Major spoilers below. Read with caution.
If you saw Guardians of the Galaxy and you’re a savvy blockbuster-viewer, then you probably stayed all the way through the credits in eager anticipation of the obligatory bonus-scene stinger. And what a weird stinger it was!
Here’s what you got: As Benicio del Toro’s Collector character consoles himself amid the wreckage of his outpost, a surprising character from the Marvel universe speaks to him: Howard the Duck! For those who don’t know, Howard the Duck was created by Steve Gerber and Val Mayerik in 1973. He first appeared to readers in an issue of Adventure Into Fear, a horror series that sat outside Marvel’s standard slate of superhero comics. Like most of Gerber’s characters, Howard was a satirical, subversive figure with no supernatural powers (aside from being a human-size talking duck).
He was a fan favorite and a surprise pop-culture phenomenon outside the comics world (there was even a write-in campaign for Howard in the 1976 election). According to Sean Howe’s exhaustive Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, when editor Roy Thomas tried to excise Howard from Adventure Into Fear, there was a massive backlash. Howard’s duck-shaped star fell in the ensuing decade, thanks in large part to the disastrous, George Lucas–produced 1986 film adaptation.
But what does Howard’s appearance in Guardians mean? What is Marvel planning? The answer is most likely: Nothing. Nothing at all.
We’re a long way from Samuel L. Jackson’s franchise-launching cameo at the end of Iron Man. People know to stick around to see what’s coming next. Iron Man 2 teased Thor’s arrival; The Avengers teased the coming of Thanos; Captain America: The Winter Soldier teased Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch. The goal of these and other big post-credit reveals is to make viewers feel that if they miss a single Marvel film, they’re not getting the whole story.
That’s why the Howard the Duck stinger is likely a jab at our collective hunger to know what Marvel’s planning next. By now, Marvel’s post-credits teasers have become expected. (Anecdotally, I didn’t see a single person exit early last night when the Guardians credits started to roll.) As all of Marvel’s films become interweaved, Guardians director James Gunn — who has a filmography full of twisted humor playing off genre convention — is probably just throwing a wrench in our efforts to try to find all the links between the Marvel films. I suspect that Howard the Duck’s cameo is a tacit acknowledgment of the weirdness and breadth of the Marvel universe and nothing more.
I could be wrong, though. Maybe Marvel wants to write over Lucas’s mid-’80s film abomination. Maybe Marvel is actually planning to make a movie about a misanthropic, cigar-smoking duck with no superpowers who happens to bear a striking resemblance to Disney’s own Donald Duck. But I doubt it.