An image of Melissa McCarthy and Octavia Spencer in the Netflix superhero comedy Thunder Force.

Review: Netflix super-comedy Thunder Force is a thundering dud

Imagine a movie where Melissa McCarthy and Octavia Spencer get superpowers, and nothing funny happens. That's this one

THUNDER FORCE (Ben Falcone). 105 min. Now streaming on Netflix Canada. Rating: N


It’s never a good thing when you find yourself making excuses for a movie while you’re watching it. I spent about half of Thunder Force thinking that its weird half-assed nature – the messy pacing, the slapdash visual sensibility, the underpopulated crowd scenes, and so forth – had to be the result of COVID compromises during production.

But nope, Ben Falcone and Melissa McCarthy made their movie in the fall of 2019, well before the pandemic arrived. Maybe they’d hoped to fix the gaping story problems with reshoots that never happened. Jesus, I’m still doing it.

Seriously, though: in an era where superhero narratives are the dominant form of Western entertainment, how do you make one this clumsy, this disappointing, this hackneyed? How do you screw up the simplest of origin arcs, and fail to build a world that makes sense? How do you give Melissa McCarthy super-strength, and not get a single decent joke out of it?

This is Thunder Force, an abject failure of imagination from the generally reliable couple who’ve collaborated on Tammy, The Boss, Life Of The Party and last fall’s Superintelligence – all satisfying entertainments in their own right that showcased McCarthy’s considerable gifts as a performer. Even when they were messy, they worked well enough that you didn’t mind.

Thunder Force is just a full-on mess. Its mythology is laissez-faire at best: there was this burst of cosmic rays in 1983 that imbued sociopaths with superpowers, leading to general chaos as the unstoppable “Miscreants” rampaged around the world. But a few years later everything just sort of settled down, and these days people just go about their lives while dodging the occasional laser blast or whatever.

On its face, that’s a fun idea… but Falcone does absolutely nothing with it. There are precisely two Miscreants in the movie’s Chicago, one of whom is too young to have been around for the cosmic ray blast; is she the daughter of Miscreants? What happened to all the older ones? Why do I have the time to wonder about this stuff?

The answer to the last question is “because it takes Thunder Force nearly an hour to start.” There’s a reason most superhero movies blow past the origin stuff; it’s because we all know how these things work. Falcone, on the other hand, takes us through a straight version of the lab-accident storyline, as McCarthy’s crass, impulsive Lydia Berman drops by the workplace of her genius childhood pal Emily Stanton (Octavia Spencer) and winds up getting the superhero treatment Emily had been planning to give herself. Well, half of it: Lydia gets enhanced strength and resilience, while Emily still gives herself the power of invisibility.

The treatment takes weeks to complete, so we get to watch Lydia learn to master her powers one day at a time. This takes forever, with lazy gags involving Lydia either knocking her sparring partner out of the ring or refusing to take her super-responsibilities seriously. It’s a montage stretched out to infinity, broken up by the occasional cutaway to Bobby Cannavale, as a secret Miscreant who’s running for mayor, talking about how evil he is and how much power he’ll have once he’s elected to office. Good for him for finding an outlet for his abilities, I guess, but it’s just filler.

Eventually, Lydia and Emily are fully powered up, and sent on their first “mission,” which is stopping a liquor store robbery. Again: the small-potatoes aspect of the storytelling could be charming, with the right approach – people with outsized abilities in mundane settings is a great source of comedy – but Falcone just lets it flop. And this is the scene with the movie’s best (well, only) laugh, a little bit of business with Jason Bateman (who co-starred with McCarthy in 2013’s Identity Thief) as a crab man scuttling sideways out of frame to avoid a fight.

Am I still writing about Thunder Force? Why? At this point you’ve either checked out the trailer and are going to watch it anyway, or you’re just waiting to see whether I found anything else in the picture that I liked. I did not.

It feels like a series of notes that got turned into a feature film through some sort of atomic mishap, or maybe it’s an elaborate test engineered by the supercomputer in McCarthy’s last film. (“Make a terrible movie, or I’ll exterminate humanity after all. Ta!”)

I mean, there ought to be some life in a running gag about Lydia’s transformation giving her a constant craving for raw chicken, but it just doesn’t land; instead, I got distracted wondering what the food stylists had made the “chicken” out of – was it fruit, was it tofu, was it just a CG replacement, and if so how did McCarthy mime eating it so well?

Trust me, I’d rather have been laughing. Instead I was just… disappointed. Disappointed in Falcone, disappointed in McCarthy, disappointed in everyone for not doing more than going through the lazy, lazy motions.

So that’s a wrap on Thunder Force. Any movie where Jason Bateman can’t pull more than one laugh from being a crab man doesn’t deserve this level of attention.

@normwilner

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