It’s hard to believe now, but just a few decades ago, Marvel movies did not dominate cinemas. In fact, the very first big-screen adaptation of a Marvel property is one of cinema’s best-known flops, 1986’s Howard the Duck. Based on the satirical character created by Steve Gerber, Howard the Duck baffled audiences with its surprising amount of duck nudity and off-key jokes. Not even the intervention of executive producer George Lucas, who planned to make a Howard the Duck before even starting Star Wars.
Obviously, Marvel and Lucasfilm have both recovered from the experience. The same is true for stars Tim Robbins and Lea Thompson, although it took a lot longer to bounce back. In a recent interview with the podcast Celebrity Catchup: Life After That Thing I Did, where she was promoting her new movie Unplugging, Thompson called the response to the movie “devastating.” It even overwhelmed Thompson’s breakout as Lorraine Baines in Back to the Future. “[I]n the course of a year I was in the biggest hit and the biggest bomb so that probably destroyed my film career,” she explained.
Thompson played Beverly Switzler, lead singer of a rock band who befriends Howard (largely performed by Ed Gale and voiced by Chip Zien) after he arrives in Cleveland, Ohio. Beverly connects Howard to scientist Phil Blumburtt, who tries to send the duck back to his Earth. But when they run afoul of mad scientist Walter Jenning (Jeffrey Jones, whose career has stalled for very different and far more just reasons), Howard must decide between returning home and saving his new planet.
Despite the goofy plot and sharing scenes with an actor in an elaborate duck costume, Thompson gives a committed performance, completely in line with the movie’s sense of humor. Thompson even sang all of Beverly’s songs in the movie, doing the choreography that goes with it.
While Thompson’s effort may not have been enough to make the movie a hit, she was spared attention from the Razzie Awards, which gave the movie the Golden Raspberry for Worst Picture, Worst Screenplay, Worst New Star (Zein, Gale, and the others who brought Howard to life), and Worst Visual Effects. In fact, few of the critics at the time singled out Thompson’s performance. Nonetheless, the film continued to dog her. “Even though I did some good films after that, it was really difficult,” Thompson confesses.
In the decades since the movie’s release, Thompson’s career has been restored. In addition to starring roles in the television series Caroline in the City and Switched at Birth, Thompson also has become a working director, helming episodes of sci-fi series Resident Alien and Star Trek: Picard.
Even better, Howard the Duck has become a cult favorite among those who like off-beat Marvel movies, much to Thompson’s delight. “People love Howard the Duck and those are some of my favorite fans,” Thompson enthuses. “[B]ecause anybody that goes: ‘I don’t care what anybody says, I think it’s really cool’ is my kind of person. As the audience for weird Marvel movies continues to grow, more and more people become Lea’s kind of people every day.