Imagine a world much like our own, but with one key difference: nearly 40 years ago, after an interplanetary blast of cosmic rays, some people were gifted with superpowers. There’s just one nefarious twist: the only people who gained these powers were likely to be sociopaths. So, in essence, what if, 40 years ago, supervillains were created but without an opposing force of good to stop them? How would these cruel villains run rampant over the societies of the world? What nasty plans would they have for the rest of us, who would be hopeless to fight back? What dystopic horrors would be enacted upon us all?
These are among the very reasonable questions raised and promptly, bafflingly ignored by the new Netflix action comedy Thunder Force, whose very basic premise is a lot more interesting than its filmmakers are willing to explore. Aside from that setup, the real premise is “What if Melissa McCarthy got superpowers?” That must have been the elevator pitch for McCarthy and her husband/frequent collaborator, Ben Falcone (who wrote and directed Thunder Force). That setup is all well and good, but this whole film feels like an elevator pitch: tossed off without any detailed thought. It’s true that this is, compared to Falcone’s other directorial efforts, pretty much the cream of the crop. But that doesn’t make Thunder Force any good.
McCarthy plays Lydia, who we first meet as a child, befriending and defending her incredibly smart classmate Emily from a pack of bullies. Though the two become best buds, their inherent differences – Lydia is goodhearted but not very smart, and Emily is a whiz-kid-in-training – separate them over time. In the present, Lydia is a blue-collar worker and Emily (Octavia Spencer) is a pioneering scientist who has made a breakthrough: she’s figured out a formula to imbue a regular human with superpowers. Emily, driven by the loss of her parents at the hands of a villain back in the 1980s, wants to balance the scales and bring justice back. But after a mishap (thanks to Lydia touching expensive machinery she says aloud that she shouldn’t touch), Emily’s formula is tested by her estranged friend, who gains super-strength, while the scientist gains the power of invisibility.
A large chunk of Thunder Force is dedicated to Lydia and Emily testing out their new powers as they also mend their friendship, but there’s surprisingly little afforded to the threat of the bad guys, known as Miscreants. Once we learn about the Miscreants themselves…well, there’s surprisingly little to learn. Miscreants appear to be localized to Chicago, there appear to be just three of them, and one (Jason Bateman) only became a Miscreant after an inadvertent run-in with a radioactive crab gave him massive crab pincers in place of his arms and hands. (Because…sure.) The notion that only sociopaths would be given superpowers is dark and complex, and something this movie has no interest in exploring once it’s brought up in a very brief opening styled like a comic book, a visual flourish that isn’t revived until the end credits.
McCarthy and Spencer have a decent enough chemistry, even though they’re both such fiercely intelligent performers that the basic shtick of a schlub and a nerd paired together seems radically below their talents. (Lydia’s constant negging of Emily is especially lazy, no more so than in an extended bit where Lydia is confused that no one seems to know who Steve Urkel. This inspires her to do an impression of the character, which manages to be as unfunny as Steve Urkel himself was.) Bateman at least has more fun (unlike when he co-starred with McCarthy in the execrable Identity Thief). As ridiculous as it is that his character has crab pincers for arms (even in a world with supervillains, everyone is unfazed by this), Bateman’s probably the best part of Thunder Force. The other baddies, played by Bobby Cannavale and Pom Klementieff, are mostly just standard-issue villains whose powers are vastly more generic.
At one point in Thunder Force, there’s a shot of a police truck reading “Chicago Police Miscreant Task Force.” That would seem logical enough, right? If there are supervillains roaming the streets of a major metropolitan city, the police would have to fight against that threat. What would it be like to fight supervillainy when you’re not superpowered yourself? How would Chicago – or any city, really – stand up to the onslaught for 40 years? Do the cops have special technology to fend off these attackers? The questions could go on and on, but Thunder Force isn’t remotely interested in the details of a comic-book world (in spite of a special thank-you in the end credits to Falcone’s family for encouraging his “comic-book addiction”).
This is the fifth film Ben Falcone has directed and written or co-written starring his wife. Compared to films like Tammy and Superintelligence, Thunder Force is a cut above, if only because its comic focus is clear, even as its world-building is a stumble from the start. (And unlike Superintelligence, also co-starring Cannavale, this movie doesn’t serve as a weird feature-length ad for a talk-show host.) But Thunder Force has too good of a core idea to be left so unexplored. Melissa McCarty can’t be stopped, but she continues to be content making films that leave her talent frustratingly untapped.
/Film Rating: 4 out of 10
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Josh Spiegel is a Phoenix-based critic & writer. He’s one of the hosts of Mousterpiece Cinema, a podcast about Disney films. He’s also written a book of criticism on Pixar, titled Yesterday is Forever: Nostalgia and Pixar Animation Studios.