What was the first big-screen Marvel movie? Iron Man? That Punisher movie filmed in Sydney? The amazingly awful no-budget Fantastic Four movie that got made in the early '90s just to hold onto the movie rights? No, no and good Lord no. It was in fact Howard the Duck, the 1986 big budget spectacular from producer George Lucas, the man behind a little-known franchise called Star Wars.
Based on a hit comic from the '70s – one of the few Marvel titles that had crossed over to the mainstream – and boasting a budget of $US30 million, powered by the might of Lucas’s cutting edge special effects team at Industrial Light and Magic, it was set to be a sure-fire smash hit. Until people saw it.
This is a strange movie. After all, there is a notorious scene in which a talking duck gets thrown into a hot tub where two people are having sex.
But the thing to keep in mind with Howard the Duck is that it’s not like the filmmakers went and put in a whole bunch of strange stuff in the film just for the hell of it. Howard isn’t a comedy cartoon duck or a human turned into a duck by radiation or anything like that – he’s a regular, cynical, adult male who happens to be a duck because he’s from Duckworld, a version of Earth where everybody’s a duck.
Yes, that means there are duck versions of regular Marvel superheroes, like Ducktor Strange. Fortunately (or not), Marvel hasn’t made a big deal out of this.
These days, mainstream comics books are almost entirely focused on superheroes, but in the '70s, it was pretty much anything goes. The big superhero resurgence in the '60s that saw the creation of most of Marvel’s major characters had faded and their most buzz-worthy title was Conan the Barbarian. With no one having much of an idea what to do next, writers like Steve Gerber working on fringe titles such as swamp monster Man Thing were given free reign, and if they created a talking duck that suddenly became popular, everybody won – apart from Gerber himself, who would go on to sue Marvel for the rights to Howard the Duck (he lost).
For a while there, Howard the Duck was a legitimate counter-cultural phenomenon. His mix of absurdist humour and social satire struck a nerve with readers – so much so that his fictional political party, the All-Night Party, pulled in thousands of write-in votes in the 1976 Presidential campaign (and Gerber made a decent profit selling campaign buttons). Howard became so popular, Disney sued over similarities to Donald Duck, forcing him to wear pants in all future appearances. Marvel later got its own back with a comic series where Howard mutated into various funny animals, including a (Mickey) mouse. Then Disney retaliated by purchasing Marvel. Check. Mate.
So while looking back from 2018, it seems like having Marvel’s first-ever feature film focus on the adventures of a pants-wearing talking duck is a little strange, in the mid-'80s it was… well, it was a good idea for an animated film, which is what Howard the Duck was originally written as. But Universal Studios needed a big film for the summer of 1986, and with George Lucas doing the special effects, it figured a live-action version would look great.
A live-action version of a classic counter-culture comic that was falling rapidly out of tune with the times isn’t exactly a recipe for success, and Howard the Duck’s reputation as a massive flop is in no way surprising. It was marketed as a kids’ film, a special-effects heavy all-ages adventure from the mind of George Lucas, but it looked like a mess and everyone stayed away. The actual director, a friend of Lucas’s named Willard Hyuck, would never direct a feature film again.
Howard the Duck may not be a laugh riot, but it’s deeply strange in a way that’s never less than interesting, and that strangeness can be summed up in one word: sex. It’s bizarre to think that Marvel’s first film – one where the lead is a talking duck – is still Marvel’s most overtly sexual film, but there you have it. Howard reads Playduck magazine, goes to bite a co-worker’s buttocks and, in the film’s most notorious scene, shares a bed with his fully human love interest, Beverly (Lea Thompson, below). A woman in bed with a talking duck was mainstream viewing in 1986 – that’s something most '80s revivals forget to mention.
It took three movies for Tony “Iron Man” Stark (Robert Downey Jr) to be shown in bed with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), and even then they seemed like an old married couple. Howard the Duck was happily bedding women from an entirely different species halfway through his first film. Modern Marvel movies might have cultural relevancy, big fight scenes and witty one-liners, but interspecies romance? There are some things even Doctor Strange won’t do.
Watch Howard the Duck on Wednesday 20 February at 10:30pm on SBS VICELAND's 'Best of the Worst Movies Season'. Please note the film won't be available afterwards for catch-up viewing at SBS On Demand.