Sometimes a bad movie is the result of one person’s idea. One director, one writer, one single voice, a vision if you will. When Tommy Wiseau set out to make The Room, he had an idea. It was a terrible, horrible idea that was poorly executed, but it was all him. On the other hand, a lot of bad movies suffer a sort of death by a thousand cuts. Sometimes an okay movie takes a few wrong turns in its development and comes out a smoking ruin of the film it was originally intended to be. Unfortunately, because Hollywood is a system that rewards failure as well as success *cough*Michael Bay*cough* no one really learns that much from these same mistakes, until they result in the kind of catastrophe Michael Bay features in his movies.
One of these mistakes is something I’m going to call the Yes Man Paradox. To explain, let’s pretend we have a young filmmaker, fresh off the heels of a good, yet fairly conventional film. I’m going to call him….George.
George has had some ideas about doing something really revolutionary and now that he has one movie under his belt, the studio lets him select a project. He has a lot of ideas that no one wants to listen to like say, taking old samurai movies and remaking them in space with Flash Gordon style and laser swords? Just for example. No one thinks this will work but he buckles down and sticks to his guns and it’s a huge success. Now that he’s made a good movie he’s been designated a “genius” by Hollywood and they immediately give him money for sequels to his samurai space masterpiece. George manages to make some good decisions on the next movie, picking a good writer, maybe even a good director so he can step aside and focus on the story. He surrounds himself with good people, and those people like his ideas because he’s proven himself.
As George continues to make movies however, something begins to change. He’s just a regular human being: not all his ideas are winners. The problem is that while you’re sticking to your guns on your crazy idea that happens to be good, you’re going to get rid of people who tell you no. These people just won’t get your crazy idea so there’s no point keeping them around. So George keeps a close circle of useful, talented people who are on board. But then those people move on, and he has to hire new people. So he does the same thing, except now he’s finished his big idea and moved on to new things. Now the people he keeps who agree with him, will do it no matter what. Suddenly he has surrounded himself with yes men. Because who would disagree with the “genius” who can fire them whenever he wants?
In summation, in Hollywood, when you’ve had good ideas before, no one will tell you when your ideas are bad. And today we’re going to discuss the moment when our prototypical George began to have this problem.
In 1985 George Lucas was at the top of his game. He had finished his Star Wars trilogy, which had made him a legend in filmmaking and elevated him to the coveted Hollywood “genius” status. He had written the story for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom the previous year and that made 1100% of its budget in box office sales. In the studios’ mind he was basically a money factory. So Universal signed George Lucas for a contract for a live action movie, due to come out in the summer of 1986. What did he pick? Why a live action adaptation of a raunchy marvel comic remade for kids of course. Starring an anthropomorphic duck. Oh yes..this month we’re talking about Howard the Duck.
You’re Ducking Kidding Me.
Howard the Duck the comic is a biting satire about comics in general and Donald Duck comics in particular. Howard the Duck’s humor comes from the fact that he is not a nice kid friendly duck who goes without pants without it being commented upon. This is an angry, cigar-smoking, woman chasing duck who just wants to be left alone in his ridiculous Duck World and not be bothered by anything. This was weird enough to squeeze into Marvel Comics, but adapting it into a PG movie was severely ill advised. Also this is before the PG-13 rating came out, so please, please don’t show this to kids. Honestly I don’t even know if I’m old enough to watch it. I swear I’m not making any of this up.
Howard the Duck is coming home from a day at work and is sitting down to read an issue of Playduck Magazine (I told you, not making this up.) when a portal opens in the sky and sucks him through his neighbors apartments, off his planet, and spits him out in Cleveland. Yes this whole movie takes place in 1980s Cleveland, and for my fellow Ohioans, you are not going to enjoy that fact. For instance, people in Hollywood are unaware that only parts of Cleveland look like Mordor. Howard is immediately accosted by a group of teenagers covered in leather in spikes, you know like everyone in the 80s. As he’s running away he manages to save a musician named Beverly (Lea Thompson) from two thugs using Quack-Fu. (No, really.)
After finding an anthropomorphic duck on the street she does the only natural thing and takes him home. The next morning she has Howard examined by her scientist friend Phil (Tim Robbins) who may only be a janitor at the museum but he’s willing to study Howard. Phil brings in his boss Dr. Jenning (Jeffrey Jones), who was working on some kind of plot-based laser beam that brought Howard to Earth. When the laser blows up and infects Jenning with a space parasite calling itself “The Dark Lord of the Universe” Howard has to save Beverly again and find away to defeat the Dark Lord and find his way home.
