In a world dominated by sociopathic supervillains, heroes are in short supply. Emily Stanton (Octavia Spencer) has made it her life’s work to create a solution to this evil problem by finding a way to make superheroes. She’s ready to become the force the city of Chicago needs, right up until her estranged childhood friend Lydia (Melissa McCarthy) crashes back into her life and accidentally takes the super-serum instead. Now, left with no other choices, the two must team up to become the only people standing in the way of total chaos, which includes a sinister Mayoral candidate with maniacal plans and his ragtag ensemble of occasionally murderous villains.
I’ve written before about my love for Melissa McCarthy and my strident belief that she is one of the best actresses of her generation. She’s got two Oscar nominations to her name and a slew of box office hits that mark her as a true A-Lister in a way that Hollywood doesn’t necessarily make these days. She has nothing to prove to anyone, especially when it comes to her impressive comedic talents. Still, the prospect of a new Melissa McCarthy movie often brings with it mixed emotions, especially when the attached director is her regular collaborator and husband Ben Falcone. The two clearly love working together, and McCarthy has the clout to do basically whatever she wants with him. However, their films are often—to put it kindly—less than the sum of their parts.
McCarthy thrives in the contradictions, like when her chaotic brashness is tempered by a true sweetness or emotional heft. It’s one of the reasons her work with Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, Spy, The Heat, Ghostbusters) is so satisfying. The Falcone efforts are usually broader and designed to be more generally appealing, but at the expense of those abrasive stand-out moments where McCarthy gets to show her range. Frankly, her weirdness is a lot less interesting in these movies. While Thunder Force isn’t top-tier McCarthy, especially when compared to the likes of Spy, it’s easily the best of the Falcone bunch (Tammy, The Boss, Life of the Party, Superintelligence).
Even in the current oversaturated market of superhero franchises and endless expanded universes, there’s a gap in the narrative for something fizzier, free of the entanglements of a 25+ film saga. Thunder Force isn’t reinventing the formula. You could set your watch to its plot and character beats. Nonetheless, its low-stakes approach and objectives succeed. As a family-friendly action-comedy, it will satisfy its target demographic, although its action is decidedly lower grade than what young ‘uns have come to expect from the genre.
The basic set-up is a fascinating one (of course introduced via comic-book panels). Certain humans gained incredible superpowers, but only those who were predisposed to sociopathy. These “Miscreants” all giddily become maniacal villains with ridiculous names and a love of blowing sh*t up for their own gain and entertainment. It’s a shame the film doesn’t dive deeper into this concept because it could have been a refreshing subversion of the trite two-dimensional morality that the superhero genre lazily relies on. Instead, it’s just a starting point for some solid riffing. It’s not bad, but as with so many McCarthy-Falcone movies, the potential is often more intriguing than the end results.
McCarthy is one of the great profane figures of modern American comedy. She makes creative cursing sound like Shakespearean sonnets when she’s allowed to word-vomit to her heart’s content. That’s obviously not going to happen in a PG-13 movie. Still, she gets to be satisfyingly weird and messy. Some of the riffs are overlong and could use a strong editorial hand, but this doesn’t verge into full Judd Apatow areas of self-indulgence. The fun comes mostly from McCarthy and Octavia Spencer’s chemistry and their nervous giddiness over using their powers. (Yes, there is a training montage because I’m pretty sure it’s legally required by the Hollywood handbook.) Plus, it’s just nice to see two 40-something women kicking butt and having a blast with it. Both women look awesome while doing it. How often do we get to see female friendships like this play out on the big screen?
It helps that the pair are supported by a strong ensemble. Melissa Leo is a surprise gem as a ball-busting colleague of Emily’s whose zero tolerance for bullsh*t. Taylor Mosby is earnestly sweet as Emily’s daughter Tracy. Pom Klementieff is the psychotic Laser, whose only hobby seems to be violently killing people. Bobby Cannavale is clearly having the time of his life playing The King, a billionaire Mayoral candidate with super-thin skin and no ability to hide his evilness. The stand-out moments for me were centered on Jason Bateman as The Crab, a Miscreant henchman with crab hands who flirts up a storm with Lydia. These moments are when the film gets to be truly odd and I laughed out loud the most whenever their hysterical yet oddly tender romance played out (Old Bay and butter is involved.)
Despite its flaws, Thunder Force is perfectly pleasant and made me laugh enough that it didn’t feel like a drain on my morning. It’s not the gold standard of Melissa McCarthy but frankly, if this is the kind of films she wants to make with Falcone, I’ll take this over a hundred Tammy knockoffs. I respect that McCarthy gets to make what she wants. She’s comfortable with Falcone and these more family-friendly efforts, even if it isn’t her prime work. This is at least a great improvement over Superintelligence.
Thunder Force premieres on Netflix on April 9.
Header Image Source: Netflix