It’s the infamous scene everyone remembers from the film – whether they want to or not.
Having been subjected to the tacky “ladies man” come-ons of an alien who resembles an overdressed humanoid duck, Lea Thompson turns the tables and begins to respond as though his lines are actually working.
Cooing about “animal magnetism,” she slides into bed next to the suddenly-humbled duck-like creature, unaware that their shadowed silhouettes are giving unexpected voyeurs an entirely different impression of what is happening. In the pay-off shot, his head-feathers rapidly rise up, serving as a symbolic erection.
It’s a remarkably uncomfortable scene to watch, but at least audiences only have to endure it for a few moments: on the set, working out the puppetry techniques required to achieve the naughty pop-up feathers alone took months of preparation… which certainly puts things into perspective.
For about a decade, 1986’s Howard the Duck was the go-to example of a bad comic-book movie, supplanted only by 1997’s Batman & Robin.
A box-office bomb that was ignored by audiences and eviscerated by critics, the film was trashed for its nonsensical storyline, wildly inconsistent tone, and unconvincing special effects.
It quickly earning a reputation as the first out-and-out boondoggle associated with the post-Star Wars career of producer George Lucas and effectively torpedoed what some had thought would be a trend of adapting other offbeat, adult-skewing humor comics that had been popular in the late 1970s
(see also: Marvel’s once-planned Dazzler feature - which the musical Mutant had been created to appear in and would’ve seen Spider-Man and the Avengers leap to movie screens 30 years early in a disco musical co-starring KISS and the Village People.)
A film’s reputation often changes over time, of course. But while Howard would eventually earn a slightly more positive following, even most of those who came to think of it as a “cult classic” would still think of it as a bad film
– a failure that prompts the question: “How did this get made?”
Howard the Duck had begun life as a Marvel Comics character in 1973, a creation of maverick humorist Steve Gerber aimed mainly at college-aged readers who followed the publisher’s briefly-popular magazine-format “adult” comics.
A grumpy, foul-tempered parody of funny animal characters (mainly Walt Disney’s various Donald-adjacent ducks) that Baby Boomers had grown up on, Howard’s exploits poked fun at the conventions of comic-book storytelling and satirized popular culture, politics, and everyday living in a manner similar to MAD magazine or National Lampoon.
One such college-aged fan was George Lucas, who had been an early admirer of the series and turned his American Graffiti collaborators William Huyck and Gloria Katz on to the idea of adapting the character into an animated feature aimed at older audiences.
However, in part due to Lucas especially becoming very busy running the rapidly-growing Lucasfilm machine, the project could not be realized during the period when the Howard comics were at their most popular.
The cards were also against the project taking shape as an animated feature. Lower-budget independent animated films had experienced a brief heyday in the late 70s as Walt Disney studios experienced a downturn in quality and prominence, but few of the often time-consuming projects became true box-office successes.
Ultimately, though, the final decision on Howard came down to business: while Katz and Huyck are said to have firmly believed the project should have been animated, Lucas was facing a hard deadline on a contract with Universal Pictures for one more live-action feature – so it was decided that Howard the Duck would be reworked to fill that spot, with Katz producing and Huyck directing.
The film’s shoot was reputedly difficult and unwieldy, beset by difficulties in making the complicated combinations of puppetry and costume used to realize Howard look authentic on screen (multiple child and little-person actors came and went from the role due to difficulties with the fit and mechanics of the duck suit). These difficulties were compounded by a general confusion over the intended tone; i.e. whether to follow the absurdist satire of Gerber’s original Howard comics or the more outlandish, story-driven material that had followed under subsequent writers such as Bill Mantlo. To give just one example: the initial conceit of not explaining how Howard comes to arrive on Earth was ditched in favor of an extended (and expensive) prologue set on his home planet of Duckworld.
