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‘Thunder Force’ a not-so-super superhero comedy

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We might have passed the point of no return regarding superhero cinema.

Yes, there are plenty of folks who would argue that we long ago reached cultural saturation when it comes to superhero movies. But in the aftermath of the Snyder Cut and with multiple MCU offerings on the immediate horizon – plus the wide swath of recent and forthcoming streaming series drawing from superpowered source material both well-known and obscure – well … it’s a lot, not all of it good.

And this is coming from someone who LOVES this stuff.

Netflix’s latest foray into the realm of the superheroic is “Thunder Force,” a new film written and directed by Ben Falcone and starring Melissa McCarthy and Octavia Spencer. It’s an effort to play the tropes for laughs and have some fun with the foibles inherent to the genre, relying heavily on the talents of its cast to carry the day.

It doesn’t quite work out the way they might have hoped.

What so many of these filmmakers forget is that while spectacle is at the forefront with superhero films, the story still matters. Without an engaging narrative, all we’re left with is a bunch of CGI nonsense that is difficult to invest in. And no matter how hard the actors try, they can’t salvage what ultimately becomes an effort to turn 45 minutes of story into 100-plus minutes of movie.

In 1983, a burst of cosmic radiation strikes the Earth. The vast majority of the populace is unaffected, but the event grants a select few incredible abilities. Unfortunately, one of the factors shared by those who get powers is a tendency toward sociopathy. The result is a world in which the only people with superpowers are villains. Known colloquially as “Miscreants,” their crimes are wide-ranging and nigh-impossible to thwart thanks to their staggering abilities.

One of the many victims of the collateral damage wreaked by the Miscreants is Emily, a young girl whose geneticist parents were working on a way to combat the villains, only to die in a train accident caused by one of those same villains. Emily, a brilliant-but-lonely kid, moves in with her grandmother and changes schools, struggling to fit in and facing down bullies.

Her world changes when she meets Lydia, a big-hearted bruiser who has no problem facing down anyone and everyone who she sees being a bully. Emily and Lydia become fast friends, from elementary school right up to the end of high school, when a fight turns to harsh words and the two wind up going their separate ways.

Flash forward to the present. Lydia (Melissa McCarthy, “Superintelligence”) is a forklift driver, but even though she’s grown, she has the same big heart and attitude. Emily (Octavia Spencer, “The Witches”), meanwhile, has done what she set out to do – follow in the footsteps of her parents and become a scientist. She returns to Chicago a scientific and entrepreneurial hero. In an effort to reconnect, Lydia tries to get Emily to come to their high school reunion.

But then she touches some stuff she’s not supposed to touch and things get weird.

Specifically, we learn that Emily has succeeded in developing a method to give regular people superpowers. It’s a way to fight the Miscreants on their own terms … and now Lydia is the very first person to receive the treatment for super-strength. Emily is granted the gift of invisibility; she was supposed to have both, but Lydia mucked it up.

Now, with the help of Emily’s equally-brilliant daughter Tracy (Taylor Mosby, TV’s “The Last O.G.”) and head of security Allie (Melissa Leo, TV’s “I Know This Much Is True”), Lydia and Emily must learn to harness their new powers to defeat the most notorious of the area’s Miscreants, a vicious killer named Laser (Pom Klementieff, “Uncut Gems”). All of this in the middle of a mayoral race led by a shipping magnate known as The King (Bobby Cannavale, “Tom and Jerry”) who might have some secrets of his own.

The biggest issue with “Thunder Force” is its utter disposability. This is a completely forgettable movie. Oh, it’s amusing enough in the moment, I suppose, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself unable to recall where those chuckles might have come from. In the end, it’s a comedy that just isn’t that funny.

And as much as I hate to do it, I feel that the lion’s share of the blame for that reality must be lain at the feet of Falcone and McCarthy. It pains me to say, as someone with a real affection for married partners collaborating creatively, but the truth is that each of them seems to enable the other in ways that are proving less and less successful. There’s a sense of diminishing returns to the work they’ve produced together in recent years – it might be time for them to get a little space from one another, cleanse the palate before trying again.

The performances are fine. McCarthy is too talented to fall this flat; while her proclivity for physical comedy should still be embraced, she’s more than just pratfalls and salty language. She’s at her best when she’s allowed out of her box. Spencer looks slightly bemused throughout, with an “I’m as surprised as you are” vibe surrounding her presence here. The lack of connection between the two is particularly surprising; you’d think chemistry would be the last concern with this pairing, but it never quite clicks.

The rest of the cast is varying flavors of meh – no one really gets a ton to do. Leo and Mosby are fine, albeit underdeveloped. Cannavale is hamming it up throughout and Klementieff is doing … something. Honestly, the highlight is probably Jason Bateman, who shows up as The Crab; that’s all I’m going to tell you. Just know that he’s having fun.

(Actually, this belies what I said early about the film not being memorable, but there’s a weird dance number in the middle of this involving Bateman that is definitely memorable, though probably not for the reasons Falcone and company might desire.)

“Thunder Force” has the germ of an interesting idea, but it all falls by the wayside in a mess of montages and schticky non sequiturs. It’s a comedy with too few laughs, a genre skewering that never quite skewers; it’s a film that not even the wattage of its stars can salvage. All in all, not so super.

[1.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Saturday, 10 April 2021 10:00

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