There’s a lot about the Netflix superhero comedy Thunder Force that feels unforgivably lazy. It’s full of creaky jokes, baffling design choices, and sections that suffer from strangely poor production values. Even Melissa McCarthy and Octavia Spencer, usually excellent performers, feel off their game in roles that should be fun. There is one element, however, which transcends all of this and suggests a better, weirder movie that could have been. It is this: Jason Bateman plays a guy with crab claws for arms.
Bateman’s morally shifty character The Crab is one of a number of normal people given super-abilities after an explosion of radioactivity. Other characters have pretty standard powers like laser eyes or super strength. Bateman walks around with giant crab pincers that he clacks seductively at McCarthy’s character, and which make it impossible for him to hold a martini glass. It’s a fantastic, bizarre choice that hints Ben Falcone’s movie could have headed to Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar territory, and would have been better for it. Unfortunately, Thunder Force commits instead to being a cliche, sort-of superhero satire.
Thunder Force begins in the 1980s, when the aforementioned radioactive event gave superhuman abilities to a number of civilians, creating a population of supervillains known as miscreants. Spencer’s Emily Stanton and McCarthy’s Lydia Berman are childhood friends who met after Emily’s parents were killed. As adults, Emily–a biotech billionaire–and Lydia, a dock worker, reconnect when Lydia inadvertently takes some super-soldier serum that Emily has created. Now the pair have to join forces to stop The King (Bobby Cannavale), a power-hungry Chicago mayoral candidate, and his miscreant lackeys, Laser (Pom Klementieff) and Bateman’s aforementioned human-crustacean hybrid.
The script here (also written by Falcone) feels uninspired, relying on exposition-dumps via TV news segments, and recycling familiar tropes both from comics and cartoons, as well as McCarthy’s repertoire. Lydia is basically The Heat’s Mullins minus the Irish-Catholic family dynamics. Spencer’s Emily has a good backstory that hints at some interesting points regarding the pressure sometimes felt by people of color to achieve dreams their family couldn’t. However, those elements are never fully developed, and the character ends up feeling joyless and flat, something that comes across in Spencer’s lackluster performance.
But then we get to those crab hands. Bateman and McCarthy both make an absolute meal out of them (literally–there’s a wild moment involving some Old Bay seasoning, and a running joke about shellfish). Everything else in Thunder Force feels thuddingly obvious and unsurprising. Bateman’s giant claws, however, are weird enough and funny enough that you can’t help wishing the rest of the movie was willing to lean into that element and just go for broke. Instead, there’s a tonal imbalance between it and the more sincere parts that gives the sense that Falcone is just unable to pick a lane. Ultimately, he’s picked the easier and duller of the two roads, which is extra disappointing, given the more creative option that’s staring the rest of us in the face.
“Thunder Force” is now streaming on Netflix.