The first Guardian of the Galaxy!
Movie: Howard the Duck, also known as Howard: A New Breed of Hero
Directed by Willard Huyck
Release date 1986
Genre Scifi/Comedy film
First there was Donald Duck. Then came Daffy Duck. And finally we got Howard the duck.
The film that introduced Quack-Fu to the world!
Howard the Duck was originally a comic book character created by writer Steve Gerber and artist Val Mayerik in the pages of Marvel Comics. Howard first appeared in Adventure into Fear #19 (from December 1973) as a secondary character in that comic's Man-Thing feature and then returned as a backup feature in Giant-Size Man-Thing #4–5. The story followed the misadventures of this cartoon duck trapped on our Earth (or at the very least, Marvel's version of Earth). These comics began at first as parody of horror comics before moving to mocking anything from other comics to cartoon physics, making a lot of references to other titles and pop culture. The tone was definitively satirical, parodying all sorts of genres. Howard was very meta and self-aware of being in a comic book.
Howard's own ongoing series didn't last long, but they became a cult phenomenon. Over the years Marvel attempted several tries at bringing Howard back to the Marvel Universe, most times with Steve Gerber still taking care of his creation. From various crossovers with other heroes such as She-Hulk and Spider-Man to a couple of mini-series including one through the Marvel MAX imprint for mature reader.
What about the film?
A big budget Howard the Duck movie was in production for a long time since the success of the comic book.
For a quit long time it was going to be an animated film! Before that script finally turned into a live-action film adaptation, thanks to a lot of factors. Most notably the way Marvel signed off those rights and also to avoid any further issues with Disney (who claimed for a long time this character was a ripoff Donald!). Which is kind of hilarious considering in insight how Disney now owns Marvel after all those years (which also helped bring him back for a further cameo..).
The film's biggest advocate always was George Lucas himself, executive producer for the film.
The film was made through his company Lucasfilm for Universal Pictures, and it was released in August 1986. It was directed by Lucas' long time assistant screenwriter, director and producer Willard Huyck who worked on such films as American Graffiti, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, as well as the original Star Wars. With various other great legends of the medium working on the film, such as cinematographer Richard H. Kline (Soylent Green, King Kong (1976) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture).
Strangely enough for such an early adaptation of a Marvel comics, for the most part the film follows the exact pitch of the original comic book series. (Despite a fairly different tone..)
Our story begins on "Duckworld" (...why don't we call our own Earth Humanworld by the way? maybe we should follow suit from our anthropomorphic ducks brethren!). Over there Howard the Duck was your regular duck, trying to enjoy some downtime by reading the last issue of "Playduck". When suddenly... his chair is propelled through his apartment into outer space!!! That's as quick and brutal an opener as you'll ever see. Including "duck boobies" and all!
Howard now finds himself in Cleveland, Ohio! (The comic originally threw him in Florida, where he would soon met Man-Thing.) After a brutal landing and a disarming change of scenery, Howard meets this rocker girl Beverly Switzler who is being attacked by a bunch of punks. But Howard busts out some of his Quack-Fu moves and saves the day. She decides to help him back and lend him a place to stay for the night.
The next day she tries helping Howard find his way back home and introduces him to a friend of hers Phil Blumbertt, a scientist.. who's actually just a janitor at the local museum. All Howard is left with now, is trying to enjoy his stay on Earth and live over here. We get a fun little montage of Howard trying to get a job before finally deciding to help Beverly's band Cherry Bomb.
That's when the film leaves the adult gritty tone behind to become a silly adventure film for the family. The second act of the film finally notices the lack of an actual threat and introduces a villain out of nowhere. Which, I guess, would work better in an ongoing comic book, but not in a feature length narrative.
Howard appears to have a chance to get back to his home planet! This Dr. Walter Jenning and other scientists can send him back home by reversing the original process in a lab. But they end up bringing another creature from another dimension which hijacks Jenning's mind, slowly overtaking his body.
It is a "Dark Overlord of the Universe" and in fact there's a whole species of Dark Overlords waiting to come down Earth! The Dark Overlord Jenning escapes and kidnaps Beverly. Howard gets some help from Phil to track them down at the lab in one final epic showdown. But they destroy Howard's last chance at ever getting back home.
The movie ends with Howard and Beverly on stage, on a fun music tour! Call him Howard THE DUCK!
Regarding your own impressions of the film, you can't deny Howard the Duck marks a big milestone for Marvel Comics. Despite there being a ton of live action TV adaptations at the time, Howard was actually the first proper theatrical film based on a Marvel propriety, not counting the 1944 black-and-white Captain America serial.
George Lucas himself wanted to see the comic book adapted for the big screen. Following American Graffiti in 1973 he proposed an adaptation of this surrealist comic book. But despite Lucas and his studios work on Star Wars, this proved just as much a complicated project. And a lot of issues arised during production. George Lucas was in fact a big fan of the comic, and he loved the comic's noir tone and absurd elements. He also wanted to have LucasFilm start producing films, not just making Star Wars stuff.
