Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer likely did not imagine carving out a niche for herself as the best friend to literal fish lovers. 2017’s The Shape of Water was, at the time, just a wonderful, weird outlier. But here she is in Thunder Force four years later, asking with bewildered interest about the mechanics of nailing a pisciform man, except this time the man is crustaceous. Spencer plays Emily Stanton, a super genius who has made it her life’s mission to devise a weapon for fighting back against supervillains. Her friend, Lydia, is played by Melissa McCarthy. Lydia’s love interest is The Crab, played by Jason Bateman: Part man, part crab, only half-villain and all horny for Lydia.
Lydia is horny back, and also equipped with Old Bay seasoning tucked in her bra in case of emergencies. It’s bizarre, it’s creepy and it’s actually Thunder Force’s best gag, which would damn the film with faint praise except that the outlier is, in fact, genuinely hilarious. The film is set in Chicago, in an era where supervillains run rampant: A years-prior event that washed Earth with cosmic rays only affected sociopaths and assholes, meaning that good people got passed over for cool superpowers in favor of the people least deserving of them. It’s basically Kingdom Come, except Superman isn’t in hiding: He just doesn’t exist.
Running through these decades of terrorization is Lydia’s friendship with Emily. Lydia has little tolerance for bullies, and protects Emily from hers in high school. The rift between them lies in life goals. Emily is dedicated, to her detriment, to concocting a formula that’ll give powers to regular folks like herself—an attempt at avenging her parents, killed in her youth by Miscreants (the film’s appellation for supervillains). Lydia just wants to have fun. They split as twentysomethings and reconnect later in life, with Emily at the peak of success and inches away from perfecting her science, and Lydia, well, being a Melissa McCarthy character. She’s a mess. And a lout. And clumsy. So of course when she visits Emily for the first time in ages, she winds up accidentally taking needles to the face and gaining super-strength that Emily had intended to give herself.
At least the invisibility pills are still around! The setup goes against Emily’s plan to make herself into Chicago’s sole protector, but with no other options, she and Lydia become Thunder Force and seek to root out evil from the city. This, too, was probably not a plan Spencer had in mind for her career, but as she does in any role, she commits: She’s a great straight man to McCarthy’s bumbling ding-dong, a part that could be charming if only Ben Falcone knew well enough when to edit. This is his latest foray into comedy filmmaking with McCarthy, and after a decade or so of making movies like it (The Boss, Tammy, Life of the Party) plus 16 years of marriage, the pair show no sign of stopping…or improving. This is a snag for criticism: It’s hard to look down one’s nose at these films, even at their worst, because at their core they’re about a couple who appear to love each other and love working together, defying the long-held notion that families and spouses should actually not do that.
But the fact of the matter is that writer/director Falcone’s humor is self-defeating. In Thunder Force, as in last year’s Superintelligence from the duo, the jokes overstay their welcome in most cases, whether through excessive riffing or repetition that’d make Seth MacFarlane say “Hey, rein it in.” Spencer, a preeminent talent, and McCarthy, recently and successfully argued as one of our generation’s best actresses, match up well against each other and the film’s goofy tone, landing on a spectrum that includes Mystery Men and Sky High. If they want to riff, they should riff. But Falcone is the director, and it’s up to him to say when the riffing ends, or when punchlines go too far into the realm of obviousness. When a punchline hits this point, it ceases to function as a punchline: The joke speaks at the viewer instead of to them. That ain’t funny.
Listening to Emily discuss the certainty of diarrhea and watching Lydia seductively rub butter on The Crab’s pincers, on the other hand? That’s comedy. If the movie stuck with that kind of rare good joke, and with Bobby Cannavale’s amusing charisma as its big bad—The King, Chicago’s Miscreant in mayoral clothing—Thunder Force would be a winner. Puerile for certain, but with heart, a personality and plenty of chuckles providing mortar between its action. (Watching McCarthy pull off a Street Fighter combo on Cannavale, an uppercut followed by a left hook that sends him toward the ceiling and on the floor, is an especially cathartic image.) But there’s so much done wrong as the film tries to be funny that when it is funny, the funniness goes down like a bitter pill: Why can’t it be good all the time? Why can’t Falcone recognize the seed of what makes, for example, Emily’s bordering-on-creepy curiosity about sex with a man-crab so intrinsically funny, and why doesn’t he plant that seed elsewhere? His and McCarthy’s devotion to their brand and to collaboration is sweet. The rest is sour, and there’s not enough Old Bay in the world to cover the taste.
Director: Ben Falcone
Writer: Ben Falcone
Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Octavia Spencer, Jason Batemen, Bobby Cannavale, Melissa Leo, Pom Klementieff, Taylor Mosby, Ben Falcone
Release Date: April 9, 2021 (Netflix)
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.