Pointless Fanboy Speculation: Howard the Duck

From the moment it was announced that Disney had acquired Marvel in 2009, my first thought was that they could finally do a good Howard the Duck film and erase the embarrassment of the 1986 abomination. When Disney added Lucasfilm to their stable in 2012, I was sure the last hurdle had been cleared.

At the time, writing for GeekDad, my comment was:

For me, the most important aspect of Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm is this: The path is now cleared to finally reboot Howard the Duck.

Yes, I’m serious.

After Lucasfilm completely bumbled the movie, stripping it of all the sharp political satire and social-cultural criticism, it was obvious, given the stench of the bomb and the legal entanglements and complications of brokering a deal between three corporate entities who didn’t really want to deal with each other (Disney, Marvel and Lucas), that Howard would never get another shot at stardom. But all that has changed now.

Now that Disney owns Marvel, the concerns about trademark infringement have evaporated, and the parodic intent of Howard is able to have free rein. Now that they also own Lucasfilm, rights to the largely forgettable movie are also a non-issue. And of course the current state of CGI animation will allow Howard to not look like a little person in a bad duck suit. The only thing needed now is for somebody at Disney-Marvel-Pixar-Lucasfilm to say “I love Howard the Duck and want to make a great movie with him.”

Somebody has to make this happen.

Howard the Duck in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

After Howard got his cameo in Guardians of the Galaxy, I was even more sure hopeful. I wrote a post for my other blog about him for the sake of the audience members who were puzzled by the appearance of a random talking duck. His second cameo in GOTG vol. 2 seemed a little out of character to me, but hey, it’s something. Hope burns eternal. Which brings us to Pointless Fanboy Speculation, in which I tell you how I would adapt this particular character to the MCU.

Here’s the Elevator Pitch:

Howard the Duck and Beverly take a “road trip” through weird middle America, which warps into a political satire when Howard is cajoled into running for President.

My vision for On the Road with Howard the Duck is that it is, at heart, a Frank Capra movie; it’s It Happened One Night mashed up with Meet John Doe and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. If you don’t know those movies, go watch them now, then come back to finish reading this post. It’ll take you five hours and 56 minutes and you can thank me later.

Okay, fine, you don’t want to go watch classic black & white films that are among the most important movies ever made. Let me give you a quick run-down of each so you’ll get what I’m talking about…

“I’ve seen the hiking part; when do we get to the hitching?”

It Happened One Night is a story that’s been swiped for a lot of other films; a man and woman (Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert) who are complete opposites get thrown together and have to travel as a pair for different reasons, constantly clashing while they navigate innumerable obstacles until they fall in love. If you’re young, think 10 Things I Hate About You combined with Road Trip; if you’re older, When Harry Met Sally or The Sure Thing are in the ballpark.

Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper in 'Meet Jogn Doe'

Meet John Doe is about a frustrated reporter about to be fired (Barbara Stanwyck) who tries to hang on to her job by writing a fake “Letter to the Editor” supposedly from a homeless person threatening to commit suicide by jumping from City Hall as a political protest. The letter causes a sensation, the newspaper decides to hire a homeless man to impersonate “John Doe” (Gary Cooper); the reporter manages the story and writes Doe’s speeches. While various political and business factions try to seize control of the story and manipulate Doe, he starts to believe in the speeches he’s making and becomes the man his handlers are spinning him to be, until he tries to break out of their grip. At the same time, he and the reporter who invented his assumed identity are falling in love. Idealism and hope triumph over greed and cynicism.

Jimmy Stewart in 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington'

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a more politically-charged companion to Meet John Doe; when a Senator dies, the governor has to pick a replacement; rather than kowtowing to the political machine and appointing a puppet, or bowing to the voters who want a strident reformer, he decides to split the difference and pick a naive “Boy Rangers” leader (the Boy Scouts refused to allow their name to be used) who will appeal to both sides (Jimmy Stewart), a wholesome figure whom he believes will be easy to manipulate. But Mr. Smith’s inherent decency combined with the guidance of his politically-savvy secretary (Jean Arthur) puts him in conflict with both factions, and he ends up overturning a lot of graft and corruption in a dramatic marathon filibuster. Oh, and his secretary falls in love with him. Good wins.

Okay, are you up to speed? We’re going for a sardonic combination of cynicism and idealism with an honest look at how the corrupt system corrupts, with the little guy wining in the end. That’s Frank Capra. He’s a genre unto himself, and that’s our template.

