Setting aside the fact that The Incredible Hulk was a regular feature on American TV screens until finally being canceled in 1982, we can safely put forth the notion that November 1979’s Captain America 2: Death Too Soon killed the Marvel TV movie. It wouldn’t be until 1986 that another Marvel property would make a live-action appearance in a feature-length motion picture, and it wasn’t the property that one would have expected to see.
Howard the Duck was produced by George Lucas, fresh from completing the original Star Wars trilogy, as well as producing the second Indiana Jones film, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and looking for something new to sink his teeth into. To get what would hopefully be a new major franchise started, Lucas turned to the husband and wife writing team he had worked with years earlier on American Graffiti, Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz.
Because, who better to write a sardonic, existential satire using science fiction elements than the writers of teen comedy/dramas? Right? I know!
Sure, they wrote Temple of Doom, but come on. Even the biggest Indiana Jones fans will tell you that Temple of Doom was just barely tolerable. You might have to get a few drinks into them, but rest assured. They know.
As much as I like Short Round, he would really only belong in this series if William S. Burroughs were writing and Indy had impure relations with the little spitfire. Then “No time for love, Dr. Jones!” would have a whole new meaning. And a better one, I think.
So, Huyck and Katz apparently sat down with Steve Gerber, the creator of Howard the Duck, and discussed their ideas. I would love to get a transcript of that conversation.
Huyck/Katz: “We want to set it in Hawaii!”
Gerber: “Um, why?”
Huyck/Katz: “Well, it would be fun to film in Hawaii. It’s so nice there.”
Gerber: “Have you read the comics?”
Huyck/Katz: “Oh yeah. We’ll include all that goofy humor, romance, and the dark, scary bits. It’ll be a juggling act, but it’ll be great!”
Just for clarity’s sake, I want to mention that I’m not making up Huyck/Katz’s comments here. Those are taken almost literally from the behind the scenes documentary included on the DVD release of Howard the Duck. Really.
I have to admit, the opening moments of the film do give one hope. The Duckworld setting is so heavily detailed, it’s beyond impressive. Every little detail of Howard’s apartment has been Duckified. There are movie posters, family photos, mail, books, magazines, television programs, everything. Even parts of his apartment that are only passed over for a few seconds are filled with Ducky goodness. Including his time as a Duck Pot Grower, apparently.
We really get a glimpse of Howard’s entire life in those few short moments. They fill me with hope for an interesting film experience. Then he is suddenly yanked away from his world. Literally yanked. He flies through the walls of his apartment building, busting through the bedroom of an older Duck couple and the bathroom of a nude lady-Duck who is apparently too busy masturbating to notice the destruction.
And as tasteless and weird as that sounds, it gave me hope. But it really isn’t followed up on in any meaningful way. I mean, if the writers wanted to really make this something for adults, then by all means, go with the edgy sexual stuff. Push some buttons. Make this something that parents would be afraid to let their kids watch.
Instead, everything that made the comics groundbreaking and unique is whitewashed away, leaving behind nothing much more than a bad pun-spewing duck and a strangely unengaging story about the End of the World. With the occasional bizarre sexual titillation and tease.
The plot, as it is, is this: Some scientists fired up a giant laser that really has no purpose other than to be a giant laser. This giant laser sucked Howard from Duckworld, through space, to Cleveland. This happened because an evil entity calling itself the Dark Overlord, fiddled with it in an attempt to escape the region of space where he and a multitude of other demons are trapped.
So Howard has to choose between stopping the demonic invasion and destruction of a World he Never Made and getting home.
That’s pretty much it. The rest of the film is mindless filler that alternately appeals to children and to emotionally stunted adults. We get musical numbers, Quack Fu fighting, explosions, and an exceedingly long chase sequence. Then we wrap with more explosions and a final musical number.
In an interview from 2001, Howard’s creator, Steve Gerber had this to say about the film:
The film, in a misguided attempt to appeal to a mass audience, turned Bev into a rock star and told a rather simple-minded alien monster story. There were some nice performances in the film – Jeffrey Jones was particularly funny, and Lea Thompson as Beverly was very pleasant to look at – but it wasn’t Howard the Duck.
And I can’t say that I disagree.
There seems to be some sort of hipster backlash to the horrifying reviews that this film received upon its release, and there are plenty of places around the web where you can find people who saw the film as children and enjoyed it, arguing that it really isn’t a bad movie. It’s just a silly, fun, film, and nothing more. We should just enjoy it for what it is.
