Fiction: 'Under the Sign of the Cockatrice' by Timothy J. Jarvis
Underground Reading: The Peter Bragg Mysteries by Jack Lynch

Marvel Time Team: Howard the Duck (1986)

Howard the Duck (1986)In a moment of madness, I decided to watch every Marvel comics movie in order. If I’d realized Howard the Duck was the first film on that list, I’d probably have reconsidered, but my friend Ian tells me it really isn’t that bad, and despite the fact he thinks The Newsroom is a pretty good TV show, he and I usually have similar tastes. And I guess there’s something cool about the first film I’m going to watch starring Howard and the last one featuring an unexpected cameo from him. 

Because I don’t see why I should suffer alone, I’m going to blog about the experience, in the style of the old Virgin Publishing programme guides I once edited. This will involve a summary of the film’s plot followed by some or all of the following sections:

I’m Special: Superpowers…

It Sucks Being Super: …and their downsides.

The Dog’s Bollocks: The awesome bits.

Bollocks: The awful bits. 

Bang on-trend: Costumes and fashion in general.

Subtext: Sexual suggestiveness, unintentional and otherwise.

It’s Good to be Bad: The villains.

Lady Parts: The movie’s women and how it treats them. 

Comic Store Guy Says: Nerdy nitpicks.

Where are the Avengers?: I’m going to treat all these films as if they exist in one continuity because I’m a geek and that’s how my mind works. This section will attempt to figure out how that can be. 

Don’t Leave Yet!: Post-credits scenes.

Stan!: Appearances by the man himself.

Speech Bubble: quotable bits.

The Living Tribunal’s verdict: But is it actually any good? 

A few ground rules. I’m going chronologically, only counting movies which are at least 1 hour 20 minutes long (so no 1940s Captain America), were made to be feature-length (no squished-together Hulk TV episodes), are part of main Marvel Universe continuity (so no Men In Black), are live action and received a cinematic release somewhere (no Dr Strange, unfortunately).

I can put it off no longer. First up: Howard the Duck

Howard the Duck

Summary: The movie begins with the kind of mellow sax solo that leads me to expect the next shot to be of a topless Rob Lowe, brooding in a window as his muscles are illuminated by the glow of neon lights. Alas, it’s not. It’s of a giant duck. I think this is meant to be a funny, but as it’s preceded by an INCREDIBLY SLOW tracking shot round his duck-photo-filled apartment, it falls a little flat.

It’s quickly established that Howard is a humanoid duck living on a world of humanoid ducks that is in every other way exactly like earth. And no sooner has that been established than he’s sucked off that world and deposited on earth. A very confusing chase scene follows in which Howard is pursued by evil goth punk bikers for no particular reason, and then rescues a woman called Beverly – played by Some Kind of Wonderful’s Lea Thompson – from what seems to be an attempted rape but is played partly for laughs, so let’s just pretend the goth punk bikers were only going to rob her, as that’s marginally less disturbing. We find out that Howard has landed in Cleveland.

Beverly takes Howard to her apartment, where they talk about their dreams and ambitions, because that is what you would do if your life was saved by an anthropomorphic duck from another planet. Howard says he only cares about getting home and so Beverly takes him to see Tim Robbins, who’s playing a hapless lab assistant, in the clearly vain hope that Robbins can help him.

Robbins, like everyone in this movie except Beverly, is playing it very, very broadly. I can see how you’d read the script and then a) fire your agent and b) decide that screwball gurning was the only possible approach to the material. I assume – it’s honestly hard to tell – that the movie is supposed to be pastiching other superhero and action movies. But pastiche only works if the actors pretend to take it all seriously. If they’re constantly winking at the camera, all you notice is how incredibly unfunny it is.

Anyway, Howard gets in a snit with Beverly after Tim Robbins fails to help her, and heads out on his own to get a job, leading to a brief montage in which he indeed secures a job, immediately loses it, and then rushes back to find Beverly again. So that was certainly worth it. She is, by the way, the lead singer in a band. Howard has a run-in with her sleazy manager, since all the human men in this movie are somewhere on the sleazy spectrum from pitifully pining after women to actively trying to assault them. Howard’s having none of this, beats up the manager and announces that he’s taking over the role. 

It’s at this point I’m really starting to wonder where this whole thing is going. It initially looked like it might be an action adventure and now it seems to be morphing into Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, which frankly could only be an improvement.

Howard goes home with Beverly again, and this time they get into bed together, in a scene I’m trying very hard to forget. They’re thankfully interrupted when Tim Robbins brings the principal from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to see them, an astrophysicist whose experimental laser somehow sucked Howard from his planet. He agrees to reverse the procedure and send Howard home again. Sadly, I’ve only been watching this movie for 45 agonising minutes, so I have to assume this admirable attempt to end it is going to fail. 