Casting in the film also proved to be quite a challenge. Playing Howard proved to be a much more physical role for a child actor so they hired dwarf actor Ed Gale. As for the voice, John Cusack, Martin Short and even Jason Alexander all auditioned for the role, but they ultimately went for Chip Zien's very nasal voice. Otherwise we have a pretty fun cast of secondary characters. The always lovely Lea Thompson was hired for the main female role thanks to her role in Back to the Future. She even got her own clothing from thrift stores for the character. We also have a pretty funny Jeffrey Jones and a great Tim Robbins. Thanks to his experience on his previous films, Lucas was also able to hire again a lot of dwarf actors for extras and to help with our feathered protagonist.
Some of the special effects look actually genuinely pretty good. Howard was brought to life thanks to a combo of both animatronics and suits. A lot of practical effects look pretty good too, the whole gliding sequence required both our actors to actually fly on a small vehicle. Only the climax of the film feels really rushed through the end of the production.
For what it is, Howard the Duck is a pretty long film for that era and the genre, closing at almost 2 hours of runtime!
The films contains several notable differences from the comics, but mostly simplified to tie things down together nicely for a feature film. Beverly here is a singer and not a model anymore. Our villain was changed to an interdimensional Overlord from the original demonic Thog the Overmaster of the realm. Howard isn't mistaken for a mutant anymore. And I'm sure fans missed Bessie the Cow, the vampire cow! Howard's personality is a lot nicer and not as rude and obnoxious as his comic counterpart, and they also incorporated some suggestions from his comic book creator.
The film puts a lot more emphasis on action scenes and special effects than you'd expect from the satirical tone of the book. With a lighted fun tone. It's just a fish-out-of-water story with a duck from outer space stuck on our world. It's a fun concept.
The problem is that the tone of the film is all over the place. Is this a movie suitable for children or for adults only? It starts a lot darker than you'd expect and there's even a lot of sexual innuendos. At the end the story is left open enough for a possible sequel, did they honestly this would work great with audiences?
One of the main issues is that the film takes everything at face value, where the comic had a great self-aware tone. It kinda ends up making Howard a much more boring "regular" Donald Duck ripoff instead of the satire he should be.
The film had a modest enough budget - although it did cost more than Return of the Jedi (!!) to produce - but it was a big commercial flop. The film would be nominated for several Golden Raspberry Awards, but I kinda feel they can be a bit harsh on this one. People always rank it amongst the worst films ever made of all time... but honestly, in my humble opinion it's not that bad. It's cheesy, sure. Very silly. But it's fun, well shot and has some nice special effects.
I'm still impressed the end result of such a convulsed production is actually somewhat decent for a watch. The special effects can be really nice, although that long chase scene at the end seems to drag on for way too long. It comes to no surprise the film developed a cult following over the years. If anything it brought some well-deserved exposure to a gem of a fun obscure little comic book.
It's also a pretty musical movie, in fact I would call it "80s: the movie". The film has some great music by written by John Barry with some late additional material composed by Sylvester Levay. With Thomas Dolby writting the different songs and personally getting to choose the members of Cherry Bomb. Lea Thompson personally sang her own songs! And the final scene with Cherry Bomb was played in front of an actual live audience!
Overall, Howard the Duck is honestly not that bad, really! Sure, the final act of the film is a bit wonky and seems to drag on forever, the film didn't even really need a villain.
So is this textbook definition of a "guilty pleasure"? No, I wouldn't exactly say there's any guilt. finding this movie pretty fun. It is competent with some effects particularly impressively put up. But the film also has a lot of flaws, not just "duck tits". I still say Check it Out on your own to make your own opinion. It could have been a whole lot worse..but it could also have been a lot better too. Animated or live action
It's a decent film. The story is kind of messy and all over the place. The film can't decide if it's aimed for children or a R-Rated audience, mixing parody elements, jokes and sexual content (Howard ends up working in a brothel!). There's some duck-nudity and a kid friendly adventure. It wants to appeal to both, but kinda fails both as well. But there's enough good aspects as well such as Lea Thompson's attitude as Beverly, the music and the special effects.
I still think the source material is good enough for a much better film, though.
Despite its lack of success, the film now has a place in our pop culture. The movie itself was adapted into novelization and a comic book adaptation of the film.
And can you believe it, this film was released exactly 28 years before Guardians of the Galaxy day for day - that is, August 1st, 1986 exactly 28 years before Guardians of the Galaxy's August 1st, 2014 release date! And that is not the only connection there. James Gunn being a huge fan of the original comic book character put a CGi Howard the Duck in the post-credit scene of his 2014 Marvel film, voiced by Seth Green.
Thanks to his little cameo there, Howard was finally given his own new comic book series in March 2015, now a private investigator on Earth. The new book is written by Chip Zdarsky with artist Joe Quinones.
I give it: