Melissa McCarthy’s superhero movie Thunder Force doesn’t work hard enough
It’s not until I watched Thunder Force that I realized the full force (no pun intended) of what has happened to the comedic vehicle in American filmmaking. Once a major support beam of any studio’s output, the comedic vehicle (by which I mean a comedy designed to put forth a specific performer’s comedic persona, usually through the broad strokes of a relatively generic concept such as “X joins a basketball team” or “X must take care of a child that is not theirs” that can be immediately sussed out from a cursory glance at the poster) has practically ceased to exist. There has not been a newly minted comedic star since Melissa McCarthy’s breakout a decade ago in Bridesmaids. Even actors with a robust output such as Will Ferrell or Ben Stiller have more or less moved away from vehicles, taking various production roles, making buddy comedies or straight-up taking roles in things that are a million miles away from the type of comedy that made their careers.
That’s not to say that I necessarily miss the constant output of movies like Kicking and Screaming or Duplex or Evan Almighty, but I am starting to realize that they did serve a greater purpose. These generic comedic vehicles were kind of like how certain types of insects, as annoying as they might be at a barbecue, provide a form of competition or comparison. At the very least, they populate the landscape so that films from Adam Sandler or Melissa McCarthy (just about the only two comedic A-listers with a regular output) don’t feel like the only things that exist — and thus prevents them from resting on their laurels in such an ostentatious way.
Thunder Force is not markedly better or worse than any of McCarthy’s other vehicles. It has some funny jokes, as one would hope, and some laboriously unfunny and overbaked jokes, as one would expect. It’s both a movie that understands exactly what’s funny about McCarthy’s on-screen persona and one that tinkers with that formula indiscriminately, which is what happens with most of these. But what most struck me about Thunder Force was how little it seems to need to try — how much of it seems to rely on things that are already obvious from the elevator pitch of “Melissa McCarthy superhero comedy.”
In the world of Thunder Force, there exists a type of humanoid called a “Miscreant,” a type of mutant that essentially exists to commit crimes and get up to generic mischief. (It seems that if you mutate, regardless of context, you become a miscreant automatically, though some live covert lives — which is a pretty suspect inversion of the whole X-Men mythos.) Emily Stanton (Octavia Spencer) is an extremely rich and powerful scientist who has been working toward synthesizing the source of miscreants in order to better fight them. When she reconnects with her no-goodnik high school BFF Lydia (McCarthy), she doesn’t suspect that this chance meeting will alter the course of miscreant-fighting forever — but Lydia accidentally gets injected with the serum that was to give Emily the power of super-strength. Emily instead opts for the (much less laborious to develop, it turns out) power of invisibility and the two set about righting the wrongs of society, almost immediately stumbling upon a nefarious plan orchestrated by the former mayor of Chicago, a dude who wants very desperately to be known as “the King” (Bobby Cannavale).
Like most comedies using a high-budget, complex genre as a jumping-off point, Thunder Force will never be mistaken for a real superhero movie. Its world-building is cursory and its action scenes are fairly workmanlike, built around throwing things that should be thrown and bursts of blue lasers courtesy of a Miscreant named Laser (Pom Klementieff). It’s a tale of female friendship and empowerment (though the film is more about being empowered to cut loose and act instinctively rather than anything overtly political) disguised as the hot genre right now, but it must be said that most of the comedic situations in Thunder Force could very easily be placed into any other Melissa McCarthy film.
Thunder Force is written and directed by Ben Falcone, McCarthy’s real-life husband.This is their fifth collaboration in those particular roles, though they’ve appeared in many more films together. These films certainly seem like they’re designed to avoid the sort of condescending parts that McCarthy might have found herself in after Bridesmaids. Though her on-screen persona always comes with a sort of unbridled honesty and an inevitable “you gotta believe in yourself” undertone, Thunder Force also exploits her knack for physical comedy without turning it into something insulting. (Suffice to say that I don’t think there is a North American movie star as committed to falling down as McCarthy is at the moment.) Thunder Force made me laugh more than the last McCarthy / Falcone joint I remember seeing (the even more boilerplate and base-level college comedy Life of the Party). I particularly enjoyed a running joke in which McCarthy’s superpowers make her crave raw chicken, which unfolds in several extremely stupid gross-out scenes that are nevertheless effective — but it also felt like it left a lot of potential on the table.
Ultimately, Thunder Force feels a little too reined-in for what it could be. Too often, it sets up something that feels like it has potential, only to willingly let it fizzle out. Its villain is non-descript; a romantic subplot between Lydia and one of the King’s henchmen, a half-Miscreant with crab arms played by Jason Bateman, winds up being little more than a series of jokes about butter and Old Bay seasoning. There are all too many setpieces built around idiosyncratic Top 40 hits (Seal’s “Kiss From a Rose” and Glenn Frey’s “Smuggler’s Blues”) where minutes of screentime are dedicated solely to the comedic concept of a song existing. Even the relationship between the two leads is perfunctory at best, with Spencer being left to flounder as the straight-woman in a film that could certainly use a jolt of extra wackiness.
I like Melissa McCarthy. I’d like her even more if her movies usually lived up to their potential, and I have to say that despite its myriad of flaws and overall flat qualities, it’s an adequate vehicle in that I could hardly imagine her being swapped out for any other actress. It would definitely have benefitted Thunder Force to be challenged a little. In a world where, say, Zach Galifianakis, Tina Fey and Kevin Hart all had their own assembly-line superhero comedies, I would imagine it to have a little more hustle. But it exists in a world almost entirely of its own, and it can do what it damn well pleases, and here we are. ■Thunder Force is available on Netflix as of Friday, April 9. Watch the trailer here:
Thunder Force, starring Melissa McCarthy and Octavia Spencer, by Ben Falcone
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