Real quick mission statement: this column is for discussion of superhero movie news and superhero movies. Titular allegiance aside, this sphere includes non-Marvel properties.
This week: What we can learn by defining Howard The Duck.
Pardon me, but I’ve been re-watching Howard The Duck. The 1986 live-action creature-feature “sci-fi/comedy,” PG-rated zoophilia and notorious flop.
It’s not a good movie. It’s an enjoyable movie, but not because of what is on screen...okay, scratch-that. It has the most physically attractive appearence of Lea Thompson on film and this time, she’s not the mother of our main character, so you can totally lust after her up until the end where it seems like she’s actually going to have sex with this duck.
Ducks, who - by the way - are basically rapists across the board. But that’s neither here nor there.
Here is some perspective on Howard The Duck that make this cautionary tale worth the watch, if only to see how this all went so wrong.
HOWARD THE DUCK IS: The First Marvel Movie
There’s a technicality here. Howard The Duck is the first stand-alone film based on a Marvel Comics property. There are several things that knock the Captain America “movie” from the 1940s out of the running. The Captain America film was a film serial, first of all, so it was episodic in nature. Also, it's barely an adaptation, the name “Steve Rogers” and the super-soldier concept aren’t used (instead, Cap is District Attorney Grant Grant Gardner). Dick Purcell, who starred as Cap died soon after filming ended, leading to the popular idea that filming the serial was just too much for the unhealthy actor.
There are a string of other movies based on Marvel Comics characters we’d all recognize in the late 70s, when Universal Television made TV movies of Dr. Strange and two additional Captain America “films.” However, none of these were released theatrically. Also in the late 70s were a string of TV episodes edited together to make films that contributed to three Spider-Man “movies” and three “movies” with The Incredible Hulk - whose Banner was named David because “Bruce Banner” was totally gay. And don’t get me started on those Spider-Man movies. They are more concerned with a man walking on a wall than plot.
Enter Howard the Duck in 1986 - the first direct-to-screen adaptation of a Marvel Comics property.
HOWARD THE DUCK IS: Proof George Lucas Didn’t Survive The Early 20th Century.
Say what you will about George Lucas.
Please. No, really, say something about George Lucas. Depending on when you were born, what you say will be slightly different. If you’re on the older side of things, you might describe Lucas as a fading star who once ruled the imagination of your childhood and now pumps out soulless sequels and spin-offs to his few successful properties. Then, he sold it all to Disney and had a baby.
If you’re on the younger side of things, you probably got something Star Wars you liked in the second of three trilogies in the Galaxy Far Far Away. You probably don’t think much about George Lucas outside of that South Park episode that blamed him and Steven Spielberg for raping Indiana Jones. Sadly, you might not remember a George Lucas without neck waddle.
The purpose of Howard T. Duck, the comic book character, was satire on the modern age through semi-recognizable anthropomorphic animal tropes. If George Lucas’ history and IMDB page are any indication, George Lucas cannot root himself in the modern era, let alone find a way to comment on said modern era from a recognizable perspective. Sure, he can remake Flash Gordon and give us an archeologist we’d let fight Nazis. THX 1138 is pure dystopia and American Graffiti is...a fluke. If not a fluke, it’s at least a film that heavily pulls on nostalgia for a period past, which is what George Lucas does when he’s on point. This is what we paid him for and this is what we’re still paying him for, even though he’s no good at it anymore because we’re nostalgic for the things he made being nostalgic for an era none of us will know about because Grandpa can’t text and I haven’t called a land line in five years.
Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck co-wrote American Graffiti with Lucas and also seem to have hit some sort of roulette jackpot, because they collaborated with him on Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (and ended up going back to the 30s and taking a bunch of plot from the movie Gunga Din and the out-dated serial concept of magic thuggees), then Howard The Duck, then the Radioland Murders.
Hypothesis: If you don’t cast Harrison Ford to save a Lucas/Katz/Huyck script, it descends to horrible nothingness. If you don’t have a basis for a George Lucas script that comes from the 1930s-1950s, the project is misguided from the beginning. Howard The Duck was a film that could have been about an outsider commenting on the realities of the mid-80s, instead Lucas/Katz/Huyck decided that the true concept was in a loose spoof of anthropomorphized animal humor. So, in the film, some people are shocked that a duck is walking around thinking it’s people, others barely blink - like the unemployment lady who makes a “duck in water” joke, but never otherwise mentions that Howard is an alien duck-mutant.
HOWARD THE DUCK IS: The Reason We Have Pixar
Howard The Duck was supposed to be animated, but George Lucas’ contract with distributor Universal required a new live-action picture. Thus began the series of unfortunate events that would eventually culminate in Disney/Pixar’s Brave.