So my proposal for a Howard film is an exploration of the maxim that “a cynic is a battered idealist.”

Unlike the previous film version, Howard is a character with enormous potential for comedy and pathos, as well as a window through which to view the human race and American culture satirically from an outsider’s perspective. As a duck, there is no way for Howard to pass as an ordinary person; everything he says and does, and everything everyone says and does to him, is filtered through the lens of his duckness. He is in every respect a total outsider, but he was also an outsider back in his home world; he didn’t fit in there any better than he does among humans. His essential outsider status gives him the freedom to comment on and criticize this world he is trapped in and never made. Aside: Howard’s home dimension/world is not “Duckworld,” and it will not be full of lame duck-puns. Howard comes from a world much like the one created by Carl Barks in the Donald Duck comics, with anthropomorphic bears and pigs and cows and rabbits. You know, like Zootopia. Man, they could have fun dropping hints and allusions there, huh?

Also, we should never be given a single hint as to how Howard met or ended up living with Beverly. It’s just something that happened along the way, and it doesn’t need an origin story. We also are never given any direct explanation as to the nature of their relationship; they obviously love each other despite their bickering, but it’s more like the love between an old cantankerous married couple, and we’re not going to have any squicky interspecies love scenes, thank you. Like Frozen and Moana, this is an opportunity to showcase another kind of love. Howard and Beverly “get” each other, they work well together as a team, and that’s all we need to know.

Character bios:

HOWARD
Howard is a walking contradiction. He’s an existentialist with the heart of a moralist, a disgruntled cynic who expects the worst in everyone, but also a sentimental idealist who can’t help seeing the best. He’s a guy who tries to turn his back but can’t. Howard berates himself for being a chump while he’s rolling up his sleeves to help someone who doesn’t deserve it, all while knowing they won’t appreciate it. He fully expects their response to his rescue will be a surprised cry of “but you’re a.. a.. a DUCK!” And he does it anyway.

Howard, like many cynics, uses a cranky fatalist exterior to protect a soft center; his basic attitude is that it’s downright foolish to care about people, to help them, or even to believe what they say. Only an idiot would ever open themselves up to such vulnerability… which he is constantly doing, scolding himself the whole time for being an idiot. But he can’t help it, because he, for all his jaded posture, really does care. In film terms, Howard is Rick from Casablanca; he says he “sticks his neck out for nobody” while sticking it out for damn near everybody.

Back in the 1970s, I would have cast Peter Falk as Howard; his rumpled and cranky Columbo is a lot like the kind of world-weary guy that Howard is. Today, my first thought for casting was Paul Giamatti, but ultimately, I came around to James Gunn’s choice. Seth Green can hit all of Howard’s contradictory notes with ease. All he really needs is a solid script.

BEVERLY
Bev is constantly underestimated and she knows it. She is one of those women who has been told all her life that she’s beautiful, and recognizes that this is usually the first step in trivializing and dismissing her. She knows as an objective fact that she is attractive, and she is appalled by the thought that her looks should ever give her undeserved status, or, conversely, lead anyone to think she’s dumb. She uses her looks in practical ways, such as working as an artist’s model so that she can get paid to stand there and think.

She has ambition but no focus for it, and as soon as she decides what it is she wants to go after, she’s sure to get it. Meanwhile, she’s enjoying the journey. She may have a couple of other side-hustles going, selling crafts on Etsy or working temp jobs, all the while trying to figure out which of her many passions is her real one. She draws a little, acts a little, sings a little, maybe delivers tap-dancing telegrams. She is an eternal optimist, but a pragmatic one; there’s nothing of Kimmy Schmidt in her, she is not a Pollyanna given to self-deception. Like Howard, Bev knows the depths that people are capable of, but she has made a conscious decision to be positive and hope for (and work toward) the best. She regularly calls out Howard on his cynical act.

As to who should play Beverly, I’m kind of leaning toward Emma Stone. She’s got the right combination of snark and smarts.

THE KIDNEY LADY
At first glance, the Kidney Lady is your run-of-the-mill whackadoo, obsessed with things (including people and organizations) she thinks are trying to destroy her kidneys and interfere with her health. In reality, she is a fugitive from an evil corporation that engaged in illegal biomedical research and genetic manipulation. She was the whistle-blower who exposed them, and now she’s afraid of retaliation. Unfortunately, she thinks Howard is working with that sinister agency. More unfortunately, that sinister agency is funding SOOFI. I think Lily Tomlin would kill in this part.

