With Back to the Future filling movie theaters all across the country in 1985, it was easy to see that the main cast members were definitely going to be back on the screen for years to come. Lea Thompson was already well on the road to finishing her next big project, one that she was sure was going to become another big hit and launch her into the stratosphere. Virtually every young actress in Hollywood had auditioned for the coveted part of Beverly Switzler in a big screen adaption of a very popular Marvel Comics property. That it was the first Marvel project to hit the silver screen was the icing on the cake – it was being produced by mega-producer George Lucas and written and directed by the same team that had helped bring both Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and More American Graffiti to audiences around the world. Wait, there was a sequel to American Graffiti? How come I’ve never heard of it before? Oh, it bombed big time. I’m sure that’s just a fluke. Just about everything else that George Lucas has touched has turned to gold. And this is Marvel Comics! Marvel Comics – the home of Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and The Avengers! What could go wrong?
Oh, it’s 1986.
Long before any of those now iconic movies have even thought of making the leap from comic to page. Right.
This is Howard the Duck we’re talking about.
Howard. The. Duck.
Quite possibly the most infamous movie misfire of the 1980s.
But we’re not here to heap anymore bile onto poor ol’ Howard. We’re here to examine an overlooked part of that box office bomb. Oops, I did it again. I’ll try to keep it positive from here on.
Howard the Duck opens with our titular character at home on Duckworld coming home after a hard day at work. He just wants to sit, drink something with a kick and crack open the latest issue of Playduck. As we meet Howard we find that he’s hard working, single and not interested in anything but himself. He’s a typical guy in his twenties (although his age is never quite revealed in the film) looking for nothing more than a good time. Fate it seems has other ideas for Howard. A moment later he’s whisked far from home and deposited on a strange alien planet alone and confused. Not too long after he meets Beverly Switzler as played by the aforementioned Lea Thompson. Lea’s Beverly sees something in this strange duck creature and decides not only to take him home but help him find his way back to wherever he came from. Beverly is the lead singer of a band called Cherry Bomb and has no luck with either band managers or men in her life. Beverly and Howard make a connection in that litter strewn alley in Cleveland and decide to throw their lots together in a bid to find something better. Through Beverly’s eyes we see Howard as more than just an alien in a strange world he never created. When Beverly goes through Howard’s wallet we see a bit more of his life and a strange moment where Beverly finds a prophylactic (and for about the tenth time you’ve had to remind yourself that this is a kid’s movie). Never mind that not a single child in the audience had any idea what that was supposed to be! After a disastrous attempt to figure out Howard’s origins (from Tim Robbins, no less!) it’s back to the apartment for these two star crossed lovers. And here’s where our story takes a strange turn. For some inexplicable reason the movie decides to strip Beverly down to her very skimpy underwear (not that I minded, I was obsessed with Back to the Future, and not having discovered the Tom Cruise vehicle “All the Right Moves” yet, ( look it up – you’re welcome) I was stunned at the scene) and Beverly and Howard play out a very strange seduction scene. Howard is shown ogling Beverly’s nearly naked body and remarking how he’s taken on an appreciation of the human female form. She scoffs at him and as they get into bed Howard makes the following offer, “Love’s strange; we could give it a whirl.” He literally gives her duck lips and is stunned himself when she agrees to submit to his wily charms.
Howard doesn’t quite know what to do (along with the audience) and it’s a relief to both him and the folks munching on their popcorn when the scene is interrupted by the authorities who frown on what was about to go down. Soon they are whisked away to a secret government lab to discover the secret of how Howard was brought to earth. The lead scientist, gamely played by resident 80’s authority figure Jeffrey Jones, is soon taken over by something called an Intergalactic Overlord, a far off space creature with plans on world domination.
Beverly is taken captive and it’s up to Howard the Duck to rise up and be the hero that he needs to be to save both the girl he loves and the planet he now calls home.
The film itself is a bizarre mixture of expensive special effects and shoddy writing that never seems to find its (webbed) footing. Touching scenes between Howard and Beverly are intermixed with off the wall duck impressions courtesy of Tim Robbins, redneck sushi chefs and a lazily directed chase scene involving a platoon of squad cars and that most dynamic of flying machines ,the Ultralight, which must have seemed novel in the ’80s but comes across as low budget in hindsight.
Through it all Howard and Beverly form a unique bond and Lea Thompson convincingly plays a woman who just might have a place in her heart for a walking, talking duck. It seems absurd but isn’t that what takes us to the movies in the first place? Just this past summer we thrilled to the hi-jinks of a talking raccoon who could both fire a laser cannon and formulate a complex jailbreak. Had he reached over and planted one on Gamora we probably would have cheered. She would have kicked his raccoon ass, but that’s between them, thank you very much. But look how far we’ve come in the Marvel Universe. And, like it or not, the genesis was Howard the Duck and the sweet story of a rocker and a lost duck.
