Darkwing Duck: Darkly Dawns the Duck

Wha’ happen?

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.

“We’re experimenting with avant garde forms of non-linear story-telling you philistine clod!”

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.

Yeah, basically.

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.

Well, what do you expect with the Democrats in the White House?

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!)

“You know what to do, kids!”

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.

“Fortunately for us, child services in this city are deeply, deeply corrupt.”

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.

“And lo, I beheld a pale horse…”

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!

14 comments

  1. I can’t say I agree on the assesment of the show’s core. It’s pointless to pretend any Disney animated series is even going to be pure out loud wall-to-wall drama. Gargoyles, from what little I managed to catch since it never was shown in my country, would be the closest thing but that was sort of an outlier and even it appears to have had its share of comedic relief. And the Darkwing series does steer much more into pure comedy and slapstick later on, to the point I found myself missing the mix of the two sides of the coin as the show went on.

    Not all of the other characters are as invulnerable as Darkwing so as long as THEY are in danger, there’ll still be stakes as Darkwing does care about them, and about his situation as a superhero, and the city’s. The stakes are still there even if Darkwing’s physical integrity itself is rarely compromised at all.

    I think it did hit a fine balance, myself.

  2. I honestly thought Darkwing was a Daffy Duck character for years, like Duck Dodgers or the Robin Hood parody. This was before i beheld the beauty of the 2017 reboot, praise be unto it. Surprised you didn’t mention David Tennant being the new Scrooge, what with your pretty apt Doctor Who comparison.

  3. I liked how the DuckTales reboot addressed Darkwing’s seeming invincibility by making it an in-character trait that he’s just a glutton for pain who never gives up, even when he really should. That was a great version of the character, and I wish we had gotten more seasons (or a Darkwing spin-off).

    As for the original, I was only 7 when it came out, so I sort of liked how it was lighter than Batman, which could honestly be a little scary at times (Two Face and Clayface especially. Something about the guys named “-Face”). Darkwing let me dip a toe into that sort of thing while still being a little slapstick and silly.

    But yeah, it hasn’t aged as well as some of the Disney cartoons from the era; if you wanted comedy adventure, DuckTales did it better, and if you wanted dark action, Gargoyles was supreme.

    That theme song is still a bop, though.

  4. Darkwing Duck really brings to mind Jack Burton of “Big Trouble in Little China”, he’s an underdog so you want him to succeed but he’s a loudmouthed egotist so you want to see him be taken down a peg along the way.

    But one thing that really stands out to me is that when Disney tried to emulate the more slapstick and aside-style humor that’s more associated with the Looney Tunes, they could actually pull it off quite well. Pixar’s short “Presto” is another great example.

    Oh yeah, once upon a time Disney was just fine using firearms in their cartoons or even engaging in a fair bit of dark humor, as one bit of Darkwing proved.

    Television Reporter: Newsflash: Darkwing Duck is loose in St. Canard! Mighty Negaduck demands that Darkwing Duck be arrested on sight.

    NegaDuck: No, I said “shot”! Darkwing Duck should be 𝘴𝘩𝘰𝘡 on sight!…Or skinned. Yeah! Skin him alive!…No, no, even better, 𝘣𝘢𝘳𝘯 him to fiery ash!…And then arrest him.

  5. I am the commenter who shows up late!

    I …. do like DW in general. It’s Disney just starting to play with the idea of a protagonist rather than a hero. Or at least a flawed hero. Not every joke will land of course, and some things won’t age well, but I find it fun and interesting anyway. If nothing else, it’s a stepping stone to Disney’s later (and sometimes better) TV shows.

  6. Something I have to point out re: all the Darkwing/Gargoyles comparisons is that DW predates Gargoyles by four years. I say this not to claim “It’s the original, it did it first, therefore it’s better” because that is obviously untrue, but to point out that for those four years, we had nothing else to compare DWD to, at least not from Disney. It might be belaboring a metaphor to say that DWD pitifully flapped its arms before plummeting from the skyscraper so that Gargoyles could majestically swoop over the city, but it’s actually a pretty apt allegory–DWD was forced to play things light most of the time, but even as wee sprogs we could see it trying to be something more, and it whetted our appetite for something that really took itself seriously.

  7. Yay! Sorry for reply being so late, since I requested in the first place, but August sucked real bad and I lost all sense of time and space.

    I love Darkwing. It’s probably my favorite “funny animals” show ever. It’s definitely a bit of a genre kitchen sink, but I feel like the 90s were just kind of like that. And on most kid shows at the time (remember this was a pre-BTAS and anime world) even if the tone is more of a straight drama, no one’s going to actually die anyway, so I didn’t have a problem suspending disbelief.

    We had the Darkly Dawns the Duck tape and I must have watched it a zillion times. Tiny me was into the added drama and Bulba being a straight up scary guy. All his humor came from Curry’s performance and his sick burns.

    Darkwing being kind of a petty egotistical dick is great. Adding Gosalyn and Launchpad gives him just the right amount of softness so we still root for him and the amount of physical punishment he takes makes sure he’s not karmically let off too easy for those moments of dickery.

    Awesome review!

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