Thunder Force

2021 | PG-13 | starring Melissa McCarthy, Octavia Spencer, Bobby Cannavale, Jason Bateman, Pom Klementieff, Melissa Leo | written & directed by Ben Falcone | 1 hr 46 mins |

In the late 80s a meteor fell from the sky that blessed people with superpowers, however it only activates in those with a genetic predisposition to psychopathy creating a world ruled by fear of these new supervillains, dubbed “Miscreants”. After her parents are killed Emily Stanton (Octavia Spencer) vows to stop them, growing up to build a massive corporate lab that invents a formula to give these super powers to average people. Enter Lydia Berman (Melissa McCarthy), her childhood best friend who stumbles into the lab and accidently takes a dose of super strength. With a villain named Laser (Pom Klementieff) terrorizing the city, the duo take their powers to the streets as the “Thunder Force” to stop super villains. My God.

Seemingly conceived by Brad Falcone as a troll to internet superhero fans and put together by the most cynical of studio automats, Thunder Force is the most baffling, incoherent, aggressively unfunny and unpleasant studio comedy in quite some time. A work of obnoxiousness only Melissa McCarthy could scream, wince and cringe her way through. It’s full of scene-dragging improv, terrible jokes, lazy action and violence that kills any sense that this is all just supposed to be a fun time. There is an art to balancing this stuff. Falcone just runs around with a bat beating on everything until it makes a noise. Thunder Force is absolute torture and a textbook example of everything wrong with mainstream studio comedies today.

Before we get more into the plot, let’s pull back the layers of the comedy. When people complain that movies today are too irony soaked, snarky and not genuine, Thunder Force is a prime example of that. It isn’t a satire of anything and yet it evokes all of the winking and forth-wall breaking of every comedy (and Marvel movie) now. When a character is revealed as a villain, that gets checked by name in the dialog. When the story resembles another movie, that movie will get name-checked. When something absurd happens, the movie can’t just let it play out, it’s going to comment on it. If it threatens to take it’s fantastical premise seriously for a second, it pulls back and has the characters sing a song to show us, hey, they’re just regular people like us too. All this was clever a decade ago when Marvel was turning real characters into superheroes and still giving them normal human concerns (like picking up shawarma after an intergalactic battle). Now, it comes off calculated and snarky.

So how are the other jokes. Well let’s look at some of the rollicking, running gags Thunder Force has up it’s sleeve:

  • Our villain, “The King” (Bobby Cannavale), doesn’t like it when he is just called “King”.
  • One of The King’s henchmen, Andrew, can’t decide if he wants to be called Andy or Andrew
  • The King keeps accidently killing his henchmen
  • Lydia hates some guy “in accounting”
  • Emily doesn’t understand any of Lydia’s pop culture references
  • The super suits that Lydia and Emily have to wear smell bad

How Jason Bateman got mixed up in this is a question. He’s in here as a street thug named “The Claw” and given prop-comedy lobster hands for his genetic mutation. Naturally, they go to a seafood restaurant so he can be offended when the waiter recommends the lobster. It took a heroic amount of restraint on my part not to turn off Thunder Force at a point when McCarthy meets Emily’s daughter (Taylor Mosby), calls her a nerd and launches into an endless impression of Steve Urkel before calling Emily’s other co-worker (Melissa Leo) Jodie Foster – but not from Nell. This cringing crap goes on and on.

The story makes no sense from minute to minute. Bad movies have characters that do things only at the service of the plot. Thunder Force seems to go a step further. It’s characters only do things at the service of a cliche. It’s like Falcone threw the most tired tropes he could think of on a board and said “We need to get here!” The politician and the villian have to work together. One of Emily’s co-workers has to betray her. Emily and Lydia have to have some falling out break-up-to-make-up in the 2nd act. Why does any of this happen? Because that’s the cliche and this movie dashes over every bit of sense or set-up to slavishly serve these cliches. A third act bit involving Emily’s daughter is both a tired trope and not set up at all.

A few examples. It’s often mentioned that Lydia and Emily are best friends – we see them in childhood – but are now estranged. Why? What happened? How does this figure into the story? Why does genius scientist Emily build a skyscraper of a research lab only to have Lydia wander into the lab and take seemingly the only dose of super strength? Is Emily’s plan really to invent this superpower formula and then selfishly take it all herself instead of building an army of highly trained super-soldiers to take out the super-villains at her command? If Emily is a nerd that doesn’t seem to understand pop culture why does she want to be a tight-wearing superhero? These aren’t nit-picks, this is the foundation this house of cards sits on.

This is one of those movies that reaches further than it can grasp, or it’s ambitions try to build a world it’s comedy budget can’t realize. The world is full of supervillains – we see Laser and a guy with lobster hands. The villains are terrorizing people and there isn’t a police force around that has evolved to match them. Lydia is given immense strength and she uses it to throw a bus out of frame and push a dumpster across a driveway. The movie’s scope is too small for it’s story. Heck, a third of it is a training montage.

If one were making a movie about average people with superpowers, Thunder Force would be more akin to the Joseph Gordon-Levitt Netflix venture Project Power, if it were about regular people struggling through comic book scenarios it would be Kick-Ass. Ostensibly a movie about regular people with super-powers would include a few scenes of them comically dealing with those powers with wacky or disastrous results. That would be the whole point of pursuing the concept. Here Lydia and Emily are rigorously trained so that no a adaptation in the ordinary world is necessary. At one point McCarthy throws a bus too far and that’s about as far as Falcone thinks to take the concept.

We know exactly how this was supposed to go. Falcone was betting that a movie with unconventional female superheroes would raise the ire of online s-lords, then cause critics to rally against them and for the movie and signal boost it to the box office on free publicity. He was betting on pulling a Paul Feig. Instead, it landed on Netflix where everyone sees the film at the same time and all those bad jokes and convoluted plot holes stand out like a sore thumb. The scam was up. Thunder Force is a superhero movie that hates superhero movies, a cynical product that planned to knock out something to bleed suckers of their cash, then take the money and run.

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