If Thunder Force will be remembered for anything, it might be this bizarro footnote: The movie marks the second time, after The Shape of Water, that a character played by Octavia Spencer learns her best friend has had life-changing sex with a fish-man. Which makes it sound a lot more interesting than it is.
It helps, of course, that the trans-species couple in question, each with unasked-for superhuman strength, are played by Melissa McCarthy and Jason Bateman. There might be no one better than McCarthy to poke a welcome hole in superhero self-seriousness. But Thunder Force wobbles between half-baked comic-strip sendup and half-hearted valentine. The latest feature from writer-director Ben Falcone, McCarthy’s husband and producing partner, is also the latest in a string of underwhelming comedy vehicles for her exceptional talent.
With its bland positivity (regular people can be superheroes!), flimsy-bordering-on-indifferent plotting and Post-it-note-deep characters, that leaves the bits and shtick to buoy Falcone’s screenplay. They’re hit-and-miss, but it’s definitely the off-track digressions where the film sparks to life. Among the easy-to-count highlights are a fleeting glimpse of Spencer grooving to Seal and a deliriously over-the-top fantasy sequence between Bateman and McCarthy set to a Glenn Frey single and featuring big-time ’80s hair.
The very basic origin story involves cosmic rays that struck Earth in 1983 (as if that decade’s coifs and fashion weren’t bad enough), creating a group of baddies known as Miscreants. They’re sociopaths with superpowers (and no, this isn’t a documentary). Spencer’s Emily, whose geneticist parents were killed in a Miscreant rampage, has devoted her life to continuing their research and creating superpowers for the good, beleaguered people of her native Chicago.
It’s there she returns as the action begins — presumably from Silicon Valley, given the size of her company’s sleek downtown headquarters and the fact that her brainy teenage daughter, Tracy (the effortlessly charming Taylor Mosby, of The Last O.G.), has graduated from Stanford. Into Emily’s high-tech corporate setup, complete with its scowling ex-CIA exec (Melissa Leo), wanders McCarthy’s beer-and-Bulls-loving Lydia. Before you can say “breach in the injection room,” Lydia has accidentally become a part of Emily’s mission to rid the city of Miscreants. Together they become the crime-fighting duo Thunder Force, Lydia empowered with super strength and Emily with invisibility.
Their war on the criminals seems to be a part-time pursuit at best. This isn’t a feature where you should expect nail-biting suspense, but the supposed menace that grips the city never registers as anything but a bit of background noise, and the mano-a-mano clashes land with a so-what thud. Chief among the cartoon-ridiculous villains are Bobby Cannavale’s transparently manipulative mayoral candidate, who insists on being called The King and whose henchmen are led by a murder-hungry Miscreant named Laser (Pom Klementieff, Mantis in Marvel movies) and Bateman’s human-Miscreant mongrel, The Crab. How he came to have pincers instead of hands is revealed in a first-date conversation with Lydia that provides a satisfyingly weird break from the unsteady narrative.
The montage of Lydia’s training progress is the movie’s best jab at superhero machismo, and the raw chicken flesh that fuels her newfound powers is its best practical effect. The sight of Emily and Lydia akimbo in their bodysuits, their hair windblown, makes its own statement — one that goes unfulfilled, deflated rather than energized by the flat proceedings.
As long-estranged friends who reunite, McCarthy and Spencer strike a few charged chords of awkward affection and rivalry, but Falcone wants to go only so far into the realm of female friendship and its frictions, sticking to predictable beats. In a couple of pre-title scenes, he spells out the odd-couple dynamic between Lydia and Emily, first as 12-year-old classmates, with Lydia played by McCarthy and Falcone’s daughter Vivian Falcone and Bria D. Singleton as Emily, and then as teens (Mia Kaplan and Tai Leshaun). The quartet of young actors are spot-on, the material rote. Emily is studious and Lydia is not the sharpest tool in the shed, and so it continues into adulthood. The mother-daughter stuff between Emily and Tracy follows a similarly stock path.
Whatever her character’s superpowers, McCarthy’s as a performer burst through the movie’s busy-but-dull surface when they can, which is to say far too infrequently. Her reactions to a convoluted piece of wack philosophizing by a diner owner (Veep‘s Kevin Dunn) offer a prime example of her ace timing and wry delivery — and the director, DP Barry Peterson and editor Tia Nolan wisely zero in. In comic terms, the star is matched at moments by Spencer, who’s more constrained by her role as The Serious One, and beat for beat by Bateman, who isn’t, naturally, because he’s The Crab. The jokes in Thunder Force are thin, the spoof of superheroics wan, but it’s not every day you see crustacean perversity.
Production company: On the Day
Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Octavia Spencer, Jason Bateman, Melissa Leo, Bobby Cannavale, Pom Klementieff, Kevin Dunn, Taylor Mosby, Marcella Lowery, Melissa Ponzio, Ben Falcone, David Storrs, Vivian Falcone, Bria D. Singleton, Mia Kaplan, Tai Leshaun, Brendan Jennings
Director-screenwriter: Ben Falcone
Producers: Marc Platt, Adam Siegel, Ben Falcone, Melissa McCarthy
Executive producers: Becki Cross Trujillo, Divya D’Souza, Steve Mallory
Director of photography: Barry Peterson
Production designer: Bill Brzeski
Costume designer: Carol Ramsey
Editor: Tia Nolan
Music: Fil Eisler
Casting director: Allison Jones