The phrase “Everyone can be a superhero” is a common one. And believable, too, until you watch movies. When I think of a superhero, I see someone hot or young and hot. Someone the media would label as desirable. It’s hard for me to think of a superhero who doesn’t have a perfect body, perfect skin, and if you’re a woman, someone who isn’t under forty. And when a superhero doesn’t fit into that specific mold, they’re treated as a running joke. Think “Fat Thor,” an incredibly divisive transformation that some fat people identified with positively, while others saw it as nothing more than fat, depressed people being the butt of others’ cruel and unnecessary jokes. Whatever your take on Thor’s new look may be, it’s not often we see a film that takes the idea that superheroes come in every shape and size and actually believes it. In the press notes for Ben Falcone’s latest writing and directing venture, one of the film’s stars, Octavia Spencer, is quoted as saying that she assumed at first that she would be playing a “doctor-type” role. “No one would ever call me to be a superhero in an action film,” she says. And why not? It’s Octavia fucking Spencer! Has no one seen Ma or Luce? The range! She can do anything, including being a kick-ass superhero. Thunder Force is about two friends who grow up wanting to be just that. But at its heart, it’s a touching film about friendship and motherhood.
Falcone’s love of comic books is clear from the film’s very first opening frames. In an emboldened comic book style, the narrative’s origins are laid out in panels. The story is as follows: In 1983, a massive pulse of interstellar cosmic rays struck the earth. These cosmic rays triggered a genetic transformation in a select few, unleashing unimaginable superpowers. But these powers were only unlocked in individuals predisposed to be sociopaths. These superhumans came to be known as “Miscreants.” While these villains were wreaking havoc, a group of scientists were desperately trying to figure out a way to alter the DNA of regular people to give them the same powers to fight back. Among these scientists were the parents of Emily (Octavia Spencer) who were killed in the crossfire of a Miscreant attack. At just 12-years-old, her ambition to continue what her parents started is clear. Often picked on for her grief and intelligence, she befriends Lydia (Melissa McCarthy and played at an earlier age by her daughter Vivian who is a dead-ringer for McCarthy) who is quick to punch out the bullies. She’s rough around the edges and loves nothing more than classic rock. They’re two outcasts and total opposites but have the same superhero ambitions.
But as most friendships do, the duo grows apart. However, the pair reunites on the night of their high school reunion when Lydia visits the new offices of Emily’s company, Stanton 4.0. Inside is where Emily has been developing the DNA-altering serum that her parents never completed. This reunion gets complicated when Lydia’s curious nature leads her to be injected with Emily’s newly developed and untested formula for super strength. And after a 33-day long training session, Emily develops powers of her own and together they form Thunder Force – a childhood fantasy come true, but are they up for it? The answer is: absolutely. And the reason being is because, frankly, the film’s villains are run-of-the-mill. A first for representation in the genre has the right to explore similar superhero movie beats, but when these kinds of stories come by the dozens every five years, you have to try to be more creative, especially in the writing. The villains include Bobby Cannavale as The King who’s a power-hungry billionaire with White House aspirations. He’s assembled a team of Miscreants, including Laser (Pom Klementieff), who shoots lasers, and The Crab (Jason Bateman), who has crab claws for hands. In the film’s press notes, Klementieff mentions that Laser has a “very dark past,” but that past is never explored. We only ever see her in the present, leaving destruction in her wake. Providing the villains with more backstory would have aided in making them feel less familiar.
Having been friends for over twenty years, Spencer and McCarthy are the perfect duo. As Lydia, McCarthy has, of course, the more comedic dialogue. But like most comedies, some of the gags here are unfunny and awkward, and honestly just make you gag (she does too much with raw chicken). She’s very blunt, which creates a lot of the funny banter between her character and Spencer’s. There have been many angry, vengeful scientists in film, but Emily is no villain. She’s a character desperately seeking justice, and with an equally intelligent daughter at her side. We say that all moms are superheroes, but it’s literally the case here, and they share a heartwarming dynamic. The chemistry between all three of these women is so playful and infectious.
Thunder Force is light and fun entertainment. And while touching on familiar themes like the blurred line between heroes and villains and whether heroes do more harm than good, it takes what other films would deem as “unlikely” heroes and says they are far from it.