Lost in Translation has taken a look at different movies based on Marvel characters, from the Avengers Initiative to the licensed characters like Spider-Man and Daredevil. The recent movies have all been well received for the most part. However, Marvel’s fortunes weren’t always so lofty. The first theatrical release featuring a Marvel character* laid an egg.
The character, Howard the Duck, was created by Steve Gerber and Val Mayerik for Adventure into Fear #19 in 1973. Howard was a duck who found himself stuck on Earth, pulled away from his life on his home planet of Duckworld, plucked from his life by Thog the Nether-Spawn. Thog wanted to collapse all realities into one under his control. Howard teamed up with several other heroes to stop Thog, but a misstep sent him to Cleveland. After a few problems with law enforcement and being mistaken for a mutant, he happened across the lair of the villainous Pro-Rata and rescued Beverly Switzer, a life model, with the help of Spider-Man**. Howard and Beverly would come to love each other across species differences.
The movie Howard the Duck, released in 1986, focuses on Howard and his arrival on Earth. Without access to other characters in the Marvel-verse, the movie shows Howard in his everyday life, establishing him as an everyduck, before hurling him through a wormhole to land in Cleveland, Ohio, outside a dive bar with live band Cherry Bomb. Howard bounces from trouble to trouble before finding a place to hide and gather his wits. Meanwhile, the lead singer of Cherry Bomb, Beverly Switzer, has wrapped up for the night and left the bar. Two “fans” intercept her and refuse to let her leave. She fights them off the best she can while calling for help. Help does arrive, all three-foot-two of him. Howard leaps in with his Quak-Fu and helps Beverly chase away her assailants. Not having anywhere else to go, Howard takes up Beverly’s offer to go home with her.
The next day, Beverly introduces Howard to Phil, a scientist and intern at a lab. Phil is ecstatic at meeting an living, breathing, talking example of parallel evolution. Howard gets overwhelmed and leaves. As he tries to adjust to Cleveland, he looks for a job. The best he gets a position as a janitor at a romance spa. The job and the boss soon get to him and Howard quits. He wanders around Cleveland, eventually returning to the dive where he first landed and met Beverly. Cherry Bomb is on stage inside. Howard goes inside, where he overhears Cherry Bomb’s manager talk about his plan to withhold the band’s money to get Beverly to go home with him. A barroom brawl breaks out with Howard outnumbered three to one by the manager and his friends, but the alien duck wins. Howard takes the money and forces the manager to stop managing Cherry Bomb. Later backstage, Howard reveals the cash to Cherry Bomb.
Meanwhile, Phil has been busy. He has spoken to Dr. Jennings, the lead researcher at the lab, and arrives at the bar. Phil wasn’t expecting Howard to be there, but takes advantage of the situation to take one of Howard’s tail feathers. The DNA in that feather matches the DNA on a feather that appeared after a laser-retrieval experiment. Dr. Jennings was responsible for pulling Howard across the galaxy to Cleveland. Howard reasons that if the laser could pull him to Cleveland, it could send him back to Duckworld.
An accident at the lab interferes with Howard’s plan. Dr. Jennings has been changed. The police arrive as a result of the alarm going off and wind up arresting Howard for being an illegal alien. Howard manages to escape from the police and meet up with Beverly and Dr. Jenning. In Dr. Jenning’s car, the researcher starts undergoing a transformation. The last experiment had pulled one of the Dark Overlords, one who is now occupying Dr. Jennings’ body. The Dark Overlord wants to free his comrades and plans to use the laser to bring them to Earth. His comrades need a body, and the Dark Overlord plans on giving them Beverly’s. Howard, with the help of Phil, rescue Beverly, defeat the Dark Overlord, and sends the other Overlords back.
As mentioned at the beginning, the movie bombed. However, as an adaptation, it works. There’s a change from the existentialism that Gerber had in the comic to a science fiction comedy, but the idea of a person ripped out of his home, his life, to an alien landscape is still there. The love between Howard and Beverly is still there, and builds subtly where even they aren’t aware of it even if the audience is. When two people can finish each other’s sentences without effort, there’s a true connection between them. The main issue is the design of Howard. The movie was made before CGI was commonplace. The Last Starfighter had been released two years earlier in 1984, but the techniques were still in their infancy. Thus, Howard was a man in a duck suit. Howard’s look in the comics was still very duck-like, and his stance would be murder on most people’s backs if attempted in real life. Industrial Lights & Magic did manage to create believable animatronics for Howard’s facial expressions.
As for tanking at the box office, Howard the Duck was an odd choice to adapt. George Lucas had found the comic, read it, then passed it on to Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck to write. The project sat for a few years before Universal needed a film to add to its line up. The original idea was to create an animated feature, but Universal needed one sooner than animating would take. This need led to Howard being live action. The other issue was that Howard, both comic and movie, wasn’t a children’s title. Howard smokes cigars and has sex. At the time of release, though, the movie received a PG rating, which allowed for saltier scenes and topless nudity without necessarily allowing much in language or violence. As a comparison, Airplane also received a PG rating with a topless woman shimmying with the plane.
In favour, the writers, producers, directors, even actors had read the comic. Lea Thompson, who played Beverly, was given copies of the comic after she was hired. The original idea of an animated film would have avoided some of the problems they had. With John Barry, of 007 fame, composing the soundtrack and Thomas Dolby writing songs for Cherry Bomb, the music fit. The original Howard the Duck was respected, even with the problems of doing Howard live. With Howard making a cameo in Guardians of the Galaxy, it could be time for his triumphant return.
Next week, The Wolverine.
* The 1944 Captain America Republic film serial was under the Timely banner.
** To establish a character within the Marvel Universe and to pull in readers, editorial frequently used Spider-Man as a guest star. In later years, the Punisher and the Wolverine would also guest in titles for the same reason.