Dir: Ben Falcone. Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Octavia Spencer, Jason Bateman, Bobby Cannavale, Pom Klementieff, Kevin Dunn, Melissa Leo. 12, 105 mins
The strangest thing about Netflix’s Thunder Force – beyond the running joke that Melissa McCarthy loves to slurp up raw chicken and show it all mashed up between her teeth – is how disconnected it seems from the world around it. Writer-director Ben Falcone, McCarthy’s husband and frequent co-star, has set out to lovingly parody the superhero film, without ever actually interacting with, or even acknowledging, the most familiar parts of the genre. It’s a comedy about superheroes that contains very few jokes about superheroes.
And, because of that, it’s hard to see the value of Thunder Force when the films it targets have already proven themselves to be self-aware and willing to make themselves the butt of the joke. Where does this film fit into a world that already has Ant-Man and Deadpool running around?
Falcone’s script also comes burdened with an overcomplicated premise: interstellar cosmic rays have caused a genetic mutation in the small percentage of the population already predisposed to sociopathy. In this world, there are no superheroes, only supervillains – known as miscreants.
When Emily’s (Octavia Spencer) geneticist parents are killed by a miscreant, she vows to continue their work and discover a way to create superheroes, even if it comes at the cost of alienating her slacker best friend Lydia (McCarthy). Lydia unexpectedly drops by Emily’s lab and ends up pumped full of super-strength serum. And so, the two of them set out to do good and defeat the blue, magic mist-wielding Laser, played by Marvel’s Pom Klementieff. The actor’s clearly taken a few tips in the “waving your hands around like they’re doing something” department from her Endgame co-star Elizabeth Olsen.
There’s a side plot featuring a mayoral race, where Bobby Cannavale plays a candidate whose shark-like smile is so obviously sinister that it immediately gives the story’s game away. And there’s a love interest for McCarthy in the form of Jason Bateman’s The Crab – who, yes, has crab claws for hands and, yes, it gets immediately sexual.
But Thunder Force should be McCarthy and Spencer’s show. They’re both deeply charismatic performers who can sell a lifelong affection for each other even when the film does little to develop their characters. The film’s best scenes take place right before they reconnect, after years of estrangement, as Lydia nervously drafts a text – she pauses, then adds a few more emojis, satisfied that all signs of her loneliness have been hidden between tiny pictures of beach umbrellas and sunglasses.
As two 50-year-old women who also happen to be plus-sized, McCarthy and Spencer are exactly the kind of actors who have been entirely shut out of the superhero conversation – and Thunder Force could have been a brilliant opportunity to skewer Hollywood’s enduring sexism and ageism. Unfortunately, the jokes here are mostly at their expense, though never outwardly callous in their intention: they struggle to get into sportscars and listen to Eagles rocker Glenn Frey as a form of motivation. The humour’s fairly inoffensive, but rarely lands in any meaningful way. Thunder Force is more frustrating than anything else – it’s a film that had the opportunity to say so much but ends up doing very little at all.