Love or hate her brand of comedy, there’s no denying Melissa McCarthy is one of the most energetic, fearless actresses working today. The same goes for Octavia Spencer, an Oscar winner who can just as easily, and skillfully, jump between playing a serial killer or a rocket scientist. Put them together in a superhero comedy — Netflix’s Thunder Force — and you’d expect these two incredible women to knock it out of the park.
Well, someone did. They do not. But it’s not necessarily their fault.
McCarthy and Spencer star in the Thunder Force — written and directed by Ben Falcone — which is now streaming on Netflix. It follows two long-time friends, Lydia (McCarthy) and Emily (Spencer) who could not be more different. Lydia is a slacker who wears rock t-shirts. Emily is a smart overachiever who lost her parents to a group of people called Miscreants. You see, in this world, super-powered beings exist, but the mutation only happens to bad people, and Emily dedicates her life to figuring out a way to give good people superpowers to battle them.
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Her ambition versus Lydia’s laziness drives a wedge in their friendship for several decades. Fast forward to the present and Lydia is a blue-collar worker while Emily owns a multibillion-dollar corporation. A series of events reunites the friends and Lydia, quite mistakenly, is injected with the serum Emily has been working on her whole life. The serum makes her super strong and after Emily takes the treatment and gains invisibility, the two team up to become Thunder Force, the world’s first actual superhero team to fight the Miscreants.
When you talk specifically about the mythology and setup, it sounds rather promising. The evolving relationship between Emily and Lydia is familiar, but sincere and relatable. The idea of super-beings only being bad is, again, familiar but intriguing. And having two middle-aged women as the first beings with the power to stop the Miscreants is not just ripe for exploration and humour, it’s downright badass. Unfortunately, Thunder Force does almost nothing with any of that. The film is basically a flat line. A sputtering heartbeat of an idea that tries to bounce to life only to die and stay dead for most of its runtime.
Falcone’s direction is dry and uninteresting; action scenes lack any energy or flair, scenes play out in silence for what seems like forever (mostly to highlight extended jokes), and when the jokes don’t work, which they often don’t, the scenes get more and more uncomfortable. (One word: Nell.) You feel like you’re watching live theatre in complete silence where the actors have forgotten their lines and just start to riff. McCarthy is attempting to fire on all cylinders as she’s known to do but everything else in the movie, including Spencer, gives her nothing. She’s like a shiny object in a pile of mud. She’s there. She’s sparkling. She’s trying to be special. But eventually, she’s covered up and disappears.
The film takes almost half its runtime to set up everything we’ve discussed above. Which makes sense — there’s a lot to cover — but in that drawn-out time, we only meet the characters who’ll eventually become the main villains a handful of times, making their emergence in the second half seem almost superfluous. There’s the King (Bobby Cannavale), as well as Laser (Pom Klementieff) and the Crab (Jason Bateman). All of whom, obviously, are incredible actors given seemingly exciting, unique roles. But the King in particular has so little characterisation, and so little screen time to play with it, he never feels like the credible threat he’s supposed to be. Bateman’s Crab has a little more to do but his story goes in an unexpected direction that’s meant to balance some of the film’s more serious aspects, and largely misses the mark. Only Klementieff’s Laser ever invokes the type of fear villains are supposed to, but after she does the same thing three or four times, that dissipates as well.
Even the few twists and turns along the way are 100% predictable before they’re revealed. (Case in point, the King being the lead Miscreant is played as a reveal but it’s so obvious and revealed with such carelessness, I didn’t even mark is as a spoiler. The others I won’t discuss but…you’ll guess them. Trust me.) So you’ve got lifeless direction, actors with little to work with, no sense of urgency or emotion in the story, and a few weird tangents that don’t add much. The best pieces of the movie centre on Emily’s daughter Tracy (Taylor Mosby) whose strained relationship with her mother, and a burgeoning friendship with Lydia, lead to some nice moments throughout. But they’re not nearly enough to give the film the heart it so desperately lacks.
Now, you may be wondering, “Is it funny at least?” And answer is “kind of.” As I already stated, the majority of Thunder Force’s jokes fall flat. A few are genuinely hilarious, but it must have been very obvious to everyone what worked and what didn’t. That’s because the best jokes, like one involving raw chicken, get repeated and run into the ground. At every turn, it’s as if Falcone is determined to ruin anything good his film has to offer, either by overplaying it, underplaying it, forgetting about it, or milking it for more than its worth.
Everyone involved with Thunder Force deserved better. The idea is solid. The cast is amazing. But none of it comes together in any kind of satisfying way. By the end, I just felt bad for everyone involved that their talents went to such waste in a dead fish of a movie.
Thunder Force is currently on Netflix. If you dare.