Thunder Force has Jason Bateman in the supporting role of a small-time baddie whose superpower is that he has crab pincers for hands. It’s a funny gag, and Bateman makes the most of it by not seeming to make much of it at all. His blasé attitude both grounds the film’s reality and heightens his absurdity: Though his showiest moment comes in an ’80s fantasy dance sequence, he wins the biggest laugh of the movie simply by crab-walking out of the frame.
Also pretty good are the costumes by Carol Ramsey, including the almost cartoonishly broad-shouldered suits on an oily politician known as The King (Bobby Cannavale), and the high-fashion-Hot-Topic looks served up by supervillain Laser (Pom Klementieff) with the runway-worthy entrances to match.
And, well, in terms of things Thunder Force has going for it, that’s about it.
Otherwise, it’s a slog from start to finish, a superhero comedy starring Melissa McCarthy and Octavia Spencer that does a disservice to every noun in that description. Sometimes, with unfunny comedies, one can at least take solace in the fact that the people who made it seem like they had fun. (Say what you will about Superintelligence, McCarthy’s last film with Thunder Force writer-director Ben Falcone, but at least she and Cannavale looked like they were enjoying each other’s company onscreen.) Most of the people involved in Thunder Force seem like they’re twiddling their thumbs until it’s time to clock out.
The unnecessarily convoluted story begins in 1983, when Earth is struck by cosmic rays that grant superpowers to individuals genetically predisposed toward sociopathy. This results in a world overrun by supervillains (or “Miscreants”), with no superheroes to stop them. You might assume this event would significantly alter the course of human history, giving rise to new research, new tech, new laws, and new cultural norms aimed at dealing with the Miscreant problem. But you’d be giving Thunder Force too much credit. In this movie’s telling, not much has changed at all, aside from a little extra property damage here and there.
The one person who does seem determined to do something is a little girl named Emily whose parents are killed by Miscreants. She grows up to be a genius scientist and tech entrepreneur (Spencer) and eventually perfects a formula for creating superheroes. One oopsie later, both Emily and her human wrecking ball of a buddy, Lydia (McCarthy), have been granted powers: invisibility for Emily, super-strength for Lydia. So the two team up to battle the Miscreants in their hometown of Chicago — and only Chicago, apparently, since Thunder Force can hardly be bothered to acknowledge that other places exist.
As ever, McCarthy seems game for whatever dumb shit the film has to throw at her, up to and including slurping down raw chicken breasts with grotesque abandon. (That they don’t look remotely like real raw chicken breasts makes the joke feel both less gross and more pointless.) But Lydia lacks the precise characterization that has defined McCarthy’s other roles, and instead comes out a warmed-over retread of her previous work. Imagine her character in The Heat with less anger and more eyeliner, and you’re like 80% there.
And that’s McCarthy getting the better end of the bargain. As her co-lead, Spencer is stuck playing the straight woman to McCarthy’s wild child, without enough chemistry between them to sell that dynamic as anything but thankless. Even her power seems chosen to let her fade into the background while Lydia gets to show off. The one notable attribute she gets is a catchphrase of sorts, which seems vaguely intended to empower women in STEM: “I’m not a nerd, I’m smart! There’s a difference!” O…kay? Is that really something a 40something tech billionaire is still harping on in 2021?
Almost nothing about this movie works, and it’s definitely for lack of trying.
But that’s the level Thunder Force is operating at throughout. Almost nothing about this movie works, and it’s definitely for lack of trying. Some twists come so out of the blue it feels like entire scenes are missing, while others become obvious an hour before they’re finally revealed. The action sequences plod along without any sense of style or momentum, seeming to stop only when they’ve gone on long enough to tick off the “action scene” box on the superhero-movie checklist. Meanwhile, large chunks of time are devoted to repeating jokes that weren’t that clever to begin with. Do you think it’s hilarious to say “thunder force” out loud in a deep voice? Well, Thunder Force does, and it’s going to spend five minutes trying to beat you into submission by doing it over and over.
Ostensibly, Thunder Force is about two heroes trying to save the world, and yet the movie demonstrates no curiosity whatsoever about either the world it’s created, or the real world it exists in now. It’s interested only in how any of it affects Lydia, and barely even that. At one point, Lydia throws a bus down a street, and Emily immediately scolds her for her impetuousness: “You could have hurt someone!” But it’s not clear how Emily would know that Lydia didn’t. Neither of them actually see the bus land, or go over to see if anyone was injured, and the camera doesn’t either.
And why would it? To think to do so would require Thunder Force to have a heart or a brain. It would mean the movie understanding there’s a whole world that doesn’t revolve around whatever wacky thing McCarthy is doing, and wanting to make an effort to see what else is out there. Thunder Force is too inept and apathetic to be truly wicked, in the way of one of its Miscreants. But it’s certainly not a journey worthy of a superhero.
Thunder Force is now streaming on Netflix.