in the fame Howard could bring him than in getting the duck home, Howard tells Beverly that he doesn’t need any more of her sympathy or charity, “Who needs you? I don’t need anybody!”

Howard quickly realizes that what he does need is food, shelter and a job, two of which Beverly was offering him, but instead of Howard doing the smart thing and swallowing his pride the film leads us on an idiotic detour into Howard looking for work, and if you think for half a second about what this would actually entail it completely falls apart. He goes to the Ohio Bureau of Employment Services and encounters a hard-nosed civil servant who thinks Howard is dressing up in a duck suit to be “controversial” and thus be able to remain jobless and collect unemployment insurance.  She will have none of that.

I know this scene is here for simple comic purposes but it does raise a few questions:

• Did this woman even ask for some kind of identification from Howard? To get unemployment insurance you kind of have to be an American citizen.
• Howard is dressed with clothes he got from the Little Tykes section of Goodwill but where did he get Earth money to pay for them?
• Is Howard living in alley? Because without a job he certainly can’t be renting anywhere.

We follow up that scene of comic insensibility with one of Howard working at some kind of sex spa as a “Water Expert” where his boss chucks him head first into a whirlpool, one that currently has occupants in it because that’s this film’s idea of comedy, to fix a broken water jet. Howard quits this terrible job and ends up back at the nightclub/bar where Beverly’s group performs, and after beating up their crooked manager and getting the girls the money they are owed he is back in Beverly’s good graces.

This whole bit does not make me sympathetic to Howard’s plight as he clearly states to Bev, “Listen, I’m sorry we fought. You’re the only friend I got here,” and this kind of implies that if he had any other options he would not have come crawling back to Beverly, and that pretty much puts Howard in the category of being a total jerk. Now in the comics he and Beverly did have the occasional fight but he never crossed the line into being the complete dick that he is here.  The movie tries to recover from this moment by having that quirky aforementioned romance scene but for me at this point I stopped rooting for Howard, but who else is there to root for? Well let’s talk about this film’s main villain…

Enter the Dark Overlord of the Universe.

I turns out that Phil isn’t a complete loss as he discovers that Howard was brought to Earth when a laser spectroscope, belonging to local science lab Dynatechnics, went off course and hit Duckworld and accidentally snatched Howard instead of measuring the density of gases around Alpha Centaury as it was supposed to. I’m not sure how a device designed to measure density can suddenly become a tractor beam but then again I’m not a scientist. In this film scientist Doctor Jenning (Jeffrey Jones) posits that it is possible to reverse the process and send Howard back home, but later when the gang visits the lab they learn that there has been another accident with the laser and now Doctor Jenning is possessed by a demonic creature from the Nexus of Sominus (which is apparently some kind of demonic dimension in space) and it hopes to use the laser spectroscope to bring more of his fellows to Earth. If this sounds a tad familiar it’s because The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension had basically that same plot and it came out a few years before Howard the Duck did.

Also other dimensional monsters isn’t really a Howard the Duck thing, sure his first appearance in comics was him getting mixed up in a fight with the demonic Overmaster but that guy was more a Man-Thing villain and Howard was just briefly along for the ride.  Howard was mostly known for fighting absurdist creations like Hellcow, a poor bovine turned into a vampire by a desperately hungry Dracula, or the fanatical Canadian hellbent on destroying America’s faith in democracy called La Beaver, then there was Doctor Reich a former dentist to Hitler, and of course the terrifying if tasty Gingerbread Man who was created by a young girl mad scientist.

Who wouldn’t buy a ticket to see a movie based on this?

At just under two hours Howard the Duck feels a lot longer than it actually is, too many times the film stops cold for an overlong special effects or action sequence that barely moves the plot forward; we get Howard and Beverly’s escape from Dynatechnics because the police want to arrest Howard for being an illegal alien, then we get an endless scene at a Cajun/Sushi diner where a possessed Jenning uses his powers to explode stuff and telekinetically toss shit around, and then after Jenning kidnaps Beverly it’s up to Howard and Phil to rescue her before the possessed asshat can stuff one of his overlord pals inside her. This leads to a chase scene between the police and Howard, who along with idiot Phil, steals an ultralight that neither know how to operate.

You will believe a duck can fly.

The film’s climax consist of Howard strapping an experimental “neutron disintegrator” to some sort of moon buggy and shooting Doctor Jenning/Dark Overlord. Sounds like a great plan, what could possibly go wrong?  But sadly hitting Jenning with the disintegrator ray doesn’t quite have the desired effect for instead of disintegrating the villain it somehow forces the Dark Overlord out of Jenning’s body and thus Howard must then do battle with the creature in it’s true form. This final incarnation is a wonderful stop-motion rod puppet designed and operated by the great Phil Tippet but unfortunately by this time in the film I’ve completely given up caring about anything and am just praying for the end credits to roll.

 Now there are just a couple questions about this climax:

• Jenning/Dark Overlord types in the targeting coordinates of his home dimension into the computer and replies, “Laser is now targeting the Nexus of Sominus” but how exactly does that computer know the name of an alien dimension?
• The Dark Overlords cannot exist on Earth unless they grow inside a human body, which is why he kidnapped Beverly, but we see three Dark Overloads coming down the Laser Spectroscope’s beam. Can three of those things fit inside little ole Beverly?
• When the neutron disintegrator knocks the Dark Overlord out of Jenning’s body the once possessed scientists somehow reverts to normal. Earlier Jenning tells Howard and Beverly that “Something is growing inside me. It’s replicating and superseding all my internal organs.” I’m not sure how he survived that process, especially when at one point he walked into a nuclear reactor to charge up. Doctor Jenning should be a cancer riddled corpse.
• During the final fight the now full realized Dark Overlord hits Beverly and Phil with a beam from its tail that seems to be slowly disintegrating them, but doesn’t that destroy the hosts he needs for his brethren?

Cool monster but I still would have preferred a vampire cow.

It’s clear that I’ve put more thought into this movie’s plot than anybody involved in the making of it did. Sure this supposed to a fun science fiction/fantasy adventure comedy and we’re not supposed to over think things, but the key element in making an audience buy into the conceit of talking duck from another world is to have your story, no matter how farfetched, maintain its own intrinsic logic. Characters must act and react in a way that an audience can relate to or else it’s all just noise and nobody will care what happens next.

Ending your film with Howard doing a Marty McFly impression doesn’t help.

Needless to say the movie laid a colossal egg at the box office but that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything to like about the Howard the Duck movie; as two million dollar duck suits go the one created for this movie is pretty good, Lea Thompson pulled off a believable rocker chick who falls for a talking duck, and ILM did their usual solid work with the special effects, but on the other hand I can’t say I’m fond of the manic comic turn that Tim Robbins gives us with his performance here as it gets old real fast. The real problem of course is that George Lucas took a character that he thought was funny and original and then handed it over to Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz so they could remove all that made Howard the Duck funny and original.

This was not the Howard the Duck we knew and loved from the comics.

The film has developed a little bit of a cult following but despite Lucas’s views that over time the film will eventually be appreciated for the masterpiece it is I’m sorry say that it still looks as bad as it did back in 1986.  Sorry George.  Of course the big question is will James Gunn give us a real Howard the Duck movie some day? Gunn is a professed fan of the character, and Howard has had cameos in both Guardians of the Galaxy and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, but sadly there are no plans for a movie starring him in the current Marvel Cinematic Universe schedule.

Maybe if we all collectively hold are breath Marvel will cave in and give Gunn the greenlight.

Mike Brooks

Mike Brooks

Film grad who spends most his time trying to catch up on his "To Watch" pile of movies.