SOOFI
“Save Our Offspring From Indecency” (SOOFI) is a public morality campaign turned violent. SOOFI began as one of those crank campaigns to clean up children’s television, but its leaders got hooked on political power. They have consistently raised the stakes and pushed ever further into ever more repressive demands, particularly as relates to women. They consider Victorian morality to be too lax, and they are willing to commit acts of violent terrorism against anyone or anything that causes their leader to think “impure thoughts.” They’ve blown up a fast food company headquarters over a scandalous commercial and burned down an Abercrombie & Fitch because of their immoral manikins. The leader of SOOFI, who always wears an orange smiley-face helmet, is secretly a former TV star whose extremist religious/political proclamations have destroyed her career, kind of a cross between Ann Coulter and Kirk Cameron. In the comics, (SPOILER) it was strongly implied that the SOOFI leader was Anita Bryant, the former Miss Oklahoma and ’50s singing star who was by the 1970s best-known as (a) the spokesperson for Sunkist oranges and (b) an outspoken opponent of what was then called “gay rights”; the latter ended her career as the former. It could be hilarious to find a real-world crank to play the role. Maybe Kellyanne Conway will be able to laugh at herself by the time the film gets made? If not, we always have Kate McKinnon to lampoon the entire species.

And here’s the plot, including the entry-point into the Marvel Cinematic Universe:

Howard falls to the world of Hairless Apes during the events of 'Thor: The Dark World'
Howard falls to the world of Hairless Apes during the events of Thor: The Dark World

Howard falls into our reality during the “Convergence” that occurred in Thor: Dark World. As the dimensional barriers are breaking down, Howard drops through; he sits up in a cow pasture, looks around at the dissipating special effects, says “well, that’s a hell of a thing.” He starts walking, finds a road, sees a sign, Cleveland – 20 miles. “Let’s see what a Cleveland is.” Fade to black.

Text on screen: “Eight years later.”

From here on, the storyline is lifted from the pages of the original Howard the Duck comics, mostly from about issue 6 through 21, rearranged and updated into a single narrative.

We find Howard living with Beverly Switzler in Cleveland. Howard is unhappy among the “hairless apes,” unable to find permanent employment, and tired of mooching off Bev. When he grumbles (again!) about how wrong this world is, Bev tells him to get off his ass and do something about it. Find a way to go home. She convinces Howard to go to San Francisco to see if brilliant scientist Henry Pym can send him home. Howard agrees to go if Bev comes with him. Since she has an uncle in San Francisco they can stay with, she agrees. (Picture Bill Murray as Uncle Lee). Due to their finances, they have to take a Greyhound bus.

On the bus, Howard has an altercation with the Kidney Lady, a paranoid homeless woman who believes there is a global conspiracy to destroy her kidneys. She erroneously identifies Howard as an agent of this group and attacks him. Howard and Beverly make stops in small towns between Cleveland and the Bay, encountering a variety of characters and having brief episodic adventures. At some point, Howard catches the attention of a moral crusade group, SOOFI, who are offended that he does not wear pants.

In a midwestern bar, Howard delivers a rant about the ills he sees in human society, not knowing that the bar is full of members of an upstart political party. He is drafted to become their presidential candidate, turning the road trip into a campaign tour. Howard goes along with it for the sake of better (and free) travel and accommodations on the way to San Francisco.

Howard’s populist message of cynical idealism catches on, incurring the wrath of both of the main political parties. Campaign strategists from both sides secretly conspire to destroy Howard, leading to attacks ranging from fake scandals to outright physical assault including a SOOFI bombing.

Ultimately, Howard is forced out of the race because he won’t stick to the script his handlers have prepared. He and Beverly return to their quest to reach Hank Pym.

At some point during the film, there’s a bright shimmering light, the Collector appears, grabs Howard, and vanishes. A few seconds later, there’s another shimmering light, dumping Howard back where he was abducted. He shrugs, says “that’s a hell of a thing,” and goes about his business. The incident is never mentioned or addressed again.

If you want to know the whole plot, tell Kevin Feige to call me.

