Marvel Movie Madness! Part 21: Howard the Duck

Marvel amuck.

by | June 24, 2011 | Comments

Enter Marvel Movie Madness, wherein Rotten Tomatoes watches all of the significant Marvel movies ever made. Full Marvel Movie Madness list here. Tune in! We give you our thoughts, and you give us yours.

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Part 21: Howard the Duck (1986, 16% @ 32 reviews)

Directed by Willard Huyck, starring Lea Thompson, Jeffrey Jones, Tim Robbins, Ed Gale

Luke: Well, I guess everyone’s going to violently disagree here, so I’ll come right out with it. This is the kind of movie that reminds me why I never trust critics’ opinions on anything. If you think Howard the Duck is one of the worst things ever made, then frankly you either haven’t seen enough movies or have no sense of humor. I mean, sure, the script grimly bastardizes Steve Gerber’s comic character in favor of a silly sci-fi adventure — an ideal Howard adaptation probably should have been animated and directed by, I don’t know, Ralph Bakshi or Terry Zwigoff, to capture the character’s caustic existentialism. But whatever; how many big-budget PG blockbusters marketed under the marquee of George Lucas have been this f***ing weird? What I like about Howard is the uncomfortable friction between source material and family-friendly adventure intent — no matter how they tried to dampen them, traces of Gerber’s rude, ill-mannered anti-hero remain. Yeah, the duck puns are inoffensively lame, but consider that in the first five minutes we get a boozing, cigar-chomping misanthrope in the lead and a totally unwarranted frontal flash of duck breasts (upholding the classic gratuitous ’80s shot tradition), before soon discovering that Howard rocks a mini duck condom in his wallet, gets a job cleaning the jizz from the tanks at a sleazy sex spa, and then all-but gets it on with Lea Thompson in one seriously strange bedroom scene. What would little kids reared on the Lucas brand name of Star Wars and the previous tame Ewok movies have wondered?

On top of that, Jeffrey Jones is completely gross and hilarious as the evil scientist possessed by an ill-tempered intergalactic demon — “I no longer neeeeeeeeeeed humaaaaaaaaaaan fooooooooooooood,” he wheezes, sweating like a Mr. Rooney from Hell — in a performance that essentially set the standard for Vincent D’Onofrio’s similar turn in Men In Black a decade later (and Jones’ ILM stop-motion alien incarnation at the end is pretty damn freaky-great, too). And if Howard’s puppet/animatronic form looked dodgy to 1986 audiences, he looks relatively charming and real compared to the sorts of crappy CG characters that would later replace him. It’s all a matter of time and perspective. Oh yeah, and Tim Robbins is dorky-funny, the music’s by John freakin’ Barry (and Thomas Dolby, doing synth-pop punk songs for all-girl band Cherry Bomb), while Lea Thompson’s Sistine Chapel of crimped Cyndi Lauper hair is a work of pop-girl art. She and the duck make quite the cute couple. And there’s nothing wrong with that at all. I’m guessing that, had this movie not been released under the aegis of Lucas (when the knives were obviously drawn at that point) and instead been made by a unknown entity, it might have gone down as an offbeat cult item instead of the critical whipping post it (unfarily) is.

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Jeff: While I can’t share your (apparently considerable) enthusiasm for Howard the Duck, Luke, I have to admit that this movie is nowhere near as bad as its reputation. I watched it in the theater as a 12-year-old Marvel fanatic, as the front half of a double bill with Flight of the Navigator, and I hadn’t seen it since; I remembered it as being pretty lame, but not the worst thing I’d ever seen, and it more or less lived up (or down) to my memories.

As a showcase for what ILM could do circa 1986, Howard isn’t bad, and Jeffrey Jones’ performance is a wondrous work of majestic, ham-scented art. But generally, it’s just kind of harmlessly silly — the kind of movie where you can’t have a bar fight without a person (or an anthropomorphic duck — whatever) being sent sliding down the bar, and where street toughs giggle and trade punny quips instead of doing anything really menacing.

The big problem with Howard — for me, anyway — is that it’s so disconnected from the clever, subversive spirit of the books. As you pointed out, Luke, we do get to see flashes of the “real” Howard, but they’re sort of randomly scattered throughout the movie, and the way he’s written really doesn’t have much of anything to do with who he is in the comics.

So why bother adapting Howard the Duck if you aren’t going to do it in a way that fans of the character will recognize or appreciate? It isn’t like Ghost Rider, where you can piss off the fans and still have enough flaming action to draw blockbuster crowds. Here, you’re just left with a talking, cigar-smoking (and really pretty unpleasant-looking) duck. I don’t think it’s one of the worst movies of all time, but it’s definitely a bizarre disappointment.

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Tim: I couldn’t disagree with you guys more: Howard the Duck is worse than its reputation suggests. I’ve been known to revisit critical duds from time to time, and usually I can find something to admire (or, in the case of Heaven’s Gate, a whole lot to admire). But sorry, nothing doing with Howard the Duck; it’s just awful. It’s too sophomoric and silly for adults, and too sleazy for kids. It takes a ridiculous scenario and makes the very least of it; it’s the kind of movie where everyone acts as wacky as possible to cover up the fact that they have to sell an incredibly unfunny script. There’s so much off-putting stuff here, from the groan-worthy one-liners to the dull action to the the sheer repulsiveness of Howard. Seriously, this movie left me slack-jawed. I’ve read time and again that the original comics were subversive and smart, but there’s hardly a glimmer of that here — the whole thing feels like a smuttier Mac and Me, or some other dispiriting 1980s relic.

Jeff: I can’t argue any of the points you’re making about the movie — especially about the wacky actin’ — but in this particular case, they didn’t bother me as much as they bothered you. Maybe it’s because so much of the Marvel stuff we’ve watched for this series so far has been slickly crass, or at best, mind-numbingly competent; although Howard the Duck is certainly a failure, at least it’s an unusual one. I didn’t come away from it feeling sad and unclean the way I did after watching, say, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer or The Punisher.

Luke: Ah, Tim, you issued all the praise I needed to say right here: “the whole thing feels like a smuttier Mac and Me.”

Tim: I agree with you in theory, Jeff — there are plenty of unsuccessful movies that I enjoy for their sheer weirdness. But said weirdness should feel organic, and unfortunately, I don’t get that vibe here — it just feels like a big-budget movie that went seriously amuck.


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