There’s always been something faintly hilarious about superheroes, both the naked fantasy of abruptly gaining special abilities and becoming superior to everyone else, and the idea of celebrating that specialness by putting on a colorful, skintight suit and running around punching people. But pure superhero comedy has always been comparatively rare. Making fun of power fantasies undercuts them, and makes them less thrilling. And even full-on superhero comedies still generally have to come around to some kind of thrill or emotional catharsis in the end — which usually means looping back to a straightforward approach, and competing with the stories that are grapple with the exact same content without irony or amusement.
The serious superhero films and TV series have it easier. These days, even the most self-important ones usually include some comedy elements, even if it’s only snippy banter between heroes, or the occasional over-the-top grotesque surprise death. But there are a dozen superhero drama shows for every straight-up silly series like The Tick, and the ratio in film is even sharper. That should make Netflix’s comedy movie Thunder Force stand out: Apart from scattered examples like Mystery Men or The Lego Batman Movie, it’s competing on an almost empty field.
Instead, Thunder Force might help illustrate why there are so few pure superhero comedy movies. Superhero action speaks to the secret kid inside many of us who sees someone getting thrown through a wall and thinks, Whoo, that’s badass, I wish I could do that. Doing the same thing and making it hilarious is difficult enough without juggling all the other complicated elements that make a sharp comedy. Thunder Force occasionally nails the funny aspects of a superpowered world, mostly through sheer force of absurdity. But it’s missing an awful lot of the elements of good comedy in general.
Melissa McCarthy and Octavia Spencer star as Lydia and Emily, two fortysomething women who were close friends from grade school through high school, but haven’t seen each other in decades. (The two girls who play Lydia at earlier ages are pretty astonishing matches for McCarthy’s facial features and expressions — one of the film’s early pleasant surprises.) Lydia was always brash, friendly, and fearless, but she was never much of a student. Emily, on the other hand, was a shy, brilliant nerd, obsessed with avenging her parents. As the film’s opening sequence explains, via a series of moving comic-book panels, “a massive pulse of interstellar cosmic rays” struck Earth in 1983, giving superpowers exclusively to sociopaths. The resultant supervillains were dubbed “Miscreants.” Emily’s scientist parents were killed by Miscreants, and she’s made it her life goal to continue her parents’ work and find a way to give ordinary people powers, creating heroes to fight the villains.
When Lydia and Emily reunite in middle age, Lydia is a forlorn and seemingly friendless forklift driver, and Emily is the head of a thriving tech corporation on the brink of achieving that goal, alongside her brilliant 15-year-old daughter Tracy (Taylor Mosby) and their ex-CIA enabler Allie (Melissa Leo). Of course, Lydia manages to blunder in and insert herself into the process, so after a lengthy, unlikely series of treatments, she winds up with super-strength. Before long, Emily has her own super-ability, and they’re off to fight crime together.
Like so many of McCarthy’s comedies (Tammy, The Boss, Life of the Party, Superintelligence) Thunder Force was directed by her husband Ben Falcone, though it’s his first time taking solo writing credit. Like his other movies, it relies heavily on the lowest of lowbrow comedy: pratfalls, gross-out gags, protracted humiliation scenarios, and McCarthy’s character being clumsy and clueless — so clueless that she yells “Shotgun!” to indicate she wants to drive the car she’s getting into, and so clumsy, she manages to take out a prominent Chicago landmark while accomplishing absolutely nothing to excuse it. Shortly after she starts getting dosed with superhero serum, her metabolism shifts until the only food she craves is raw chicken, and Falcone returns several times to the literal gag of her cramming glistening pink gobbets into her mouth.
Every viewer will have to individually come to terms with whether they find such things hilarious enough to laugh when they happen again and again. But the frustrating part of Thunder Force isn’t the vulgarity or the cheap repetition, it’s the story timing. Falcone spends a good 45 minutes on the setup, and not because he needs that much time for the sparse information being delivered. Gags that stretch out much too long — like Lydia and Emily disagreeing about whether Glenn Frey’s “Smuggler’s Blues” is a bop, then singing along to it, or a negligible character awkwardly botching knock-knock jokes — are a recurring theme. And those grating, overly elongated jokes come at the expense of some really necessary character interaction.
