SPOILER ALERT: Howard the Duck has an appearance in Guardians of the Galaxy.
Hmm. Maybe I should’ve given everyone a little more alert. Ah, well. Too late now. If you’re the kind of person who cares about Howard, you already know. And if you aren’t, you don’t care. So it’s largely irrelevant.
I went into GotG knowing Howard would appear in the ending stinger. I was still surprised by how much I genuinely loved his appearance. There was at least one other guy in the audience who loved it as much as me, the both of us howling with delight. For many others, it’s a neutral or negative reaction. Most people don’t know much about the history of Howard the Duck (and it is a surprisingly colorful one, both in the comics and outside of the medium), and their main frame of reference is probably the notorious film flop from 1986. The truth is that, in many ways, Howard the Duck is an influential and defining element of the superhero genre in comic books.
Yeah, I said it, and I stick by it
It’s true that I love weird stuff in fantasy. Just read any of my books to get that, and that I love Howard comes as no surprise. The difference is that while I also love obscure characters like Devil Dinosaur and Fin Fang Foom, Howard isn’t nearly as obscure as one might believe. In one way or another, he’s been a part of the Marvel Universe for decades now. Howard’s first appearance was in ’73, and since then, he’s been walking around in Marvel in one form or another. The premise behind Howard has always been of unabashed weirdness. Howard is a grumpy everyman. Half of his adventures are traditional superheroics. Half are surreal satire. The guy is a difficult duck to peg down, and that’s what makes him so unique, even among a universe of strange heroes and weird villains.
The thing about Howard though is that, given that he lives in the Marvel Universe, he’s hardly that strange a character. This is a universe where getting bitten by a radioactive spider turned a teenager into a superhero, where a billionaire built his own power armor to fight the Commies, and where a magic alien with an enchanted hammer are all perfectly reasonable things to exist. In the swamps of Florida, a mystical plant monster protects the Nexus of Realities, and Dracula isn’t just a myth. He’s fought everyone from the X-Men to the Silver Surfer. That’s right. In the Marvel Universe, Dracula, lord of the undead, fought the Silver Surfer, sentinel of the spaceways.
There are a million other examples, of course. The history of the Marvel Universe is full of weirdness. Howard the Duck fits perfectly fine within it. So why are people so quick to dismiss Howard? It’s probably because Howard is unabashadly weird. Howard is a cartoon character in a world full of cartoon characters, but only Howard comes out and admits it. Some efforts have been made by other writers to make Howard “more believable”. He was retroactively stated to have come from an alternate Earth where ducks became sentient humanoids, but that was a later invention. Howard was originally from a world of talking animals because he’s not supposed to make conventional sense. Again, hardly that weird since the Marvel Universe is full of alternate dimensions and strange places that don’t make conventional sense. But again, those get away with it by pretending to be well thought out and more serious.
GotG takes the weirdness of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and cranks it up to eleven. Not only is not set on Earth, it makes almost no effort to make Earth or humans seem important to the plot. Aside from the beginning, everything takes place in a distant science fiction reality. Everyone, aside from Star-Lord, is an alien. There’s a talking raccoon, a walking tree, spaceship battles, and melodrama that comes from a villain who seeks to destroy a planet because that’s how bad he is. It works because it isn’t trying to hide from this, and once we leave Earth, we are expected to want to be here in this universe of adventure. Given the backdrop, the story, the characters, and everything else about this movie, Howard the Duck is perfectly acceptable.
Yet Howard is probably the biggest gamble the film takes. True, he doesn’t contribute to the plot, and this is a movie with a lot of unashamed fantasy. But Howard’s presence is something more. It’s a signal that in this shared fantasy universe, everything is possible. While Thanos’s cameo in The Avengers was the first sign of that, he still pales beside Howard, who asks the audience to put aside all their baggage and embrace the full on weirdness that is the superhero genre. I still can’t believe that anyone allowed James Gunn to include it. It is the most unbelievable thing I have seen in a superhero movie. EVER.
But it is what I’ve come to love about the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I don’t like or love all the movies. Many of them are just so so for me, and others are good without being great. But never before has such a concerted effort been made to bring the “Anything Goes” reality of comic book superheroes to life. Regardless of my feel for any particular film among them, the genius of these movies has been the steady inoculation of non-fantasy fans to the most bizarre fantasy genre imaginable. It’s worked, too, because three years ago, I’m sure a GotG movie would’ve flopped. Instead, it’s poised to be a huge hit, and why not? It’s fun. It has good characters. It takes more risks than it’s generally given credit for, and it succeeds by being every bit as fantastic as it can be.
But Howard is the real lynchpin. His appearance says that, yes, anything goes here, and that, behind the scenes, somebody is thinking that if you build audience goodwill, if you care about what you’re doing, then, yes, even a talking duck has a place in your comic book universe.
That’s the Howard Effect. And damn if it isn’t energizing to a writer who loves the weird stuff and obscure characters. Devil Dinosaur? Squirrel Girl? M.O.D.O.K.? Beta Ray Bill? It’s all possible now.
And welcome back to the mainstream.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,