In a multi-part series, Comic Book Film Editor William Gatevackes will be tracing the history of comic book movies from the earliest days of the film serials to today’s big blockbusters and beyond. Along with the history lesson, Bill will be covering some of the most prominent comic book films over the years and why they were so special. This time, he continues to wade through the muck that were comic book films in the 1980s by covering one of the worst—Howard the Duck.
George Lucas being involved with a comic book movie should have been solid gold. After all, he created Star Wars, the fundamental sci-fi event of a lifetime that changed many a comic book fans’ life forever. Also, he was a comic fan. If there was anyone in Hollywood who could do comic book films right, it would be him.
So when it was announced that he would be producing the Howard the Duck film, the first Marvel Comics film adaptation to hit the big screen, people were…well…cautiously optimistic. After all, he was only producing the film, not writing or directing it. And Howard the Duck was one tough comic book property to adapt.
It’s almost impossible to properly describe Howard the Duck, either the comic book or the character. At its best, the comic was a multilayered satire. And what I mean about multilayered is that Steve Gerber would poke fun at the comic book medium, the conventions that lied within, the acceptable methods of writing and story structure, politics and society in general. And this usually was done all in one scene. He pointed out the absurdity in all things yet didn’t invalidate anything. A person getting superpowers from a dying alien with a wish granting ring is just as silly as someone getting powers from a sentient and horny space turnip, but great stories could be obtained from both origins.
Gerber’s Howard was irascible. He was neurotic. He was sarcastic and constantly angry. He might have been a duck from another dimension mistakenly trapped in a world he didn’t make, but he was also a fully formed, complex character.
The tone and flavor of the book and character is hard to capture on film. The powers that be behind Howard the Duck didn’t even appear to try.
There is a quote on a number of sites from Gloria Katz, co-writer and another producer on the film, supposedly taken from bonus features of the recent DVD release of the film, where she says the following:
It’s a film about a duck from outer space… It’s not supposed to be an existential experience… We’re supposed to have fun with this concept, but for some reason reviewers weren’t able to get over that problem.
If you want to hear it from the horse’s mouth, fast forward to about 4 minutes and 30 seconds on the following clip:
This is pretty much a loaded statement from the co-writer and producer of one of the worst films of all time, comic or otherwise. It is especially inflammatory to any fans of the comic book, because it can be interpreted any number of ways. I’m fairly sure Katz didn’t give as much thought to the statement as Howard fans have given to analyzing it, but maybe she should have.
Because it appears that she had no clue as to what made the character work, and wasn’t all that bothered by that fact. There are several statements on the bonus features of the DVD that kind of back this up. Director, co-writer and Katz’s husband, Williard Huyck makes casual mention that they tried to change the location of the film to Hawaii instead of Cleveland simply because they wanted to shoot there. The downtrodden reputation of Cleveland is an important part of the Howard mythos. Changing the setting to a tropical paradise is a BIG sign that Huyck and Katz missed the point.
There are other examples to back up what appears to be a cavalier attitude by Huyck and Katz—the film itself and their characterization of Howard. If they used the “duck out of water” plot point to satirized human behavior, the world of 1986, or filmmaking in general, it would have made a pretty good movie. All we got was a Z-grade sci-fi story with lame attempts at humor thrown in. And Huyck and Katz’s Howard might be angry and neurotic in the film, but he wasn’t acerbic and combative, he was a whiny complainer. It may be a subtle difference to some, but it essentially became a bastardization of Gerber’s awesome characterization.
All of this explains why the film was a bad adaptation of this particular comic book. It doesn’t really explain why it was a bad movie. And it was a very bad movie.
The film reads like an AM radio station that isn’t tuned correctly. There is something a bit off, something wrong in the translation. That is the main problem with the film. None of the characters speak like you or I speak. They don’t behave in a realistic fashion. Every scene is awkward because everything in it alienates the audience. The pacing is all wrong. Nothing truly takes the time it needs to develop. For instance, after only the second meeting does Beverly, played by Lea Thompson, hop into bed with Howard (Yes, I guess the 1980s were the decade of non-human comic book characters getting it on with hot actresses of the day. Sorry if you were born too late and missed it.) There was nothing in any of the scenes the characters shared prior that would indicate they were building towards that. The bedroom scene turns out to be a cocktease by Beverly, which also doesn’t ring true because there was nothing in the film that showed that Beverly was the type of person to do this. They were unwilling to devote the time to make that scene logical, yet we get a fifteen minute Ultralight aircraft chase towards the end of the film which goes on waaay too long.
Another problem was the overall tone. The film tried to be two things at once—a ribald, boundary pushing comedy and a safe and saccharine, kid-friendly flick. It succeeds at neither because the two goals are diametrically opposed. Seriously, if a film takes pride in showing us naked, female duck breasts on two occasions and a longish scene of Lea Thomson cavorting in her skivvies, yet has an angry trucker say something is “a load of bull-pucky,” you are losing both of the audiences you are trying to reach.
The cast is loaded with talent. Tim Robbins does the best by just playing up the absurdity of the role. Jeffrey Jones does well in his role as the possessed bad guy. But most of the cast struggle with the inane and unconvincing dialogue and lose.
Yeah, talking about this film over 25 years after it opened is a sign of some kind of mental instability. But the reason why it rankles me and other critics so much is the fact that it was such a huge missed opportunity. Howard the Duck, the comic book, was an absurdist gem that was the defining work of Steve Gerber’s career. Howard the Duck the movie was just absurd, only not in a good way.
The above quote from Katz also indicates a larger problem with the state of the comic book film in the 1980s. It portrays the general attitude of Hollywood that A)what they know is right and if people dislike what they do, it’s just that they don’t get it, and B) comic book properties are simplistic and are in no way the equal to what quality filmmakers do. This led to situations like Howard the Duck, where the creators of the film didn’t feel the need to understand the property more than the first line of the description of it; they were so talented that whatever they did to the original subject matter would be genius. This, in this case and many others, was wrong.
It’s fairly telling that the only other major motion picture Huyck and Katz worked on since Howard the Duck was 1994s Radioland Murders, also produced by George Lucas. While Lea Thompson, Jeffrey Jones and Tim Robbins’ careers were not that adversely affected by the flop (Robbins even went on to win an Oscar), the people who were most responsible for the content up on screen essentially disappeared from sight. Yet, everyone else didn’t “get it.”
Next up, we dance with the devil in the pale moonlight as we take a look at the controversy surrounding the casting of Tim Burton’s Batman and how all of comic fandom was wrong.