Gotta say, this one looks interesting. Here we’ve got a superhero comedy starring Octavia Spencer and Melissa McCarthy. Both wonderful comedic talents who’ve also proven their dramatic chops in recent memory, yet they’re certainly unorthodox choices for a superhero film. Certainly not a bad place for a superhero film to start from.
(Side note: No, it hasn’t escaped my attention that McCarthy has a speaking cameo role in the upcoming Thor: Love and Thunder. If you don’t know who she’s playing in that particular movie, no way am I spoiling that joke here.)
Also, Thunder Force comes to us from writer/director Ben Falcone, McCarthy’s longtime husband and creative/business partner. This after Falcone and McCarthy previously collaborated on… um, Life of the Party, and, uh… The Boss… and Tammy… and Falcone was a producer on The Happytime Murders…
Oh, sweet mother of pearl, this one’s going to suck, isn’t it?
Our stage is set in an alternate timeline, in which the world was bombarded by cosmic rays back in 1983. The radiation mutated a select few individuals, giving them superpowers. The kicker: The superpower mutation only happened in those who were genetically predisposed to be sociopaths.
So we’ve got a superhero story set in a world where only supervillains — or “Miscreants”, as they’re called in-universe — have superpowers. Which means that scientists around the world are searching for a way to catch up and manufacture some superheroes. I must admit, that’s not a bad premise to start from.
Our two lead characters are Lydia and Emily — the two are played by different actors at various ages through the prologue, but it’s respectively Spencer and McCarthy playing them as adults. Lydia’s parents were geneticists at the top of their field before they were killed off by Miscreants, so Lydia moved in to live with her grandmother (played by Marcella Lowery). Quickly after moving into a new school, Lydia establishes herself as a bright and ambitious young student, which also means she’s a bully target. Then Emily comes into the picture and the two become fast friends.
Trouble is, Lydia is a studious bookworm driven to excellence because she wants to carry on her parents’ legacy and pick up where they left off in the search for an answer to the Miscreants. Emily, on the other hand, is a delinquent who wants Lydia to have fun whether she likes it or not. By their teenage years, the two of them have fallen out. By their adult years, Emily is a forklift driver while Lydia has achieved her dream of being a billionaire scientist with a prototype superpower formula.
And just when it seems like the movie has gotten distracted by all the interpersonal goings-on, we get a solid introduction to Laser (a Miscreant played by Pom Klementieff), as our superpowered antagonist. Ten minutes in, and I’m not really seeing anything wrong with this movie.
But then Kevin Dunn appears out of nowhere to give a long, rambling, unfunny monologue about skipping stones and literally nobody else is even pretending that this is even the least bit amusing or relevant. Quickly afterwards, we get another “comedic” bit part played by Brendan Jennings, and the character’s whole identity is that he’s a horny desperate loser who botches every joke he tries to tell.
Hey, Steve, can you take this for me? Thanks.
In the past, I’ve stated that I prefer a joke that’s like a heat-seeking missile: A precisely targeted strike that finds the funny and blows it up with one devastating hit. As opposed to the likes of Paul Feig or Judd Apatow, who specialize in “machine gun humor”: Spray a million jokes in every possible direction all at once and hope that something hits the target.
But with Ben Falcone, I think we might be looking at something even weaker and lamer. Like it’s not enough for the characters to spew random non-sequiturs for minutes at a time in the vain hope that the audience will find it amusing or at least endearing. No, Falcone has to go that extra step and make the characters hopelessly pathetic and insecure, with the vain hope that we’ll find it hilarious how pathetic they are. I don’t want to laugh at that, and I sure as hell don’t want to relate with that — either way, I’d only end up feeling bad about myself. It’s unfunny, it’s vindictive, it’s totally useless, and it’s painful to sit through.
