Have you ever lamented the slick, committee-approved, formulaic sameness of the all-conquering superhero genre? Get ready to eat your words like they’re the slices of raw chicken, offputtingly guzzled down in a way that really puts the gag into running gag, in “Thunder Force.”
This “original” (i.e. not based on pre-existing material) action-comedy written and directed by Ben Falcone, produced by and starring his wife, Melissa McCarthy, is inept enough to make you appreciate the value of the focus group. Even the most randomly chosen test audience of wine moms and Ritalin-addled tweens could brainstorm something funnier, sharper, better than this.
Answering the fun-sounding question, “Hey, why not cast Melissa McCarthy and Octavia Spencer as 40-something superheroes?” with a resounding, feature-length “Oh, maybe this is why not,” “Thunder Force” opens in the ‘80s when Lydia (initially played by Falcone and McCarthy’s daughter, Vivian) comes to the rescue of bullied schoolmate Emily (Bria D. Singleton). The desultory setup is that the Earth has been bombarded by cosmic rays that impart superpowers to those with a tendency toward sociopathy. That creates a global cabal of newly minted supervillains, one of whom kills Emily’s scientist parents, bequeathing to her a burning ambition to complete their work and develop a process for creating superheroes to fight the so-called “Miscreant” threat.
We know this is her life’s only goal, even as a child, because she mentions it every time we meet her, usually as a way of getting out of going to Van Halen concerts with her way-more-chill BFF Lydia. And no one can blame her for that. But wait, drop that second “F”: Lydia and Emily eventually fall out over their differences and remain sundered until decades later when Lydia (now McCarthy) is a forklift driver and Emily (now Spencer) is a megarich science genius, with a 15-year-old science genius daughter, Tracy (Taylor Mosby).
On the eve of their 25-year high-school reunion (Why not 10-year? Or 20-year? Or any year in between? Ah, who cares), Lydia decides to mend fences, visits Emily in her spiffy corporate HQ and wouldn’t you know it, gets injected with the superstrength formula that Emily has finally perfected.
As Lydia becomes strong enough to fling city buses into fountains, Emily takes the other whatsit she’s been working on: a series of pills that give her the ability to disappear — which, if you’re in this movie is maybe the most desirable superpower, short of summoning the ground to swallow you up at will. They suit up as Thunder Force to take down Chicago’s Miscreant menace led by Bobby Cannavale‘s The King — whose low-stakes evil ambition is to be elected mayor of Chicago (bwahahahaha) — and his henchpersons: electro-bolt-throwing Laser (Pom Klementieff) and the Crab (Jason Bateman), whose indifferent “superpower” is his crustacean DNA.
To be fair, Bateman is one of the film’s few bright spots, mainly because the role basically riffs on his “Arrested Development” persona, ever resigned to being the butt of life’s cosmic jokes with his genetically mutated crab-claw arms merely the latest of those. His flirtation with McCarthy’s Lydia is mildly amusing, including a fantasy dance sequence, and also means that Spencer gets to trade eyebrow-waggle innuendo about a friend’s sexual adventures with a man who is part seafood for — bizarrely — the second time in her career after “The Shape of Water.”
But all joking aside … no, honestly, it feels like, perhaps in an effort to get that tricky first draft down, Falcone set all jokes aside and simply forgot to pick them up again. Where is the comedy in this comedy? Oh, there it is: in McCarthy taking a swig from a carton of bad milk! In two women of an age and body type not normally seen in spandex taking longer to limbo into a Lambo! In McCarthy doing an impression of Urkel: “Did I do thaaat?” Yes, you did. Now let’s never speak of it again.
It’s telling that supporting actors Bateman and, for a brief moment, Kevin Dunn, who plays a diner owner with a funny nonsensical speech about a salmon, come out best from this would-be feminist, anti-ageist movie starring two exceptional actresses with five Academy Award nominations and one win between them. Actually, up that count to seven noms and two Oscars, if you remember to include Melissa Leo, who plays Emily’s ex-CIA head of operations. It’s weird that Emily went to the trouble of inventing invisibility pills when apparently she could have just donned an Ann Taylor pantsuit and stood off to one side if she wanted no one to see her.
Saddled with a humorless scold of a role, Spencer spends most of the film looking like she’s avoiding touching anything that might break or rub off on her while McCarthy, for all her significant thespian talents, cannot convince us that she’s not infinitely too good for this dashed-off, finger-daubed malarkey.
“Thunder Force” is at least an equal-opportunities bummer: It doesn’t work as a superhero adventure or a midlife reclamation movie or a mismatched buddy comedy or a family entertainment unless your aim is to disappoint all members of the family equally. Adults bathed in their device’s garish Netflix glow will be bemused at just how little there is to like about a film starring two of their generation’s most likable actresses, while teens and younger will be bored beyond belief by the lame gags, herniated action and tacky special effects if they haven’t already tuned out of its off-brand fakey vibe.
If you’re in the mood for McCarthy as an unlikely heroine foiling a dastardly plot while also engaged in odd-couple hijinks (and who isn’t, ever?) simply back-to-back the infinitely superior “Spy” with the genuinely delightful “The Heat” and pretend “Thunder Force” never happened. It’s not like you’ll remember anything about it anyway, and it’s better to avoid the faintly depressing bother of watching it in the first place.
Rating: PG-13 for some action/violence, language and mild suggestive material
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes
Playing: On Netflix