It’s hard to believe that the writing team that brought us the all-time classic American Graffiti cranked out a movie as absurd and head-scratching as 1986’s Howard the Duck. Husband and wife Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz pen the script while Huyck directs, reuniting with George Lucas, director of American Graffiti, who serves as producer. How bad can this be?
Well, I suppose it starts with understanding the source material. Howard the Duck, based on the Marvel comic of the same name, was the first theatrical film based on a Marvel property in over 40 years, and the second overall behind the 1944 Captain America serial. The issue with the content isn’t its confusing target demographic—that’s what makes it humorously strange—but in its inability to make anything of it. The comics play as a social satire, with an added focus on existentialism. However, Huyck and Katz’s film provides nothing of the sort, having absolutely nothing to say, and thus, nothing important enough to accomplish.
The first five minutes are promising. We begin in a duck world with Howard sitting on his couch watching TV. The entire universe is duckified, from his movie posters on the wall (e.g., Breeders of the Lost Stork), to the magazines on his coffee table (Rolling Egg). Before he can say two sentences, Howard is sucked into some mysterious vortex and sent to Earth, which serves as a sort of parallel universe to Duckworld. Earth is obviously a giant step down visually from Howard’s realm, but our interest is piqued so far. Unfortunately, the plot goes downhill pretty fast and stays there.
The intrigue in Howard the Duck goes only as far as Howard arriving in the human world and shocking people with his appearance. After that, there’s not much to hang on to. For its entire duration, Huyck never lets us in on the tone of the film. Although I’m not sure even he has a firm grasp on it either. Too much of the comedy is based on the tired gimmick and duck puns rather than the existential roots of the comics. In fact, there’s so little depth, and no themes at play, that it makes you wonder what the point of this film was to begin with.
Howard meets Beverly (Lea Thompson) and they fall in love. Back in 1986, an almost-sex scene between a woman and a humanoid duck contributed (among other things) to a movie becoming the laughingstock of the decade. Over 30 years later, a movie that has an actual sex scene between a woman and a fish man wins Best Picture and is lauded as one of the best films of its own decade. This is where we are as a society.
Despite the love story, which is the main focus of the first half (and only the first half) of this movie, Huyck isn’t able to build our connection with its title character. As quirky and likable (I guess) as he is, he’s not sympathetic. We have a hard time getting a read on Howard and what drives him. All we know is that he’s a sex-crazed perv who used to play music and wants to go back to his home planet but can’t. None of his dreams and goals are elaborated on. He’s unflinchingly one-dimensional.
There’s a mystery at play that should be leaned on a little more. Why does Howard get sent to Earth and how can he get back home? Perhaps if the film turned into a full-on investigation, rather than the half-hearted one that becomes the focus of one or two short scenes, the writers could have had something special here. Instead, Howard comes to Earth and starts…looking for work??
Our main character gets inexplicably teleported to an entirely new planet and yet, there’s no urgency. There’s barely any confusion on our protagonist’s part. This event, which occurs a mere three minutes into the film, is treated as the conflict. However, it’s apparently not a good enough conflict to sustain the rest of the plot, nor does it seem to want to.
Take a superhero movie, for example, where a regular man has an accident and is given superpowers in the process. This accident is just one small piece of the drama. The movies always have a more pressing matter at hand. In any incarnation of Spider-Man, Peter Parker always gets bit by the radioactive spider. But there’s still always an evil villain who’s the real cause of the drama.
Lo, a villain does arrive after nearly an hour into the film, but he’s not really that threatening, or as evil as he sounds like he should be. We’re not sure where he came from, but apparently some evil entity possessed the body of one of the scientists tasked with sending Howard back to his home planet. We don’t see how this very important detail happened, so the confusing explanation we’re given sounds shaky at best.
Of course, Howard the Duck isn’t a superhero, but his story does contain similar comic book elements due to his literary origins. Back in 1986, of course, the comic book formula for movies didn’t exist in the slightest outside of what was accomplished by 1978’s Superman and the like. The capabilities for special effects and scope weren’t nearly advanced enough to achieve adequacy on a consistent level unless you had creatives and a studio who could give it unique and proper attention. And with a weird concept like Howard the Duck, you have to go back to the drawing board, formula-wise. An alt-comic book deserves an appropriately alt approach—but just not this.
Howard the Duck is the so-bad-it’s-good where you’re on the edge of your seat wondering what asininity will happen next, but the kind where you’re emotionally checked out and bored, just to realize every 35 minutes that you’re watching a movie about an anthropomorphic duck, and it makes you chortle a little.