Flop Era: Howard the Duck – A Marvel Miss?
Like Ishtar, the Flop Era first, I always planned to cover Howard the Duck. Because just like Ishtar, Howard is a notorious flop. And I wasn’t sure why. Because when Howard himself appeared in the Guardians of the Galaxy end credits, I was like, hell yeah, bro. That’s because this is the first movie in the series that I’ve actually seen before, and I remember enjoying it. Clearly, though, critics didn’t. So welcome to Flop Era, Howard the Duck. We’ll see if you make it back to your home planet.
Why Was This Movie Duck on Arrival?
image via Universal Pictures
Today, Howard the Duck is practically synonymous with flop. But figuring out why is a little tricky. Yes, critics almost universally panned it. To that end, it currently has a 14% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The audience score, 38%, is not much better. Unfortunately, though, a close read of those reviews, both professional and amateur, fails to shed much light on why exactly it’s so bad.
I mean, the RT summary mentions “an uneven tone and mediocre performances,” but that seems like a big ol’ ball of whatever, man. That could apply to a number of movies, making it hardly seem like a qualifier for “notorious bomb” status. I got that phrasing, by the way, from The Hollywood Reporter‘s story on the film. However, reading that article, a kind of oral history of the film, still didn’t make anything clearer for me.
Yes, there are mentions of its being “a difficult shoot,” for instance. But the specifics of that are few and far between. The late, great Robin Williams dropped out of the movie, for one thing. He was supposed to voice Howard, but he had trouble matching his voice to the duck bill movements, which production had already filmed.
That meant, of course, that on set, someone else was reading Howard’s lines. It was the puppeteers, actually, and while they’re talented at what they do, they’re not actors. In other words, it didn’t give the actors opposite Howard, most notably Lea Thompson, a lot with which to work.
Still, though, this seems thin. Lots of productions are challenges, after all. Like, again, Ishtar. But that doesn’t always portend doom. Could this movie be suffering from the same preconceived notions as that movie? Well, we’re gon’ find out.
So, What Is This Whole Thing About, Anyway?
As you’ve already guessed, if you didn’t already know, Howard the Duck is an adaptation of a Marvel comic series (and a Lucasfilm production!). I never read the series and I don’t know anything about it, so I cannot speak to the movie’s accuracy regarding the comics. Basically, as far as things I know, it’s no Doom Patrol, a thing I know like the back of your hand. I’m told the movie failed to capture the edgy charm of the Steve Gerber comics of the late 1970s.
So anyway, here’s the story. Howard is an alien. I mean, he’s a duck, but he’s an alien duck, from a duck planet. It’s called Duckworld, which seems a bit on the nose, but sure. Duckworld, incidentally, is a lot like our world, just with, you know…ducks.
image via Universal Pictures
One night, Howard is having a quiet night at home (reading PlayDuck) when something happens. Specifically, something pulls him right out of his living room, off the planet, into space, and onto this island Earth. More specifically, he lands in Cleveland, Ohio.
As you might imagine, this is terrifying for a little duck man. Everyone is strange and scary, and they’re not exactly thrilled with Howard, either. However, he meets aspiring rock musician Beverly Switzler (Lea Thompson) and she takes him home. Later, she introduces him to her friend, Phil Blumburtt (Tim Robbins), and they try to figure out just what the heck is happening here. The answer turns out to be a laser spectroscope, and Howard ain’t the only creature it’s pulling to our world.
Flop Era: Howard the Duck
I was excited to rewatch this movie as an adult, because I had only vague memories of it. Essentially, I remembered only the first half of the movie–Howard coming here and meeting Beverly. The whole second half came as a surprise. Unfortunately, it was not a pleasant one.
That’s because it’s symbolic of the biggest problem with this movie. Those criticisms about uneven tone were right on the money, because the second half, involving a “dark overlord” accidentally being pulled onto our planet, is a wild tonal shift. But it’s not just that.
This is a movie that just can’t decide what it is. At first, it seems as if it wants to be an adult comedy. There’s the PlayDuck, for example. There’s also the scene where Beverly goes through Howard’s wallet and finds a condom, making us all think of the astounding horror of duck genitalia. And speaking of horror, there’s also the very weird scene where a scantily clad Beverly really seems like she wants to bang the duck man.
I made this image to fit our standards so y’all could be haunted, too. This is like the video in The Ring; I have to show it to other people to pass on the curse. (image via Universal Pictures)
As a kid, I didn’t really understand this scene, so I didn’t think much of it. As an adult, though, it gave me the shrinky dinks. This may have played better in comics, I’m guessing–very generously–but in live action, it’s grody to the max. (As this is movie is from the 80s, I’m trying to use the lingo.) But besides the sex comedy, this movie also wants to be a sci-fi thriller. It tips straight into body horror in the second half, after all. However, it feels like too much. It plays like an entirely different movie grafted onto the first story, for one thing. For another, we already have the body horror in the form of an unconvincing animatronic duck. (And also, as I said, the thinking about duck nethers.)
So ultimately, this is a film that just doesn’t work. Still, I don’t think it deserves its “notorious” reputation. While I thought the performances were decent enough, it’s the movie itself that’s mediocre. It’s neither a hidden gem nor a film so appalling that it’s got a car crash appeal. It’s just…a disappointment.
Flop Era for Howard the Duck? Confirmed, but mildly.
Howard the Duck is available for rental through a number of platforms, as well as being free through Peacock. Also, as you might know, he recently appeared on an episode of What If…?.
What do you think about Howard the Duck? Tell us in these comments or on our social media.
featured image via Universal Pictures
Salomé Gonstad is a freelance writer who grew up in the swampy wilds of south Alabama. When she's not yelling about pop culture on the internet, she's working on a supernatural thriller about her hometown. Also, we're pretty sure she's a werewolf. Email her at [email protected]