What do you get when you cross a duck with fireworks? A firequacker. And what do you get when you adapt a comic about a smartass talking duck? One of the biggest bombs in superhero movie history. A frequent entry on lists of “worst films ever.” A flawed film that utterly disregarded the existentialism of the late Steve Gerber’s comic book, a run so brilliant that Howard got thousands of write-in votes for president in 1976. But you also get a surprisingly charming movie. All you have to do is turn off large portions of your brain, and it’ll quack you up. (I’m going big on duck puns in this post. Get used to it.)
Made in 1986, the movie was originally conceived as a cartoon, but became live-action in part because George Lucas’s production company was under contract to deliver any live movie. If you’re wondering where Lucas’s questionable decision-making began, you might look here.
Ed Gale, who also played Chucky, was the main actor doing Howard’s physical acting, while Chip Zien dubbed in the voice later. Howard looks awful in the film, making you wonder if he was designed by a drugged-up quackhead, but weirdly, you get used to him and his nearly expressionless face.
The movie rarely ever misses an opportunity for duck-related humor, which is why I am still shocked that Howard once dresses in an Ohio State sweatshirt when obvious Oregon jokes were staring them in the face.
We open in Duckworld, get various establishing shots to tell us that everyone there are ducks, and then Howard is mysteriously ripped into our world. We see paper-mache duck boobs on his way out, because why not. The film snatches away all of Howard’s trademark satire from Gerber’s stories, but at least it keeps some of his rudeness and crassness — we see him brawl in a bar, and Beverly finds a duck condom in his wallet.
Beverly is the punk rock chick whom Howard meets upon arrival in our world. She’s played by Lea Thompson, who was coming off Back to the Future and looked like a million bucks. Or should I say bills. She becomes Howard’s romantic interest, and pretty much steals the show.
What was I saying? Totally lost any trail of thought.
Beverly tries to help Howard get back to his world, which means going to see a scientist friend, Phil, played by an inexperienced young Tim Robbins. Less than 20 years later, he’d win an Oscar, but here, he looked like he was playing Will Ferrell playing Harry Caray.
Phil leads them to Dr. (Ducktor) Jenning, played by Jeffrey Jones, whom you know as the principal in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and absolutely nothing else. In trying to send Howard back, Jenning instead gets possessed by an evil warlord spirit that takes him over and tries to destroy the world. Lucas’s company impressed with the good special effects of his descent.
Never one to give in to such fowl play, Howard rescues Beverly and Phil, even severing Jenning from his possession. Which only makes [whatever the hell this bad guy is] even uglier.
I honestly don’t remember how this all was resolved. But I assume Howard made some wisequacks, and I snipped a screenshot of him holding a giant gun, so that probably factored in somehow.
In any event, we get to end by Howard joining Bev and her band in signing a song about himself. Oh yeah, and he’s their manager, which is eggcellent; no one wants to see Howard resort to being a robber ducky to get by.
So to recap: if you like intelligent philosophical absurdities, read Steve Gerber’s Howard the Duck comic. If you like stupid movies that are nonsensical, mildly boring, and heavy on puns, watch the Howard the Duck movie. And if you like neither, go duck yourself.
NEXT TIME: Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987)