1986 in Film – Howard The Duck

Release Date: August 1st
Box Office: $16,295,774

Imagine you’re George Lucas, just for a minute. In three films you’ve fundamentally shifted pop culture and fandom. You changed an industry and made a ridiculous amount of money. What do you do with your time? How do you follow that?

Well, possibly by tarnishing that legacy at every chance.

That might be harsh, let’s start again.

Howard The Duck (1986) is a comic book movie in the post-Superman The Movie (1979)/pre-Batman (1989) era of the sub genre. Whilst Superman was a huge critical and financial success the sequels quickly went off a cliff. Comic adaptions seemed better placed on the TV screen as the serial nature of the format seemed a better fit; going back to the Batman and Captain America serials of the 40s through the Adam West Batmanshow of the 60s to the Wonder Woman and Incredible Hulk shows of the 70s. One thing you’ll notice there is the prevalence of D.C. characters, with Marvel barely getting a look in. Even that Captain American serial was produced when they were called Timely.

It took the full might of Warner Bros, owners of DC Comics by the early 70s, to produce Superman making it then the most expensive film ever made. Marvel characters would most likely need a similar level of budget but were licensed out to various deals with various studios which meant that they stayed in development Hell.

Which makes it all the more confusing that it was Howard The Duck that made it to the silver screen first, the first Marvel property to do so since those Captain America serials.

Where does George Lucas fit into this? Well, he wanted to make it as a film since he picked up a copy of the comic during post-production on Star Wars (1977). During a meeting with Willard Huyck, who would later co-write and direct the film, Lucas produced the comic and said it would make a great film.

It took nearly a decade before it was greenlit, Universal wanting to work with the man that had created Star Wars and produced two blockbuster Indiana Jones films.

This struggle for the film to get made mirrored the struggles around the comic itself. Howard The Duck was created in the early 70s by writer Steve Gerber and artist Val Meyerik. It was the right time for this kind of character as Marvel was going through an interesting phase; Stan Lee, for the longest time one of the biggest creative influences across the whole line, had moved upstairs to become publisher. Other writers moved into fill the gap and attention began to move away from the main superhero books; titles like Conan The Barbarian and Tomb of Dracula began to pick up sales, a movement that the satirical Howard character fit into perfectly.

Problems soon arose: They were sued by Disney for copyright infringement, given that they also had a Duck running around with no trousers. This was settled and part of that required a redesign of the Howard character, something that angered Gerber. Further clashes with Marvel followed and by 1978 he was removed from the book. In 1980, as the character was being licensed out by Marvel, Gerber sued Marvel over ownership of the character, one of the first creator rights battle in the comic industry. The case ended up going against him due to the work-for-hire contracts that Marvel used at the time.

So all this was just about the comic and licence rights, we haven’t even got to the film yet.

The film was intended to be animated however by the time the film was greenlit it was decided to make it live action with Howard as an animatronic puppet. This was a bold choice: John Henson’s work with The Dark Crystal (1982) showed the possibilities but Howard would be a bigger step forward in that he would be the first freestanding wireless costume. Previous puppet characters, like ET, could only be shot from the waist up due to the various wires and cables coming out of the bottom so that the puppeteers could manipulate it and bring it to life.

The problem was in how new that technology was. Studio problems with the script meant that the film only started production in May 1985, to be ready for a 1986 summer release date. As they shot the film the animatronics of the duck would be improved so they would go back and re-shoot the earlier sequences. The performers in the suit were a combination of little people and a child actor. They would spend hours being sewn into a costume that they could barely see out of or breathe in.

All of this weighed down on the production; filming scenes stretched form days into weeks, the budget began to inflate and tempers began to fray. Lea Thompson, fresh from Back To The Future (1986) shouted at George Lucas and later apologised when he asked her if she was ready for a shot.

Everything revolved around the duck, which naturally meant that the studio kept it out of all the marketing. They wanted a family film, despite the source material being much edgier. The original script was along these lines but revision after revision moved it further away from Gerber’s original take on the character.

What we end up with, like the production of the film, is a slog. The central idea is sound, as proven in the comics, but what made that idea unique is lost. Howard is a work of technical genius but without a soul. He’s a trailblazer, make no mistake. Great work would be built on the efforts put into this film but with Howard you can see the flaws, the compromises made to make it work. It’s an idea years before it’s time.

Would an animated film have been better? Given that theatrical animation at the time was firmly in the doldrums, probably not. What we have is the best they could do with the money and time that they had. And yes, it wasn’t good enough.

Given how Marvel films in the last ten years have, like Lucas did in the 70s, fundamentally change how the film industry works it’s strange to look back and see that this was the first film. Out of all the characters, this was chosen for this level of expertise and effort whilst Spider-Man and Captain America were stuck in TV movie Hell.

And what of Lucas? Here was his name, the name behind Star Wars, attached to one of the biggest flops of the decade. It was the first time in a while that his decisions looked suspect, and the way it pushed the special effects, above all else, foreshadows what would happen when he would return to the Star Wars universe.

Howard The Duck is an interesting failure, a footnote in the history of the Marvel Comics. Just make sure you keep that in mind when you go back to it.

3 thoughts on “1986 in Film – Howard The Duck

  1. Animation in the doldrums? well American Tail. Great Mouse Detective, Oliver and Company, Land Before Time and Little Mermaid were hits, what makes them different?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Those films are all good but I’d say it wasn’t until Mermaid that animated theatrical films were making proper money again. It was ’86 when the tide started to turn, Howard’s production would have been in the shadow of The Black Cauldron that was a big failure for Disney. Mouse Detective and Tail certainly started the ball rolling to get us to a film as big as The Lion King but it would have been a brave executive to greenlight a non-Disney-potentially PG-13 animation around 84/85.


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