Review: McCarthy, Spencer make for weak duo in 'Thunder Force'

Netflix comedy comes off as too lazy to believe in itself

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

It's impossible to take "Thunder Force" seriously because "Thunder Force" doesn't take itself seriously. 

Not that this superhero comedy is meant to be taken as a straightforward exercise in good vs. evil. It's a comedy, and the joke is that two middle-aged women — played by Melissa McCarthy and Octavia Spencer — are the ones with the superpowers. OK, fine. The issue here is the inherent laziness of the storytelling, the humor and the entire enterprise. There's never a feeling that anything is at stake, and it makes it impossible to invest any emotions into it.

Melissa McCarthy and Octavia Spencer in "Thunder Force."

In short, there's no rumble in this "Thunder." 

Blame writer-director Ben Falcone, in his fifth directorial teaming with McCarthy, his wife. Their partnerships have yielded McCarthy's least rewarding film efforts to date, from 2014's "Tammy" through to last year's dreary "Superintelligence." It's clear they're comfortable working together, and good for them, the world could use more workplace happiness. But that comfort is a crutch, and it isn't pushing either party in positive creative directions. 

McCarthy plays Lydia, a blue collar worker in Chicago who wears Slayer T-shirts more than she doesn't. (McCarthy doesn't make for a very convincing Slayer fan, but that's another story.) Lydia's estranged childhood best friend, Emily (Oscar-winner Spencer) went on to become a top-level scientist who dedicated her life to avenging the death of her parents, who were killed by Miscreants, a race of supervillains created by a freak radioactive occurrence. Emily has come up with a secret formula to turn everyday humans into superheroes to combat the baddies.

Melissa McCarthy in "Thunder Force."

Welp, it isn't long before the bumbling Lydia accidentally injects herself with Emily's formula and is on her way to becoming a crime fighter with super strength. Emily reluctantly joins her, taking pills to gain the power of invisibility. And once fully trained, they set off to take on the Miscreants, led by a politician who calls himself the King (Bobby Cannavale) and a half-crab, half-man with a droll sense of humor (Jason Bateman). 

These plot elements are presented in extremely lackadaisical scenarios and within a structure where jokes are told, then repeated, then explained and told again, a detached form of humor deconstruction that begs the question, if something isn't funny the first time, is it funny the fourth? In one scene, Lydia compares Emily's daughter, Tracy (Taylor Mosby) to "Family Matters'" Steve Urkel, and when Tracy doesn't understand the reference, Emily goes on to impersonate Urkel and repeats the "did I do that?" line five times. And what doesn't work once does not magically work on the fifth go-round. 

"Thunder Force" is full of these types of situations and joke breakdowns, as if Falcone isn't confident enough to actually tell a joke, but would rather make fun of the idea of telling a joke. It's the same thing with "Thunder Force" as a whole: It's like it doesn't believe in telling a superhero story, it would rather make fun of the idea of telling a superhero story.

Lydia and Emily don't have a theme song, but they listen to Glenn Frey's "Smuggler's Blues" (and later, Frey's "You Belong to the City") and joke about how it doesn't make a good theme song, until they wind up embracing it as their theme song exactly because it's not a particularly effective theme song. It's a lot of work to go through for not a lot of laughs. Maybe just tell a joke and let it stand on its own?  

And so it goes. There's a premise here that could work, but the execution it botched by Falcone's inability to truly invest in what he's doing. (It permeates everything, even down to Bateman's costume, and you can clearly see the rubber that makes up his character's claws.) "Thunder Force" isn't here to save us, it's the one that needs saving from itself. 

'Thunder Force'


Rated PG-13: for some action/violence, language and mild suggestive material

Running time: 107 minutes

On Netflix