In the era of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and 4-hour Justice Leagues, the calibration of what constitutes a “proper” superhero film is much stricter than it used to be. To be honest, we’ve been spoiled for years and nearly forgotten a time in cinematic history when a superhero film didn’t have to be part of a huge shared universe, contain deep themes, or even be based on existing properties. A time when it could just be a fun little diversion about people who shoot energy blasts from their hands or can throw a city bus over their heads. That’s the kind of vibe Thunder Force projects, a fun diversion that doesn’t take itself or its genre too seriously.
Lydia (Melissa McCarthy) and Emily (Octavia Spencer) are two childhood friends who drifted apart after college but have reconnected years later. Emily has become a scientist and runs a company dedicated to researching how to give humans superpowers and fight the Miscreants, supervillains who were given powers when cosmic rays hit the earth decades earlier. When a lab accident gives Lydia superstrength and Emily the power to turn invisible, they decide to fight crime as the super-duo Thunder Force, bringing themselves into conflict with The King (Bobby Cannavale) and his Miscreant henchmen.
The first thing you notice about the film is that whoever cut its trailers has no idea what the film is about. The trailers primarily sell the film on comedy, and that’s not really is strongest suit. It’s less of a comedy and more of an action film with some funny moments. The humor is often surprisingly dry and low-key, although because this is a film directed by Ben Falcone, it does dip into cringe more than it should.
What makes the film hold together is the characters and personalities. Even if a lot of the characters aren’t deeply defined, they are distinct and memorable. Most of this is due to the performances by the cast, all of whom do a fine job even if there’s nothing really transcendent here. Both Melissa McCarthy and Octavia Spencer do well. They’re both pretty much playing completely on type, but their chemistry together is great, and they sell the complicated friendship between Emily and Lydia with ease.
The most notable characters, however, are the bad guys. Not necessarily Bobby Cannavale’s The King as much as his henchmen Laser (Pom Klementieff) and The Crab (Jason Bateman). Klementieff is clearly having fun playing the polar opposite of her most famous character, the MCU’s sweet, supportive Mantis. Laser is a stone cold fatale who delights in using her energy blast powers to cause death and destruction. From a design standpoint, work was clearly put in to define what she can and can’t do with her abilities. She’s a sleek, sexy, captivating psycho with a humor so deadpan it might be classified as zombie. At one point, Lydia tells her “You know, killing people is not a recognized hobby.” Laser very calmly responds “I can’t knit.” Gurl, I was slayed.
But even better is Jason Bateman as The Crab. He has no real superpowers. Instead, his forearms and hands are the arms and pincers of a crab. He turned to crime when his loved ones abandoned him over his mutation. He’s a semi-reluctant villain, and he has the most dynamic story arc in the film. Bateman plays him with an easy, self-deprecating but irresistible charm, and he has some of the most quietly humorous moments in the film. A subplot involving an inexplicable attraction he has with Lydia is played with surprising precision and comes off as completely out of left field while also working way more than it has any right to.
In almost all cases, the cast easily transcends their material. Which admittedly isn’t terribly hard, but they make something shiny out of what they’re given. Falcone is not a great writer, but this script is better than his usual. (And certainly better than his previous film, the aggressively awful Superintelligence.) There’s nothing terribly surprising here. The plot twists can be seen coming several miles away, even if the film treats them as genuine surprises. And Falcone makes a questionable decision to dedicate the entire first half of the film to Lydia’s training. The King doesn’t really make his presence known until about 50 minutes in, making the actual conflict seem rushed and arbitrary, as if Falcone forgot that he needed an antagonist and slapped him on in the script’s third draft.
The rest of the film is imminently professional if not extraordinary. The visuals are fine, the staging is fine. The music is great, even if the score by Fil Eisler gets overshadowed by the film’s selection of classic rock tracks. The visual effects are honestly handled pretty well, with some mildly inventive ways on depicting Emily’s invisibility. On a purely technical level, there’s nothing much to complain about. Nothing much to write home about, either, but sometimes that’s enough.
There’s even a surprising amount of world-building here, believe it or not. One of the more interesting conceits of the setting is that when the cosmic ray event years earlier happened, superpowers only manifested in people who were genetically predisposed to be sociopaths. The only people with powers are the bad guys. When Thunder Force hits the scene, they’re the only superhero game in town. This might explain why the fact that our superheroes are two plus-size, middle-aged women is thankfully never made into a plot point. It’s sort of a refreshing take on the super-genre, one that ignores a lot of comic book standards to just do its own thing. Lydia and Emily are never framed as “unconventional superheroes.” They’re just superheroes, period. They’re the ones setting the bar. For those of us tired of how so much of superhero cinema leans toward the 5% body fat, cover model aesthetic, this is a welcome thing to see.
There’s enough setting laid down, in fact, that there could easily be a sequel or two set in the Thunderverse, as unlikely and ill-advised as that would be. Thunder Force works best as a standalone diversion, a one-time event. It definitely has its flaws, but it means well and has enough charm to keep the audience amused if not thrilled. It might not leap any tall narratives in a single bound, but in the end it still saves the day in its own, relaxed way. Still super, even it if it’s not spectacular.
FBOTU Score: 6 out of 10 / B-