What might be worst of all, there are umpteen times in this movie when the characters go on some interminable monologue to explain their own joke. I can’t believe I even have to say this, but if you have to explain the joke, IT ISN’T FUNNY. How in all the nine blue blazing hells did anyone ever make it as a mainstream comedy filmmaker without understanding such a basic and universally known tenet of comedy?!
And anyway, wasn’t this supposed to be a superhero comedy? Why the hell am I watching Melissa McCarthy rant about Urkel — yes, freaking Urkel, of all people — for five straight minutes, complete with multiple repetitions of “Did I do that? Did I do that? Did I do that?” and for the love of God, the Devil, and Robin Williams’ ghost MAKE IT FUCKING STOP!!!
We do eventually get to the point where Emily drops in to catch up with Lydia, and a lab accident (entirely of Emily’s own doing) injects Em with a formula for invulnerability and super-strength. The catch is that Em has to keep up regular treatments or she’ll die a horrible fiery death. Thus she has to take a series of regular injections during a month of rigorous physical training (read: pratfalls and physical comedy) for her powers to manifest.
Lydia, meanwhile, gets invisibility after swallowing a few pills. I think that disparity is supposed to be funny, but I know I’m not laughing.
So who else do we have wasting their talents on this? Well, Melissa Leo is on hand to play the team’s ex-CIA handler, alongside Taylor Mosby as the team’s resident tech expert. I might also add that Mosby’s character is the prodigy daughter to single mother Lydia, so her coming of age forces Emily and Lydia to confront their own childhood issues. It’s far more poignant than the film deserves, and the angle isn’t given anywhere near the time or attention it deserves. Still, when the comedy in this movie is so aggressively painful, I deeply appreciated the presence of two capable “straight men” like Leo and Mosby.
Elsewhere, we have Jason Bateman slumming it as a street-level Miscreant called “The Crab”. The role is far beneath his talent, though he does get a random dance number that is never explained, comes right the fuck outta nowhere, and has absolutely nothing to do with the plot. Yes, gentle readers, this movie has what is indisputably a textbook example of a Big-Lipped Alligator Moment.
Bobby Canavale plays the mayor, locally nicknamed “The King”, and you get no points for guessing that he’s ultimately the Big Bad. I honestly wish the film had stuck with Pom Klementieff as the main villain — at least she’s having fun playing a homicidal psychopath, and she’s got that other-worldly sort of vibe that really makes her character pop.
(Side note: Don’t you hate these action movies and superhero films where the sub-boss is more interesting than the Big Bad?)
I might also add that the action scenes are pathetic across the board, the VFX are unremarkable, and the costumes suck. I know it’s hard to design superhero costumes that look plausible while registering as a parody (Honestly, I’d say that Watchmen and possibly Mystery Men are the only films that really pulled the balance off.), but these costumes look so hopelessly generic. And hell if I know what’s up with that weird checkmark logo on the chest — of course it doesn’t have any reason or explanation, it’s only the most identifiable and symbolically important part of any superhero costume!!!
Then again, the film shows an appalling lack of anything to say about superheroes or superhero media. It’s freaking 2021. Superman made his debut back in 1938. The media landscape has only gotten more oversaturated with superhero TV and cinema for the past twenty years. There is absolutely no excuse for such appalling ignorance toward the genre and what makes it tick, especially for a cast and crew trying to make a goddamn superhero comedy.
What really sucks about all this is that Thunder Force should have worked. Any halfway competent filmmaker should’ve been able to take this premise with this cast and make it into something halfway entertaining. Alas, the film turned out to be aggressively unfunny and hopelessly brainless. It’s 100 minutes of unrelenting punishment without a single laugh, a deplorable waste of all the talent involved. It’s a superhero comedy that offers neither comedy nor much of anything to bring to the crowded superhero market. It was nothing short of tragic to watch Ben Falcone nuke whatever potential this film might have had until nothing salvageable remained, and there was no reason whatsoever to watch the film.
FUCK. THIS. MOVIE.