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Remember When… 'Howard the Duck' Ruined Comic Book Movies Forever?

Picture a world where Marvel comic books aren’t considered a viable source for movies, and where George Lucas’ creative decisions are met with eager enthusiasm. This is not the world we live in today, but it was 30 years ago, when the only comic book movies were DC’s Superman and Lucas hadn’t fiddled with his Star Wars trilogy yet. 

And then came Howard the Duck.

Based on a Marvel title, executive-produced by Lucas, and written and directed by his American Graffiti co-writers, Howard the Duck hit theaters on Aug. 1, 1986. The critics hit back. “Too scuzzy to beguile children, too infantile to appeal to adults,” said Richard Corliss at Time magazine. Gene Siskel was more succinct: “Who was this stupid film made for?” 

Despite the massive marketing onslaught (there was a phone number you could call to hear messages from Howard), moviegoers stayed away, and the new film produced by the guy who made Star Wars grossed $16.3 million in the U.S. Adjusted for inflation, that’s $38 million, making it a Gods of Egypt or Pan-sized flop. It was the 53rd highest-grossing film of 1986, behind The Delta Force and a reissue of Song of the South. That’s right: more people saw the old racist Disney cartoon than Howard the Duck.

(Curiously, George Lucas had executive-produced another box-office disappointment just five weeks earlier: Labyrinth. But that one at least got some good reviews; and anyway, Lucas wasn’t as closely associated with it in people’s minds as its director, Jim Henson, was.)  

The failure of Howard the Duck was not a surprise to the people behind the scenes, nor to industry-watchers who’d heard reports of the film going over budget and over schedule. At the very outset, it should have been animated, but Universal Pictures wanted it faster, so it had to be live-action. (Did Universal want the clunky, unconvincing duck costumes and animatronics that came with live-action? Probably not.) Lucas had been interested in adapting the comic book since the ’70s, but when writers Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz were done with it, the satiric, surreal tone of the comic had been turned into … whatever the tone of the movie is. 

There was also the matter of the design of the duck himself. The marketing purposely hid Howard from public view, thus building anticipation that could only result in disappointment when audiences actually saw the thing. If I may quote myself: 

“Throughout the movie, whenever people see Howard, they are amazed or frightened by the fact that he’s a talking duck. This seems wrong, though. He doesn’t look like a real duck — he looks like a midget or child in a duck costume. Everyone’s reaction ought to be: Hey, look! A midget or child in a duck costume! When you see Mickey Mouse at Disneyland, you don’t think, ‘Wow, look how big that mouse is!’ Of course, I’ve never been to Cleveland. I don’t know how gullible they are there, or how accustomed to oversized talking animals.”

And so it was that the first theatrical feature film based on a character from Marvel Comics was a disaster. It was 12 years before another Marvel movie (Blade) would play in U.S. theaters, and two more years before X-Men arrived and ushered in the modern era. Now, with Howard’s recent cameo in Guardians of the Galaxy and the revival of his comic book, — and with technology having evolved to where a movie could star a talking duck and not be laughable — we might see the whole thing come full-circle. If Marvel makes another Howard film, people will be interested. If Lucas is involved, they’ll be skeptical. Funny how things change. 

Post-script: Some good came of Howard the Duck, though. Co-star Lea Thompson said last year that Howard’s failure made her change her mind about doing Some Kind of Wonderful, which she’d previously rejected. The director of that movie, Howard Deutch (she has a thing for Howards), became her husband the following year, and they’re still together today. Hooray for space ducks! 

When Howard the Duck was released, on Aug. 1, 1986…

– It opened in third place, behind Aliens (which had opened two weeks earlier) and fellow newcomer Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives. Howard the Duck did outrank two other new films, Nothing in Common and Flight of the Navigator, though both of them made more per-theater than Howard did. The rest of the top 10 that weekend included The Karate Kid Part II, Heartburn, Ruthless People, Top Gun, and Back to School

– The #1 song in the country was “Glory of Love (Theme from The Karate Kid Part II)” by Peter Cetera. A few other songs you might have heard on the radio on your way to the theater are “Sledgehammer” (Peter Gabriel), “Danger Zone” (Kenny Loggins), “Papa Don’t Preach” (Madonna), “Invisible Touch” (Genesis), and “Nasty” (Janet Jackson). 

– Lindsay Lohan was less than a month old. Armie Hammer and Glee’s Lea Michele had less than a month left in their respective wombs and both already looked amazing. 

– The most popular shows on TV, even during summer reruns, were NBC’s Thursday lineup of The Cosby Show, Family Ties, Cheers, and Night Court. NBC was gearing up for the fall, too, as this energetic promo shows.

– Among the albums to be released this month were Look What the Cat Dragged In by Poison; Dancing on the Ceiling by Lionel Ritchie; Slippery When Wet by Bon Jovi; and Graceland by Paul Simon.

– The Statue of Liberty had recently reopened to the public after an overhaul and cleanup, in time for its 100th anniversary. Whitney Houston sang at the rededication ceremony. 

– In a few weeks, a disgruntled post office employee in Oklahoma would kill 14 co-workers and himself, the first of several such mass-murders that would give rise to the unfortunate expression “going postal.”

– The most popular toys of the day included Teddy Ruxpin, a creepy teddy bear that talked through a cassette player. It helped kids make friends on school buses, allegedly.

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