What could have possibly gone wrong?
It had so much promise.
Howard The Duck came out in 1986 and was a science-fiction comedy based on the Marvel comic book. It starred Lea Thompson and was originally intended to be an animated film. George Lucas would end up being the executive producer, but it wound up as a massive failure.
All the pieces were there for this to be great. You have one of the best movie guys of all time in Lucas involved in this movie, and it had only been a few years since Return of the Jedi. You also had Lea Thompson, who was fresh off the blockbuster Back to the Future just a year earlier.
It had elements of science-fiction, comic books, and comedy. Everything should have worked.
But it didn’t.
This article will look back on what is actually the very first Marvel movie; Howard The Duck.
Who Was Howard The Duck?
Before we get into the train wreck movie here’s a quick rundown on Howard the Duck. He was created by Steve Gerber and Val Mayerik and NOT Stan Lee, who liked to “borrow” ideas… Come at me, MCU fans…
Howard the Duck debuted in “Adventure into Fear” #19, which came out on December 13, 1973. It tells the story of an anthropomorphic creature who is in a fish out of water situation and stuck on earth. This is like the early version of E.T. and even ALF. He was a three-foot-tall duck that wears a shirt and tie and often found smoking a cigar.
Like a lot of classic cartoon characters, and me, Howard doesn’t wear pants. This lead to lawsuits by Disney, as there was an obvious connection with Donald Duck. They had to write in a progression of Howard’s clothing options that ended up with him wearing a suit to get Disney off their backs.
And now Disney owns Marvel, so this all seems like a moot point.
Howard is irritable and cynical and sees nothing special about himself except that he is a duck. He basically wants to just be left alone but ends up getting dragged into various situations because he stands out.
The Success Of The Comic
The focus on the comics was a bit of social satire and some parodies of various other works. A real focus in the comics was on the existential view of Howard and that any dumb or serious moment in life are often only distinguishable by a momentary point of view. Howard has no real superpowers, but he is skilled in “Quak-fu” and can hold his own in a lot of fights.
According to the comics, he has shown some degree of mystic talent and is offered to be further trained by Doctor Strange.
Howard the Duck found success pretty quickly and got his own stand-alone comic book with the first issue coming out in 1976. I wasn’t alive then, but I guess this had caught on pretty well. There’s even the incident of Howard being involved with that year’s presidential election; In one of the comic issues there was a fictional political party called the All-Night Party and they had the slogan “Get Down, America!”.
This issue came out during the presidential campaign of 1976, and Howard the Duck would actually get thousands of write-in votes in the actual election.
They tried to capitalize on this by putting him into a newspaper comic strip from 1977 to 1978 to enhance his popularity and try to spread him more into the mainstream.
I could go way more into the comic as there is a ton of history, but we’ve got to get a move on here, and I have something on the stove. One last thing from this time period—and this is actually true—is that they recorded a pilot of a Howard the Duck radio show starring James Belushi as Howard.
Getting Howard The Duck To The Big Screen
So the origins of the movie go as far back as the creation of the original comic. George Lucas had just finished American Graffiti (Thank crap for that movie because if it wasn’t a success we never would have got Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Howard the Duck, etc) and he was already interested in turning the comic into a movie.
American Graffiti had connected Lucas with Willard Hyuk and Gloria Katz, who he had met in film school and knew they were talented writers. When Graffiti wrapped he started talking about this “funny comic” that had some real “film noir” components to it.
But it would have to sit on the back burner for a while because he had a little robot and monster movie to work on that would end up changing the world.
In 1984, fresh off of the Star Wars trilogy (and that’s maybe where he should have left it…The Force Awakens was definitely ok though), he had now turned his attention to producing films. And this wacky duck comic was still in the back of his head.
Universal Studios were the ones that got on board with Howard the Duck when they worked out a partnership with Marvel comics. Not only were they onboard, but Universal was dying to make it because they had originally passed on Star Wars and didn’t want to miss the boat with another George Lucas project.
They probably should have, however.
The Plot Of The Movie
Here’s a quick synopsis: Howard is beamed to earth from Duckworld where he lands in Cleveland of all places. He ends up saving a rock singer named Beverly (Lea Thompson) from a bunch of thugs and they form a, uh…relationship.
Beverly introduces him to Phil (Tim Robbins) who works at a lab with the scientist Dr. Jenning (Jeffery Jones). Jenning tries to return Howard back to his home world but ends up transferring an evil spirit into his own body instead.
Howard, Beverly, and Phil are now in for the fight of their lives! The spirit has now become the “Dark Overlord of the Universe” and Howard is able to blow him to smithereens with a neutron disintegrator. Howard destroys the laser that could have sent him home, and he stays on earth and ends up playing guitar in Beverly’s band.
It’s like the predecessor to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: The Secret Of The Ooze.
Production On Howard The Duck
So I mentioned earlier that there was some intention behind the movie being animated as it would be a more practical approach than filming a live-action one. But Universal needed the film for the summer release, so there was no way to get an animated one done in time.
This would also give George Lucas a chance to use Industrial Light & Magic, which was becoming more advanced.
