Howard the Duck was made in 1986, and was based on a comic book that was published by Marvel. The character first appeared in Adventure into Fear #19, that comic book series also introduced The Man-Thing and Morbius the Living Vampire (soon to also have a film debut). Howard was Marvel’s answer to Fritz the Cat and other alternative comics of the time—and he was quite popular, receiving thousands of votes in the 1976 Presidential election as a result of a “Howard the Duck for President” gag in the comic book.
George Lucas loved Howard the Duck, and sometime in the 70s, after American Graffiti, he was interested in making it into a film, In 1984 he finally decided to make the film—although it was pretty obvious from the get-go that Lucas was not going to direct it. He hadn’t directed The Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi, having moved into more of a production and special effects role. In addition, Lucas has quite severe diabetes, which has held him back from making the art films that he really wanted to (probably a great loss to cinema—unless he’s actually made them secretly and never released them!) At least he’s been able to produce films like Mishima and Kagemusha, and has helped out a lot of young filmmakers behind the scenes (and he built Skywalker Ranch, which is the go-to place for audio mastering).
Given that Lucas had just done the Star Wars trilogy at this point, he could make whatever he wanted. He brought in a couple of old friends from USC, the husband and wife writing team of Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, and Huyck ended up as director on the project as well. They were at the time among the initial group of American Zoetrope filmmakers, but Huyck wasn’t Lucas’s first choice—John Landis had been previously offered the director’s seat. With Landis having done films like The Blues Brothers and American Werewolf in London, he was an obvious pick. But there was a big climax with police cars at the end, and that made Landis think it was a bit too much like The Blues Brothers so…
The result? Howard the Duck is a perfect example of ‘80s-excess filmmaking, at both its best and its worst. Howard is a sarcastic duck (a bit toned down from the comic, where he’s very pervy) who has to stop an alien invasion with the help of a nerdy scientist played by Tim Robbins. Robbins’s performance here is zanier than his turn in The Hudsucker Proxy. They’re joined by a New Wave singer played by Lea Thompson, who discovers Howard. Howard and Lea end up in a presumably sexual relationship—and oddly, numerous people of various genders (and maybe even a child) played Howard on screen in the various scenes.
The film is set in Cleveland—but it’s very obviously not Cleveland… It was instead shot in San Francisco, close to Lucas’ home base. The plot is completely pointless and ridiculous, but it’s a very funny curiosity from mid-‘80s cinema. It ends with Howard on stage playing the guitar. Much of the music is by Thomas Dolby but John Barry, a composer best-known for the James Bond films, also contributes, creating a weird mish-mash between traditional film music and Dolby’s crappy synth-pop.
As you might imagine, it’s a complete and utter mess, but it’s batshit crazy right from the get-go and that makes it worth seeing. The special effects hold up surprisingly well (even the duck—who I swear was based on Harlan Ellison as he’s a dead ringer), and it feels like the filmmakers were trying for a Buckaroo Banzai-style movie with this silly, off-the-wall narrative. It does have a certain charm.
It’s also the first feature-length Marvel Comics adaptation (not counting the Captain America B-movie serial from the 1940s), and an honourable failure for Lucas. It wasn’t for the fact that Tim Burton’s Batman arrived a few years later and was a success, it’s safe to say that comic-book superhero films might have not arrived in the numbers that they have. Until Guardians of the Galaxy, Howard was not revived on screen (look for him in the mid-credits sequence), but he’s not been back since. However, it’s now been announced that Kevin Smith will write a Howard the Duck animated series for Hulu—his first foray into the Marvel universe as a writer.
There are plenty of special features: BFI’s Vic Pratt provides a silly Howard the Duck history, there are commentary tracks by Wiol Jones and Robert J.E. Simpson and by Charlie Brigden and Dan Whitehead, some featurettes made at the time (unfortunately, some additional featurettes didn’t get licensed for this release), teasers, and a booklet that includes an essay titled “The Madness of King George.”