Z-Man HowardAnd of course, when they arrive, the laser’s broken, the police show up and soon Howard’s on the run from the law. Principal Rooney rescues him and then mutters something about not feeling good and proceeds to be taken over by some kind of alien force. He announces that he’s one of the Dark Overlords of the Universe, but for some reason Howard and Beverly think he’s joking. It’s only when his eyes glow blue and start shooting laser beams that they realize he’s serious, as this is not a film that believes in plausible character motivation.

So it turns out Principal Dark Overlord wants to use the laser to summon more of his people. He overpowers Howard and kidnaps Beverly because of course he does. They head off to suck all the energy out of a nuclear power plant while Howard teams up with Tim Robbins, steals a microlight and flies to the rescue.

At this point, amid explosions and plane chases, it starts to seem like the movie actually has a budget. Principal Dark Overlord blows up a row of cars in a really quite impressive manner. Unfortunately, it still doesn’t seem like the movie has a script editor. I feel as if I’ve been watching Tim Robbins and Howard riding that microlight for a significant portion of my life.

Principal Dark Overlord plans to summon another dark overlord into Beverly’s body, which somehow involves him strapping her to a table and groping her (extra creepy). Tim Robbins and Howard arrive in the nick of time to fight some reasonably impressive special effects, and drive the Dark Overlord out of Principal Rooney. It then manifests in its true form, a stop-motion giant scorpion out of a Ray Harryhausen movie. Howard defeats it, but in order to stop more dark overlords being summoned to earth, he’s forced to destroy the machine that would have allowed him to return to Duckworld, thereby leaving the door open for a sequel to one of the biggest flops of all time. 

And so Howard becomes the manager of Beverly’s terrible band, and the film ends with a huge concert scene that destroys my last small vestiges of a will to live.

I’m Special: Howard is a master of quack fu, apparently.

It’s Good to be Bad: Principal ‘Dark Overlord’ Rooney. Who only turns up for the last third of the movie, so you can imagine how thrilling the first two thirds are. His scenery-chewing is actually quite fun. 

Lady Parts: Although Beverly strips to her underwear for no particular reason and proceeds to make sexual advances on a duck, she’s the most likeable and well rounded character in the whole film. But she does constantly need Howard to rescue her, obviously.

It Sucks Being Super: Howard seems to quite enjoy being able to beat people up. But he’s miserable because he wants to go home and also because when he was home he abandoned his ambitions to be a musician and sold out to become an advertising copy writer. Which, as dark backstories go, isn’t really up there with losing your parents in the Holocaust and then being experimented on by Nazi scientists.

The Dog’s Bollocks: Principal Rooney shooting fire out of his eyes is reasonably entertaining.

Bollocks: This is a movie that’s mainly composed of lows, but possibly the lowest is the ‘sassy’ African American woman who interviews Howard in the job centre.

Beverley hairBang on-trend: The fashions couldn’t be any more eighties if they were listening to Duran Duran on their Walkman while watching Dynasty and enjoying a very small portion of nouvelle cuisine. When one of the goth punk bikers is fighting Howard, we get a lingering close-up of his black lace glove. Sinister! 

Beverly’s girl band look like they’ve been formed purely to showcase all the different ways in which eighties hair could be appalling.  

Subtext: Howard is aggressively heterosexual and we frequently see him lusting after human women. Male ducks mate by violently inserting their corkscrew penises into the females. I’m just putting that out there.

Where are the Avengers?: Robbins tests Howard to see if he has any superpowers: suggesting he’s familiar with their existence. There are no other references to Marvel characters, but then I don’t imagine the X-Men spend much time in Cleveland listening to terrible hair metal girl groups.

Speech Bubble: ‘Hey, if I had someplace to go, I certainly wouldn’t be in Cleveland’

‘Different lifestyles is one thing; different life forms is another.’

‘I no longer need human food.’ 

The Living Tribunal’s verdict: Sometimes you make a film like Hudson Hawk, which fails because its ambitions exceed its abilities, but which still has moments of genius. And sometimes you make Howard the Duck. It’s utterly irredeemable. It’s not even so bad it’s good, because failing at being funny is never entertaining – it’s just dull. It’s so dull, it has a lead character who’s an anthropomorphic duck, and he has no personality. If I could do one good thing in my life, it would be to make sure no one else has to sit through this film. 

I am never listening to my friend Ian’s movie advice ever again.