Marvel Movie Reflections Issue #36: Howard the Duck

Written by David Holland

I’ve always found that it’s best to go into a movie with no expectations. That’s why I try not to read too many fan theories or spoilers and I don’t dive into trailer breakdowns. I want to be a blank slate for the storyteller instead of bringing my preconceived notions of what I think a movie will or should be. Hopefully at the end I can walk away thinking Wow, that movie told a unique story in a compelling way.

Of course, sometimes I walk away thinking …….What did I just watch?

Howard the Duck (film) - Wikipedia
There is no other joke. The movie is the joke.

What Worked?

Let’s put “Howard the Duck” in its context. It’s the 1980’s, which means special effects are more on the “miss” side of “hit-or-miss”. Howard feels less believable than the puppet Yoda from Return of the Jedi, which came out only a few years earlier, although being the protagonist is a much heavier lift than sharing a few words of wisdom with Mark Hamill before fading into the Force. And to be fair, this movie was an adaptation of one of Marvel’s most obscure titles. Comic book movies themselves were relatively new in 1986, and there was no blueprint for one based on a self-parodying, wisecracking comic book hero. In a lot of ways, Howard lays the foundation for movies like Deadpool. And before you ask, no I am not the first person to make that connection. Deadpool the Duck (9781302904845): Camagni, Jacopo, Moore,  Stuart: Books
You’re welcome?

It took about 30 minutes of the movie for me to realize what I was in for. It’s sort of like the Super Mario Brothers movie, a film that makes you realize you’re never fully going to understand what was going through the minds of the people who made it, but you can still laugh at the absurdity of the final product.

What Didn’t?

I’ll try to keep this relatively brief. I don’t think anyone really knew what they were doing with this movie. The plot is all over the place, with long, slow drags punctuated by extended chase scenes. The dialogue is written specifically to jam as many bird puns in as possible. None of the actors seem exactly sure what to do with themselves whenever they share the screen with Howard. Props to Lea Thompson for deciding to play as straight. Tim Robbins took the opposite approach, choosing to chew the scenery with every word and gesture, often making his character the most ridiculous in the shot even when he is sharing the screen with an anthropomorphized duck. George Lucas’ name is all over the credits of this movie, which came only three years after Return of the Jedi. I guess it serves as a good reminder that not every idea George Lucas had was a good one.

Any behind the scenes research will quickly reveal some of the problems. The film was originally supposed to be animated, which would have solved a lot of the special effects problems. It became live-action because of a contractual obligation to a distributor, not for any good creative reason. The Howard special effects were a constant source of trouble on set, which is a serious problem considering he is the title character. The tone is often childish but with lots of adult humor, making it unclear who the creators intended as an audience.

Final Verdict:

Howard the Duck enjoys cult status, as evidenced by his cameo in Guardians of the Galaxy, and he is a precursor to other satirical, absurdist characters. That doesn’t mean this movie is worth your time.

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