Some of the movie’s best moments come when Spencer and McCarthy actually speak to each other like people, instead of McCarthy cutting up, and Spencer refusing to react. Spencer’s performances usually come from a calm, steady, down-to-earth place, and she logs a lot of thankless time in Thunder Force as McCarthy’s straight-faced comedy foil. The snob-and-slob routine is a classic comedy pairing, but in this case, it mostly feels like McCarthy is having all the fun, and Spencer is stuck with the job of humorlessly reining her in. Some of the funniest moments occur either when she isn’t around to play killjoy, or when Emily is allowed her own meek gags, like her muttered, defiant protests that she, too, is a fun person.
Spencer also logs a lot of thankless time cowering invisibly while McCarthy uses her super-strength to bring the ruckus. Thunder Force’s trailers hinged on the validating image of two unlikely women strutting into the superhero sphere, proud and confident even though they’re heavier, older, and goofier than the standard superhero image. Falcone isn’t exactly living up to that promise when he has a Black female hero literally disappearing behind any available cover while her white partner kicks most of the available ass.
But when the two women briefly banter on equal terms, acknowledge the failings that led to their friendship breaking up, or train as partners, the movie shows some sparks of humanity. And there are genuine laughs outside their dynamic, particularly around Jason Bateman’s role as the supervillain flunky The Crab. Almost all his scenes are winners, and not because he gets the best material, or is a better actor than McCarthy and Spencer. It’s because his entire character is a ridiculous conceit, the kind of utter absurdity that’s lacking in a lot of the film’s dragger parts.
And Thunder Force gets a similarly larger-than-life charge out of its bigger villains — Bobby Cannavale as the scheming Chicago mayoral candidate The King, and Guardians of the Galaxy’s Pom Klementieff as his Miscreant murderer sidekick. The extended scenes where The King starts openly showing off his sociopathy, and The Crab calmly tries to rein him in, clearly come from the same comedy place as Lydia and Emily’s interactions. But they’re bigger, brighter, and weirder — something this entire film could stand to be.
As superhero stories have gone broadly mainstream, spawning multi-billion-dollar global franchises and dominating popular culture, they’ve inevitably shifted away from pure power-fantasy escapism. More and more often, filmmakers and show runners feel a need to deeply interrogate the nature of superhero narratives, using them as metaphors for the way power and responsibility affects grief, racial issues, policing, parenting, and just about everything else under the sun. Thunder Force at its best feels like a corrective, an attempt to just let heroes and villains be dumb, simple fun for once.
But in a super-scape with so much well-crafted humor mixed in with all the action and pathos, fun that’s this dumb and simple may just not be necessary. It’s worth noting that Falcone has time for a second scene where McCarthy and Spencer just stand around singing along with a different pop hit, and another one where they riff at length around the Chicago Bears’ 1986 Super Bowl win and their rap hit “The Super Bowl Shuffle.” But he doesn’t have time to let them consider even once over the course of a month of weird-science superhero treatments that an irresponsible, impulsive, klutzy slacker might not be the best person to give super-strength. And he blitzes through so much of the character-building and plot development that the movie feels like an outline waiting for further expansion, if the characters can be pulled away from exploring their pop-culture obsessions with each other.
It’s almost as if being a superhero is hard, but being funny is much harder. Thunder Force doesn’t have to compete with dozens of other superhero comedies, but it does have to compete with the dramas, which mostly accept humor and self-analysis as two of their major storytelling weapons. Comedy exposes people’s flaws and foibles, but superhero dramas are already doing that work from a different direction. It’s hard to be more insightful than the people taking the work seriously, and more ridiculous than superheroes already are by nature. Thunder Force is only occasionally insightful, and almost never surprising. It’s arriving in a world where people generally expect more from its genre than light, enjoyable performances and a handful of overstretched gags, and that’s all it has to offer.