Summer of '86: Some Quack Analysis of the Mega-Bomb 'Howard the Duck'

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The offending fowl from ‘Howard the Duck’ (Everett)

All this week, we’re celebrating the great — and not so great — movies that hit screens 30 years ago in 1986. Go here to read more.

The summer of 1986 had a huge amount to offer audiences, from seminal teen movie Stand By Me to the dark sci-fi horror of Aliens. But there was one film that even the most committed nostalgist would struggle to defend except in a so-bad-it’s-good kind of way, a movie that — despite coming from minds behind Marvel Comics and Star Wars — was gleefully slammed by critics and proved a giant financial disaster. That film, of course, was Howard the Duck.

In 1984, with the original Star Wars trilogy complete, George Lucas left his position as president of Lucasfilm in order to focus on producing. For one of his first projects, he was keen to reteam with Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, two film-school buddies with whom he’d collaborated on the scripts for American Graffiti and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. They suggested tackling a Marvel Comics character called Howard the Duck. (Huyck and Katz would write the script together, Huyck would direct, and Katz produced with Lucas.)

Created by writer Steve Gerber and artist Val Mayerik, Howard is an anthropomorphic bird from an alien planet. Though he first appeared in 1973, his own hit title debuted in 1976. The Howard comics frequently parodied or satirized not just the superhero world, but everything from film noir to the politics of the time. Cynical, wisecracking and often accompanied by his on-off girlfriend Beverly Switzler, he quickly became a cult favorite.

Despite the impact Marvel had had on pop culture, by 1986, none of the company’s comic-book characters had ever made it to the big screen. But Lucas was determined to try, with Universal jumping at the opportunity to back the film. On the DVD making-of documentary, Huyck and Katz indicate that the plan was originally to make an animated movie, but since Universal wanted the film much faster, Lucas agreed to live action.

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Lea Thompson and Howard (Everett)

Huyck and Katz’s script sees Howard (performed mostly by the three-and-a-half foot tall actor Ed Gale in a suit and voiced by Broadway musical actor Chip Zien, who was picked over the likes of Robin Williams and Jay Leno) magically transported from his home of Duckworld to Earth, where he saves pop star Beverly (Back to the Future star Lea Thompson) from a mugging using his trademark Quack-Fu martial art. With the aid of janitor/scientist Phil (Tim Robbins), they eventually discover that scientist Dr. Walter Jenning (Jeffrey Jones) is responsible for bringing Howard to Earth, only for Jenning to become possessed by the evil Dark Overlord of the Universe.

It’s loosely plotted stuff, but it was clear that Howard himself was meant to be the big draw. The problem was, the film’s marketing campaign oddly shied away from showing him: The poster showed only a duck’s bill poking out of an egg because, Den Of Geek would later report, executives feared that “audiences wouldn’t pay money to see a film whose lead was a person in a duck suit.“

A lot of work was put into bringing Howard to life (“we went through a huge R&D project finding the right feathers. A lot of us put in more than 100 hours a week,” Industrial Light & Magic’s Charlie Bailey would later tell Wired). But the experimental technology caused the shoot to go wildly over schedule — “I wound up getting paid twice for that movie because of all the overtime,” Robbins said earlier this year.

Lea Thompson would later agree, telling the AV Club that the film “took six months to shoot… it was a gigantic movie, and everybody wanted that part.” Universal’s marketing blitz as the Aug. 1 release date approached included a hotline where you could call and listen to a new recording of Howard every day (listen to some of them here), and a Budweiser tie-in. But still, Howard’s actual face was kept from audiences, even in the trailer.

By the time it appeared, few were charmed. “Howard is about as lovable as a dishwasher,” wrote the Chicago Tribune’s review. Most of the reviews were just as toxic (“One Lame Duck,” went the Los Angeles Times headline), and the film went on to take just $16 million domestically on a reported $36 million budget. Years later, Lucas would claim that he’d read the tea leaves early on, telling a Tribeca Film Festival audience in 2015 “I told the producer and writer it’s not gonna work… You can’t put a dwarf in a duck suit and make it work!” And Tim Robbins agreed, telling Crave this year “the duck was miscast… I don’t mean the people that were inside the suit, I mean the design.”

But looking back on the film, the effects are only the beginning of the film’s problems. For one, the anarchic energy of Gerber’s original comics is nowhere to be found: Here, Howard comes across as a sort of washed-up insult comic — a befeathered Rodney Dangerfield — and he’s a sour, unappealing figure to spend time with. (Also, his relationship with Bev mostly comes across as creepy.)

Watch a trailer:

Huyck and Katz’s script feels torn between a sci-fi action adventure, a broadly comedic kids’ film, and a foul-mouthed (or fowl-mouthed?) adult comedy, with Howard leering after scantily clad women and beating up hoodlums. The result is a movie that feels like it doesn’t appeal to anyone. Huyck hasn’t directed since, and as legend (and the book The Battle of Brazil) has it, Universal executives Frank Price and Sidney Sheinberg had a fistfight over who was to blame. Price left the studio just six weeks later, the Variety headline reading “Duck cooks Price’s goose.”

Thompson, meanwhile, half-defends the film as an “interesting movie,” while admitting that “it takes a lot of strength, a lot of perseverance to love Howard the Duck.” She’s grateful to it, though, telling The Hollywood Reporter this week that she’d initially turned down John Hughes’s Some Kind of Wonderful, only to accept the role when Howard tanked so badly. “I wouldn’t have done [it] if Howard wasn’t such a bomb,” Thompson said. The shoot for Some Kind of Wonderful brought another Howard into her life: Howard Deutch, the film’s director. Thompson and Deutch fell in love during the shoot and married in 1989 (their daughter Zoey costarred in Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some).

Perhaps that’s why Thompson recently reunited with her avian co-star: She recently made a cameo, in drawn form, in the eighth issue of the relaunched Howard the Duck comic series by Chip Zdarsky and Joe Quinones, which sees Howard as a private eye in the Marvel universe, and has been a cult hit since it first appeared last year. It’s further proof that you can’t keep a good duck down.

The 1986 movie might have been a decidedly inauspicious start for Marvel movies, but they would eventually learn their lessons, with 2008’s Iron Man spawning an entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. And Howard wasn’t left behind. In 2014, fans who waited through the credits of Marvel Studios’ megahit Guardians of the Galaxy were greeted with a surprise: The film’s post-credits scene sees Benicio Del Toro’s the Collector sharing the screen with a martini-sipping, CGI incarnation of Howard (voiced by Seth Green). “I have a feeling that Marvel’s gonna redo it because of the technology they have today,” George Lucas would say, not long after Guardians’ release. The wildly prolific studio hasn’t announced any plans yet. But who knows where Howard will hatch next.

Read more:

Summer of ’86: ‘Stand by Me’ Takes on Life, Death, and One Epic Barf-o-Rama
Summer of ’86: The Terrifying Madness of ‘Manhunter’ — and Our First Introduction to an Infamous Serial Killer
Summer of ’86: ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’ Let John Hughes Graduate from Teen Movies With Honors
Summer of ’86: The Wild, Wacko Genre Mashup of ‘Big Trouble in Little China’
Summer of ‘86: The ‘Top Gun’ Music Editor Remembers How He Took Audiences Right Into the Danger Zone