Director: Ben Falcone
Writer: Ben Falcone
Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Octavia Spencer, Jason Bateman
Cinematographer: Barry Peterson
Editor: Tia Nolan
Streaming on: Netflix
Thunder Force plays out like a superhero movie designed by someone with no affection for superhero movies, intent on presenting them at their shallowest and most unflattering to convince others of this point. At a time when the glut of superhero fare is more abundant than ever, the film squanders the opportunity to handle the familiar conventions of the genre with either love or subversion, instead grudgingly checking them off in ways both perfunctory and profoundly lazy. While the film is a slog to sit through, the innate lethargy of its writing is felt most acutely during a scene in which the two leads arrive at their superhero team name. Rifling through the pantry for inspiration, forklift operator Lydia (Melissa McCarthy) goes, “Crater Joes, Flapjack Crackers, Thunder Force, Mango Flops.” In what world does a word association game take one from ‘flapjack crackers’ to ‘thunder force’? One in which the screenwriter needs a shortcut.
Several narrative shortcuts dot Thunder Force, which begins in 1938 when the young Lydia (Vivian Falcone) befriends her more studious classmate Emily (Bria D. Singleton), whose motivations stem from the Batman school of dead parents. In this universe, cosmic radiation has inundated the Earth, unlocking superpowers only in people genetically predisposed to be sociopaths. These villains, called Miscreants (a name that doesn’t inspire the least bit of menace), run amok, killing Emily’s family in the process. Emily, in turn, vows to scientifically develop superpowers for herself when she grows up so she can get revenge.
The friendship between the two should be the film’s emotional core but rushed early portions, meant to establish their dynamic, are plain serviceable and feature dialogue cribbed from teen dramas of the early aughts. Lydia’s lackadaisical attitude chafes at Emily and her more bookish pursuits, and the two part ways. Years later, the two reunite in a sequence that culminates with Lydia (Melissa McCarthy) developing super strength in an ironically weak bit of plotting.
At this point, she and Emily (Octavia Spencer) have been long estranged and so their awkward, stilted dynamic, while understandable, weighs down the already plodding film. Writer-director Ben Falcone overcompensates, stuffing the script with comedic scenes, including (poor) impressions of Jodie Foster, laborious knock knock jokes and stretches of physical comedy that involve McCarthy getting hit in the crotch. None of these land.
The casting of two 50-year-old plus-sized women in a genre associated with tight spandex and rippling muscles is a subversion in itself, but one the film makes no point of acknowledging
The film only finds its groove when Emily figures out how to turn invisible and the two begin fighting crime together, developing an easy chemistry along the way. In an absurdist sequence, Lydia fantasises about slow-dancing with a half-crustacean Miscreant they’ve just apprehended (Jason Bateman with crab arms and impeccable comic timing). The sight of the two twirling under strobe lights with 80s clothes and big hair is an abrupt tonal departure from the rest of the film but one that’s far superior. The only other Miscreant villains in the film are Laser (Pom Klementieff), who shoots, well, lasers out of her hands, and a mayoral candidate who crushes people (Bobby Cannavale). They’re both underwhelming shticks, as far as superpowers go.
A subplot about the mutually beneficial relationship between super-powered beings and the shadowy government agencies pulling their strings loses steam quickly on account of it being utterly transparent and painstakingly spelled out early on. It’s a narrative strand that would’ve had a bigger dramatic impact had it been employed as a major reveal, as Amazon Prime Video’s The Boys did to great effect in its last season.
The biggest disservice this film does, however, is to Spencer and McCarthy, both talented actresses saddled with tepid material. The casting of two 50-year-old plus-sized women in a genre associated with tight spandex and rippling muscles is a subversion in itself, but one the film makes no point of acknowledging. Paul Feig’s Spy, released six years earlier, smartly weaponized McCarthy’s physicality — who would suspect a woman described as “Santa Claus’ wife” of being an undercover agent in a profession that popularized the Bond template of body image? Thunder Force, on the other hand, pulls its punches and has little impact as a result.