The superhero parody is nothing new. Pretty much ever since comic books hit the mainstream there’s been a subset of the genre that pokes fun at the concepts and tropes. For every Superman there’s a Deadpool, for every Batman a Kick-Ass. Now, writer/director Ben Falcone, in his fifth collaboration with his wife Melissa McCarthy, brings us Thunder Force, which has a few decent ideas here and there, but doesn’t have the desire or wherewithal to fully explore them, and instead wastes some tremendous comic talent on one-note gags that don’t go anywhere.
The core issue is put front and center within the first few minutes. We begin with an interesting premise for this version of the world. Some time in the late 1980s, a cosmic blast hit the Earth, altering the genes of certain people and granting them superhuman powers. The problem is that it only affected those who were predisposed to sociopathic behavior.
Okay, that’s genuinely intriguing. People can get powers, but only if they’re sociopaths. That opens up a whole universe of possibilities. Does this create a world of unstoppable supervillains? Does it give us people capable of making a positive change in the world, but they simply won’t because they lack empathy? Who studies these people? Who recruits them for various uses, be they good or sinister? You could go almost anywhere with just that first gem of an idea and create something truly novel.
Instead, we go from instant exposition, to one attack from a “Miscreant,” as they’re labeled, which kills the parents of Emily Stanton (Octavia Spencer as an adult), a straight-A student in Chicago, who moves to a new school where she’s bullied for her intellect. I’m honestly shocked they didn’t name her Brucina Parkerwayne with that backstory. She becomes friends with Lydia Berman (McCarthy in adult form), who protects her and tries to show her how to have fun despite her tragic circumstances. Over the course of five years they become inseparable, until an entirely too easy to predict mistake on Lydia’s part ends their friendship for 25 years. You see, Emily is dedicated to going to the best schools and being the smartest person alive so that she can follow in her parents’ footsteps and be a scientist that figures out a way to stop the Miscreants, and lazy jokester Lydia caused her to be late for an Advanced Placement exam. So clearly, that was unforgivable. Friendship over. Roll credits.
This is the main problem with the film. It introduces some truly intriguing angles just in this opening sequence, some of them representing conflicting story paths, but refuses to commit to any of them for longer than a few beats. Is this a superhero origin story? Is it a buddy comedy? Based on Lydia’s jokes and physical antics, will this be a slapstick parody? Who knows? Certainly not Falcone, who doesn’t stay in one lane long enough for anything to get more than a perfunctory setup.
In the film’s present day (2019), Lydia is a dock worker getting ready for her 25-year high school reunion, and it just so happens that Emily has recently returned to town to set up her biotech company. What a coincidence! After some very awkward line readings, Lydia meets Emily at her company and spills a beer on her, which causes her to leave Lydia alone at the top secret lab. A few seconds into the super obvious “Don’t touch anything” solitude, Lydia stumbles into a chair, gets mechanically strapped in, and is injected with several needles to her face. Those needles contained the first dose of a superhero serum that Emily had developed to give herself super strength so she could fight the Miscreants. Yes, seriously. The entire impetus for this film is clumsy dialogue and even clumsier physical comedy that would make Chris Farley feel embarrassed.
Emily had spent the last 20 years developing the serum, as well as a pill regimen to grant invisibility powers, and thanks to Lydia, it’s all ruined. Yup, this meticulous scientist apparently took no notes, never wrote anything down, kept no records of her experiments or progress, and there’s simply no way to make the serum again to give it to herself. Also, there’s no way to halt or reverse the process, so unless Lydia becomes a literal She-Hulk, she’s going to die horribly. So Lydia and Emily team up to be superheroes, calling themselves Thunder Force, because they always use force and their powers are electricity-based. I’m just kidding, it’s generated completely at random and has no connection to anything.
What does have a connection, however, are the painfully-forced good and bad guys. Emily has a daughter, Tracy (Taylor Mosby), who’s even smarter than her (graduated college at 15), and who works in the lab with her, monitoring the training montages and additional experiments. She’s joined by Allie, played by Melissa Leo, who is so transparently evil that they have her dress in black the whole way and even abide by the “iPhone Rule,” where Apple does not let antagonistic characters hold their products on screen. She’s literally the only one in the lab holding no Apple equipment at any time, and yet the movie tries to “hide” the eventual reveal of her villainous side to the point of it just being shameful. Anyway, she’s “secretly” in cahoots with mayoral candidate William “The King” Stevens (Bobby Cannavale), a Miscreant keeping his identity under wraps in hopes of using scare tactics to win office. Also, for some reason, in the third act he really objects to people referring to him as “King” instead of “THE King.” His main henchmen are Laser, an electric Miscreant (hey, she actually uses thunder force), played by Pom Klementieff (Mantis from Guardians of the Galaxy), and a “Half-Creant” named The Crab, played by Jason Bateman. He’s a normal human whose arms were transformed into crustacean pincers after being “bitten” by a radioactive crab. Sure. Whatever. At least they’re not suggesting that there’s a small percentage of sociopathic crabs that were somehow affected by the space blast.
