40 Year-Old-Critic: Howard the Duck (1986)
In The 40-Year-Old Critic, Venganza Media creator and host Arnie Carvalho recalls a memorable film for each year of his life. This series appears daily on the Venganza Media Gazette.
In 1986 I was obsessed with, and repulsed by, one film.
It starred a creature not entirely human, nor entirely animal.
The creature wanted to mate with its frizzy-haired, yet attractive, female co-star.
The film also featured a teleportation plot and a once-gentle scientist that slowly transforms into a beast.
That film was David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly, and even its trailers scared the bejesus out of me. Those trailers ran before nearly every movie I watched. I was 11 years old, but still needed to leave the theater when I’d see The Fly approaching.
I was afraid. I was very afraid.
If I was writing this retrospective before 2011, this article would have focused on that film and how it pushed my adolescent boundaries into new territories.
But now I am going to write about Howard the Duck.
Or, more accurately, I’m going to write about talking about Howard the Duck. I think I’ve said everything I needed to say about the notorious 1986 bomb three years ago when I reviewed it — alongside co-hosts Stuart and Jakob — for Now Playing Podcast. I discussed seeing the film in theaters, reading the novelization (which I reviewed as well, on the Marvelicious Toys podcast), and even seeing the Dark Overlord in a Rorschach Test. After more than two hours discussing Howard the Duck, what more could I have to say?
Plenty, it turns out. It was a complete accident, but Howard the Duck changed my life.
As I discussed on that show, I’d always had a kitschy fascination with George Lucas’ follow-up to Return of the Jedi. I knew people hated it, but didn’t understand why. It followed the Ghostbusters formula to a T: creatures from another plane come to Earth, wacky scientists try to determine the cause, and hilarity ensues. It even ends with one of the main characters transforming into an evil beast and the fate of the world determined by an animated laser battle between the heroes and giant, evil creatures.
I loved Ghostbusters, and I loved Howard the Duck even more — as Sigourney Weaver’s Dana never wore anything close to the slinky, sexy outfit that perfectly framed Lea Thompson’s Beverly.
Though it had been 25 years, I was excited by the chance to review Howard the Duck for Now Playing Podcast. Our movie review show was coming up on its 4th anniversary and it had always been a way for me to discuss films for which I had passion. Whether I loved a film or hated it, if I felt something then I wanted to talk about it.
Around this time the show was also finally starting to find some success. Our early, short-form reviews had downloads that measured in the teens. With our Friday the 13th Retrospective Series — something I envisioned as a quick one-off — downloads jumped from the teens to the thousands.
We continued to work hard and over the years our audience started to find us. We were still a small fish in a large sea, but we had grown from a dwarf puffer to at least a catfish.
The success of our 2010 A Nightmare on Elm Street series emboldened me, and, that same year, Iron Man 2 inspired me. After seeing Iron Man, War Machine, Nick Fury, and Black Widow share the screen I could not contain my excitement for The Avengers. So I pitched to Stuart and Jakob the biggest retrospective series ever: all of the Marvel movies, in order, starting with Howard the Duck.
There was quite a bit of negotiation, wrangling, and reordering of movies; but between May 2010 and March 2011 we came to an accord and the Now Playing Marvel Movie Retrospective began.
It was our biggest series, or biggest gamble, and it all hinged on Howard.
Perhaps it was the buildup, but that show always seemed special. We were coming off the Philip K Dick Retrospective Series, which had been pushed to Spring 2011 after The Adjustment Bureau’s release date changed. Downloads were low on the Dick series and there were some production issues. By the time we hit The Adjustment Bureau morale behind-the-scenes was low.
All of that changed with Howard. To my memory, that was the first Now Playing review that, in its raw audio, went more than three hours. Over the course of two years I had allowed Now Playing’s runtime to grow, but only one show had ever gone more than 2 hours: the 2010 review of the A Nightmare on Elm Street remake.
I spent about 80 hours editing our Howard the Duck review, trying to hold to the editor’s axiom of “kill your darlings.” But I just couldn’t do it.
Even during my 11th pass on the Howard the Duck review I was still laughing out loud at the jokes.
Before I even finished the edit I knew that show was something special. I just prayed it would find an audience.
Maybe it was the press releases I had sent, maybe it was the social media promotion, but for the first time, Now Playing Podcast broke through iTunes’ Top 10 TV/Film audio podcast rankings. It took a few days after the show was released, but we had done it!
That spot increased our visibility, and the downloads multiplied exponentially. To go from the unsuccessful Dick series to the top of the iTunes charts was just incredible. Howard the Duck became iTunes’ 5th most downloaded episode in the aforementioned category.
The success was so astounding I actually hesitated before releasing the next show. I knew our Man-Thing podcast was also pretty funny, but the newest show is always the most downloaded. Downloads of Howard were sure to decrease.
Still, we had a schedule, and so Man-Thing went out on time, and became iTunes’ No. 1 most downloaded TV/Film audio podcast. The following week we reviewed Kick-Ass and it grabbed the No. 1 slot, pushing Man-Thing into second place.
Stuart, Jakob, and I were stunned. It was unbelievable to look at the iTunes rankings and see Man-Thing at the top. I have since joked that more people listened to our review of Man-Thing than actually saw that damn film.
One thing we all agreed on — it was Howard the Duck that launched those shows to the top. Howard was a special show, combining serious film criticism with a terrific dose of humor, making fun of ourselves as well as the film, and we knew that was why listeners kept coming back to our show.
Now Playing has had its ups and downs since then. Some shows and retrospectives click more with audiences than others, and some shows I am more proud of than others. Still, it was with Howard the Duck that all the pieces fell into place and listeners responded.
For those reasons I will always love that duck.
I have stated at least twice on the podcast that I wish I could turn that “Red Arrow” grade for Howard into a “Green Arrow” on our site. I realize the film has its flaws — I still believe the second act drags — but I enjoy it anyway. I gave Howard the review I did not because I didn’t like the movie, but because I didn’t think others would find the same enjoyment. After all, our end rating is always a “recommendation” and not a “thumbs up.” When I give the “Green Arrow” I’m not saying, “I like this movie,” I’m saying, “I think you will like this movie.”
Well, I knew back then that I liked Howard the Duck in spite of the flaws.
That fondness has grown as, through Now Playing, I’ve become closely associated with that “fowl” creature. Stuart and Jakob were with me in the review, but I was Howard’s champion (and the one that saw the Dark Overlord in a Rorschach test). Over the past three years that special relationship with this childhood guilty pleasure has grown.
I started collecting a few trinkets from the Howard the Duck film — the old trading cards, a candy cigar, a mini duck head that once held sugar treats. Then I got the Bowen statue, the Toy Biz figure. Finally, this year, I took the plunge — one of the Industrial Light and Magic creature shop workers was selling several Howard the Duck production pieces.
On my desk, a foot from me as I write, is a glass egg that Lucasfilm gave to crew and press back in 1986. Inside that egg is a single duck feather. The Howard the Duck logo on the front makes me smile, not because of that 1986 film about a duck trapped in a world he never made, but because of the podcast that I made that found its place in the world.
Tomorrow — 1987!
Arnie is a movie critic for Now Playing Podcast, a book reviewer for the Books & Nachos podcast, and co-host of the collecting podcasts Star Wars Action News and Marvelicious Toys. You can follow him on Twitter @thearniec