The resulting film was apparently met with unease and incomprehension by the studio, with many citing the same confusion over whether it was meant to be an adult spoof of children’s cartoons or a family-friendly sci-fi comedy that would be praised by audiences. However, as so-called “high concept” pitches from producers like Lucas and Steven Spielberg were making money hand over fist in those days, few expected the film to be a genuine failure.
Audiences, however, were much less forgiving: the film was a true box office bomb, its initial worldwide gross only $1 million higher than its total production budget (films are generally said to only be profitable when they have grossed three times their original cost.) The film’s tone was a widespread mark against it, with many parents reportedly outraged at having taken their children to see a film where the main character leers over a “Playduck” magazine and a female duck’s bare breasts are shown, let alone the infamous sequence in which Lea Thompson’s character Beverly appears to seduce Howard.
Critics, likewise, trashed the film. The inconsistent tone was again a frequent complaint, though many also seemed to feel the premise itself was so outlandish that it never could have hoped to become a good film. This was, of course, decades before Marvel decided to prove that you could open a blockbuster with a talking raccoon as one of the co-leads, but one has to wonder: if Howard had been any kind of success, would that success still have been called unlikely?
Taken as a whole, Howard’s failure wasn’t simply one of timing or scuttled creative ambitions. Even if it doesn’t deserve its reputation as a full-blown disaster, it hardly merits the label of misunderstood cult-classic its fans have applied to it, either.
It’s a deeply confused film that fails to engage the audience beyond a nominal curiosity regarding the how and why of the title character’s existence and is unable to offer a coherent justification for its own existence as a film:
What are we supposed to be getting out of this, and why is a talking duck the one to give it to us?
Time and again, the film fails to adhere to (or even establish) a coherent logic with regard to its own events. Sometimes people are surprised by Howard; other times they treat his presence as no big deal. At one point a number of diner patrons attempt to cook and eat him as though he were a “normal” duck (and also as though it’s normal for diner patrons to surreptitiously group-prepare a wild duck in the first place).
While there are somewhat sensible plot explanations for the quasi-bestiality subplots that parents considered so outrageous, sequences involving Jeffrey Jones’s possessed “Dark Overlord” often play like something out of a horror film.
Who was this for?
At the end of the day, the failure of Howard the Duck may have been a failure to recognize when it wasn’t going to work. Whatever sense reworking Howard into a live-action film may have made in terms of Lucas’ scheduling needs, all accounts from the troubled production would seem to have indicated at a fairly early stage that the change wasn’t going to work .
And yet the movie did end up accruing something like a fanbase; comprising not so much the adults who’d gravitated toward the Howard comics but rather younger viewers who responded to a film that seemed to be “for them” but was also darker and edgier in places - which was clearly not the intent, but makes a certain amount of sense.
Rumors continue to fly among fans that a different version of the Howard character’s cameo appearances in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies will generate a comeback; but Hollywood has a long memory for embarrassing losses and Howard the Duck is still considered a punchline for which blame is in some ways still being assigned. Should it have been directed differently? Cast differently? Could anything, really, have been done to prevent what happened?
And yet, in the end, Howard the Duck is a strange kind of failure: one that has outlasted the reputation of many more “successful” films of the time, has built up a level of infamy that dwarfs better-known, more well-regarded features, and has accrued a passionate fanbase. To the degree that most films’ long-term goal is to endure and be memorable (after, of course, turning a profit); some might ask if it’s fair to call Howard a failure at all.
Bob Chipman is a professional film critic, film/gaming/entertainment journalist, geek-culture commentator and independent filmmmaker with over a decade of experience in the business. Currently seen as the weekly film critic for Geek.com and the creator/producer/star of "In Bob We Trust," "Really That Good" and "Good Enough Movies," he is also the former creator/host of "Escape to The Movies," "The Big Picture" and "Game OverThinker." In addition, he has published six books of collected entertainment-writing, the gaming-history book "Super Mario Bros 3: Brick By Brick" and serves as the current Chairman of the Boston Online Film Critics Association.