Looking back at this Summer’s blockbusters, with the tent pole releases of Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger, and looking forward to next year’s ludicrously star-filled The Avengers, it can be hard to remember a time before Marvel’s range of comic-book characters dominated Hollywood’s major releases. But every journey has to start somewhere, and before ever Spider-Man, Blade or the Men in Black could make it to the big screen, Marvel’s cinematic origins were far more feathered than feared.
Howard the Duck, it would be fair to say, does not have the strongest reputation in the world. The editor of this very site could only express his sympathies when I told him I’d found a copy. William Shatner turned it into a joke at George Lucas’s AFI Tribute. You know you’re in trouble when the man responsible for Star Trek V thinks your movie is risible.
So, is it as bad as its reputation? Well, not really. The film does suffer a bit in its execution, and at times doesn’t seem to know who its audience is, but there’s actually a lot to like.
Let’s start with the obvious: Yes, the titular character is a man in a duck suit. And he looks like a man in a duck suit. We aren’t short of anatine heroes in entertainment – Daffy Duck, Donald Duck, Count Duckula – but crucially, all of those characters were animated. The costume has come in for a lot of stick, not least from the cast and the studio that wouldn’t even put it in the trailer. In the end, though, a movie should be able to rise above a special effect (you only need to look at the shark from Jaws to see that), and with a character like Howard, you were never going to see the most well realised creature. It’s just a shame that, whilst all ducks come with a bill, this one came with a bill for $2m!
Ah, yes! The puns! Some are actually even more forced than that one (Quack Fu, anyone?). However, at times they can actually be well deployed. In the introductory sequence, for instance, we see posters for films such as “Breeders of the Lost Stork”, and Howard carries his Mallardcard around with him in his wallet. They aren’t there to provide big laughs, but they give the more observant viewer a little chuckle in exactly the same way Gromit’s records do in Wallace and Gromit. You could easily imagine them cropping up under a twitter hashtag (#duckfilms must surely have trended at some point).
And it’s not just these jokes that give the film a sense of fun. The scenes with Howard and Phil on the flying contraption are far more dramatic than they have any right to be, moving quickly and dramatically on, yet retaining the light-heartedness that make the more successful parts of the movie work. These scenes show that this movie could have been a simple and fun slapstick family adventure, with maybe a few more knowing references to keep the adult audience happy.
The problem with the film is that it either does too much to keep the adults happy, or too little. It really doesn’t seem to have decided if it wants to be a darker, seedier take on the family movie, or a movie whose broad characters and melodramatic performances might alienate such viewers. Tim Robbins’s portrayal of Phil falls comprehensively into the latter. His introduction in particular is so far over the top that there might as well be no top. There are pantomime dames who have delivered the crudest innuendo with more gravitas and dignity than this future Oscar-winner’s manically shouted take on the lines “It’s nothing! HAHAHA!”
In fact, all of the performances have been turned up to eleven, from the Dark Overlord to the bullying manager. The characters I was reminded of most were Bulk and Skull from the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. This is not a criticism as such (when I was young I loved the Power Rangers), but they can certainly be jarring to more mature tastes, and actually leave the cynical, wisecracking (or should that be wisequacking?) duck as one of the most believable characters.
On the other hand, there are some moments that are decidedly adult, to the point of being, if not blue, then at least duck egg. At least the tone of this is present from the very beginning of the film, when Howard sits down to read Playduck magazine and, inexplicably, careers through the bathroom of a bathing duck with exposed breasts. That last one in particular I find astonishing, since it presumably means that somebody, somewhere, has been commissioned, and then paid, to sculpt a pair of breasts for a duck.
It continues much in the same vein, veering somewhat less predictably into the realms of bestiality. To give Howard the Duck some credit, it’s a very daring scene to put into such an expensive picture, though its failure would suggest conclusively that zoophilia does not have mass-market appeal (who would have guessed?). Again, more than anything, it’s the desire to have the film at least available (ie, given a PG-certificate) to a family audience that hampers this scene. Had it occurred within a typically gross-out comedy, you may at least be more prepared for the sight of feathers suggestively standing to attention.
The only moment of Howard the Duck that I found to be wholly inexcusable, rather than simply horrendously misjudged, is Howard’s attempt to sexually harass a woman in a Job Centre. Out of nowhere, our hero has the uncontrollable desire to bite someone on the behind whilst growling loudly, and yet this is just shrugged off and forgotten about in seconds. I couldn’t quite believe it when I watched it the first time, and had to rewind just to make sure I wasn’t misconstruing it, but it’s undeniable, and casts a shadow that the movie can’t recover from.
Ultimately, there are far worse films out there. There are plenty of interesting ideas in the mix, but sadly some of them seem to be mutually exclusive, and there’s an overriding feeling that the movie has been compromised in a way that has left it pleasing no-one. For proof that the concept is sound, you need only look at the success of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, which includes the same mixture of childish humour and mature sensibilities, but with appropriate levels of each. Now that we have Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, we don’t really need Howard the Duck, and no-one would mourn its passing, but since it arrived two years before, it really isn’t such a disaster.