Superhero Films: Howard The Duck (1986)


A review of the 1986 big-budget superhero movie Howard the Duck, based on the Marvel Comics character starring Lea Thompson, Jeffrey Jones and Tim Robbins

Howard The Duck 1986 Lea Thompson

A unique character joined the Marvel Universe in 1973.

Howard the Duck would be much different from his fellow caped superheroes battling villains in their comic pages. This grumpy intelligent duck would end up living with the cute Beverly Switzer in Cleveland as he
embarked on his own irreverent misadventures on a planet he was suddenly dropped in the middle of. The cigar-chomping fowl would literally be the odd duck on a planet full of humans or as Howard would refer to us as a bunch of “hairless apes”.

Created by Steve Gerber and artist Val Mayerik, they would use Howard to satirize our Earth society, pop culture and the comic book form itself. Howard would become an unlikely Marvel superstar enjoying a strong devoted following
with his unique adventures and abrasive perspective.

Gerber would describe the comic as an existential
 experience. “This is no joke! There it is. The cosmic giggle. The 
funniest gag in the universe. That life’s most serious moments and most
incredibly dumb moments are often distinguishable only by a momentary
point of view. Anyone who doesn’t believe this probably cannot enjoy reading Howard the Duck.”

Howard the Duck Tim Robbins AstrogliderAmongst the cult of readers that did enjoy reading Howard the Duck was George Lucas. Now after having made a bit of name for himself after completing the Star Wars trilogy and
currently in the middle of an Indiana Jones hat trick, Lucas would wield
his power to bring Howard to the big screen.

What was once going to be an animated project, Howard the Duck would be reworked as a big-budget summer release for Universal Pictures. With the cache of Lucas’ name attached as one
of the producers, special effects contributed by Lucas’ own Industrial
Light and Magic and a $37 million budget, Howard the Duck had
a lot of hopes to become a giant success.

However, Howard the Duck would lay a giant egg. The film would end up being one
of the most famous cinematic disasters ever. Critically panned, Howard 
the Duck would take a beating and become a laughing stock by film fans. Film critic Gene
Siskel famously asked, “Who was this stupid film made for?”

Audiences stayed away. After Howard the Duck barely managed to make it’s budget back after being unleashed onto the world, it would fade away that summer.

Howard the Duck Lea Thompson love sceneIt did leave an impact though. Shakeups at Universal were attributed to the failure left by Howard, director Willard Huyck would never direct another movie again, the cast had trouble getting back to work after the cold reception the film received and shaking the stink from being associated with it.

It would also mark a huge blemish on Lucas’ resume that would follow him for the rest of his career. The only honors Howard the Duck would receive was at the end of the year it tying with Under the Cherry Moon as the Worst Picture winner at the annual Razzie awards.

I take a look at this oddball character of Gerber’s, how a movie starring this cult character came to be and the film starring Lea Thompson, Tim Robbins and Jeffrey Jones, the legendary Howard the Duck.

Superhero Films – Chap. 28: Howard The Duck from HaphazardStuff on Vimeo.

8 thoughts on “Superhero Films: Howard The Duck (1986)

  1. You know just looking at some of the films you have assessed I can't help but wonder that its ironic that the comic book/superhero genre has been reinvigorated as time has gone on. Some of the earlier efforts, such as Popeye, Swamp Thing and the last two Reeve Superman films have left a bit to be desired. Howard The Duck notwithstanding. It's amazing to think that whilst cinema in general has gone into decline, the superhero/comic book genre has gone from zero to hero slowly as time went on.

    In regards to Howard the Duck. Firstly I've never read the comic books, and the fact that this character has achieved its own title under Marvel Max has really piqued my interest. The only Marvel Max comics I've read so far were The Punisher series, and if Howard The Duck shares a label with the Punisher then….wow.

