Total Nerd 'Howard The Duck' Is Really A Metaphor For Cultural Assimilation  

Hannah Collins
11 items

The 1986 Howard the Duck movie is a Marvel Cinematic Universe origin-point that Marvel Studios likely wants to forget. Based on Steve Gerber's counterculture comic-book icon of the same name, the film not only bears the now-trusted Marvel seal, but also the influence of George Lucas, who provided financial and puppeteering assistance. This combination of talents was expected to result in a surefire box-office hit for Universal; instead, it was a box-office flop, commonly remembered today as one of the worst films ever made.

The story finds Howard abruptly transported from his home planet, Duckworld, to Earth. He falls into the lap of up-and-coming musician Beverly, who tries to help him accept Earth as his new home. Hot on his heels is another alien - a Dark Overlord - who arrives on Earth tasked with facilitating the rest of his invasion force. From there, the film offers human-on-duck romance, terrible special effects, and more inappropriate innuendos than you can shake a tail feather at. 

The movie has been pulled apart over and over again - some would say like a roast duck. But for this Howard the Duck theory, let's examine the critically panned film not for its infamy, but for how it serves as an allegory for cultural assimilation.

To Make Ends Meet, Howard Must Work A Low-Paying, Menial Job
To Make Ends Meet, Howard Must... is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list 'Howard The Duck' Is Really A Metaphor For Cultural Assimilation
Photo:  Universal Pictures

As the reality of his indefinite and involuntary Earth visit sets in, Howard decides to contribute to human society. His first task is finding a job, which takes him to the unemployment office. After a bizarre and rather uncomfortable exchange, Howard is assigned to work at a "romance spa."

Howard's comic-book counterpart becomes a private detective. Despite being reasonably intelligent, Howard is deemed fit only for the task of mopping up. This is the same unfortunate pigeonhole many immigrants face when moving to another country, even when they are highly educated and skilled.

Howard Is Taken From His Home By External Forces
Howard Is Taken From His Home ... is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list 'Howard The Duck' Is Really A Metaphor For Cultural Assimilation
Photo: Universal Pictures

Howard's home, Duckworld, mimics everything on Earth - from our technology and cities to our popular culture - but through a waterfowl lens. Despite these similarities, Howard didn't choose to migrate from Duckworld to our planet; rather, he was effectively pulled from his living room by a mysterious force and sent tumbling through a portal.

This forced relocation is not unlike being coerced to leave one's home country due to external crises - such as active conflict or environmental factors - which makes Howard akin to an asylum seeker.

Howard Is Constantly Told To Change His Appearance To Blend In
Howard Is Constantly Told To C... is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list 'Howard The Duck' Is Really A Metaphor For Cultural Assimilation
Photo:  Universal Pictures

Not much separates Howard from the average human - other than him being a duck, of course. He wears the same clothes as those around him, speaks the same language, and has largely the same cultural reference points - albeit with aviary twists.

But most humans Howard encounters fail to look past his difference in species, concluding that, rationally, he must be a person in a duck suit. Howard is asked to remove his "costume," even enduring human attempts to physically pull him out of it.

Howard is asked to mask or sand down his offending natural state to help him visibly blend in - but in this regard, at least, he's not alone. The Dark Overlord is forced to do the same, at one point stating, "I have disguised my true form, which would be considered ... hideous and revolting here."

Howard Engages In A Taboo Relationship With An Earthling
Howard Engages In A Taboo Rela... is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list 'Howard The Duck' Is Really A Metaphor For Cultural Assimilation
Photo:  Universal Pictures

At one point during the film, a scantily clad Beverly attempts to seduce Howard in her apartment. When Phil and two of his scientist buddies burst in, they're shocked by what appears to be Beverly and Howard embraced in the throes of passion. Later on, a trucker at a diner calls their relationship "disgusting."

Interpreting this as a metaphor for the way interracial relationships were once viewed as taboo - and, to an extent, still are in some areas - is hardly a difficult feat.