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Thunder Force Review: Melissa McCarthy's Superhero Blunder

Few actor/director partnerships bring out the worst in a performer quite like the collaborations between Melissa McCarthy and her filmmaker husband Ben Falcone. Despite the fact that she's a two-time Oscar-nominated actor, McCarthy's films with Falcone are something of an albatross around her neck, a continued career low she keeps falling into against all better judgement. These lazy comedies, where half the humor comes from tired fart gags and references to her weight, have all defined the Melissa McCarthy comedic persona in the public eye, and are all greeted with the same derision usually afforded to one of Adam Sandler's Happy Madison outings.

A decade after stealing the show in Bridesmaids and becoming a studio comedy lead seemingly overnight, and she's stuck a creative partnership that hasn't evolved alongside her comedic persona. Roles like struggling author Lee Israel in Can You Ever Forgive Me? effectively found pathos beneath her well-defined brand of confrontational humor, but her films with Ben Falcone have yet to advance beyond the idea that it's funny when she falls over.

High concept, low laugh count

Thunder Force, the pair's fifth collaboration, might not be the laziest screenplay Falcone has written as a star vehicle for his partner, but its high concept still can't disguise his lack of original ideas. He may have conjured up a dystopian vision of a world plagued with super villains who are in cahoots with the most corrupt politicians to endlessly rig the system, but he never gets remotely close to creating an anarchic superhero comedy in the same vein as The Boys. He's too preoccupied with seemingly endless set pieces where his wife struggles to fit into a car seat to transform this tired project into something with the same amount of laughs, let alone depth.

Lydia (Melissa McCarthy) and Emily (Octavia Spencer) were best friends at high school, despite being complete opposites; Emily was an academic star, while Lydia was, well, a Melissa McCarthy character. They lost touch over the years, but on the night of their high school reunion, Lydia goes to Emily's office to coax her over and finds herself unwillingly becoming the subject of the experiment Emily has spent years working on. For decades, a group of supervillains known as "miscreants" have been terrorizing the world, and killed Emily's parents when she was very young. She's built a machine that would have given her super strength — only for Lydia to unwittingly be injected instead.

Naturally, Lydia is then recruited as part of this superhero experiment, while Emily starts a treatment that would make her invisible. The pair team up under the name Thunder Force, with the hope of taking down notorious miscreant Laser (Pom Klementieff, best known as Mantis in the Marvel Cinematic Universe), but find themselves falling deeper into a supervillain underworld. Chicago's mayoral candidate (Bobby Cannavale) has secret powers, and is leading a gang of villains (including a half-human, half-crab played by Jason Bateman) into further solidifying his grip on the city. With Chicago in greater danger than the citizens realize, only Thunder Force can save the day.

The world-building here may not exactly be on par with your average Marvel origin story, but on paper, it does at least show an ambition not commonly associated with Falcone and McCarthy's collaborations. The problem with Thunder Force is that it never shows an interest in exploring this world, and outside of Emily's backstory, never grapples with what it's like to be a regular citizen living in a world overruled by supervillains. It's a dystopia in all but name, but you'd never guess from glancing at the screen — in the present day, the most destruction we see the miscreants get up to is vandalizing a church and robbing a convenience store. It's hardly high-stakes stuff; the world that is being built through exposition dumps looks nothing like the one where the action takes place.

Thunder Force has the strange distinction of being significantly shorter than your average superhero blockbuster, but more sluggishly paced. There are several moments when the film pauses for Melissa McCarthy to do her wacky comedy bits, and it's a master class of autopilot acting — a low-energy attempt at high-energy riffing, where she does torturously extensive impressions of Urkel and (weirdly) Jodie Foster in Nell to the clear embarrassment of everyone onscreen. That aforementioned scene ends with Melissa Leo's character remarking that she's bored by what she's just witnessed, and it's the only time the film shows any sign of self awareness to how unfunny it is. The final nail in the coffin is just how bored and uncommitted the ensemble appears during these heavily referential moments — and the viewer, too, will be too disinterested to even cringe at the painfully unfunny attempts at comedy. It becomes background noise even as you are giving it your full attention.

A superhero parody that doesn't care about superhero movies

Dated pop culture references are everywhere in this screenplay, up to and including characters bonding over playing Fortnite, which leaves one subplot feeling like a long-lost relic from 2018. But what is a surprise is that, despite being a superhero parody that has arrived in the wake of more than a decade of Marvel/DC box office dominance, it refuses to mine any comedy from referencing any other superhero fare. This isn't a family friendly Kick-Ass — this peculiarly exists in a world where the very idea of a superhero movie doesn't exist. Again, a stronger screenplay would explore this idea with more depth, but the very idea of a world overrun by the pettiest of villains is treated as an afterthought.

The villain who does get the most screen time, Jason Bateman's typically sardonic crab, is the closest we get to a recognizable superhero parody. It's a relief that the film avoids the most obvious, groan-inducing references to comic book adventures, but at the same time, it's hard to get any sense that Ben Falcone has any affection for the genre. And if you're going to make a superhero comedy, you have to at least have a sense of what it is that makes the very best of them work.

Thunder Force is exactly the laugh-free experience that it looks like from the outside — but the biggest surprise might be just how much wasted potential there is here. There's a solid idea for a superhero buddy comedy hiding in plain sight, but Ben Falcone's screenplay cares more about lazy jokes than it does exploring the fascinating world it has built. Melissa McCarthy, we are begging you: please stop making movies with your husband.