Well, I say thee, nay.
I love bad movies. Trust me. Ask anyone.
And I’ve even gone out of my way to find good things about weak projects like Amazing Spider-Man and Captain America. I didn’t mind so much when the filmmakers made fundamental changes to the characters’ personalities and histories in those instances, so why get hung up on changes when the character’s an anthropomorphic duck?
It’s simple, really.
Howard the Duck wasn’t just a humor comic. Howard wasn’t a comical character. You can change Spider-Man’s age and still capture the excitement of him scurrying up a wall or swinging on a web. You can make Captain America a young Marine, injected with the super-soldier formula to save his life. He still represents a hopeful, patriotic ideal who fights crime. Doctor Strange doesn’t have to be an egotistical surgeon with nerve damage to his hands, so long as he still uses magic and creates a nice sense of doing battle with ancient forces of darkness.
None of those cheaply produced, poorly-acted, bastardizations of the source materials ever consciously betrayed the heart of the characters.
And Howard the Duck is nothing if not an insulting, dumbed-down, complete misreading of the source material.
A few of my own personal low-lights of the film include, in chronological order, the ultra-generic, Road Warrior-looking punks; the Punk Club owner thinking Howard’s a child and then throwing him violently into the garbage in the back alley (I mean, I don’t like kids either, but come on!); the Road Warrior-looking lesbian biker gang; everything about Tim Robbins; Howard’s job at a sex club; Cherry Bomb’s (Bev’s band) sad song; Howard’s escape from the police; the police saying “shoot to kill”; Jeffrey Jones narrating his own transformation into the Dark Overlord; Joe Roma’s Cajun Sushi Diner (really?); the Dark Overlord’s apparent hatred of condiments; Joe Roma’s mob attempting to tie the talking, child-sized Howard down, murder him, and eat him; all the bad puns and explosions; and finally, Howard and Tim Robbins stealing an Ultralight for the big chase sequence (designed and orchestrated by Joe Johnston, director of The Rocketeer, The Wolfman, and The First Avenger: Captain America).
Yeah, that is most of the movie. What about it?
You must understand. Unless you were indoctrinated into this film at a young age, with no knowledge of the source material, I really don’t see any way to enjoy it. Sure, there was $36 million spent on it, yet it is so much worse than any of the TV productions, it’s practically unbelievable.
I almost wish they had gone with their initial idea of making this an animated film, but honestly, for all its faults, the problem is not with the visualization. The problem is with the script.
That said, when producer George Lucas urged they make it live action, both to rush it for a big summer release and to show off effects work from Industrial Light and Magic, no one should have listened. But to be fair, Lucas had a good track record up to this point. But if this was supposed to highlight ILM, it was a mistake. The first of many.
Screenwriter, Gloria Katz, says, “It’s a film about a duck from outer space… It’s not supposed to be an existential experience… We’re supposed to have fun with this concept, but for some reason reviewers weren’t able to get over that problem.”
And that’s the problem. Howard the Duck was always an existential experience. That’s what made it something special. Take that away and you’ve got an empty, silly, experience, with no value whatsoever.
Well, not “no value whatsoever,” I suppose. There are a few high-lights. A few.
First, there are the performances. Lea Thompson as Beverly is okay. She’s cute and energetic, giving it everything she’s got. There’s just nothing in the script for her to work with. She was just off Back to the Future and in the course of a year or so had incredible career highs and then this amazing low. But that underwear scene almost made up for it all.
Plus, her performances with the band Cherry Bomb, made up of professional bass player Dominique Davalos, Liz Sagal (half of the twins from the TV series Double Trouble), and Holly Robinson (21 Jump Street, Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper, and more) weren’t half bad. The songs were written and the performances choreographed by young Thomas Dolby, and aside from the awful sad song in the middle of the film, the other songs, “Hunger City” and “Howard the Duck” are actually pretty good.
For what they are. It also helps that George Clinton of Parliament Funkadelic co-wrote “Howard the Duck.” Which explains the line, “If it ain’t funk, he don’t feel it.”
Ed Gale, who plays Howard, also does amazing work given the limitations he had to work through. He was almost completely blind in the duck suit, only able to see when the mouth was open. Director/writer Willard Huyck originally hired a 12-year old boy to play Howard (!!!), and Gale was hired as his stunt double/stand-in. However, when shooting conditions became too much for the kid (limited hours, claustrophobic suit, etc.) Gale stepped up and won the role.
