CHILDHOOD REVISITED – Darkwing Duck


Darkwing Duck toes the line between comic superhero farce and wacky cartoon comedy, to mixed but mostly positive results. How Darkwing Duck grounds the disparaging sensibilities with its amazing cast of characters and relationships.

Darkwing Duck, the indirect spin-off to the Disney Afternoon hit Ducktales, hit the airwaves in March of 1991. It was hugely popular, pushing itself to a solid 91 episodes of the bumbling beaked character of Drake Mallard, AKA, Darkwing Duck, as he battles his psychopathic enemies and his overwhelming ego. DW, as referred to by sidekick and holdover from Ducktales’ Launchpad McQuack, was nevertheless quite skilled, possessing a combination of unique physical prowess and intelligence, but extremely prone to self-satisfaction and self-hype, often leading to hilarious reactions, both physical and verbal.

Darkwing Duck, the show, however, happens to be a lot more complex and distinct, an anomaly out of the other shows within the Disney Afternoon line-up. Darkwing Duck, in some ways, is Disney’s version of the fourth-wall breaking animated shows like Animaniacs, Tiny Toons, and Sam and Max, yet produced in a very unique and controlled manner that makes it stands out from the others. Darkwing Duck comments not only on the absurdity of the superhero genre, but on the entire atmosphere in which superheros thrive. In the era of live-action superhero films and the rebirth of superhero comics, Darkwing Duck’s slick satire is surprisingly relevant. It wasn’t always a perfect show, as its multiple assault of ideas often did not gel together as well as intentioned, but for the most part the show managed to be endearingly smart, clever, and heart-warming, with ample amounts of comic ideas to boot.

Darkwing Duck screenshot

Darkwing Duck – (1991)

Director: Tad Stones, Alan Zaslove
Starring: Jim Cummings, Terence McGovern, Christine Cavanaugh
Screenplay(s) by: Dev Ross, Doug Langdale, Tad Stones

Darkwing Duck is, pun intended, an odd duck within the entire Disney Afternoon lineup. It’s arguably the closest that Disney has come to straight-up aping the Warner Brother wacky fare of Tiny Toons, Animaniacs, and Freakazoid. Specifically, Darkwing Duck is not simply a show about an egotistical superhero duck fighting an eccentric bunch of supervillains, it also is a show about a show about an egotistical superhero duck fighting an eccentric bunch of supervillains.

I had forgotten how distinctly self-aware a number of the episodes were. Darkwing Duck plays on a spectrum of self-awareness, from being completely straight-forward (Darkwing fighting a villain and stopping him) to skirting the edge of a Duck Amuck type of sensibility (in fact, a late episode transforms Darkwing Duck into a blob of green and blue, which resembles Daffy’s surreal transformation so distinctly that it couldn’t be a coincidence). Darkwing Duck plays with not only its stories, but how those stories are told, and bounces around between self-aware staples like breaking the fourth wall, “talking” with the studio heads, “discussing” ways to improve Darkwing’s image (and his appeal to multiple demographics), and knocking back and forth over artistic expression and comic books.

Ambitious with its wealth of ideas, Darkwing Duck, unfortunately doesn’t start off as strongly as one would imagine. For the first twenty episodes or so (sans the pilot, which is as a fine a pilot as you can get), I had worried that the rose-colored glasses effect had caught up to me, and that Darkwing Duck was not the great, funny, classic show I remembered it being. Fortunately that wasn’t the case, as two-thirds of the run was fantastic, matching and even beating out some of the best Ducktales episodes. But the rough patches were very rough, to say the least.

A friend of mine felt the same way; upon watching the above episode, he commented on how “kiddie” it was. Kiddie-ness, I believe, wasn’t necessarily the problem. Timing, pacing, and story beats were. Here we have a time travel episode (and Darkwing Duck uses the time travel conceit quite a bit), and it delves into one of Darkwing Duck’s origins (I say “one of” because the show plays around with this – which I’ll get into later.) The problem with episodes like this is that it simply isn’t a strong plot that’s sustainable for a full 22 minutes. What badguy should DW fight in the past? An Elvis parody, for some reason. This fills up seven minutes. What’s next? An OLDER Elvis parody. Then? Let’s go back to the younger parody! Darkwing doesn’t meld at all with the villain or the situation, and even more filler is placed in the show with some very not-good songs. All the while it fails to even do anything interesting with Darkwing confronting his younger self. There’s just too much randomness here, and there’s no reason, comic or otherwise, for it.

It’s a general problem that plagues these early episodes. It seems that the show doesn’t know what exactly to do. So there are a lot of gimmicks and filler happening to pass the time. The big filler technique is setting up frame stories – ie, Darkwing Duck “telling” the story that we see either to the audience or to some other characters. Then they can cut away to Darkwing-as-storyteller, soaking up precious minutes. Factor in the weird pacing and general sense of discomfort, and Darkwing Duck fizzles at the start.

But then, Darkwing Duck slowly grows into its own. While I started the series grimacing at the awkwardness of the early going, I found myself utterly hooked by the time the show hit its groove. The characters, both good and bad, become the focus a lot more instead of the various gimmicks. The plots have more stakes, especially as character themes and arcs become more pronounced. The storytelling conceits are purposeful now; frame stories have context and are presented in a unique way. Jim Cummings, the VO artist for Darkwing, REALLY comes into play, as he adds more of Darkwing Duck’s most notable tics – his sarcastic impersonations of other characters, his hilarious trailing off when things don’t go his way, his infamous “Yep, yep, yep,” when things DO go his way. Everything finally comes together as characters are fleshed out and stories are enriched with fun dialogue, character pairings are made, and the physical gags are timed perfectly.

