Melissa McCarthy and Octavia Spencer gain superpowers in an OK Netflix comedy
Streaming and COVID have altered how we watch movies, making it hard to tell what’s a blockbuster and what’s an indie. Thunder Force is full of A-list stars, comedy favorites, and big broad punchlines. It made me a bit sad that I couldn’t watch it in a theater, because my wild, boisterous laugh is weird when I’m by myself. However, I’m not totally sure even a packed theater could push this movie from fine to great.
★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Ben Falcone
Written by: Ben Falcone
Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Octavia Spenser, Jason Bateman, Bobby Cannavale
Running time: 111 min
The movie’s leads are Octavia Spencer (Emily) and Melissa McCarthy (Lydia). McCarthy is comfortably in her wheelhouse as Lydia, a strange, rough-around-the-edges but soft-hearted Midwesterner. Lydia loves Old Style, hair bands, and needs multiple taste tests to determine if milk is sour.
Spencer has a habit of picking a wide variety of roles and has appeared in prestige dramas, horror films like the best movie of all time, Ma, and fun comedies. Her Emily is a delight. Lydia and Emily had a falling out because Lydia kept trying to distract Emily from her primary focus–defeating the bad guys who killed her parents. Spencer’s Emily is lovingly frustrated, determined, and kind.
In this world, mutated humans (Miscreants) with superpowers are attacking present-day Chicago and the world at large are being. Unfortunately, the only individuals who develop superpowers are also sociopaths, so it’s never good. This ongoing problem dates back to Lydia and Emily’s middle school years. Miscreants killed Emily’s parents before they could finish developing a serum to also turn average folks into heroes.
The falling out has lasted from high school until the two women are in their 40s. Emily’s return to Chicago coincides with their high school reunion, so Lydia swings by her new corporate offices to see if she wants to hang. Emily is far too busy being a scientist. Lydia is left alone for five minutes and shenanigans ensue when she inadvertently doses herself with the first round of Emily’s superhero serum. Now, Lydia will have super strength and Emily the power of invisibility. They’re forced to patch things up and work together.
The movie is very fun, somewhat predictable, and delivers exactly what you might expect from a Melissa McCarthy vehicle. It’s pretty heartwarming, features many disgusting moments, and of course Ben Falcone has a role. Falcone is McCarthy’s husband and also Thunder Force’s director. Some people hate that they keep working together, but McCarthy is so good I don’t mind it as long as she’s happy. Jason Bateman plays to his strengths as a vaguely creepy half man, half crab. His arms are crab pincers and apparently very tasty.
It’s a completely different kind of superhero movie than any in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is definitely refreshing. I’d say the vibe is closest to the DC film Shazam, but not quite as heartwarming. Throughout the viewing, I felt it building to something that it never quite achieved
Unlike Shazam, Thunder Force doesn’t have enough real-world time or character relationship development, and I’ll describe what I mean. Yes, the story of Lydia becoming superpowered is important. However, a chunk of the movie is simply a 33 day montage of Lydia’s training with very little Emily. We don’t really get to see them doing much interpersonal, actual friend hangouts beyond a dinner with Emily’s grandmother, who thinks they are a couple. That joke would’ve been funnier if we saw them bond more! Emily has a teenage genius daughter, Tracy, and her scenes with Lydia were some of my favorites. I wanted more. In Shazam, we got to see our superhero hang out with his real-life friends for most of the film, which was fun.
Selfishly, I also enjoy scenes of superheroes trying to exist in the regular world. We get a little of that when Lydia throws a bus into Buckingham Fountain in Chicago, causing millions in damages. The Thunder Force eventually fights crime throughout the city and stops a corrupt mayoral candidate, played by Bobby Cannavale, from getting elected. It’s very cute that this film assumes only one Chicago mayoral candidate is corrupt.
There are enough quips and stunts and amazing fake technology to keep the plot going at a fast clip, but there’s also a lot more gratuitous violence than I would have expected from this type of comedy. Also, like many comedy films, this one has a few incredibly disgusting gross-out scenes tucked in along the way. I already thought raw chicken was gross, and now I really do. This movie is not unlike raw chicken. There’s potential, but it needs to marinate.