    However I have seen the film, and not only is it painfully unfunny, its repetitive. I can accept repetition in films, if I didn't I wouldn't be a Bond fan. But the duck jokes do get tiresome really quickly. I first saw this film at the suggestion of, believe or not, a film critic called Mark Kermode. Go on his youtube page and he absolutely loves this film, and the reason it came up was because he compared this flick to Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Now comparing this flick with Scott Pilgrim is just incomparable, the only links these two films have is that they are both based on cult graphic novels, they were both box office disasters, and they are both repetitive. However Scott Pilgrim is witty, the jokes are hilarious and the film has a flawed, yet charming, pace and tone.

    The only charm Howard the Duck has is Lea Thompson, who is just so hot. I don't know what George Lucas was thinking when he wanted to bring this character to the screen, maybe he wanted to push his ILM team to the limit!? And as for the team of Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz? With the exception of Radioland Murders, the only other project the couple were linked too, that I know of, was an unproduced script for Bond 17 back in the early 90s. It had nothing to do with Goldeneye, and upon reading a brief synopsis, I'm kind of glad it wasn't made. And as for Radioland Murders, the only reason I watched it was because it was directed by Mel Smith, a British comedian who was at his peak during the early 90s (he sadly passed away a few months ago)

    When it comes to George Lucas, I always have more of disdain for him then a reverence. First and foremost, I'm not a fan of the Star Wars series. However I do admit that some advantages did come out because of it;
    1) It pushed the envelope in special effects.
    2) It made a star out of Harrison Ford
    3) It made sci-fi commercially viable
    4) It enabled Lucas to set up the Indiana Jones trilogy (which I revere and adore)
    However post Star Wars, Lucas has always been a strange duck (forgive the pun) This is a man who would go into different directions with extremes. One such example is that even though he left his mark on mainstream Hollywood cinema, he did go off on his own adventures by being responsible (along with Francis Ford Coppola) for partially financing Akira Kurosawa's Kagemusha, and also producing Paul Schrader's bio-epic on Mishima.

    Judging from your critique, Howard the Duck as the comics portrayed him was way ahead of its time. Looking at some of the comics that you used in your video, I couldn't help but wonder what could have happened had Lucas stayed true to the source material and made a satirical film? Would the film have become a benchmark in bridging the cap between adult humor and comic book film, instead of the turkey it became? Who knows. The fact that you mentioned Ted, makes me wonder if Seth Macfarlene took inspiration from Howard the Duck? Again who knows.

  2. A film which costs $35 mil and makes $35 mil doesn't make it's budget back- typically a little less than half the ticket sales go to the production company (actually less, because overseas sales are taxed higher than in the US, and the theater's take is larger too.)

  3. I suppose I should have been more specific and said it made its production budget back. I'm not sure how much they spent marketing it. As I recall it got a pretty decent promotion. Plus, there were trading cards, Howard candies, a music video, not sure how that affected the overall cost to everything. But yeah you're right the studio didn't recoup all the money they spent on it. The movie wasn't a push for them.

  4. And I agree with one of your key criticisms- that the writers clearly could not decide whether they wanted to market this film to kids or adults, and tried to do both, which is extremely difficult to do. Lucas pulled it off with the first two Star Wars films- they were compelling to adults because they entertained kids but didn't obviously pander to them. Then we got "Return of the Jedi" and half an hour with the Ewoks, which caused adults to roll their eyes and become bored while kids loved them. I guess the producer of Howard the Duck wanted to appeal to kids without actually insulting the fans of the original strip- and just failed, miserably.

  5. Great review, Stuff!

    You outdid yourself this time. And I'm not exaggerating.

    One thing I like about your reviews and what sets them apart from other reviews is that your offer a sense of context. You give us what type of world would give birth to a grumpy comic book duck and what were the times like that would cause Lucas to roll the dice on such a character.

    You also compare movies better than most. Like I forgot that Crocodile Dundee was the same type of story as Howard the Duck. And that one did a better job at telling jokes and giving a story.

    The thing about Howard the Duck that you touch on and is being hinted at in the comments is: how incurious the movie makes you at finding out who Howard the Duck was. I always knew that Howard was based on a comic book character but I never wanted to find out more about him. Even as a search on Wikipedia. That may have been his biggest failure. To bring in new fans to keep the niche going.

    Thanks for the review. May there be many more.