The physical gag thing I wanted to point out, specifically, because it’s the show’s most difficult line to walk. Darkwing Duck is a cartoony show, so there’s no real threat to our hero. Segments will end with Darkwing Duck in some kind of physical danger, and when it returns from commercial, Darkwing will… well… be hurt by the thing that threatens him. It’s a weird choice, especially when Darkwing Duck uses physical gags as an advantage – like purposely crushing himself flat to slip underneath a door. The danger/not danger juxtaposition really works only if the physical gag works, rendering those two ideas moot. Again, this is really improved as the show goes along.

The key to all of this, however, is definitely Darkwing Duck himself, and his relations/interactions with everyone around him. When the show finally gets into the good stuff – his hatred of his neighbors The Muddlefoots, his relationship with his adopted daughter Gosalyn, his not-that-far-off-the-mark connection with the crazed villains he faces, his creepy girlfriend Morgana Macawber – the show, quite frankly, becomes excellent. Even the “stories about stories” become stronger, once the show itself becomes comfortable with the crazy plots they come up with. Character improvements and better storytelling make Darkwing Duck one of the best shows of the 90s era.

“Dances with Bigfoot” may be the first episode where the show is pretty much perfect through-out. A solid mystery in which Darkwing goes missing, which leaves Gosalyn and Honker to locate him. What’s great is how much Gosalyn becomes like Darkwing, a capable investigator who always misses the forest for the trees with all the clues she find, and slowly absorbs her father’s verbal tics as well. It also helps that the story is nice, long, and twisty, and beats back the stereotype of primitive natives by giving them hilariously up-to-date technology. Following it up with the excellent Twin Peaks parody, “Twin Beaks,” which is also big and meaty with a delicious creepy factor, and Darkwing Duck really comes into its own.

“Twin Beaks” isn’t Darkwing Duck’s only creepy episode; in “Duck Blind,” Darkwing goes blind and gets deeply depressed, and in “Dead Duck,” Darkwing not only dies, but he goes to hell first! It’s wonderfully dark and macabre stuff, but it’s not egregiously so. Darkwing Duck maintains its whimsy and comical nature to ease some of the more scary elements. Contrast them to the show’s more self-aware episodes. “Night of the Living Spud” is a boring, straight-up monster tale told by DW to some young scouts; the frame story is pointless. But “Inside Binkie’s Brain” gleefully enjoys visually delving into the mental headspace of various characters with its framestory, to enjoyable results (a monstrous representation of Darkwing’s ego trying to kill them is a nice touch). Then there’s what could ostensibly be a trilogy of self-aware, Animaniacs-like episodes – “Comic Book Capers,” “Twitching Channels,” and “A Star is Scorned” – where Darkwing deals with various ways he’s portrayed in comic books and/or TV. Then there are just straight-up, what-the-fuck episodes, like “The Secret Origins of Darkwing Duck” (a future episode that re-tells the Darkwing Duck mythos in a bizarre, surreal take), or “Darkwing Dabloon” (which tells a Darkwing Duck story where all the characters are pirates for some reason, way before pirates became a thing), or “Whirled History” (where Gosalyn sleepwalks through various moments of history, before Histeria! was a thing).

Episodes of Darkwing Duck are always strange and random, and you never know what kind of tone you will get, which can be both exciting and frustrating. But it’s the characters that keep the show grounded, even when the plot falls apart. Certain characters, like Comet Guy, never work as well as intended, but from scenery-chewing villains like Megavolt, Quackerjack, and Negaduck, to fun secondary heroes like Agent Grizzlikof, Morgana Macawber, and the Muddlefoots, you’re guaranteed at least some entertaining character dynamics. Disney Afternoon shows always had an excellent sense of character development – the concept of which I wrote about on my tumblr – and Darkwing Duck is no exception. The dynamics are the quintessential high points for the show, so of course we see episodes involving Megavolt and Quackerjack working together, hilarious interplays between Darkwing, Negaduck, and Morgana, excellent self-centered conflicts between Darkwing and Grizzlikof, Gizmoduck, and even Launchpad and Gosalyn. In fact, the series best episode in my opinion is “Quiverwing Quack.”

Like Scrooge McDuck’s conflict between being a family man and a business man, Darkwing is conflicted between raising a daughter away from danger, and perhaps raising her to be his successor. Gosalyn not only develops Darkwing’s mannerisms, but she also develops Darkwing’s superhero abilities – and flaws. She is a smart, brave, capable fighter, but is also prone to conceited fancies and self-important speeches. Darkwing clearly wants to keep her safe, but at the end of the episode it’s clear he not only needs her out in the field, but can genuinely depend on her. It’s a sweet, character-rich episode that’s also exciting and well-done. While no other episodes quite reach the heights of this one, they come wonderfully close – or at least two-thirds of them.

Darkwing Duck’s wackier, sillier sensibilities may be different from its surrounding Disney Afternoon family, but underneath the slapstick veneer is a entertaining show in its own right. After an awkward beginning, Darkwing Duck engages in its characters and world with such aplomb and boldness that one can’t help but fall in love with everything it does. For 91 episodes, Darkwing Duck would probably win the “Most Improved” award, and it’s an award it should be proud of – although Darkwing wouldn’t accept anything anything of the sort.

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  1. #1 by Marlin Kane on February 16, 2016 - 6:17 pm

    Night of the Living Spud is actually more insane than you realize, at least according to this: http://cartoon-watching.blogspot.com/2011/10/darkwing-duck-night-of-living-spud.html#more

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