Trapped In a Film He Never Made
Aside from M. Night Shyamalan, has anyone in the film industry nuked their reputation as much as George Lucas has? Ever since the release of Return of the Jedi in 1983, the once acclaimed director has seen his reputation fall faster Hercules at the box office, with 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade standing as the only bright spot for Lucas in that time period. The worst of Lucas’ failures in this time period; Howard the Duck, the 1986 film based off the Marvel Comics character of the same name. As bad as the Star Wars prequels may have been to some, this adaptation of Steve Gerber’s beloved character is by far Lucas’ magna opus of suck. As a film, Howard the Duck is a travesty; as an adaption of a comic book, it’s an abomination that the likes of Batman and Robin can only dream of.
Howard T. Duck (voiced by Chip Zien) begins the story living on his home planet Duckworld, only to immediately be pulled from his apartment and through outer space. He arrives on Earth (Cleveland to be exact), and immediately saves a woman named Beverly (Lea Thompson) from being mugged. The two begin a friendship, and Howard begins to adapt to life in Cleveland while also searching for a way home with the help of Beverly and her scientist friend Phil (Tim Robbins). As time goes on, Howard ends up getting a losing a job at a romantic spa, begins to manage Beverly’s band Cherry Bomb, and must defeat the Dark Overlord of the Universe (voiced by Brian Steele), an evil life form that arrives on Earth and possesses Phil’s colleague Walter Jennings (Jeffery Jones).
If nothing else, Lucas should get credit for this; he was/is a fan of the Howard the Duck comics from the 1970’s, and is said to have been saddened by the film’s failure. But just because you’re a fan of something doesn’t mean you understand it, and it’s quite clear that Lucas and his writing/directing team of Gloria Klatz and William Huyck (Huyck is the sole credited director) didn’t understand their material. One look at Gerber’s series shows that Howard the Duck was really a fish out of water story with heavy elements of surrealism, satire and existentialism (famously, Gerber commented that the main joke of Howard the Duck was that there was no joke). The movie features none of those three themes, instead trying (and failing spectacularly) to be a supernatural comedy in the same vain as Ghostbusters. In the end, the only thing audiences ended up laughing at was the horrible dialog, which consists mainly of duck puns.
Perhaps the most shocking failure of Howard the Duck however is its visuals. Despite all the criticism Lucas has faced over the years as a storyteller, you could at least always count on his films to look the part. Howard the Duck simply looks awful, and it seems pretty clear that the film would’ve worked much better as an animated film as opposed to live action (supposedly, the film was scheduled to be animated, but became live action due to a contract dispute between Lucas and the distributor). The most egregious example of the poor of effects occurs in the climactic battle, featuring the Dark Overlord in his true form. What should be an impressive visual effect is a silly one, with the Dark Overlord looking more like a melting pile of sewage than a creature that should strike fear. The rest of the film doesn’t fare much better, with the only memorable image (and not necessarily in a good way) likely being the site of a topless female duck back on Duckworld. You know you have problems when your best shot in a film is a naked duck.
As Beverly, Lea Thompson is the best of the cast, doing an okay job of essaying the thankless role of girlfriend/damsel in distress. In a better film, Thompson might’ve been able to effectively capture the essence of Beverly, the only other character from the comics to appear in this film. Besides her, the performances range from ugh to “Stop! Please stop!” As the villain, Jeffrey Jones isn’t given much to do but mime Brian Steele’s lines and look even more cartoony then he did as Ed Rooney in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, while Tim Robbins is so bad as Phil that it’s difficult to imagine he would go onto win an Academy Award two decades later. But the worst performance goes to Chip Zien, who voices Howard. Mostly known for his excellent stage career, Zien is nothing like that here, giving a performance that makes Howard come across as a flat, bored and creepy. Even if the rest of the film had worked better, it’s difficult to imagine it being good as long as Zien was sucking the life out of Howard every step of the way.
If there’s one positive distinction that can be made for Howard the Duck, it’s that it was the first Marvel property to be released as a theatrical film since the Captain America serials of the 1940’s. Besides that footnote though, the film is nothing more than a glorified embarrassment, with lazy writing, poor visuals and worse performances combining to suck the life out of a once great comic book character. In fact, the reputation for Howard the Duck has never recovered from this film; the Gerber comics have become difficult to find, and the character is largely treated as a joke by casual and even some hardcore comic fans. If there’s any film that can serve as evidence that the power of film can have just as negative an impact as a positive one, Howard the Duck is that film. As it stands, it’s both the worst comic book adaptation of all time and the first step George Lucas took towards tarnishing his name.