  6. I Think There Is Something People Seem To Forget That Is That All Of 'The Media-Hype' That Movies Receive Especially A 'Summer-Movie' That There Is No Possible Way It Can Live Up To It That And All Of The Merchindisng 'Pillow-Cases, 'Toy Action Fiqures' 'Toothbrushes' Etc— Hey The 'Star Wars' Movies Didnt' Gross $9-'Billion Dollars' Just From The 3-Movies Themselves Look At All Of The Hype For 'The Phantom Meanace'-(1999.). That All Began In January Of That Year 4-Months Before The Movies Realease By The Time It Finally Came Out In Movie-Theatres That May People Were 'Sick And Tired' Hearing About It. I Can Remember Seeing A 'Comic-Shop' That Had 'Howard The Duck Comic-Books' Displayed In Its' Front Window Nothing Else But HTD 'Comic-Books' So The Point Is I Think The Main Reason That HTD Failed So Badly Is Because Of 'The Media-Hype' I Heard A Person Say On Tv Once About A 'Media-Hyped Up Movie' 'Its' Going To Be A Letdown' I Think He Was Talking About 'The Phantom Meance'-(1999)

  7. Nice Review, but I think you miss something I'm shock you overlook consider you do very well research for your respect. If you read Steve Jobs biography or the many reports about his works. You know that this was the movie where George Lucas sold Pixar to Steve Jobs. At the time the company wasn't PIXAR by name or it's animation self, but a hardware division of Lucasarts. But it's the one good thing to come out of this failure.
    Now the other thing, the Star Wars Holiday Special. I was way too young to remember this being aired, but this really was the first sign that Lucas wasn't the man with the Golden touch (Goldfinger joker here, sorry). While the special was a ratings success, it left fans and critics with enough cannon fodder to even Lucas himself acknowledge this was a terrible event. And this was before the prequels. A bad Star Wars live-action content during the original trilogy. Also, there were the animation Star Wars cartoons made after Jedi for Saturday Mornings. Droids and Eworks. Lucas had hope these would haven extended Star Wars merchandise, but ultimately failed to do so. Again, before 1986 Howard the Duck. Also, those shows were prequels too.
    Again another movie before Howard where Lucas failed was "Twice Upon a Time" a adult-ish animated south park like movie made that ended up in the back of forgotten films people never make noise about. So, really Lucas had a lot of signs of failure then Howard the Duck, but I know what made up for this. His deal with Disney which brought Star Tours ride, Indiana Jones attractions (hey there's a topic for your blog since Disney brought all it now in the news) and Captain EO. All hits that made up for those failures including Howard the Duck.
    And now here's the shocker I was surprise you didn't put in your video. Howard The Duck came back in June 2012 in a Marvel live action stop motion self. Yep, the very first live-action content since 1986. It was all about how Howard paved the way for all of Marvel success and wanted a Blu-ray treatment to his film. This was after Disney brought Marvel and address some of the things you pointed out on your review. Here's a link to that.

    Still I find the movie charming, even now. There is something about those fail 80s movies/shows that have a bit of charm and effect you just don't see in todays lazy/CG/shaking Cam modern films. Kind of like those after Disney films made after Walt passing. the late 60s/70s era which I find more entertaining then anything done today.
    Also, one thing I think you forget about why Howard the Duck is the way the movie is back then. This dark semi-real/wild crazy style of comedy Hollywood was pushing with back then during the ratings PG to PG-13 era. I was watching Trailers for Hell site and was listing to the creator of SedgeHammer TV show(remember that one) where he talk about The Nude Bomb(hey a Bond connection). One of the things he mention that it was a time of wild comedys with big budget which was normal back then. Strange whey you think about.
    Oh, on another tip. Warner Brothers Archive has a tumbler and podcast and one of the films getting a release is the 1987 The Spirit, no that the 2008 one with Samuel L. Jackson, but the one with 80's Flash Gordon and Star Trek: DS9 Nana Vistor. Maybe this should be look at for your new review. Here's a link to that.

  8. I still love this movie in spite of what the critics say. It got me into the comics and to this day I still love 'em.

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