Darkly Dawns the Duck originally aired as a one hour special on the Disney Channel, introducing the main character and his supporting cast and setting up the status quo for the series going forward. That was a smart thing to do. Disney then took this one hour special, re-cut it into two episodes and made them episodes…30 and 31 of Season 1 on Disney Plus. That was a very stupid thing to do and I have no idea why they did it. In fact, the entire running order is batshit insane. Characters appear in episodes as a known quantity only for Darkwing Duck to meet them for the first time twenty episodes later, it’s crazy.
Unfortunately, this means we also miss a pretty fantastic sequence of Darkwing hunting some criminals through the streets of Saint Canard to the strains of the immortal theme tune sung by Jeff Pescetto who also sang the theme for Ducktales and Chip N Dale Rescue Rangers. The Disney Plus version just cuts to Darkwing delivering these hoods to the local police station and bemoaning that he can’t get no respect around here and he needs to start taking on some big time criminals.
He gets his wish when Taurus Bulba (Tim Curry) a crime boss who’s been running his empire from his prison cell, sends his goons to steal the Ramrod, an anti-gravity cannon, from a military train. DW fails to stop Bulba’s men (technically sentient farm livestock) despite and assist from Duckburg’s own Launchpad McQuack.
Bulba now has the Ramrod but he doesn’t know how to use it. The creator of the Ramrod, Professor Waddlemeyer, was killed by Bulba’s men meaning that his only hope of getting the code is from Waddlemeyer’s orphaned grand-daughter, Gosalyn (Christine Cavanaugh) who has been sent to the St Canard orphanege.
But Darkwing, who is no fool, has also figured this out and manages to rescue Gosalyn from the orphanage before Bulba’s goons can grab her. Bulba decides that the time for fucking around has passed and reveals that he’s somehow built a massive flying death fortress in the prison where he was being held.
Darkwing puts Gosalyn to sleep by singing a lullaby that her grandfather taught her and then realises that the lyrics are a code to activate the Ramrod. Bulba lures Darkwing out of hiding by offering to surrender only to turn the tables on him and force him to surrender the code and then kidnaps Gosalyn as collateral. Darkwing gets arrested by the cops who think he’s part of Bulba’s gang but he gets sprung when Launchpad shows up to pay his bail and ends up crashing through his cell wall. Launchpad then shows him a new plane he’s been working on, the Thunderquack (in toy stores now!)
Darkwing storms Bulba’s air fortress and manages to shut down the Ramrod but he seemingly perishes when the fortress crashes. Back at the orphanage, a despondent Gosalyn refuses to give up and is rewarded when “Drake Mallard”, a mysterious yet strangely familiar duck, shows up and tells her that he’s going to adopt her.
How was it?
Interestingly, given his pedigree, the cartoon bird I found Darkwing reminded me of most was not Scrooge or Donald but Daffy Duck, particularly in his Dorlock Holmes/Duck Dodgers/Robin Hood personae when he was paired with Porky Pig as his much more competent sidekick.
Like Daffy in those shorts, Darkwing is a vain, preening egomaniac desperate for respect and adulation. But unlike Daffy, the cartoon makes it clear that Darkwing actually has the makings of a phenomenal superhero if he could just get over his massive ego. And this is the root of why Darkwing Duck just doesn’t quite click for me. It seems unsure what kind of show it wants to be.
On the one hand it’s very, very much a kids TV comedy from the early nineties and that comes through in the writing. There’s lot’s of corny gags, lots of asides to the audience. Obviously the voice cast is stacked and Jim Cummings definitely made some of the jokes land harder than they would have otherwise but it’s still very much a show of its time and the writing has little of the sharpness and wit you’d expect from a Disney series with a comparable budget being made today. So it’s only so-so as comedy, but is it even supposed to be?
Here’s the thing, for all its kid friendly vibe, it’s quite shockingly dark in places. There’s a scene where Darkwing and Gosalyn are being pursued by police who are shooting at them. With actual guns. Shooting actual bullets. And I know that might not sound too hardcore but this was in an era where the only guns you’d see in Saturday morning cartoons were lazer blasters. There’s also a scene where Taurus Bulba berates his goons for loosing Darkwing and Gosalyn (who escaped them by driving his bike into the sea) and Hannigan says “we didn’t know he’d off himself and the kid”.
There are also explicit references to characters being “killed” rather than “destroyed” which again was really pushing the envelope in the era. Likewise, there are shots in this thing that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Batman the Animated Series.
And this is the problem: it’s also clearly trying to be a superhero drama with real stakes. But I can only really get invested in the drama if it seems that the protagonist is in actual peril and…I’ve seen this guy get crushed by a fridge and walk it off. He’s going to be fine.
So this, for me, is the awkward position that Darkwing Duck finds itself in. It’s not quite funny enough to work as comedy and too cartoony to work as action/adventure and it ends up in this weird middle ground. It is, if you’ll pardon the expression, neither flesh nor fowl.
Hello! You may remember me from The Simpsons!
For whatever reason a lot of Simpsons voice actors also ended up working on this show. Jim Cummings himself, while never a main cast member, did voice Duncan the Horse in the episode Saddlesore Galactica which I’m guessing he doesn’t brag about to the other voice actors.
Marcia Wallace (Mrs Krabappel) also plays two minor roles.
I am the terror that flaps in the night!
I am the switch that derails your train!
I am the jailer who throws away the key! I am feeling really stupid!
I am the surprise in your cereal box!
I am the chill that runs up your spine!