Howard the Duck: Cigar-Toking, Sunglasses-Wearing Superhero. Sort Of

The 1980s film Howard the Duck is infamous and has long since achieved cult status: starring Lea Thompson and a painfully young, goofily spectacled Tim Robbins (really), its executive producer was George Lucas (again: really). While that wasn’t enough to save the film from panning at the box office and being savaged by the critics, it helped confirm the movie’s status as one of the best worst films ever.

But what many people don’t know is that the sunglasses-wearing, wise-cracking Howard had achieved star status way before the movie dropped. In fact, he’s part of the Marvel family, first appearing in a comic strip in 1973. The feathered superhero went on to make his debut in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in a cameo in Guardians of the Galaxy and also turned up in the movie’s sequel, cementing him as a bone fide member of the Marvel multiverse.

Howard the Duck: Origins

Created by Steve Gerber and artist Val Mayeric, Howard is arguably one of the most original of Marvel’s superheroes. The comic strips in which he first appeared were largely social satires, detailing the feathered one’s misadventures in a human-dominated world.

In 1977 Disney contacted the Marvel offices, concerned that Howard was impinging on their Donald the Duck character. As a result of this tete-a-tete, Howard underwent a redesign and began wearing pants for the first time.

Moving on to the 1980s, we arrive at the Howard the Duck movie: promo posters featured the title character himself relaxing in a chair, wearing glasses, and reading a copy of Rolling Stone. Despite the fact that the film version was a resounding flop, with critics and audiences alike generally agreeing it was a contender for the worst film ever made, the movie has since gained a substantial cult following, and viewing it is widely considered to be a rite of passage.

Nominated for a total of seven Razzie awards, the film won four. To add insult to injury, it only pulled in around $38 million at the box office – just about breaking even. But on a positive note, the soundtrack was widely praised….and Howard did look cool wearing those shades in the promos.

The Casting

Despite its box office fate, the original Howard the Duck movie boasted some major talent on its casting roster. Lea Thompson, fresh from a starring role in the smash hit Back to the Future, played alongside Tim Robbins in his first-ever film appearance. Playing a bumbling, glasses-slipping-off-his-nose-wearing lab assistant, Robbins has since spoken about how he doesn’t look back on the film with negativity – largely because the fact that it went so far beyond its shooting schedule meant that he ended up getting a very hefty paycheck for overtime!

Also starring in the film is Jeffrey Jones, who was allegedly cast in the movie due to his role in Amadeus. And the lead character himself? The unflappable Howard was played by Ed Gale, with Chip Zien providing the voice. Gale has worked on many movies and TV series subsequently, including The Jungle Book, O Brother Where Art Thou, and the show My Name is Earl.

The Lucas Connection

Around the time of Howard the Duck’s release, George Lucas had just finished constructing the multi-million dollar Skywalker Ranch complex and was relying on the Howard movie to get his bank balance back in the black. Following the film’s disastrous run at the box office, the director had to start selling off assets to pay his debts.

Luckily, help was at hand in the form of Lucas’s friend Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple Computer. Jobs offered to buy Lucas’s just-launched CGI animation division at a price significantly above market value. The director gratefully accepted. This division became, in time, Pixar Animation Studios. Which is the circuitous route by which a sunglasses and suit wearing duck was responsible for the rise of one of the most influential studios of all time. Sort of.

Induction to the Marvel Cinematic Universe

As a character, Howard is experiencing somewhat of a rehabilitation in recent times, however. Voiced by Seth Green, he pops up in Guardians of the Galaxy as a living exhibit in a museum who is later freed; he even appears in a post-credit scene enjoying a drink amid the wreckage with Cosmo the Spacedog.

And it’s not just that movie’s sequel that Howard turns up in. Pay attention, and you’ll spot him in a cameo role in Avengers: Endgame. He had a scene in Avengers: Infinity War, too…and while that particular reel ended up on the cutting room floor, there may be plans for a new Howard the Duck movie.

Howard the Duck: The Future

In 2016 Rob Zombie allegedly pitched a reboot of the movie to Marvel but was turned down, while rumors began swirling around in 2017 that Marvel Studios itself was developing a new version of the movie. 

Although nothing came of these whispers, a Howard film was potentially in the offing again when, in 2018, Lea Thompson (who had starred in the original 1986 version) revealed that she had pitched her own interpretation of a Howard the Duck movie, which Marvel Studios had reacted positively to. So – while there’s not yet any firm confirmation that the anthropomorphic, sunglasses-wearing, cigar-toking superhero is set to hit the big screen again, it’s very likely only a matter of time before he’s back on the cover of Rolling Stone.

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