With an estimated production budget of $37 million dollars and George Lucas hot off muppet discussions - he produced Jim Henson’s Labyrinth and Francis Ford Coppla’s Captain EO on either side of Howard The Duck - Lucas and LucasFilm was eager to give Industrial Light and Magic everything they needed to make a duck world, a working Howard costume, a Howard puppet, a plethora of electrical-looking visual effects and a stunning stop motion villain for the climax.
Howard, the costume and the puppet, were constantly being worked on. At one point there was a kid in the duck suit, but the difficulties of heavy make-up effects, child labor laws and the inherent discord of a child in a costume playing a fowl-mouthed protagonist (see what I did there? I did a Katz/Huyck!), Howard was eventually played by little person Ed Gale (also Chucky from the Child's Play films). But, that didn’t mean there was a unified vision behind Howard during production. The continuity between the puppet and animatronic faces isn’t so good and they didn’t cast Chip Zien as the voice until after the production had wrapped, meaning no one really knew what Howard would sound like, what he would say and when he would say it. The ADR on this movie is a mess.
The Wikipedia page references a shot where Howard gets excited and gets a feather mohawk that pops up on his head like a feather erection. The Wikipedia page says it took months to prepare. Watching it, you’d think the solution was just fishing wire.
As a matter of fact, Howard The Duck was Industrial Light and Magic’s crash course in erasing tow-lines and safety cables in post-production, so there was already a lot of that going on. Add on top the various effects to create Howard and Phil Tippett’s Dark Overlord stop-motion climax and you have an effects-heavy film with almost no story backing it up.
Howard The Duck stayed in theaters a little over a single month. Released on August 1st 1986 to a opening domestic gross of $8 million dollars, it got trapped in second place behind James Cameron’s Aliens (Aliens was in it’s third week, but it opened to $16 million and didn’t lose more than 20% week-to-week for a whole month). Howard’s second week saw it fall to #8 below Top Gun (in it’s 13th week) and Flight of the Navigator (released the same day as Howard, but benefiting from word-of-mouth).
By the time September rolled around, Howard was out of American theaters with a little under $15 million domestic gross. Lucas and Lucasfilm had to take the hit, so to make up the money that Howard has lost - money they needed for more Indiana Jones and Star Wars - Lucas decided to sell off Industrial Light and Magic’s computer division. The computer team was impressive even then with the first fully digital film sequence in Star Trek: The Wrath of Kahn and the first fully digital character in Young Sherlock Holmes. It was this reputation that allowed Lucas to find a buyer in Steve Jobs who purchased the unit for $5 million dollars. The unit would eventually start calling themselves Pixar, would go on to save Disney Animation, which would go on to buy Marvel Studios.
Thanks, crappy duck movie?
HOWARD THE DUCK IS: A Reason To Trust Comics
The overall contribution of Howard The Duck to comic book adaptation movies is this: if there’s something that works in the comic form, best stick to that instead of letting it balloon into a reason for special effects. I’ve criticized Donner’s Superman for the same reason - so much of the tone is tied to the sense of awe we’re supposed to have at the special effects. The stuff that works from Donner’s Superman on a story level? That comes from the comics.
In 1989, Tim Burton would swing in with his “dark” version of Batman that - relatively - got closer to the damaged center of the character’s portrayal of in comics at the time than had previously been explored in the television Bat-Verse. Outside of linking the Joker to Batman’s struggle - something that benefitted the movie having to operate as a single film in the pre-franchise blockbuster run - Batman was a true tonal adaptation. Bryan Singer’s X-Men was successful for being tonally congruent with the X-Men comic themes of a culture afraid of powerful changes in the outsider class. Spider-Man 2 is Raimi’s best effort because it brings the Silver Age Peter Parker to life on-screen. The Marvel Studios Phase 1 super-run of blockbusters all came from being true to what the comics had proved to be a working formula.
Howard The Duck was highlighted by George Lucas for it’s satire and film noir qualities, but as the ball started rolling on production and scripting, this was abandoned to soften the character of Howard and focus the film on groundbreaking visual effects. So, while the Dark Overloard of the climax remains one of the better examples of a giant stop-motion creature, the audience isn’t given a basis to engage with that creature, it’s just more weirdness from a movie that seems to exist to show that weirdness.
Abandoning what worked in the Howard The Duck comic is the greatest sin of and the greatest lesson we can pull from the film. It’s hilarious to me that up until Disney gave Marvel money to do what it was already doing, this mistake was still being made. Ask anyone involved with John Carter if they think the movie would have done better if it’s ad campaign was more like the John Carter Marvel Comics, Deja Thoris and all, I bet they’d tell you the Star Wars White Ape ad campaign they got was horrible.
Especially now, in a world where franchises are green-lit because of the built in audience: Stick close to the comics’ impetus to exist. That’s what’s been tested, and that’s what we’re buying into, David Goyer.
Sorry, I contractually have to mention Batman Vs. Superman at least once a week. You guys keep clicking on those articles.