For many scenes he had to memorize the staging, usually counting steps backwards from his target spot in order to actually hit the marks. His body language also helps to sell the character. He would go on to play a variety of roles, usually costumed, unfortunately, from Dink in Spaceballs (1987) to Chucky’s stunt double in the Child’s Play films, and one of my particular favorites, Station in Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991). He continues to work regularly to this day.
The best performance in the film, though, belongs to Jeffrey Jones as Doctor Jenning/Dark Overlord of the Universe. It was his performance in Amadeus (1984) that won him the role, according to Huyck/Katz, but he’s probably most recognized as Principal Rooney in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, which was also released in 1986. His other excellent credits are almost too numerous to mention, although I particularly enjoyed his work in Mom and Dad Save the World (1992), Ed Wood (1994), and most recently, in Deadwood (2004-06).
His gradual transformation into the Dark Overlord almost makes up for a lot of the bad stuff in this film. Almost. Like Thompson and Gale, Jones sells this part for all he’s worth and knocks it out of the park. His movement and voice work, combined with a fairly disturbing make-up progression, make his gradual change into a monster a little unnerving. It has genuinely nasty gross-out moments that probably helps cement this film in the hearts of the freaked out kids who saw it when they were little.
It’s good stuff.
The less said about Tim Robbins’ performance as Phil Blumburtt, the better. Actually, Gloria Katz says it best, I think: “Tim understood how silly and absurd it was going to be…”
Silly and absurd pretty much sums up his over-the-top ridiculous performance. And not “absurd” in the existential sense that would have actually been true to Gerber’s vision, but “absurd” in the “isn’t this some stupid shit I’m doing” sense.
Aside from the performances, there’s not a lot more good to say about the film. And even that was being generous.
I must admit, though, that Joe Johnston’s work on the Ultralight sequence actually does have some impressive stunt work, especially given that Gale was again, virtually blind and “behind the controls” of the thing at times.
Also, when the Dark Overlord appears in his true form at the end of the film, it is thanks to the stop-motion animation of Phil Tippett. This is probably the best part of the entire film, as it appeals to the old-school fantasy fan in me. The design of the beast is like a combination of a giant scorpion and, um, something else. It finds a nice middle ground between threatening and amusing, and shows up the rest of the visual effects in the film.
But this shouldn’t be a surprise, really. Tippett does amazing work whatever he’s tasked to do. In 1981 he co-developed the Go-Motion animation technique for Dragonslayer (a formative film from my childhood). He also worked on Return of the Jedi (1983) and designed the animated sequences in Robocop (1986). In 1991, he was instrumental in making the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park come to life, and then in 1995 made the aliens of Starship Troopers believable and horrifying all at the same time.
He also did uncredited creature design and animation w
ork for Piranha (1978) – the best part of that film, as well. And how can you not be impressed by the credit, “Demon Supervisor” for 1986’s The Golden Child.
A quick look around the website for Tippett Studio shows that he’s continued to stay a force in the industry, providing effects work and design for a range of movies from Hellboy to Cloverfield to Eclipse and New Moon. He’s also working on the highly anticipated (by me) film Priest, based on the manhwa (Korean comic).
And that’s about all I can say about Howard the Duck, I think.
It’s not “for iconoclasts” (as Lea Thompson says), and it didn’t become “a cult movie because people understand the absurdity of it” (as Katz says). It was a poorly conceived and poorly executed, overly expensive mistake. People aren’t afraid to say they liked it because of going against the mainstream opinion. They’re afraid to say they liked it because it damns them and their tastes.
Which is harsh, I know. But even those hip reviews that say it was fun, or try to mount a defense of the film, do so grudgingly, playing up the fact that it’s enjoyable as a bad film. It’s funny a lot of the time because of how awful it is.
But I just can’t agree. Oh, it is a bad film, a truly awful film. But there’s very little to celebrate or defend here. It is an unfunny, painful to watch, torturous experience, and it almost killed Marvel movies after around half a decade of absence. All we have to look forward to now are more Incredible Hulk TV movies (on a definite downward slide in quality), and then TEN YEARS of painful, low-budget disasters.
Who would have thought that it would take Wesley Snipes and Blade to reverse Marvel’s fortunes when it came to live-action films?