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Here we go again! Thunder Force, the latest collaboration between star Melissa McCarthy and director Ben Falcone, comes just months after their last effort, Superintelligence, fouled up unsuspecting HBO Max accounts last year (proving that 2020 was worse than you thought). As a Hollywood power couple they’ve produced some of the worst, most forgettable “comedies” of the past decade – which apparently are successful because they keep making more. That’s fine, let capitalism do its thing.
Thunder Force reunites most of the cast from Superintelligence, only here the setup is superheroes. The plot: in 1983 a massive pulse of interstellar rays struck Earth, changing the DNA of and giving select humans superpowers. And by select I mean only those genetically predisposed to be sociopaths. Basically, superhuman baddies called Miscreants.
A grown Emily Stanton (Octavia Spencer) narrates her origin story: after both her parents – coincidentally geneticists working on ways to turn regular people into superheroes – were killed by Miscreants she goes to live with grandma and transfers to a new school, where her extreme smarts make her the target of the world’s worst supervillains – school bullies.
A gifted student, young Emily (played by Bria Danielle and Tai Leshaun, who look NOTHING like the older Spencer) is defended – and BFF’d – by a young Lydia Berman (played by McCarthy and Falcone’s daughter Vivian Falcone and Mia Kaplan, both looking EXACTLY like the older McCarthy), forming a close friendship that eventually frays when Lydia fails to wake up Emily for an critical test that will, somehow, allow her finish what her parents started and give regular people the power to fight the Miscreants. Sure, why not.
Years later, a grown Lydia (Melissa McCarthy) is still the same inattentive slob she was back in school, grinding her way through life in a cramped apartment and wise-cracking to characters offscreen. Emily (Spencer), meanwhile, has been wildly successful, blossoming into a Tony Stark-like genius and rich beyond her dreams. She’s also become the geneticist she dreamed of becoming, allowing her to finish her parents unfinished work turning regular people into superheroes. I only keep saying it because the film won’t stop saying it.
In an effort to reconcile their long-lost friendship Lydia invites Emily to their high school reunion, only to muck things up further when she toys with a mysterious machine that – surprise! – needles superhero juice into her body, giving her super strength and impervious skin. But the machine only administered half the dosage – the complete procedure was supposed to give the power of invisibility, which Emily decides to take herself.
Cue an overlong training montage where the two learn to use their powers (mostly Lydia) they’ll use to fight the evil Miscreants and save the city – with the help of Emily’s equally-talented teenage daughter, Tracy (Taylor Mosby).
It’s no spoiler to say the city’s Mayor, The King (Bobby Cannavale), is up to no good, using the Miscreants to create enough public chaos so he can swoop in as its defender. Surely, there are easier ways to steal an election? Among his crew are two Miscreants: The Crab (Jason Bateman) and Laser (Pom Klementieff), though we never really see them do anything worse than robbing liquor stores like common thugs.
The film could have had fun showcasing a rogues gallery of different baddies, but we’re limited to just these two (plus a surprise Miscreant who really isn’t that much of a surprise), augmented with cheap prosthetics and even cheaper CG effects. Maybe it’s better this way.
I can’t help but feel the movie’s real gimmick isn’t the superhero stuff, but watching two middle-aged overweight women do things they shouldn’t be doing, like super jumps, flips, and pounding baddies via the power of subpar CG effects and bad wirework. While I detest shoddy effects, they’re tolerable as long as the jokes are funny…but they’re not. They’re terrible. There was stuff here that might’ve been fun, but that the movie thinks you’re too stupid for any of the fun stuff to be smart or clever, because none of it is.
Take the bit about McCarthy and Spencer trying to fit into their sleek purple Lamborghini. The joke? The two heroes are too, *ahem*, big to easily get in and out of the car. But a wide-shot of them “struggling” to get out shows the door is more than big enough, meaning the film has to add squeaky struggle sound effects to make you disbelieve your own eyes.
The bad effects show up again when visualizing Emily’s invisible powers – most times just giving her a transparent sheen so we (the audience) don’t get confused and wonder where she went off to. Maybe they should have given her a different, more cinematically relevant superpower so they wouldn’t have to use effects to cheat? It wouldn’t have changed the plot as her character’s power never really amounts to anything.
At least the villains hold up better, as they should. Jason Bateman is fine as The Crab, a man bitten (on the genitals, as we’re told multiple times) and turned into a half man/crab, with giant pincers replacing his arms and hands. I’d say he’s also slumming here, but given his own suspect resume I’m not sure he can tell the difference between chalk and cheese anymore.
Bobby Cannavale gives the best performance as The King, a baddie so insecure he can’t stop killing his own men. I also liked the look of Pom Klementieff’s (Guardians of the Galaxy) Laser, which reminded me of a nicer version of Kate Nauta’s Eurotrash baddie from Transporter 2 (you know who I’m talking about), even if all she does is copy Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch’s silly hadoken hands.
This is the part where I’m obliged to say that McCarthy is capable of so much more. We know this because we’ve seen better versions of her in better movies. But man, it’s hard when she keeps making crap like this. Isn’t there anyone on set brave enough to tell her when the monologues and riffing go on too long? That they’re painfully, excruciatingly unfunny? The movie is also, bizarrely, slightly homophobic with its multiple (!) gay panic “jokes”… I thought we were done with this type of stuff by now?
I’ll say this about their movies, though; they’ve got a slick factory-style way of churning them out. It’s fair to compare their output to Adam Sandler’s similarly produced Netflix efforts, minimal effort crap designed for a specific audience who isn’t picky or motivated enough to change the channel (or streaming service).
But as these things are produced, written, starring and directed by McCarthy and Falcone there really isn’t anyone else to blame. It’s like they learned all the wrong lessons from pretty much all their recent bombs, especially 2016’s Ghostbusters (which wasn’t directed by Falcone but it’s so demonstrably bad it set a new low bar for obnoxious ad-libbing). I’ll say this about their movies, though; they’ve got a slick factory-style way of churning them out.
It’s even fair to compare their output to Adam Sandler’s similarly produced Netflix efforts, minimal effort crap designed for a specific audience who isn’t picky or motivated enough to change the channel (or streaming service).
And that may be the biggest takeaway from Thunder Force, that anyone can be a superhero – at least in the movies. The Incredibles’ Syndrome (via Jason Lee) monologued it perfectly: when everyone’s super, no one will be. There’s no love of the genre or its massive potential for comedy here, just drek. The 2000s reboot of Charlie’s Angels (a far better movie than Thunder Force) correctly predicted that budget CG and bad wires can let anyone who wanted to be a superhero play the part with minimal effort – and minimal reward.