Full Disclosure: Most of the links in this post point to relevant items at Amazon that you can buy, and I get a commission on each one, and on anything else you might purchase while you’re there. So why not watch a movie or two and then do a whole lot of other shopping for big-ticket items? Thanks!

9 Comments

  1. I like it. But Meet John Doe isn’t in the same class as Mr. Smith, let alone It Happened One Night. It’s heavy handed (“The last John Doe died on the cross two thousand years ago.”) and overdoes the Simple Decency of Ordinary Folks. The short story that inspired it was way better, though not filmable.

  2. Peter

    I have a huge weakness for Frank Capra – your pitch excites me more than any Howard the Duck comics ever really have. As much as I love Steve Gerber, I think his Howard stories were always more interesting in concept than execution. Maybe it was just the strictures of 1970s comics, but the 70s stories always seemed to dedicate too much time to plot for me to really connect with and care about Howard and Beverly as much as I care about Capra’s characters. Also, while Gerber could be very funny, I think a lot of the parodic humor he employed on Howard was more of-the-time than the rather surreal humor he used in his other comics.

    1. Edo Bosnar

      Definitely agree with your last point; in my rather recent reading of Gerber’s entire run on Howard – about 10 years ago – I found that the humor is often quite dated and of-its-time. I also recall being put off by some of the occasional misogynistic quips or the racism in that one annual set in the Middle East.

  3. Edo Bosnar

    On the subject of Capra movies, esp. Mr. Smith, as well as movies by others that at least partially use the same theme (like two from the early 1990s that I enjoyed well enough, Dave and The Distinguished Gentlemen), sometimes I think they foster what I think is a mistaken and potentially even dangerous conviction: that you just need one honest, good-hearted individual to go to Washington and shake things up, and all of those corrupt politicians will be either run out of office or see the error of their ways. (This sort of ties in to a point made by Greg (Hatcher) a few years ago, i.e., that just revealing a bad guy’s secret misdeeds will lead to a public outcry, justice being done, etc.)
    It seems to me that at least some of the people who voted for the White House’s Current Occupant in 2016 had deluded themselves into thinking he was some kind of Capra-esque figure, when he is indeed just the opposite.

    As to the meat of your post, I agree that doing a Howard movie as an homage to Capra’s oeuvre may indeed be entertaining. But again, I can’t help thinking that many viewers will draw the wrong conclusion and think Howard is an analog for a certain hairless ape with an atrocious comb-over and a face plastered in orange clown make-up.

    1. The movies stem from an idea that would exist without them, a sense that everything’s really simple and if politicians would just stop posturing they’d know what needs to be done. “Dave” isn’t compromised so he can tell them to knock off the shit and deal with reality. Even John McCain once said he’d fix things in Iraq the same way, just knock Shiite and Sunni heads together and tell them to cut the crap.
      The movies draw on that fantasy but I don’t think they’re warping our minds really. I blogged about it a few years ago (https://frasersherman.com/2017/10/26/the-dream-of-an-outsider-sfwapro)

      1. Peter

        Yeah, I’d agree these movies are totally fantasy, but as long as the viewer understands that, I think they’re still enjoyable and useful moral tales about not mistaking naivety for incompetence and about trying to stay true to one’s conscience even in overwhelming circumstances. There’s no Jimmy Stewart out there waiting to be appointed to the Senate and suddenly figuring out how to end the stimulus impasse or put a legislative end to qualified immunity in policy brutality cases… but I think that the modern viewer can still come away impressed with the film’s theme and apply its lesson to smaller moments in their own life.

        Also, for what it’s worth, I grew up during the Clinton impeachment hearings, but I think it was really seeing Mr. Smith as a youngster and Claude Rains’s character therein that made me understand that politicians are actually not necessarily civic heroes and may be villains in some cases.

        1. That’s why I think the Capra template works so well for Howard the Duck. If the lead character is a cartoon duck, you can’t forget it’s a fantasy, and he can more directly criticize the group he’s not part of, the way Captain Kirk can directly say what’s what to the green people.

          The concept really started with the observation that the best Marvel and Star Wars films are really examples of other genres dressed up in cosplay: ANT-MAN is a heist film, WINTER SOLDIER is a ‘70s techno-thriller, GOTG is another riff on SEVEN SAMURAI, ROGUE ONE is a WWII movie, THE MANDALORIAN is a samurai story like LONE WOLF & CUB, and so on. Howard is absolutely an absurdist take on a populist political satire in the Capra style.

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