Though it cannot be said of all teachers of literature, it is common to find teachers indifferent to the kinds of poetry and fiction that go most directly for those values we associate with simple entertainment - popular lyrics, drugstore paperbacks, and so forth. The reason may in some cases be snobbery, but probably just as often the cause is the sensitive reader’s too frequent experience of disappointment - the boring sameness found at its extreme in the scripts of television Westerns, cop shows and situation comedies. Driven off by too much that is merely commercial - often shoddy imitation of authentic originality in the realm of the popular - we fail to notice that popular song writers like Stevie Wonder and Randy Newman, to say nothing of the Beatles, can be dedicated, energetic poets more interesting than many of the weary sophisticates, true-confessors and randy academics we encounter in the “little magazines,” and that drugstore fiction can often have more to offer than fiction thought to be of a higher class. The result of such prejudice or ignorance is that literature courses regularly feature writers less appealing - at least on the immediate, sensual level, but sometimes on deeper levels as well - than Isaac Asimov, Samuel R. Delaney, Walter M. Miller, Jr, Roger Zelazny, or the Strugatsky brothers, science-fiction writers; or even thriller writers like John le Carre and Frederick Forsyth; the creators of the early Spider-Man comics or Howard the Duck. In theory it may be proper that teachers ignore thrillers, science fiction, and the comic books. No one wants Coleridge pushed from the curriculum by a duck "trapped in a world he never made!” But when we begin to list the contemporary “serious” writers who fill high school and literature courses, Howard the Duck can look not all that bad.
- John Gardner, The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, 1982
It's a film about a duck from outer space... It's not supposed to be an existential experience... We're supposed to have fun with this concept, but for some reason reviewers weren't able to get over that problem.
- Gloria Katz, Screenwriter and producer of Howard the Duck, after it came out
So... I've never watched Howard the Duck. This does not make me particularly unusual, as very few people watched Howard the Duck. Just to be clear: if you saw the trailer for Howard the Duck you would assume the "duck" part was a metaphor.
I never would have watched Howard the Duck if John Gardner hadn't heaped praise on it. This is a guy who talked smack about Hemingway and is mostly famous for retelling Beowulf from Grendl's point of view. He was old school, hard core, and fairly certain and respected in his opinions.
So I decided to READ Howard the Duck first.
Shit be meta as fuck.
Which makes sense. Gardner was batshit for metafiction - fiction that is self-aware and self-referential. Howard the Duck is ostensibly about a duck, but that's sort of like saying Moebius' Airtight Garage is about a space station. It's not - Howard the Duck is an absurdist romp of parody and social satire along the lines of Shostakovich's The Nose or Ionesco's Rhinoceros. The fact that the protagonist is a duck merely allows for just enough absurdity to give the satire some bite.
The fact that Howard looks actionably like Donald (Disney threatened to sue Marvel over the resemblance) only adds to the meta, of course. So in theory, a movie made by the biggest producer in Hollywood (George Lucas, y'all!) with one of the biggest budgets about a subversive adult satire from then-just-an-also-ran Marvel Comics should be even more meta, right?
So let's get this out of the way first. I tried to watch Howard the Duck as a non-self-aware meta-parody of '80s Hollywood. Theoretically, it could have worked:
- The costuming is exquisitely bad. Lea Thompson in crimped bangs.
- The color timing makes Who Framed Roger Rabbit look like a David Fincher film.
- The special effects were astoundingly expensive (the duck suit alone was $2m) yet also abysmally bad. The end fight looks like a Harryhousen, but without the charm or appeal.
- Bits of the soundtrack are by Thomas Dolby. Yes, Thomas Dolby.
But... it's just a bad movie.
- There's this weird creepy sexuality about it that makes no sense. I mean, WHAT THE FUCK.
Someone - probably a large group of someones - had to make an animatronic duck suit with nipples. For a 5 second throwaway gag. And it goes on like that - at one point, Howard gets a job working in a hot tub emporium. Never mind that really awkward scene where he starts making out with Lea Thompson. Hey - I want to make out with Lea Thompson in this movie, too. That girl was really something for a really long time. But it's just so creepily exploitive - that's frickin' Marty McFly's mom in there, dammit, and there's absolutely ZERO justification for her to be in a g-string right now. Anyway, moving on.
- The antagonist isn't so much as referenced until Minute 52. You're sitting there for the better part of an hour while the problems mostly seem to be about Lea Thompson's band. By the way, in the comic he's Thog the Nether-Spawn, Overmaster of Sominus. In the movie? He's "the Dark Overlord." And he's played by Jeffrey Jones, that dude you loved as the principal in Ferris Bueller before you found out he'd done time for trying to diddle little boys in 2002.
- Howard is a completely passive protagonist. The comic starts In Medias Res, after Howard has saved Cleveland. The movie yanks him through the wall (well, you saw) and transports him to Cleveland, where we spend the aforementioned 50 minutes while everyone goes "holy shit a duck." For the next 50 minutes he pretty much goes where he's pointed, bitching and wise-cracking (but not well) along the way.
- The dialog isn't parodic. It isn't self-aware. It's just bad. You know how Pixar stuff is generally pretty good and Dreamworks animation is pretty terrible? If The Muppet Show were Pixar, this film would be Dreamworks. And The Muppet Show wasn't Pixar on its best days. The dialog's just not... good.
- The plot for the first half is "Howard sort of helps Lea Thompson with her band" while the second half is sort of "Howard is sort of involved as The Dark Overlord attempts to open a vortex." If you took Ghostbusters, Temple of Doom, Back to the Future and Goonies and threw them in a blender, hit pulse for a few seconds and then poured off the thin gruel surrounding the chopped-up bludgeoned bits of meat, that thin gruel would be the plot to Howard the Duck.
- The special effects are distractingly bad. You know how Steel Dawn is entertaining 'cuz you can tell it's a bunch of B-movie veterans out at Imperial Dunes for a paycheck but Waterworld is cringe-worthy because you know Kevin Costner blew like $250m making a fake atoll off the coast of Kauai? Yeah, go check duck tits again. A team at Industrial Lights and Magic put a lot of time into that. I'll bet they'd much rather have been working on... anything. Anything but duck tits. I mean - this is ILM. But this is ILM clearly over-reaching. They needed Golem-level character design to pull this off and this is from an era where that awesome THX intro was made by a custom-built computer that took up an entire room (look it up).
A few good things came of this. Gloria Katz and her no-talent hack of a husband Willard Huyck never worked again; they were the ones that made Temple of Doom the second-worst Indiana Jones film. George Lucas was so strapped that he had to sell what would become Pixar to Steve Jobs. It postponed the oppressive comic book movie onslaught for a couple decades; Howard the Duck was the first Marvel property adapted to film and the last until, realistically speaking, X-Men in 2000.
But as charmingly as the '80s are occasionally portrayed in this film, it was not misjudged by time. It was not unfairly treated.
It's a bad movie. Not Plan 9 bad, either - Day the Clown Cried bad.
That's Lea Thompson at 24 and you feel icky watching it. If that doesn't tell you something about this film, I don't know what will.