With Beverly the captive of the now fully possessed Dr. Jennings; it’s up to Howard to save the day. The twist comes when Howard realizes that the only way to save Beverly is to give up any chance of going home. He makes the sacrifice and destroys the machine in a Lucasfilm orgy of stop motion creatures and superimposed explosions. In giving up his homeworld, Howard gains the respect of the earthlings he despises so much (hairless apes!) and the love of the one person he cares about. The movie comes full circle when Cherry Bomb is shown giving a giant concert at the end. With thousands in attendance it’s clear that Beverly’s dream of being a rock star has come true. Howard is shown backstage as the group’s manager – a nifty solution to a problem shown at the beginning — and when Howard is accidentally sent onstage he shows off both his guitar skills and his performing abilities.
For most ’80s movies this would have been a great way to end the film, but Howard the Duck goes one step further and ends the film with a quiet moment backstage between Howard and Beverly. It’s a bold move and a signal that these two are indeed a couple. When the credits roll you walk out of the theatre knowing that Beverly and Howard lived happily ever…whatever that means for a woman and a duck.
There was even a move to let the audience know before they even walked into the theatre that Beverly was going to fall for Howard. The teaser trailer for the film features Lea Thompson completely dolled up and set against a grey photographer’s background. She gushes about the new man in her life that everyone thinks is a hero and how she only wants to run her fingers through his….feathers. It’s an odd trailer that is set after the events of the movie. Beverly is seen cooing about this amazing hero who has touched her soul. Her eyes are glazed over and her hair is as high as the moon – and her heart is set on this short, feathery Howard. Again, it’s a bold choice and it really sets the tone for the movie. As someone who read a few Howard the Duck comics long before the movie, it was strange to see the duck on the big screen. The producers kept Howard out of the teaser trailer – hoping to keep his appearance a surprise until the film’s release. A similar campaign worked for Steven Spielberg’s E.T. where only the titular character’s fingers were shown. The problem is that E.T. was a gentle character whose unusual appearance needed to be spoon fed to an audience who had no clue of his intentions. Howard is a DUCK – we know what ducks look like and his reveal in the first few seconds of the film is not that surprising. It’s interesting to note that the producers felt his look was a bigger reveal than his relationship with a human. There were cries of bestiality upon the film’s release, which is interesting as Beverly and Howard only share a kiss on screen. The one hint of a physical relationship is shown as a joke on Beverly’s part, a terror on Howard’s and one of disgust by the group of men who invade the apartment. Alternately, when Belle kisses Beast in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast just a few years later, audiences cheered and applauded through tears. What a difference a few years (and a film’s tone) makes! On the other end of the spectrum, when Geena Davis is shown giving birth to a baby sized maggot in David Cronenberg’s The Fly, theatre goers nearly vomited on the person in front of them. Howard the Duck’s portrayal of a loving relationship fell somewhere in the middle with audiences simply staying away due to the insane concept of the film and the lackluster trailer that, when it finally revealed Howard, was sadly, too late to prop up the box office.
Could this be another tragic love story to lay at the feet at producer and creative mastermind George Lucas? Remember, this is the guy who gave us a passionate kiss between a brother and a sister, a loveless romance between a Jedi and a Senator and hooked up Indiana Jones with Karen Allen in order to give us a character named Mutt. Love and roses is not Mr. Lucas’ strong suit.
But I’m the guy who defends Howard the Duck. I saw it twice at the theatre – on opening night at the big show and the next Friday at the dollar show. Seriously, it was gone from theaters that quick. I was able to look past the more obnoxious parts of the film (Howard working at a sex club? Yuck.) and see the film for what it was trying to be – a sweet love story between an alien and a human. Was it Starman? No, but it’s not a terrible film, either. (And hey, does Karen Allen’s great turn in that John Carpenter film redeem her Crystal Skull debacle? Probably.) Recently, I met Lea Thompson at a DVD signing for a recent film. She made a joke about her appearance in the first big screen Marvel Comics movie and how it was a miracle her movie didn’t kill the idea of comic book movies forever. I defended both the film Howard the Duck and her performance. If you’re talking about box office receipts, Punisher: War Zone made 6 million less than our Duck. And if you want to talk faithfulness to the comic book, then I suggested Fox Studio’s Fantastic Four films. Howard the Duck, as bad as you think it is, at least it’s somewhat similar to the source material. The Fantastic Four and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer are only somewhat reminiscent of their comic book counterparts. You laugh at the Dark Overlord? I laugh at Dr. Doom sharing an origin story with Mr. Fantastic. I actually got into an argument over the merits of Howard the Duck with another woman in attendance that turned out to be Lea Thompson’s sister! I’m not sure if I won the argument or not. I can say that the proof of Howard’s endurance can be seen in the after credits stinger of Guardians of the Galaxy, where our martini-drinking hero makes a crack about a dog licking Benicio “The Collector” Del Toro on the face.
Audiences went wild when Howard showed up in the big budget Guardians movie. The same cannot be said for the currently rebooted Fantastic Four trailer making the rounds.
I think part of that appeal is Howard’s infamy. But maybe it’s because audiences back in 1986 truly believed that a woman could love a duck. Watch Howard the Duck again…you might be shocked at how romantic that little guy can be.
Jeff Tucker works in the theme park industry. His magical book series, “The Sixth Key,” is available on Amazon.com. He also hosts his own Podcast, “91 Reasons,” available on iTunes.