The year is 1986. The first Spider-Man movie is 16 years away. The Marvel Cinematic Universe won’t begin to coalesce for another two decades. The last time someone released anything in theaters based on a Marvel property was before Marvel Comics even existed as a company — the Captain America serial of 1944 was technically based on a “Timely Comics” magazine.
In 1986, the very first feature film based on a Marvel comic debuts. It isn’t Fantastic Four or X-Men or The Incredible Hulk.
It’s Howard the Duck — the first Marvel movie, and still the weirdest by a very large margin.
In fairness, this was a slightly less bizarre choice in 1986 than it seems in 2021, when Marvel movies routinely break box-office records and the Howard the Duck character is forever tainted by his association with this notorious flop. Before Howard the Duck won four Razzie Awards and cost almost $40 million to make (the equivalent of $95 million today), the Howard the Duck comics of the late 1970s and early 1980s by writer Steve Gerber and artists like Gene Colan were an underground hit, popular enough to inspire merchandise like Howard the Duck T-shirts and get their own spinoff newspaper strip for a time.
The Howard the Duck comics spoofed genre conventions and added a paradoxically human element to the Marvel Universe. Howard may have come from a planet filled with anthropomorphic ducks, but he was just an ordinary guy thrust into incredible circumstances — trapped, as the tagline of his monthly comic blared, in a world he never made. Despite his popularity, though, Howard never became a household name. At best, he was a cult favorite, and a long shot to headline his own movie — much less one that cost more to produce than the original Ghostbusters or Back to the Future.
Howard’s look from the comics was based on cartoon characters like Donald Duck, so an animated Howard the Duck movie that copied (and satirized) that Disney style would have made a lot of sense. Unfortunately, Universal Pictures didn’t care about making sense; they cared about filling a hole in their summer 1986 schedule and instead demanded a live-action feature that could be developed and produced quickly. George Lucas, the executive producer of the project, was happy to oblige, figuring that Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light and Magic division could deliver whatever special effects the movie required.
His confidence was misplaced. Visual effects had come a long way by the mid-’80s, thanks in large part to breakthroughs made by Lucas and ILM, but they had a long way to go before they could convincingly capture the imaginative visuals of Marvel artists. Creating compelling space battles was nothing compared to a walking, talking duck, which proved very difficult to pull off. In interviews, producer Gloria Katz says the Howard animatronics were “constantly exploding or losing feathers.” Director William Huyck describes the scene on the first day working with a Howard puppet. “We’re shooting,” Huyck recalls, “and suddenly Howard opens his mouth and his whole neck opens … I regret that the technology wasn’t as far as it should have been.”
The technological limitations already make Howard — who was mostly portrayed by his stand-in and stunt double Ed Gale after the child actor initially cast as Howard couldn’t handle the claustrophobia of wearing the duck suit — an off-putting onscreen presence. But Huyck, Katz, and Lucas didn’t stop there. They leaned into the strangeness, putting Howard into one overtly sexual situation after another. In the opening scenes on “Duckworld,” Howard peruses a Playduck magazine that contains a centerfold of a curvy female duck with large, feather-covered breasts. After Howard rockets to our planet on a mysterious laser beam, he gets a job in a romance spa, where he makes dirty jokes while couples feverishly make out all around him.
To top it off, Howard soon shacks up with Beverly (Lea Thompson), a human woman who becomes his one friend on Earth. The sequence where Lea Thompson and Howard climb into bed and begin to tease each other is routinely gets cited among the weirdest sex scenes in the history of cinema — and that still might be underselling it. None of the actual jokes in Howard the Duck are as funny as imagining the meeting where Universal executives signed off on a talking duck movie this horny.
At almost the exact moment man and fowl are about to play nug-a-nug, the movie pivots to an entirely different kind of horror. Their horizontal refreshment gets interrupted by a scientist named Walter Jenning (Jeffrey Jones), who claims responsibility for Howard’s sudden appearance on Earth and believes he can send him home. Instead, Jenning’s “laser spectroscope” malfunctions and brings another, far more malevolent creature to our planet. This “Dark Overlord of the Universe” nests inside Jenning’s body, gradually mutating it into a gruesome creature with pulsating tentacles and energy powers.
Howard, Beverly, and Jenning wind up in a car together and then arrive at a diner. (The neon sign, which has clearly been replaced and covered over multiple times as the restaurant changed hands, currently reads “Joe Roma’s Cajun Sushi.”) Howard and Beverly try to get some beers and figure out what to do next, while the Dark Overlord (speaking in an unsettling, alien rasp) threatens them and reveals his plan to zap even more Overlords to Earth. The last time I saw this movie, sometime around the late 1980s, Jones as the Dark Overlord was so frightening — particularly as his face became covered in sweat and hideous prosthetic makeup — it gave me actual nightmares.
In 2021, Marvel movies are aimed at the widest possible audience. They cost so much to make, that’s the only way they can be profitable. No one would confuse Howard the Duck with entertainment for the whole family. (The whole Manson Family, maybe.) That, perversely, is what makes Howard the Duck fascinating to revisit, even if it is not “good” by any conventional definition. Critics say every Marvel Cinematic Universe film looks, sounds and feels exactly the same. Howard the Duck doesn’t even look, sound, and feel the same from one scene to the next. It’s goofy in one sequence, and horrifying in the next. It’s got an extremely conventional score by John Barry, and quirky pop songs written by Thomas Dolby and performed by Beverly’s girl group, Cherry Bomb. It’s got more explicit onscreen sexuality than all 23 MCU movies combined.
Howard the Duck’s reputation as the worst Marvel movie ever is long out-of-date. It’s far from a masterpiece, but it’s also way more interesting than recent duds like Dark Phoenix, which feel painfully and awkwardly calculated to appeal to a mainstream audience. Nothing in Howard the Duck feels calculated at all. It’s pure chaos, up to and including the technically impressive and needlessly elaborate chase scene where Howard and his buddy Phil (a young Tim Robbins) fly an ultralight plane through the streets of a small Midwestern town. This effects-heavy sequence was designed by The Rocketeer and Captain America: The First Avenger director Joe Johnston.
Howard’s arrival on Earth mirrored his movie’s arrival in theaters; if Dr. Jenning had brought Howard the Duck from outer space his laser spectroscope, it couldn’t look any more out of place in the landscape of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As dopey as some of the gags are, and as downright troubling as some of its sexuality remains, the fact that Howard takes so many chances gives it an oddball energy missing from a lot of “better” comic-book movies. No one has ever accused Howard the Duck of being boring.
Marvel has their movies and television shows down to a science these days; they crank out films and series with a factory-like efficiency. (Two weeks after WandaVision ends, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier takes over its time slot on Disney+.) A lot of what Marvel produces is very satisfying, but their universe-driven approach could never create something as unpredictable and wild as Howard the Duck. And so we remain trapped in a cinematic world Howard never made.
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