I swear I didn’t type that by mashing my face into the keyboard, but I desperately wanted to.
What the Duck?
Howard the Duck was written by two of George Lucas’ most frequent Yes Men at this point in his life. His old film school friends Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz. Their combined talent was a mixed bag: they had helped Lucas write American Graffiti but they’d also been responsible for the screenplay for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Yes, the people who thought Short Round was a great idea were now going to be handing the “surrealist satire” of Howard the Duck. What didn’t help was the fact that Lucas was on the hook to Universal for a live action movie. That’s why when Huyck and Katz pitched Lucas the idea for a raunchy animated film in the vein of Ralph Bakshi, Lucas said they’d make a live action family film instead.
Because it appears that neither writer bothered to rewrite the script too much, and probably due to the fact that Huyck direct the film himself, this movie is filled with ridiculously inappropriate moments. Howard oogles Lea Thompson’s butt as she climbs on her bed in her underwear, right before she and Howard start making out in bed in this family fun flick. It also features Howard working at some kind of adults only Hot Tub parlor, which as far as I’m aware is definitely not a thing. Not to mention that the first three minutes of the movie feature two separate sets of distinctly non-avian duck breasts.
Between the inter-species romance and the nsfw content, the writers managed to cram in two of the most boring car chases in cinema, plenty of body horror as Jenning turns into the “Dark Lord of the Universe” and more bullshit science than both Independance Day movies. And throughout it all the filmmakers are so unaware of what they have done it makes it an absolute riot to watch. For instance, when Howard is walking through his apartment in Duck World he has the poster for what they intented to be the duck Raiders of the Lost Ark.
They could’ve called it Raiders of the Lost Egg, Mallards of the Lost Ark, a hundred other things. They picked Breeders of the Lost Stork, blissfully ignorant of the fact they’d put the poster for a Raiders porn parody in Howard’s apartment. They don’t even have any idea how ridiculous this scene is:
I don’t even know what half those words mean.
A Ducking Hero
I’m not going to lie, this is a rough one. The script is barely readable, the actors have no idea what’s going on because the director is the Short Round guy. And no I’m never letting him off the hook for that. But still there are little glimmers of hope in Howard the Duck wonderful moments, and some work that is worth celebrating. First of all, at one point in the movie Howard picks a fight with Beverley’s manager, and one of his goons is Richard Edson. Who’s Richard Edson you say? He’s the guy behind the wheel:
Yes, Richard “That strange looking guy in every 80s movie” Edson. The guy who took Cameron’s dad’s Ferrari for a joyride, Mr. Beverly the Janitor from Pete and Pete, and most beloved of all his role in Super Mario Bros. Oh Richard certainly has a Bad Movie Hero award coming for him soon. But it isn’t going to be today.
No, the Bad Movie Hero award goes to the woman who almost sacrificed her career because of Howard the Duck.
Lea Thompson spends every moment of this thankless, idiotic role totally invested. She didn’t need this damn movie. She had just done Back to the Future, Red Dawn, and Space Camp and she did not have to get her ass stared at by a duck but dammit she gave it her all! She sings all her own songs in the movie, and does a wonderful job. The songs are still awful but that’s not her fault. She manages to keep a straight face while attempting to seduce a Duck, and does a decent enough job to make it profoundly uncomfortable. Not to mention that she put her hair in a damn panini press every day for this movie:
You like Some Kind of Wonderful? You get to watch that because Lea Thompson committed to Howard the Duck and almost ruined her damn career. She’d turned down that movie several times before, but when Howard bombed so badly she needed a movie quick and turned out one of her most beloved performances. And throughout it all, she has never once bad mouthed this stupid, stupid movie.
“ So for years and years, I’ve been bullied about doing “Howard the Duck.” So people are always like, “I hate to ask you …” and I’m like not the kind of person to shrink away. If I did it, I own it. It’s just really fun to see people having fun celebrating “Howard the Duck” in all its great silliness and blemishes.”
And what did she say when Marvel asked her to lend her likeness to appear as herself in a Howard the Duck comic?
“I said, “Is there any money?” And they said, “No.” And I said, “Well, why should I resurrect ‘Howard the Duck’ for you?” And they said, “Because it’s fun.” And I said, “Exactly. I’m in.” [Laughs]”
Congratulations Lea, you’re our Bad Movie Hero, because anyone who’d relive their worst role for fun, totally deserves it.