I don’t know if we’ve really hit Marvel fatigue yet, since production companies keep making superhero movies and we keep watching them. Or at least, I keep watching them. I can’t speak for the rest of society. Netflix’s latest contribution to the genre is Thunder Force, starring Melissa McCarthy and Octavia Spencer and directed by Ben Falcone.
Overall, this is at best an occasionally fun movie. It certainly does some things well, especially world-building. The temptation in these kinds of movies is to spend the whole time explaining how the world/superpowers/magic/whatever works. In this case, the idea is that a comet passes by (or strikes, I don’t remember) the earth and gives superpowers to a handful of individuals now known as “Miscreants.” The hook is that the only people who get powers are sociopaths. This set-up is handled exceptionally well with a minimum of exposition that still manages to convey everything necessary for understanding the rest of the movie. This frees up the film to do other things, some of which it does well (but most of which it does not).
[Spoilers henceforth] To combat the Miscreants, Emily [Spencer] creates a treatment to give superpowers to a normal human. Hijinks abound when her blue collar former friend Lydia accidentally gets part of the treatment, giving her (Lydia) super-strength and Emily invisibility. Together the two take on the forces of “The King” (Bobby Cannavale) who is trying to seize control of Chicago by any means necessary. Along the way the super team crosses pincers with “The Crab” (Jason Bateman) and “Laser” (Pom Klementieff), to say nothing of each other.
As far as the movie goes, the villains are the real heroes here. Jason Bateman’s general attitude of being over it works perfectly for a henchman who is either fed up with being a henchman, uncomfortable with what he’s being asked to do, or just cranky about having a dumb power (well, ‘power’). Pom Klementieff pulls off just the right level of ‘sociopath’ to be mildly disturbing, mildly compelling, and just a good deal of fun to watch in action. Maybe above all Bobby Cannavale’s scenery-chewing makes the movie almost worthwhile, especially with the running gag that he can’t keep good employees around (because he keeps killing them in fits of rage). If this movie had been shot from the villains’ perspective, it would have been a hundred percent better.
And as I said above, there’s an interesting hook to the film. The idea that the bad guys automatically get powers, which they in turn use destructively, while the good guys have to work and struggle to be able to respond in an effective way is one that merits more reflection. There’s probably some kind of parallel here about how sin is easy and virtue hard, even for those who have received grace. But the film doesn’t bother to dig into those kind of issues, and we’re probably better off for it. It’s bad enough when the Marvel movies get preachy…
Unfortunately, there’s not much else to recommend this movie. The humor mostly falls flat, with the majority of the jokes coming across as way too forced, to the point where we almost feel bad for the actors who have to try to make them work (it helps to remember the dump truck full of money Netflix undoubtedly paid them). Likewise, the friendship arc between the lead characters has a lot of potential that never quite goes anywhere and has to be forced along without any organic movement. Even the plot itself struggles at times to hold together, with characters apparently doing things because it will look good in a movie trailer or for a throwaway gag that doesn’t land, rather than because a well-scripted narrative demands it. Even the attempts at Chicago-based patriotism feel crammed in to get die hard Chicago-lovers on board with the film. Other than the repeated “da bears” jokes, there’s no particular reason this film had to be set in Chicago at all.
I kind-of hate to write such a negative review here, but frankly there’s really no excuse for coming out with a bad superhero movie these days. The formula is there for anyone to use, even to modify with the right kind of skill and meaningful manipulation. Thunder Force veers away from the superhero formula without offering us even decent humor in its place, to say nothing of a careful reinterpretation of the genre.
Dr. Coyle Neal is co-host of the City of Man Podcast and an Associate Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO