When Howard the Duck was released on August 1, 1986, it marked the first time in history a big budget film based on a Marvel Comics character was released. Between the goodwill that comics fans felt for the character and George Lucas holding the prestigious reins of Executive Producer, it seemed like a no-brainer that the film would become a blockbuster smash.
Except as we know, that didn’t happen.
Not only did Howard the Duck fail, it failed huge. So much so that it’s thudding at the box office reverberated all the way to the top of distributor Universal — resulting in studio exec Frank Price departing his job. Throughout the summer of 1986, and until Howard’s glorious return in Guardians of the Galaxy — any mention of the movie resulted in dismissive chuckles and/or derision, often by people who never actually saw the flick but realized that invoking its name was a quick and easy way to get a laugh. (It was even a punchline on an episode of The Golden Girls, so yeah).
But here’s the thing, Howard the Duck is a really entertaining film. Is it goofy? Sure. But a film about a duck from outer space was never going to be Meshes of the Afternoon. Many fans groused at how the film departed from the comic, but the truth is that Steve Gerber’s source material was born of the cynicism of the 1970s. By the time the film went into production, the dark ’70s aesthetic would not get butts into seats anymore — especially in a comic book movie. (You also have to remember that at this point, superhero movies were a rarity).
So the decision was made to make Howard a romp. Which isn’t to say the movie doesn’t have it’s shockingly bleak moments, like when a Dark Overlord-possessed Dr. Jenning brutally zaps a state trooper into nothingness. But this is more do to a love of tonal shifts from writer/director team Willard Hyuck and Gloria Katz — who pulled the same shenanigans in their script for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom — than anything else.
Casting wise, there are no complaints. Still riding the wave of success from Back to the Future, Lea Thompson was cast as rocker/would-be love interest Beverly Switzler, and she delivers a smart, dare I say believable performance. No small feat given the fact that her co-star in every scene was either a dude in a duck suit or an animatronic waterfowl prone to mechanical woes. As wannabe intellectual Phil Blumburtt, Tim Robbins elicits some huge laughs. (As anyone who has seen Tapeheads or High Fidelity will be quick to point out, Robbins is a skilled comedic performer who doesn’t get the opportunity to show off this side of his talent nearly enough). Finally, as the voice of Howard, Broadway vet Chip Zien emotes Howard’s sardonic world-weariness in a manner than is respectful of his comic book counterpart.
While I will dare to say that the plot of Howard the Duck is way more coherent than say, Return of the Jedi (if you start thinking about the logistics of that Tattoine sequence too hard, the contrivances featured therein will make your head spin), story isn’t as much important in this flick as Howard’s journey is. He’s a duck who wants to get home, then sacrifices his own happiness in order to save a planet he’s indifferent to at the very best. It’s no wonder the flick was renamed Howard the Hero in some overseas markets.
But perhaps the main reason why Howard deserves to be seen as the fun, make that great, flick that it is is the movie’s fantastic soundtrack. John Barry’s majestic, underrated score aside, the movie enlisted huge industry talents like Allee Willis, Thomas Dolby, George Clinton, Joe Walsh, and Stevie Wonder to create the many earworms featured on the soundtrack. While the “Howard the Duck” that closes the film gets the most attention, I want to turn your attention to “Hunger City.” Highlighted by lead vocals from Lea Thompson (in her guise as Cherry Bomb singer Beverly Switzler), the song is a blast of late-period new wave warmth, catchy and unforgettable.
So if you only know Howard the Duck because of its infamous rep, check it out for yourself. Recent years have seen a bit of a redemption for the flick, with it developing an ever-growing fanbase. Not bad for a duck from outer space indeed.
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