Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: the plot of Ted 2 touches on the sex life of a human woman and a talking animal brought to life with top-end effects. How nice it would have been if I couldn't come up with another such creation.

Howard the Duck isn't as bad as you've probably heard, but since you've probably heard that it's bad enough to melt the polar ice caps and give puppies cancer, that's not much of a defense. Still, let's run with it a little bit: as a story, it's neither more convoluted nor more contrived than any other '80s big budget creature feature and sci-fi romp (a bigger subgenre than I've just made it sound), and it has mostly the same strengths and limitations of any given superhero origin story in the three intervening decades. Jeffrey Jones dives right into a chewy, garish role, and makes a splendidly creepy voice as the family-friendly adventure bad guy. And I think that taps me out pretty much. There's nothing else good here; the best to cling to is that some of the elements are merely insipid and not actively rancid.

The film's origins stretch back to 1973, when Steve Gerber and Val Mayerik created a cynical, sarcastic three-foot tall anthropomorphic duck from another planet for Marvel Comics. Howard the Duck quickly found a spot in the Zeitgeist, ushered by Gerber into a potent force of comic book satire, running the character for U.S. President in 1976 among several less-showy examples of the character mocking society, pop culture, and the comics medium itself. He was as close to an underground comic book sensation as a character owned by one of the two big publishing concerns could get.

By the early 1980s, following Gerber's acrimonious split from Marvel over issues of creative control with the character, Howard wasn't quite the sensation he'd been in the previous decade. There was still enough there there for the character to attract the attention of the man who was, at that point, perhaps the most powerful individual in the American film industry: George Lucas, producer and overseer of the Star Wars trilogy, and the power behind Steven Spielberg's throne on the two Indiana Jones movies. In 1984, a year after Return of the Jedi, Lucas was in a position to do anything he could possibly have wanted, and what he wanted was... Well, the generous reading is that he just wanted a version of Spielberg's E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial to call his very own. I much prefer to believe that; it makes everything strictly a financial transaction. The alternative is to assume that Lucas was so infatuated with the Howard the Duck that he wanted to bring the creature to life, and so profoundly misunderstood the material that this ungainly display of ugly visual effects and nonsensical action sequences was in some way aligned with his actual vision. And that's just sad.

That being said, this is not a Lucas movie even in the sense that the Star Wars sequels that he didn't personally direct still count. Instead, it was a gift that the super-producer made to his longtime colleagues and friends, the married couple Willard Huyck & Gloria Katz. The thing to know about them is that they helped shape Lucas's 1973 breakthrough American Graffiti into a screenplay, and after its enormous success opened every imaginable door for him, he remembered them and what they did for him. As the intervening years made it clear that the Huyck/Katz magic was something nobody wanted much to do with, Lucas swept in and revived the couple's fading fortunes by offering them screenwriting duties on the heavily anticipated Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom; and once that was wrapped up, he blessed them with Howard the Duck, their seventh screenplay and Huyck's fourth movie as a director. It would turn out to be his last, as will happen when you direct a movie whose title quickly inserts itself into the cultural dialogue as a particularly mean-spirited synonym for "one of the highest profile bombs in the history of commercial cinema".

Huyck & Katz weren't the first filmmakers of limited talent to be given the reigns to a project because of their connection to a producer, and they weren't the last; but they might be the ones who got in over their heads the most. Howard the Duck was enormously expensive: some of the many 1986 releases that were made for less money include Top Gun, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, and Aliens. Something else those films all have in common: they were big hits. Not so for poor Howard, which made less than half of its production budget back at the domestic box office, and became so tainted by the reek of failure that it was feebly re-branded as Howard: A New Breed of Hero for the rest of the world's markets, where it still came nowhere near turning a profit.

It takes mere minutes for the sheer forcefulness of how repellent Huyck & Katz's script is going to be to make itself manifest: it opens on a tour of the apartment of one Howard T. Duck (voiced by Chip Zien and operated by several puppeteers and six different suit actors, though Ed Gale did it the most), a duck living in a city on Duckworld. It's like our world, only with ducks. And to demonstrate this, we see several duckified versions of our own world, like a poster for My Little Chickadee starring '30s duck superstars Mae Nest and W.C. Fowls. The apartment is also decorated with posters for Breeders of the Lost Stork and Splashdance, and at this point I was done with the movie. We still haven't seen the protagonist's face or heard a single word of dialogue, by the way. But "Splashdance" makes sense only vaguely in that ducks like water, and "Breeders" is just fucking nonsense. "Brooders" is at least bird-related. "Breeders" just means "the ducks like to have sex". Though that is a useful piece of foreshadowing for the remainder of Howard the Duck, which for a dippy talking animal movie with all the satire and nuance sanded off and replaced with shticky jokes for a family audience, is remarkably smutty. For example, the scene that immediately follows, where Howard is caught in a tractor beam of yet-unknown provenance and sucked through several apartments in his building. One of these apartments includes a lady duck taking a bath, and for reasons that I am anxious to learn nothing more about, the filmmakers wanted to make sure that she had preposterously detailed naked breasts, with pink nipples poking through her feathers.

