Bad movies are not a simple matter. There are nearly as many categories of terrible movies as there are for great ones: there are films that are insultingly stupid (Batman & Robin), unintentionally funny (The Room), unintentionally, painfully unfunny (White Chicks), so bad they’re depressing (Transformers), and so on. But the most rewarding terrible movies are those we know as “so bad they’re good” — entertaining in their sheer incompetence, best braved in numbers, where the ham-fisted dramatics and tin-eared dialogue become fodder for years of random quotes and inside jokes. And in this spirit, Flavorwire brings you the latest installment in our monthly So Bad It’s Good series: Howard the Duck, the first big-screen adaptation of a Marvel comic book, which makes their subsequent films seem like the flowers that bloom beneath a heavy load of dense fertilizer.
I’ve heard references to “one-joke” movies before, but the description has seldom been as accurate as it is for Howard the Duck. The joke, basically from beginning to end, is that Howard is a duck. That’s pretty much the gag — he’s from a duck planet that mirrors ours, but with all of the people and cultural references replaced by ducks (he has framed posters for Breeders of the Lost Stork and Splashdance, to give two of the most high-larious examples). Whenever one of those artifacts is revealed, or whenever he issues a would-be wisecrack like, “No more Mr. Nice Duck,” we’re expected to unhinge our jaws and roar with laughter. Because he’s a duck, you see.
The majority of those references are packed into the scene-setting opening sequence, as our duck hero returns home from a long day of duck work, sifts through his duck mail, clicks through all the duck shows on his duck TV, and settles his attention on the latest issue of Playduck. Just as it becomes apparent that we’re about to watch this duck jerk off, the chair begins to shake (but not from that, luckily), and he and his easy chair are jettisoned out of his world and into ours.
And then… well, it would be polite to call the sequence that follows his crash landing on earth inexplicable. He is picked up by eyeliner-wearing thugs. He is hauled into a music club. He is thrown out of said club. He is chased by a bonkers homeless woman. He is chased by a girl biker gang. These events simply pile-up on top of each other, like the highway accident in Nashville — or, more accurately, like the post-credit chase in screenwriters Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz’s last big hit, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Except without any logic. Or wit. Or stakes.
But if you try to summarize the events of Howard the Duck — and after a couple of stabs at this futile enterprise, I’m electing not to — you just sound like a crazy person, because if Howard the Duck has one outstanding characteristic, it is not the neon ‘80s aesthetic or the corresponding crimped and teased hairdos or the utter creepiness of the titular duck himself. It is the film’s total lack of any logic. Events happen on screen, in a form that appears to have been organized by words and character names on pieces of paper, but all reason has been abandoned somewhere along the way.
Why does all the culture shock only go one way? (Most everyone is stunned or amused by the sight of a talking, cigar-chomping duck in business suits and satin jackets, but he seems to have no response whatsoever to our world and its close resemblance to its own.) Why is his first stop the employment office, and how does he get a job? (Aside from being a duck, he’s got no social security number or identification of any kind — he’s kinda off the grid.) How does Howard keep winning fights against giant humans? (Ducks have brittle bones, you guys. You do not want a duck on your side in a fight.) Why does Howard freak out and accuse everyone of trying to make him a cannibal when he is brought a plate of eggs at a diner? (Eggs come from chickens. Howard is a duck.) Why do Howard and his lady pal Beverly decide to go to dinner at that diner with a man who has been possessed by a dark lord? When said dark lord subsequently kidnaps Beverly for some kind of interstellar womb hijacking, why does she not leap from the vehicle during any of the approximately 300 opportunities he provides? And why is she grossed out by his grotesque snake tongue, when about half an hour earlier, she seems to earnestly attempt to quite literally fuck a duck?
Ah, yes, the duck sex. You see, in the picture’s most notorious scene, Howard snuggles into bed with Beverly (Lea Thompson, whose mid-‘80s specialty was apparently playing women who very nearly have sex that they really, really shouldn’t have). She’s wearing next to nothing, and complaining about her man troubles, so he playfully runs his fingers up her arms and proposes, “Maybe it’s not a man you should be looking for.” She purrs back, “You think I could find happiness in the animal kingdom, ducky?” And the saxophone music wails as she makes a beeline for his duck nipples.
It is all very, very disturbing.
During this scene, and many others, I found myself asking the question that Howard’s creators should have asked early and often: Who, exactly, is this movie for? The duck puns, numb-skulled narrative, and general goofiness of the enterprise indicate a family audience — as does the PG (not even PG-13!) rating. But that PG rating is an odd fit for a movie that not only features the aforementioned proximity to a human/duck sex scene, but two pairs of duck boobs (in the first four minutes, even), and a sequence where Howard seems to have found employment in some kind of hot tub fuck shack.
To be fair, the original Howard the Duck comic books had a clear audience: grown-ups. But that wouldn’t do for executive producer George Lucas, who was expected to deliver a movie that everyone could enjoy (particularly considering the film’s then-considerable $37 million budget). He’d reportedly first considered adapting Howard after his first big success, American Graffiti, but made Star Wars instead; Katz and Huyck, who wrote Graffiti with him, stayed with the project all those years without ever getting, it seems, a grasp on the material. (It was Huyck’s last directorial effort; in the years since, he and Katz’s writing credits have only appeared on TV movies and the Lucas-produced flop Radioland Murders.)
In retrospect, Howard’s ultimate legacy may just be that it was our first hint, all those years before The Prequels, that George Lucas was not infallible. It did have one very positive outcome, however: the story goes that Lucas was counting on Howard’s bang-up business to get him out of the debt he’d accumulated after Return of the Jedi, so when it tanked, he was forced to sell off some assets. Among them was a Lucasfilm animation subsidiary that Steve Jobs took over, and I think we can all breathe a sigh of relief that he let Pixar go.
Marvel would, of course, prove a far more lucrative source for movie material than Howard indicated, and when (spoiler) the duck popped up, mostly as an in-joke, in the post-credit cookie for Guardians of the Galaxy, the comic-book sites went nuts: Does this mean Marvel’s going to make another Howard the Duck movie? And who knows, maybe they’d get it right this time. But let’s cross our fingers and hope not; the leftover juju is just too strong on this one. A confession, dear reader: this column is labeled “So Bad, It’s Good,” and most of the time, I stand by this label. But Howard the Duck is a painfully stupid, narratively inept, grotesquely overlong (it’s 110 minutes, for God’s sake) mess. It’s not so bad it’s good; it’s just so bad. So apologies for the false advertising, but if it wasted that much of my time, it only seems fair that I wasted a little bit of yours.