I will give the film credit on a few fronts when it comes to the comedy. McCarthy has one really funny bit where she gets an injection, screams in pain, is told the effect will wear off in two seconds, and sure enough, in exactly two seconds she tilts her head in a hilarious way and is herself surprised at how accurate that prediction was. Similarly, as she begins flirting with The Crab, there’s some fetishization of raw chicken that is gross-out cringe humor at its finest. There’s even a good runner about The King and Laser killing henchmen and then trying to figure out who’s still available to do minion work. Even more surprisingly, in a comedy film starring Melissa McCarthy and Octavia Spencer, there isn’t one single fat joke. A lot of McCarthy’s movies are just a straight up 90-minute long dig at the overweight, but here, the closest you get is a physical bit where they try to wedge themselves into an Italian sports car, but the joke is really about how low to the ground the car is and how rigid and uncomfortable their superhero suits are. So props where it’s due.
That said, this is Melissa McCarthy and Octavia Spencer, for God’s sake. Between the two of them they’ve got five Oscar nominations, including a win for Spencer. These women know how to handle comedy and drama with the best of them, and yet Falcone refuses to give them material worthy of their talent. Melissa Leo has an Oscar under her belt as well, and she spends the entire film as a one-note sarcastic “villain in waiting.”
Imagine what this film could have been if Falcone actually gave enough of a shit to take a risk. We could see a city – one that’s stereotyped by right-wing nutjobs as being crime-ridden – completely decimated by superpowered lunatics. Instead, we basically just have King and Laser. Even though the Miscreants have basically been running around unchecked for over 30 years, we only ever really see one in action. We could have seen a genuinely touching friendship rocked by tragedy but forged in mutual respect of one being the brains and the other being the brawn. Instead we get the dumbest callback line I’ve heard in ages. Whenever someone calls Emily a nerd, the response is, “I’m not a nerd, I’m smart. There’s a difference.” Um, what’s wrong with being a nerd? Even in the 90s, that wasn’t exactly a sick burn, not to the point where nerds would get defensive about the title and try to differentiate, and especially when they don’t bother to tell you what this alleged difference is. It’s pointless and kind of insulting to the audience that would only watch this movie because they’re nerds for comedy and/or comic book movies. We could have had a killer, balls-to-the-wall bit of superhero slapstick. Instead, the movie pulls its punches on basically every major gag because it wants to maintain a PG-13 rating, and in one particularly bad bit of plotting, it introduces a character called Clyde (Brendan Jennings) who can’t tell jokes properly (and thus can’t get a girlfriend, apparently), brings him back to repeat his goofy flaw at the reunion, and then never shows him again. I mean, what the fuck was even the point of that?
Also, it’s worth noting that Falcone apparently doesn’t know what sociopathy or psychopathy is. A sociopath is someone with Antisocial Personality Disorder (or ASPD), and is usually typified by things like not having emotional intelligence, empathy, or a sense of right and wrong. The two Miscreants we have in this movie don’t display any of those behaviors at all. They’re just murderers. Laser’s powers look cool, but replace her lightning hands with a gun, and she’s just like any other killer in a movie. Get rid of King’s “Death Hug” strength, and he’s just any other corrupt politician. These people aren’t sociopaths, they’re assholes. If you gave us actual superhuman sociopaths, that would be a phenomenal premise. Instead, we just went for bare minimum special effects and one-dimensional baddies.
Finally, in what might be the weirdest development in this film, the Thunder Force has a theme song that plays over the credits. That’s not the weird part. What’s weird is that it’s written and performed by Corey Taylor (of Slipknot and Stone Sour), Lzzy Hale (of Halestorm), and Scott Ian (of Anthrax). These are some of the most well-known hard rock/metal artists out there. Why they hell would they sell out for this crap? Lzzy Hale has a documentary out right now called Long Live Rock (after the song by The Who) about the history of the genre, and she even does a pretty kickass cover of the song. Why would she lower herself for a cheap paycheck on something like this? The song’s not terrible, just completely generic, and in no way applicable outside of this movie. As a rocker to the core, my mind truly boggles.
Is this the worst movie ever? No. There are a couple good laughs to be had, and again, the underlying concept is actually worth exploring. The problem is that it’s lazy, and while Ben Falcone and Melissa McCarthy will always be profitable, they squandered the chance to do something truly groundbreaking in service of Urkel references. If you want to see a real Thunder Force, go watch the “Thunder Sisters” scenes (and song) in The Croods: A New Age. They’re the highlight of the movie, and way better in about seven total minutes than this one was in 105.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Have we reached a saturation point with superhero movies? What would your superpower be? Let me know!