Back in the early 1980s, it seemed like George Lucas could do no wrong. Having closed out his industry-transforming Star Wars trilogy with 1983's Return of the Jedi, the Jedi Master was ready to explore different far, far away galaxies — including one inhabited by a race of alien waterfowl. Lucas used his clout to executive produce a big-budget movie version of the cult Marvel Comics series Howard the Duck, and the expectations for the film couldn't have been higher when it was released in theaters 35 years ago on Aug. 1, 1986.
As one of the movie's stars, Tim Robbins was among those who expected big things from Lucas's diminutive duck. "On paper, it felt really great," he told Yahoo Entertainment during a 2019 Role Recall interview about being cast as dorky scientist Phil Blumburtt. "George Lucas had just done Star Wars, and it was a lot of money, it was on location and I think it was the first film the Marvel universe did." Small wonder the young actor saw Star Wars-level box-office grosses in his future.
Watch our Role Recall interview with Tim Robbins below
Instead of breaking records, though, Howard the Duck ended up laying an egg. Made for almost $40 million, the movie barely eked out a $17 million gross at the domestic box office. Meanwhile, critics roasted the movie with extreme prejudice, with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert listing it among the year's worst movies.
"It doesn't work at all," moaned Siskel, as his colleague took direct aim at Lucas himself. "The producer of the picture was George Lucas, and he has a company that does special effects," Ebert joked. "Maybe they should have spent a little more special effects on whether they wanted to make a movie about a duck!"
Looking back now, Robbins doesn't entirely disagree with some of the criticism. "I think the costume of the duck could have been a little more in keeping with the original artist's concept," he said, referring to Val Mayerik, who co-created Howard alongside writer Steve Gerber in 1973. "Personally, I would have liked to have seen that gruff, cigar-chomping alien from another planet [who was] rude and inappropriate. That's the movie I would have liked to have seen!"
At the same time, Robbins believes there's a lot of "charming things" to be found in Howard the Duck, which has been embraced by successive generations of movie lovers. And the film's leading lady, Lea Thompson, is one of its most vocal fans. In a 2017 interview with Yahoo Entertainment, the Back to the Future star made it clear she's happy to have it on her filmography — and not just because it makes her Marvel royalty.
"I am the first Marvel queen, ladies and gentlemen!” she proclaimed at the time. “I am the queen with the crimped hair and the guitar, doing my stunts with my short dress with no kneepads. Ladies and gentlemen."
"People really love Howard the Duck! It’s a hilariously bizarre movie," Thompson continued. "The only thing that I can say that I don’t like about it is that I thought it was a little long. But I love that it's had a resurgence, and I love all the fans because they're iconoclasts — they don't like to be told what to like and what to hate."
After decades as a walking punchline, Howard is finally starting to get some respect. The character is officially part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, having made cameo appearances in the first two parts of James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy trilogy — where he was voiced by Robot Chicken mastermind Seth Green — and even showed up to fight Thanos in Avengers: Endgame. In a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Green revealed that Howard will be appearing in an episode of the upcoming What If...? animated series on Disney+ where he has a moment with a variant version of T'Challa, voiced by the late Chadwick Boseman in his final performance as the iconic character.
Thompson, for one, thinks it's only a matter of time before Howard flies again in his own movie or series. (In fact, geek icon Kevin Smith has openly talked about his near-miss making a Howard the Duck animated show for Hulu.) "I know they'll remake it, and it'll be great," she said in 2017. "It'll be animated, which it should have been."
Howard the Duck is currently streaming on Peacock.