The first real joke in Netflix’s newest take on the superhero genre - a parody directed by Ben Falcone - comes at almost the 50-minute mark. The two main characters, Lydia (played by Falcone’s partner, actress Melissa McCarthy) and Emily (played by Octavia Spencer), are on their first mission as superheroes and bust in on a robbery conducted by a half-man half-mutant team led by a dude called ‘The Crab’ (Jason Bateman in his sexiest avatar after Teen Wolf 2, a supervillain with crab claws for arms). Lydia asks The Crab what he is, and he sharply answers - “you’d think cancer, but Capricorn actually, sag moon. And all kinds of things… rising.” The joke isn’t great, and it doesn’t even come from the protagonists, but the sexual tension between these two characters is palpable. Over the course of the film, Lydia and The Crab grow close and it’s like a great sketch about an unlikely couple. The trouble is that you have to sit through a frightfully dull and boring feature-length movie to see it.
What is the story about?
This is Thunder Force, joining the ranks of mostly forgettable to middling (read: Life of the Party) comedies that Falcone and McCarthy have been collaborating on for over a decade. The apex of lazy writing - in 1983, cosmic rays screwed up the DNA of some humans on Earth resulting in the creation of supervillains or ‘Miscreants.’ The young Emily lost her parents to tragic super-villainy and decides to devote her life to creating a serum that can give regular folk superhuman powers to combat evil. When her estranged best friend, the supremely under-talented, under-skilled, and uncouth Lydia accidentally gets injected by the first dose of the serum in present day, the two ladies have no choice but to team up as ‘Thunder Force,’ a superhero team of super-strength and invisibility, and protect Chicago.
We are, needless to say, saturated with the good, bad, and ugly of superhero content, and it is understandable that it would take either a really smart spin (read: WandaVision) or a cleverly subversive one (read: The Boys) to really stand out within that ecosystem. The biggest tragedy of Thunder Force is that it has two elements that make for a great hook. It has two great stars, who also happen to be supremely talented, to lead its cast. And it has two plus-size women (one of whom is of colour) as superheroes, and when do you get to indulge in that conversation ever? Unfortunately, ‘Thunder Force’ does little to nothing to propel both those tools in its arsenal for the film to really “mean” something, even within the parody/satire space.
World-building is perhaps the most creative and awe-inspiring part of a superhero film or series, and ‘Thunder Force’ is stuck in a bubble. There is no attention paid to make this version of Chicago seem innovative or unrealistically real. In 2021, supervillains hang around without a cover but you’re telling me that there are no structured operational forces or underground cults that are attempting to counter the ‘Miscreants.’ Emily Stanton is a genius geneticist who is openly experimenting with superhero serum in a facility in the middle of the city, the lab of which is so easy to enter into that even a bumbling idiot like Lydia can become a superhero. It’s all extremely lazy writing. And it extends into the jokes as well. Most of the pop culture references are vague, the punchlines fall flat, the gags are overdone, and once again, it’s really unfortunate that Falcone isn’t even attempting to make the parody feel smart with any underlying or subliminal message.
In all honesty, the film isn’t even daring enough to embrace its absurdity in full throttle. It is the sequences where, for instance, Lydia is indulging in foreplay with The Crab and powders him with seasoning. These and only a few other whacky moments are where the film is borderline camp. And I almost wish that this was the tone of the whole movie because at least it would then enter the arena that is so proudly mastered by films like The Birdcage, Dumb and Dumber, Death Becomes Her, Austin Powers or the Naked Gun series - silly and frankly, owning it. Thunder Force doesn’t feel silly as it feels dull. With an hour of runtime spent in Lydia training to be a superhero, the film is freakishly long, giving no time to Spencer and McCarthy to spend in their bad-ass suits. The rest of the film then rushes through some action stuff, basically.
This is a real shame because we don’t always get the opportunity to cast Melissa McCarthy and Octavia Spencer in a superhero movie unless they’re an ‘Edna Mode’ or a ‘Maria Hill’ type character. It’s evident that they’re great performers and they do the best with the material. But within the comedy space’s myopic view of these women, McCarthy is still the disgusting oddball that she often refurbishes from Bridesmaids (y’no the one who looks like she never bathes, drinks rotten milk from the can, and gorges on raw chicken). Spencer is the stoic no-nonsense foil to McCarthy’s comedy, which means that she gets her irreverent quotable at the end, much to everyone’s (non)-surprise. Guardians’ staple Pom Klementieff plays a Mantis-esque European Dominatrix with the need to kill. She seems to be doing those Wanda jazz hands by which we know she is evil. And Bobby Cannavale has a maniacal laugh as the candidate for the mayoral election, so we know he is evil too, giving away a huge twist to the story right at the beginning. Bateman is the mutant of my dreams as the half-creant with no superpower and no reason to be evil. But is it enough to have his claw arms to be the sole reason to sit through this movie?
Music & Other Departments
Because tell me it isn’t a force of nature to watch McCarthy and Spencer duet on Seal’s “Kiss From a Rose.” Pop hits, like this one, from the 80s and 90s are thrown in for great nostalgia value, but no real after-effect. For a mainstream film, the look, design, and costume are pretty average. And the film needed to be at least half an hour shorter.
I have no good memory from Thunder Force other than the fact that I need more of Jason Bateman with crab-claw arms, just so I can imagine someone cracking them open with a mallet for a ‘surf and turf’ joke.
Somewhere between this non-movie is a movie that had the potential to be a wonderful female bonding and reconciliation story, with plus-size women playing the leads in a superhero world. Or it could have been a star-crossed romance about a sloppy superhero and charming ‘miscreant,’ in a wacky world. Thunder Force is neither. And with Oscar-nominated actresses, that too.
Did I enjoy it?
You have no idea how much I wanted to like this movie. So, no.
Do I recommend it?
Nope. These ladies deserve better scripts. In the meantime, let’s wait for Black Widow, coming this July.