Since 1954, Brad Anderson’s single panel comic Marmaduke has graced newspapers across the country with the misadventures of the Winslow family’s Great Dane, Marmaduke. Each and every Marmaduke strip boils down to the same joke:
Marmaduke is a large dog that does whatever he wants, much to the chagrin of everyone ever.
That’s the comedic foundation for a strip that has run for over half a century. Everyone responds angrily to Marmaduke’s actions, often with an infuriated variation of “Marmaduke! You’re a dog! Yet you’re acting like a human! But you’re not! You’re a dog!” Regardless of the specifics, the non-Marmaduke characters are always either annoyed or, if they’re lucky, merely curious about whatever situation this beast has gotten into that has thankfully distracted him from ruining their lives.
The human characters have reasonable complaints regarding the Dane’s antics, larks, and general tomfoolery. But like its titular dog, Marmaduke just doesn’t give a fuck. It’s Marmaduke’s world – everyone else is just living in it (which I suppose is fair for a comic named Marmaduke.)
The thing is, Marmaduke’s kind of a dick.
“Dick” might seem like overkill for a cartoon dog, but Marmaduke is in a (dog) league of his own. He’s especially terrible, arguably the worst canine since Cerberus, who as we all know enjoyed shitting all over Satan’s hoofs. Despite supposedly representing man’s best friend, Marmaduke acts pretty selfishly. Anything that might seem affectionate coming from another dog is revealed as self-serving when coming from Marmaduke.
Marmaduke is the first act of an Adam Sandler film writ large. Over at Grantland, Steve Hyden succinctly described every Sandler film: “He’ll be a jerk again, he’ll relearn the same lessons about not being a jerk, and he’ll apply those don’t-be-a-jerk lessons in some small way by the movie’s end.” Unlike Madison, Gilmore, and the Big Daddy, Marmaduke never learns humility; nor has he ever applied – let alone learned – a lesson. He just continues to be an asshole.
Though Marmaduke’s all-around awfulness is no fun for the humans of Marmaduke, the same behavior makes for great comedy. The late, lamented “Marmaduke Explained” mined the unfunny comic for laughs by overanalyzing with crazy theories, like Marmaduke’s bloodlust. For years, the doltish dog has been a go to punchline. He’s popped up in shows as varied as Community (Shirley: “And this isn’t the school paper. It’s the real thing. There’s a Marmaduke in there.”);Daria (Mr. Morgendorffer: “Why don’t they just put Marmaduke to sleep?”); Golden Girls (Blanche: “Oh, Marmaduke. Look at how he drives that car. Ha ha ha! I love my comics.”); and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (The Mayor: “Oh! Eww. He’s always on the furniture. Unsanitary.” Mr. Trick: “Nobody tells Marmaduke what to do. That’s my kinda dog.”).
The 2010 live-action adaptation of Marmaduke could have appealed to both the haters and the fans (if they exist) of the comic strip. Instead, the filmmakers gave a voice to this previously voiceless animal, destroying any preconceived notions of the dog. Even worse? They gave that stupid dog the voice of Owen Wilson, arguably the most likeable person of all time. It is hard to hate Owen Wilson. Believe me, I’ve tried.
But giving Marmaduke a voice did more than dismantle the haters; it dismantled Marmaduke’s very being. His defining trait is arguably his confidence, yet the film makes him self-conscious about his ears. His goddamn ears. What was once a force of nature has been neutered into a neurotic. The Marmaduke of the comic had no personality, allowing his horrible actions to be regarded as dickishly arrogant to some (yo!) while oafishly loveable to others (again, assuming said fans exist).
Like the Batman, Marmaduke is more than a protagonist – he’s a symbol. That Great Dane isn’t the dog we need, but the dog we deserve. Unfortunately, we seem to deserve a real son of a bitch.
Justin Geldzahler wishes Marmaduke would model his doggy self after Scooby Doo instead of Scrappy Doo. ‘Duke gets his act together, maybe he can hang out with Matthew Lillard. I mean Matt’s no Owen Wilson, but there’s a lot less pressure.