Howard the Duck (1986 film)

Posted: August 5, 2014 in George Lucas, Guardians of the Galaxy, Howard the Duck, Man-Thing, Marvel

Right off the bat, there’s no way to address the timing of this particular write-up without discussing the ending of the recently released Guardians of the Galaxy film. So either proceed knowing that we’ll be getting into spoiler territory or leave now.

Still here? Ok.

People who rushed to the theatre this weekend to see Marvel Studios newest outing were treated to a cool little cameo after the credits. Unlike most Marvel movies, this wasn’t a set up for a future installment but rather an amusing tip-of-the-hat to one of their once-popular characters, Howard T. Duck.

It’s funny (in a sad kind of way) that Howard’s appearance at the end of Guardians invokes more laughter due to memories of this ill-fated theatrical attempt than it does memories of his time as an actual comic book character. I think even diehard comic fans could be forgiven for forgetting that Howard was a creation of Marvel and that he’s had a long, complicated history with their own “cosmic” brand of comics.

Not what I expected the cover of his
first appearance to look like.

Howard was created by Steve Gerber and Val Mayerik (who receive a post-credit credit in Guardians) as a secondary character in a 1973 Man-Thing-centered story for Adventure Into Fear. Just so we’re clear, Howard (anthropomorphic duck, master of Quack-Fu, slinger of one-liners) was created in a horror comic. What’s more, he was crazy popular. He ascended to receiving back-up stories within Man-Thing’s self-titled comic before eventually getting his very own series in 1976. I’m not sure why a cartoon duck with a sense of humor became so popular within a horror anthology, but such is the strange world of comic publishing.

Not long after his creation, Hollywood came calling. George Lucas, hot off the success of American Graffiti, was interested in adapting the comic along with some film-school friends of his. However, he put aside the adaptation and instead focused on a smaller project called Star Wars. I’m not sure if anything came of that film. Years later, Lucas returned to the Howard the Duck property.

When the film actually came to fruition in 1986, the production was mired with difficulty. Originally, the intention was to create an animated film, but contractual issues with the studios forced the medium to be changed. This lead to massive re-writes of the script to accommodate the new budgetary restrictions. Even with the back-scaling, the budget ballooned to unmanageable levels, which caused Lucas to sell off some assets to stay afloat. Also, it was decided early on that Howard’s attitude would receive an overhaul. Instead of the sarcastic and rude character of the comic, he was toned down to have a more youthful and lighthearted demeanor. As the script was written and re-written, the existential tone of the comic was stripped away bit by bit. In the end, the story seems wildly uneven, fluctuating from light comedy to ominous suspense with no way to anchor the audience. The plot and characters just aren’t engaging enough to justify the strange shifts in tone.

The finished film centers on Howard as he is whisked away from his home-dimension and transported to Earth. On his quest to get back to his world, he befriends Beverly (a rock singer in the film, as opposed to a nude model in the comic) and comes into conflict with The Dark Overlord, the being who sent him to Earth in the first place. The plot, overall, is largely built around shtick rather any sort of narrative structure.

“‘Sup?”

The film was released on August 1st, 1986 (28 years to the day of the release of GotG) and was an undeniable failure. It’s total theatrical run was just above $37 million. In the 80’s that was a decent take for the average comedy. However, Howard the Duck‘s bloated budget topped out at around $36 million. When marketing’s factored in, it ended up losing a hefty chunk of change. It also received a justifiable savaging from critics and even now continues to have a reputation as one of the worst films ever made.

Weird.

While there’s no direct correlation (at least nothing proven) to the film’s failure, the character’s popularity has waned considerably in the years that followed. His appearances since the 80’s have been sporadic with occasional miniseries or guest appearances ranging from well received to quickly forgotten. To the average person, mentioning the name of the character conjures up images of Lea Thompson in bed with the film version of Howard more than any moment from the comic.

And yet, even in this disastrous mishandling of a beloved property, there is some good. Remember earlier when I mentioned that Lucas was forced to sell some of his assets? Among them was a small animation studio Lucas had developed. His friend, Steve Jobs, offered to buy it for well over market value. This small studio (known as Pixar) found its footing in the animation world and is now responsible for some of the most iconic animated features within the last 20 years. Without Howard the Duck, who knows what would have happened to it?

All things considered, I think it was a little too early for Howard to be adapted. I don’t believe features can be “doomed” from the beginning, but looking at the production history on this flick, it sure looks that way. Perhaps the master of Quack-Fu will finally get a respectful adaptation some day. After all, his short appearance in Guardians just thrust him back into the public spotlight. The comic featuring his first appearance skyrocketed in value and an omnibus of his self-titled adventures from the 70’s is being reprinted in October. With Marvel Studios behind him, we can be assured that his comic origins won’t be forgotten if he’s brought to life once more. That’s one thing about a terrible adaptation, there’s no where to go but up.

Coming Summer 2020.
The Quack is Back
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