They tried to re-create the look of the comic but still slipped in some of their own touches. In the opening shots of Duckworld, it looks like New York City and they would include a lot of duck focused products.
I remember the commercials showing him reading a copy of “Playduck” and this struck a chord because we knew it wasn’t necessarily a kids’ movie. Howard The Duck was never intended as a kids’ movie but was always geared towards adults in a kind of National Lampoon-style.
They also decided to steer away from the existential themes of the comics and make it just a “duck from space” movie. With the involvement of Lucas and ILM, the movie became more effects-based instead of story or satire focussed. They would also change up the personality of Howard and make him a nicer character, but the movie will still contain a lot of sexual elements.
9-year-old me was just confused.
The Actors Of Howard The Duck
So Lea Thompson is a main draw to the movie after nailing it with Lorraine Baines in Back to the Future. It also stars a younger Tim Robbins before he would play Andy Dufresne in the iconic Shawshank Redemption.
It would also star Jeffery Jones as the evil Dr. Walter Jenning. Jones was also the principle in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Holly Robinson Peete from 21 Jump Street and Hanging With Mr. Cooper was also in it.
For Howard himself, they had to do a few things. To portray him they had to use a combination of animatronic suits, puppets, and costumes. They had such little time for production that some of the animatronics would lose all their feathers and even explode.
They were also so poorly made that you could see inside the puppet when the mouth was opened. It took so much coordination because of the poor suits that filming would be a nightmare. T
That scene when Howard’s head feathers, um, “rise” when he’s in bed with Lea Thompson took months to complete. This movie even features one of the first incidents of digitally removing objects from a film. The scene in specific is when Howard’s chair is blown out of the apartment. It was done using wires which were digitally removed later.
Playing Howard The Duck
So with Howard himself, the important thing was to get the voice right as this would drive the movie. Robin Williams had actually been considered, but I think it was thought that his voice would be too recognizable and he can detract from the direction of the movie. They also considered Martin Short and Jason Alexander, which is amazing.
They went with actor Chip Zien, who was a Broadway actor and wasn’t even cast until the movie finished shooting.
To physically play Howard, they needed people shorter in stature. They would use various people to play Howard but settled on a guy named Ed Gale who was at first considered too tall for the role and would be used mainly for stunts. They also cast a child actor, and I have a little connection to this.
Jordan Prentice was 13 years old and picked to play Howard the Duck.
And he lived down the street from me.
Now, I didn’t know him; he was 4 years older and was in an out of town, but I had seen him walking down the street a few times. This was a huge deal where I lived because everyone knew he was in Howard The Duck. No one knew it was awful but knew it was a big-time blockbuster.
Even the fact it was someone in a movie was huge, and he had a pretty mythical reputation in the neighborhood. I don’t know him and he didn’t live here long, but it was a pretty surreal experience knowing Howard the Duck lived in my neighborhood.
The problem was the filming was really difficult, so Ed Gale would take on more of the scenes. The costume was unsurprisingly uncomfortable and so hot that they would have to blow cool air into in between shots.
Releasing Howard The Duck
So there were a ton of technical issues shooting this thing and they were under a time crunch and I think this is what leads to the demise of the movie. If they had more time, I think things would have turned out differently. The initial test screenings had mixed responses—which I think made everyone nervous. And with good reason.
The movie came out on August 1, 1986, and got crushed by critics. It was called a “hopeless mess” and the acting was criticized along with it seeming to be pretty unfunny. Today it has a 15% score on Rotton Tomatoes and is considered the lowest-rated LucasFilm movie—which is saying a lot.
It was nominated for 7 Razzies, won 4, and is considered one of the worst movies ever made. It didn’t
It’s one thing to be a critical disaster (looking at you DC universe..) But it was a commercial failure, too. It would make just $5 million its first weekend, putting it in third place. It would only end up making $16 million in the States and a total of $37 million worldwide.
This was against a budget of $38 million. That’s relatively high for a movie of this sort, but it’s still impressive that it pretty much broke even. This was far from expected though, so they technically didn’t lose a ton—but they were planning for much higher returns.
The Legacy Of Howard The Duck
This movie has fallen into the “so bad it’s good” category but has an interesting evolution, You’re obviously aware of the use of Howard The Duck in the end credits of Captain America and his inclusion in Guardians of the Galaxy.
There is still a positive association with Howard the Duck as evidence by me freaking out seeing him in those end credits. I genuinely think there’s some interest in him having another run, but I don’t know if they can devote a whole movie to him? The thing is, I thought Guardians would be an absolute flop and wouldn’t work as a feature film but shows how much I know. I also thought the same thing for Ant-Man, so could this work too?
The original movie was left open for a sequel but I think we can rule that out but a new direction could be pretty amazing. There is the new Howard the Duck series that’s coming out on Hulu soon created by Kevin Smith so I think that’s as close as we’ll get but this is still pretty awesome. There’s no release day as of the day of this post, but it’s something to look forward to. I think he’ll do it justice.
So it’s a funny thing to think about this forgotten movie that’s technically part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the very first one in existence. It’s developed a cult following and I look back on it fondly as a lot of other people do too.
Including some executives at Marvel and Disney to include him in their blockbusters, even if it’s just a cameo.
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