Review: Melissa McCarthy, Octavia Spencer team up in ‘Thunder Force’

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Thunder Force'

The Netflix Top 10 has become a mainstream guide for what folks are watching at home.

This week, the most watched flick on Netflix was the superhero comedy “Thunder Force.”

Is it worth your time? Only if you turn off your brain to appreciate a few masterful comedy scenes sandwiched between otherwise lackluster material of the slapstick genre variety.

The plot follows a Chicago forklift operator, Lydia (Melissa McCarthy), who reunites with her childhood best friend, Emily (Octavia Spencer). The latter has devoted her life to scientific research that accidentally unlocks superpowers to fight deadly mutant criminals.

Spencer rarely appears in such broad comedies. She’s better playing comic relief in dramatic films (i.e. the pie scene in “The Help”). In “Thunder Force,” she seems to be phoning it in a bit, forced to play the serious straight woman to McCarthy’s zany antics.

McCarthy is one of our funniest comedians, once again delivering gross-out gags (pouring beer on her cereal) and making funny voices (impersonating Urkel). We’ve seen it before, but now with superpowers, so the closest comp is the remake of “Ghostbusters” (2016).

Once again, it’s written and directed by her husband Ben Falcone, who helmed her in “Tammy” (2014), “The Boss” (2016), “Life of the Party” (2018) and “Superintelligence” (2020). Ironically, her best roles come from other filmmakers, namely Paul Feig (“Bridesmaids,” “The Heat,” “Spy”) and Marielle Heller (“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”).

Fans should applaud the casting of diverse, plus-sized superheroes that look more like regular Americans than unrealistically skinny supermodels that don’t believably pack a punch. Likewise, the “Bechdel Test” scenes of women talking about something other than men is a positive trend for Hollywood, but it would be nice if they had better material.

The script opens strong with the backstory of Lydia and Emily’s friendship, bonding in the classroom and on the playground as the outgoing Lydia stands up to kids bullying the bookish Emily. The casting of them as elementary school kids and high schoolers is pretty spot on, imitating McCarthy’s comic timing with surprising accuracy on the swing set.

Unfortunately, the script drags as we see them as adults attempting to reunite at a high school reunion, spending too much time on McCarthy gallivanting around Spencer’s high-tech lab. The movie languishes for 48 minutes (!!!) before the superhero team finally gets out into the world to start fighting crime, thwarting a robbery at a convenience store.

It’s no coincidence that the film picks up the second we meet Jason Bateman, who steals the show as a half-human, half-crustacean henchman. We’ve become so used to him in dramatic roles (“Ozark”) that it’s a great reminder of his comedy chops (“Arrested Development”). He absolutely commits to the role of a man with crab claws for arms.

We find out why when Bateman opens up in a hysterical restaurant date scene for the ages where McCarthy butters him up with Old Bay flirtations. Call it a lowbrow answer to “The Lobster” (2015) or McCarthy practicing for her role as Ursula in “The Little Mermaid,” but you could pluck this scene out of the movie and present it as a brilliant “SNL” sketch.

Such subtle, absurdist comedy works way better than the forced slapstick moments of McCarthy throwing busses down the street or punching her sparring partner so hard that he flies out of the boxing ring and across the gym. It makes sense for her superpowers, but it’s just not that funny, lazily settling for the lowest common denominator of humor.

The script also relies heavily on pop culture references like Van Halen, Bon Jovi and Slayer. The leading ladies even devote entire scenes to singing Glenn Frey’s “We Belong to the City” and Seal’s “Kiss From a Rose.” At least the latter is tangentially related to superheroes thanks to “Batman Forever” (1995), but it feels like the writer filling time.

To the script’s credit, “Miscreants” is the best name for mutant baddies in recent memory. In fact, mispronouncing the name makes for the film’s best recurring joke. The public has grown accustomed to news reports of their attacks, featuring Bobby Cannavale as The King, Pom Klementieff as Laser and Bateman as the aforementioned seafood standout.

In the end, it’s worth watching for the Bateman-McCarthy subplot alone, but the rest is pretty forgettable compared to Netflix’s previous superhero original “Project Power” (2020). “Thunder Force” is the type of flick you turn on in the background as something you don’t have to pay attention to while you’re folding laundry, washing dishes or sending emails.

How do we know that streaming has finally rivaled theatrical? When a new release hits No. 1 based solely on its celebrity star power rather than the quality of the movie itself.

“Thunder Force” is thunder forced.

2.5 stars

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Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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