On the backside of that tractor beam, Howard ends up in an alley in Cleveland, where he crosses paths with punk rocker Beverly Switzler (Lea Thompson), who decides to help him figure out what the hell is going on. This first involves visiting a science lab janitor named Phil Blumburtt (Tim Robbins), who can do nothing at all but flail around crazily. Dejected, Howard fights his way into the Cleveland night, discovering that he can do nothing, and returning to Beverly, at which point they play-flirt and come about thiiiiis close to having sex, in a scene that should have been set on fire the moment it was written, and then set on fire twice when they actually went to all the work of filming it. Apparently, the mechanism to have the feathers on Howard's head stand up erect when he becomes aroused was the one of the most complicated effects involving any of the duck suits. This was a waste of Industrial Light & Magic manpower that borders on a moral crime.

Anyway, Beverly and Howard are interrupted by Phil, this time with a real scientist, Dr. Walter Jenning (Jones), who knows how Howard got to Earth, because it was his laser beam that brought him. Upon returning to his device, it malfunctions and warps another space being to our planet, this one a member of the Dark Overlords of the Universe, who inhabits Jenning's body and prepares to bring its allies here to eliminate humanity and take over. Naturally, only Howard, Beverly, and Phil are in a position to save the day.

That is a mercilessly stramlined version of the plot, which includes a lengthy side trip to Howard's job as a handyman at a sex club, and and even lengthier sequence at a diner that theoretically isn't more than a few minutes from Jenning's lab, but is also so far that it takes all night to drive back and requires commandeering an ultralight aircraft to fly back in time to save the day. Which is also a lengthy narrative digression that finds the movie stopping everything to lavish energy on a setpiece that is alarmingly flaccid and anti-exciting.

But while the script is a structural disaster and clunky at almost every line of dialogue, those are the least of the film's problems. The tonal mismatch present in the indecision between the blithe kiddie fantasy of most of the film and the unadulterated filthiness of a few key scenes is worse, exacerbated by Huyck's flat-footed direction. And it's not the only tonal imbalance in the film: Howard the Duck is, among its other sins, a comedy, and a particular wretched one with only one joke to speak of - he's like, a duck, but he acts like a person. Repeated ad nauseam, which only takes a few minutes. Certainly, the duck tits are about as nauseam as it gets. Mostly, the film tries to put over a playful, zany tone by getting really, really loud and broad, abetted by Zien's self-conscious delivery of almost everything he says in the arch tones of a sitcom catchphrase. The humans are much, much worse: Robbins's performance is a humiliating cartoon of '80s nerdiness, and Thompson plays a ditsy screwball character with such flighty detachment from anything going on in the plot or individual scenes that she appears to be the victim of some kind of terrible head injury. We know from the evidence of her nimble, insinuating comic performance in Back to the Future, just a year prior, that Thompson is not, in fact, the worst actor of the 1980s; but Howard the Duck certainly puts in a strong piece of evidence for the prosecution.

The film's worst element, though, is undoubtedly the title character. There might not have been anyone in the world who could do special effects better than ILM in the mid-'80s, and the Howard puppets are, if nothing else, miraculously well-engineered. There are God knows how many moving parts in the face, and the character is capable of incredibly subtle gradations of expression - we always know exactly what the duck has on his mind, and that's no small achievement. The thing is, though, there is no point at which Howard feels like anything else but a terrific piece of robotics. His textures and his foam rubber beak and the bland overlighting that cinematographer Richard H. Kline dumps on him make it clear, in virtually every shot, that Howard is a device: one that would bowl you over if you saw him at Disneyland, one that would catch your eye as a background character in Jedi; but crucially, critically, one that's vividly off-putting as a movie protagonist. There's no shortage of disastrous missteps in this movie, but what pushes it into the realms of the truly repellent is its amazingly unacceptable lead character, perhaps the only example on record of a live-action figure that falls into the Uncanny Valley.