The UnPopular Opinion: Howard the Duck
THE UNPOPULAR OPINION is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATHED. We're hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Enjoy!
****SOME SPOILERS ENSUE****
In the annals of movie history, there are numerous films that are looked at as the worst. Some deserve the title while others retain a cult following that enjoy the foibles and failures of the film in question. Some represent a point in time that can never be replicated and the death of a franchise before it even got started. And, in very rare cases, there are films that are every one of these things. HOWARD THE DUCK is one of those films. The first Marvel film since CAPTAIN AMERICA in 1944, HOWARD THE DUCK nearly destroyed comic book films for decades and is sometimes linked to George Lucas' sale of Pixar to cover costs from the film's poor box office.
I love HOWARD THE DUCK. I will never shy away from how much I love this movie. I may be one of the half dozen people on Earth who would ever admit such a thing, but there are some films that just click with an audience member and HOWARD THE DUCK is one of those films for me. Firstly, you have to take into account that when I first saw HOWARD THE DUCK, I was nine years old. At that age, in the 1980s, a movie like HOWARD THE DUCK looks absolutely amazing. I saw a talking duck on screen and I was sucked into this upside down world of space aliens and alternate dimensions. The source material was lost on me at that time, but upon revisiting it years later, I still find the film to be a charming and unique time-waster in the very best sense of the term.
Reflecting back, I can honestly say that HOWARD THE DUCK was a game-changer for me in a lot of ways. Firstly, seeing Lea Thompson in her panties seducing Howard is very likely one of the most sexually confusing moments in cinema history. Yeah, I felt strange rumblings during the sequence and yet I was completely disturbed that she was getting ready to bang an alien duck. Still, it says something for the movie if you are sucked into the world on screen enough that you are willing to let that go thanks to a massive dose of suspension of disbelief. The opening sequence on Howard's home world, Duckworld, featuring him being sucked through space to Earth, also featured a female duck bathing with exposed breasts. This also was very confusing, but represented another moment where I couldn't be too bothered by the fact a duck had massive boobs because I was looking at massive boobs. Either way, HOWARD THE DUCK was kind of a sexual awakening for my pre-teen self in ways I should probably discuss with a therapist.
Even so, HOWARD THE DUCK presents a world where reality is just not in the cards. In 1986, seeing an adaptation like this of a surreal and satiric comic book was well ahead of it's time. Howard is a lot like fan favorite Marvel character Deadpool in that they are both smartasses who exist in a meta-fictional universe and have yet to be realized on screen to their fullest potential. We are on the cusp of seeing Rocket Raccoon come to life in James Gunn's GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY and we are all excited beyond belief. Why should HOWARD THE DUCK be any different? Howard is an anthropomorphic talking duck who fights aliens and doesn't take shit from anyone. Howard was Rocket before Rocket was Rocket.
The principal from FERRIS BUELLER'S DAY OFF looks pissed.
HOWARD THE DUCK is also full of recognizable actors who sell this crazy film. The aforementioned Lea Thompson, an 80s movie mainstay, is great as Beverly. Tim Robbins is a goofy sidekick and nothing like the Oscar caliber actor we would meet years later. And the iconic Jeffrey Jones portrays Dr. Walter Jenning and his evil alter ego, The Dark Overlord. The special effects and approach to filming HOWARD THE DUCK truly makes it feel like a comic book come to life. It is in that mindset that I find it crazy that anyone could judge this film as anything more. It would be three years before Tim Burton would realize BATMAN and revolutionize comic book films, but HOWARD THE DUCK, like STAR WARS, is steeped in the pulpy source material and it does it proud.
HOWARD THE DUCK can feel a bit incongruous, I will admit that much. The first half of the movie plays like a duck out of water tale as we see Howard trying to deal with being alone in an alien world. The comedy of errors he goes through feels like it jumped right from the comic book. If anything, maybe the lack of shock at those around this talking duck could have been played into a bit more. In this take, it almost seems like the 1980s were so batshit crazy, no one would have batted an eye at a walking alien bird. The second half of the movie, especially the third act of the film, feels like a much darker and more adult tale. The special effects that literally emaciate and transform Jeffrey Jones' character to an evil shell of himself is quite disturbing. Sometimes, when I watch HOWARD THE DUCK, I feel like I am watching two different films shoved together. If given more time, maybe those two films could have been better as distinct adventures.
Kick his ass, Sea Bass!
There is a unique and specific charm to HOWARD THE DUCK that may also play against it. A lot of people likely have heard bad things about the film and stayed away while others may not have been willing to give up their reality for a couple of hours to experience a film this off the wall. HOWARD THE DUCK now, almost thirty years later, is so steeped in the decade that it was made that it is hard for viewers to look past the dated clothes and pop culture references to see the movie for what it is: a fun fantasy adventure with a smart-ass lead character. You know, kind of like every other Marvel movie.
I may not be able to convert you into thinking that HOWARD THE DUCK is a great movie. In fact, I will admit it right now: HOWARD THE DUCK is not a great movie. But, it is a hell of a lot of fun and unlike anything else you will see. The tone and approach to telling this character's origin may never see the big screen again but the film we do have is imbued with the same element of childlike wonder that is inherent in every George Lucas production. Maybe HOWARD THE DUCK went off the rails a bit. Maybe it needed to be tightened up in the screenplay department. There are countless maybes you can pin on this film, but we cannot change what it is. Revisit HOWARD THE DUCK and I am sure you will find a well-crafted visual film with still high quality visual effects and an unforgettable protagonist.