Over 20 years before Iron Man kick-started what’s now the Marvel Cinematic Universe—the pop-culture juggernaut that devours so much of the box office—another Marvel hero got his chance to save the world. Big difference, though: the star of Howard the Duck didn’t exactly set the world on fire with his efforts.
To celebrate executive producer George Lucas’ birthday today (happy 77th!), we decided to revisit Howard the Duck, a movie that became an instant punchline when it was released back in 1986 but has since become a bit of a cult classic. It’s not hard to see why, on either count. The year it was released, the top 10 highest-grossing movies in America included Top Gun, Crocodile Dundee, Aliens, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off—all of which happen to share certain themes with Howard the Duck, which gives us a slick, scrappy, underdog hero who’s also a fish out of water and happens to be from outer space. But none of those films featured petite stunt people in a duck costume playing a character (voiced by Chip Zien) that’s action hero, comic relief, and, uh, romantic leading man all rolled into one. Contemporary audiences were more than a little unsure of what to make of Howard, but it’s that bizarre mishmash of traits that’s given the movie its strange longevity.
Howard the Duck, based on the early 1970s comic character created by Steve Gerber and Val Mayerik, lets you know exactly what kind of movie it’s aiming to be from those first scenes on Howard’s home planet of Duckworld. His bachelor pad reveals a culture exactly like America, circa 1986, except everything is duck-themed: the city is Marshington, DC; “Mae West and W.C. Fowls” smirk down from a movie poster, as does “Indiana Drake” (the Breeders of the Lost Stork pun isn’t the first wink at Lucas in this thing); and copies of Rolling Egg and Playduck magazine hammer home what could be some of the punniest production design ever attempted. Alas, we don’t get to spend much time on Duckworld, because before long a giant laser on Earth accidentally blasts a wormhole through space and brings Howard back with it—where he’s immediately set upon by mid-1980s “punk rockers,” a goofball menace that’s very specific to the era (see another 1986 release, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, for maybe the greatest-ever example of the character type).
Fortunately for Howard (as well as anyone hungry for more puns), he declares “no more Mr. Nice Duck” and busts out some relatively badass “quack fu” on a pair of overly accessorized low-life types who’re harassing Beverly (Lea Thompson), a struggling rocker who takes a shine to the feathered alien. This passes for a meet-cute in Howard the Duck, and Beverly—a generous soul with some of the biggest ‘80s hair outside of Headbangers Ball—sets about trying to help Howard get home. That quest propels the film until about the halfway point, when we get a villain that isn’t just “asshole Earth people” (and there are plenty of those, including a motorcycle gang, cops, Howard’s boss at his short-lived job at “Hot Tub Fever,” and Bev’s greedy music manager). When that pesky laser plucks another, less friendly alien from the cosmos, it quickly takes over the body of the laser scientist (Jeffrey Jones, who was also the villain in Ferris Bueller that year) who plots to use the device to summon other “Dark Lords of the Universe” to spell Earth’s doom. The laser is Howard’s only hope of returning home, so this is concerning on multiple levels.
That’s pretty much the entire plot of Howard the Duck—really, the movie puts all its money on the entertainment value of a character who is human in every way except for the fact that he’s a duck. His flirtation with Beverly is played less for laughs than Howard’s relationship with the buffoonish scientist (Tim Robbins) who’s first way too excited to meet an alien, then gets caught up in Howard’s predicament. You can’t really fault director Willard Huyck—who co-write the script with his wife and frequent collaborator Gloria Katz, who also produced—for not knowing exactly what to do to make Howard feel less like a cartoon. The tone bobbles uneasily between comedy (the script is stuffed with silly one-liners like “Prepare to eat beak!”) and sci-fi action bolstered by special effects that haven’t aged very well. However, Jones’ performance is suitably unhinged, especially in the epic diner showdown that’s easily the movie’s best sequence; the stop-motion monster that dominates the film’s climax is also a retro delight.
However, at just under two hours the movie is way too long, and certain sequences—like Howard’s perilous plane ride to rescue a kidnapped Beverly, since he can’t fly (or swim, as we’re repeatedly reminded)—drag on forever. There are also some other weird touches, like the movie taking place in Cleveland when it was obviously filmed in California, or Howard clearing a room by announcing he has “space rabies” and threatening to bite anyone who gets in his way. That’s not even factoring in Howard the Duck’s musical sequences—pop star Thomas Dolby wrote the songs and has a cameo—or, we’d be remiss not to mention again, Howard’s cross-species romance, which even the movie itself has a hard time embracing.
The fact that Howard the Duck—only the second live-action Marvel Comics adaptation, after 1944's Captain America serial—exists at all is kind of unbelievable, especially considering the publisher’s sky-high profile today. And it’s not like Marvel has disowned Howard; he famously popped up in both Guardians of the Galaxy movies, as well as Avengers: Endgame, and has consistently appeared in comics, animated series, and video games over the years. He’s earned some love to go with all those derisive laughs, at last. But a Howard the Duck remake, which is definitely a thing that someone somewhere is trying to get off the ground, would be a hard sell. The main reason anyone appreciates the original movie is the way its collection of ill-fitting pieces—some corny, some horny, some totally ‘80s, some electrified sci-fi, all wrapped around a guy in a frankly ridiculous duck costume—are jammed together with such blunt-force determination. It is a relic of a time before the MCU, and yet it is part of the MCU, and there’s no way even the best special effects could recreate that peculiar magic.
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