It’s Been 35 Years Since The Worst Marvel Movie Ever Made
Marvel’s first movie is also its worst; Howard the Duck is 35 years old today, and it’s still every bit as fowl.
Think back: what’s the first Marvel film you ever watched? Perhaps it was 2008’s MCU-spawning Iron Man; maybe it was the dawn of modern superheroes with Spider-Man and X-Men in the early 2000s; for the Kino viewers, it may have been Blade. Contrary to his quote, if you were out of luck, you might’ve gone Duck.
By 1986, Lucasfilm’s portfolio forged itself a place in movie history for generations beyond its time: Star Wars, Indiana Jones, American Graffiti, Labyrinth. Then came an all-time blunder; an uneggsplainably horny catastrophe that didn’t fit anybody’s bill.
From the minds of George Lucas, Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, Howard the Duck is the first feature-length film based on a Marvel property, coming after TV movies with The Hulk, Captain America and Doctor Strange and preceding Dolph Lundgren’s The Punisher. Superman and Batman aside, it’s no wonder the sub-genre never really took off until decades later.
Robin Williams was originally set to voice the titular bird – for anyone unaware, Howard is an extra-terrestrial, anthropomorphic, humanoid duck – but stepped down amid frustration with being ‘handcuffed to match the flapping duck’s bill’, unable to improvise like in Aladdin.
Ed Gale, also the voice of Chucky in the Child’s Play series, stepped forward, starring alongside Lea Thompson, Jeffrey Jones and Tim Robbins.
The film opens in Duckworld, with John Barry’s smooth, noir-y jazz rippling over the double-moonlit water. The horrors of this parallel universe present themselves quickly: Splashdance and Breeders of the Lost Stork; bargain-hungry teleshopping reminiscent of ‘I’d buy that for a dollar!’; Playduck magazine and soaped-up duck t*ts.
Even writing that put me back in the bad place; a state of bewilderment and delirium with next-to-no novelty. I mean come on. Soaped-up duck t*ts.
Suddenly, a laser beam from outer space transports him through the cosmos to the human-faring planet of Earth, where he meets a friendly punk rocker (Thompson) who takes him in. Some technological tomfoolery leads to a villain and Howard has to quack how to stop him.
I could denounce its dopey writing (‘It’s a bird, it’s a plane… no, it’s a duck’), its nightmarish model for the duck, wonky effects (some wonderful stop-motion grates against other shoddy VFX), one bizarre piece of commentary about benefit slackers and all that stupid nonsense it somehow finds time for, like Howard playing the piano or an extended live performance over the credits.
Most glaring is the movie’s raging hard-on from the off. Seriously, something needs to be said about how horny it is, whether it’s Howard fondling a woman’s skirt in an alley and running around a softcore hot tub brothel or the bile-bubbling sexual tension between Thompson’s damsel and a duck. ‘I just can’t resist your intense animal magnetism,’ she tells him.
With a budget of more than $40 million, Howard the Duck made a whopping $38 million at the box office. It was slaughtered by critics, with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert labelling it one of the worst films of the year. ‘The producer of the picture was George Lucas, and he has a company that does special effects. Maybe they should have spent a little more special effects on whether they wanted to make a movie about a duck,’ Ebert said.
In 1997, Howard’s creator Steve Gerber offered his own scathing critique on the film: ‘What can I say? It sucks.’
In Decider‘s oral history, Huyck and Katz spoke about how it could have had a ‘more Ted-like tone’ and been ‘edgier and dirtier, but Universal wanted a family movie. I don’t think people understood the tone.’
Robbins agrees. ‘Personally, I would have liked to have seen that gruff, cigar-chomping alien from another planet [who was] rude and inappropriate. That’s the movie I would have liked to have seen!’ he told Yahoo Entertainment.
Over the years, it’s built somewhat of a cult following, even receiving a snazzy Blu-ray release from 101 Films. Howard canonically exists within the MCU too, voiced by Robot Chicken‘s Seth Green, first popping up in Guardians of the Galaxy and even fighting against Thanos’ army in Avengers: Endgame. He’ll also appear in What If? alongside Chadwick Boseman’s final turn as T’Challa.
Thompson has also expressed interest in directing her own reboot, even pitching it to the studio. ‘Marvel liked the pitch, but they have different plans for the different characters. I still think I could do a really good job because I feel like I am the one who really understands the fans, both of the movie and the cartoon,’ she told The Hollywood Reporter.
‘People now appreciate the movie in the spirit in which it was made. It was an iconoclastic movie. It is for little rebels. And I love that fans had to be brave when they said, ‘I like that movie!’ It was so easy to make fun of it. And that is why I often say my Howard the Duck fans are my favourite fans because they had to earn it! It was not jumping on the bandwagon,’ the star added.
Having just appeared in Back to the Future, Thompson said she got ‘whiplash from being in the most beloved movie of the year and then the most hated movie of the year. It gave me a unique perspective on Hollyweird.’
To say something in Howard the Duck‘s favour, studios simply cannot produce a calamity of this scale anymore – it wouldn’t even get past the concept art. At least ‘Hollyweird’ made history in its disasters.
Howard the Duck is available to stream on NOW TV.
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