Given the option of choosing a Melissa McCarthy-led drama or comedy, the former is near-guaranteed to be stellar while the latter can be hit/miss. She’s a fantastic actor and one whose willingness to embrace physical comedy is something akin to Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett, Penny Marshall, and Cindy Williams. There’s a fearlessness, a willingness to do or try anything, that makes her comedy a draw, even if the results aren’t universal in their appeal. Her latest project teams her up with longtime friend Octavia Spencer (The Shape of Water) in a story from writer/director/actor and frequent collaborator Ben Falcone (Life of the Party) that sees the duo becoming middle-aged superheroes amid a supporting cast including Jason Bateman (Game Night), Melissa Leo (The Fighter), Bobby Cannavale (The Irishman), Pom Klementieff (Avengers: Infinity War), and others. With so much talent packed into one action-comedy amid a bizarre premise, Falcone’s Thunder Force harkens back to the superhero stories of the Eighties and Nineties which were less world-building, universe-sharing franchise-starters and just full-on bizarre one-shot stories where anything goes. So throw on your favorite concert-original bought-in-stadium tee, turn the volume to whatever is good for your ears, and get ready to throw down with Thunder Force.
In 1983, a blast of interstellar cosmic rays coated Earth, mutating a fraction of the population into having metahuman abilities. For some reason, though, those suffering from mutation were also predisposed to being criminally insane. These newly-minted supervillains became known as “Miscreants,” and they became the top priority for geneticists around the world to come up with a plan to offer regular people a fighting chance against the rising tide of villainy. Enter Emily Stanton (Spencer), a brilliant geneticist and businesswoman who has spent her life trying to restore balance via her parents’ work. Everything with her work seems right on target until her estranged best friend, Lydia Berman (McCarthy), comes to visit at Emily’s new Chicago location and accidentally injects herself with an untested super strength serum. With no other way but forward, these former best friends train together, developing their individual powers so that they can try to rid Chicago of the dreaded Miscreant known as Laser (Klementieff). What they don’t realize is that Laser is just the tip of a very long, very deep spear.
The premise of Thunder Force is, well, a lot, but it never comes across as too much in the execution. Taking a stylistic page from comics, the audience gets a quick explanation of this new world, before offering a brief introduction to the young versions of Emily and Lydia, before jumping in time to, what we presume, is present-day Chicago. The trick with Thunder Force is not to think too hard about anything and this is, trust me, not an insult. One might presume that some 38 years after the cosmic ray transformation that either the U.S. government or a global government would have hatched some kind of special unit with a leader a la DC Comics’s Amanda Waller (Suicide Squad) or Marvel’s Nick Fury (Marvel’s The Avengers) to combat these metahumans, except that doesn’t appear to be the case. In this world, the citizens just accept that their lives could be upended or just be straight-up ended by a supervillain the same way the citizens within the mangas One-Punch Man or My Hero Academia just accept it. They’re not happy about it any more than the global populace of Legendary Pictures’s Monsterverse (Godzilla vs. Kong), there just appears to be little to do with it. In this way, Falcone’s Thunder Force shares more in common with the films of the Atomic Age like Them! (1954), It Came From Outer Space (1953), or, in a more recent example, The Vast of Night (2020), though the execution of the narrative has a flavor of action-comedies Blankman (1994) or The Meteor Man (1993). The rules of the film dictate that a thing happened and, from then forward, we just accept it and move on. It’s part of the ridiculous nature of the premise and, without it, the film can’t exist in its current state. The only thing that breaks any of the pre-established rules is that neither Emily nor Lydia wear any kind of mask to hide their identity. For what it’s worth, though, Emily does a better job of financing their exploits than the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Though the action sequences aren’t anything that will blow people’s minds, there’s a cleverness about the approach that makes each one enjoyable in a different way. To help set the tone early, Lydia gets close-up with Laser who’s shooting bolts of electricity as she tries to outrun the cops. Lydia’s reaction to seeing a busted statue by a church? “Who destroys an angel?” It’s a simple stunt/VFX sequence but it does a lot to establish just how used to supervillains society has become and Lydia’s pre-existing mindset to them. In their first outing as superhero duo Thunder Force, teased in the trailer, Emily is outfitted with a taser that she struggles to control against one of The Crab’s (Jason Bateman) minion’s, played by Falcone. The interaction is a simple stunt compared to what McCarthy gets up to and is smartly designed to play up the fact that neither of the two women know what they’re doing. As amusing as it is that McCarthy’s Lydia gets to just body slam the bad guys, the little details in this sequence are what linger. Like the fact that The Crab exits the scene sideways, clicking his claws as he goes. It’s a silly moment that would play well with a live theatrical audience. So much of Thunder Force is like this, funny and memorable for what happens around Emily and Lydia, especially in the early portions of the film until the two find their footing as heroes. The film doesn’t lean too hard on the ridiculous to create moments of levity, which is, perhaps, its saving grace. It would be easier to just aim for repetitive low-brow comedy, but Falcone resists the urge enough for the hilarity to just happen via the outlandishness of the situation. It’s for this reason that the final showdown in the film feels more Meteor Man rather than Endgame and it *works*.
Credit where credit is due, Thunder Force is allowed to get away with having fairly one-note villains in Klementieff and Cannavale, especially because they’re both so good as metaphorical mustache-twirling, but it’s the story of friendship and trust that makes the journey worth it. Spencer and McCarthy have, it seems, known each other for 20 years and that level of familiarity shows in their scenes, grounding the hyperreal circumstances. Playing Emily’s daughter Tracy is Taylor Mosby, a bit of a scene-stealer, whose excellent line delivery redirects the attention from both Spencer and McCarthy and does so without diminishing the established actors at all. In fact, Mosby serves as a wonderful bridge between Spencer/McCarthy’s generation and her own, highlighting that heroes come in different ages and backgrounds. Each actor (Spencer, McCarthy, and Mosby) presents flaws in their character which are made better by that character’s relationship to others. That is, in many ways, more valuable than seeing someone in a suit beat people up.
When it comes to these Falcone productions, I find myself in a bit of a conundrum. On the one hand, even the most populist crowd-pleasers are not immune from scrutiny and, on the other, he’s found himself in the enviable position of working with his friends. Who wouldn’t love that? He creates the stories he finds fascinating or would like to see, manages to get those he appreciates to work alongside him, often providing opportunities for each of them to just have fun. Movies don’t need to be serious or dower all the time and the fact that there’s even a question as whether something can be “good” while also “ineffectual” is, frankly, aggravating. There’s something freeing about Thunder Force in how it embraces its lunacy and just goes with it. Sometimes a carnival ride is what you need and Thunder Force, even at its most predictable, offers no more or less than it advertises.
Available for streaming on Netflix beginning April 9th, 2021.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.