Going through the bulk of Melissa McCarthy’s filmography leading up to Thunder Force hitting Netflix this weekend makes this writer ponder a question. What’s the female equivalent of the “manchild” strereotype? Because other than the Y chromosome, the top physical comedienne of her generation keeps playing the kinds of lovable losers we’ve seen Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell, and every Judd Apatow lead play for more than two decades. So what does one call an immature woman in their 40s incapable of making their own decisions, let alone good ones?
TVTropes.org says such a character is in-between “The Ingenue” and the “Genki Girl,” for whatever that means. Ask the anonymous internet on GirlsAskGuys.com and they’ll call “manchild” a gendered insult and cite the double standard where similar behavior by women is labeled “cute” more than problematic. The best answer came in a 2015 editorial by Shannon Kelly on The New Republic analyzing Amy Schumer in Trainwreck (there’s that Apatow streak for you) calling this archetype a “grown-ass-woman-fiasco,” or G.A.W.F., characterized humorously by:
We know her in life. Her checking account overdrawn, her roots overgrown, her whiskey (Bulleit) on the rocks, her hatchback backseat littered with oranging Taco Bell wrappers (and glove compartment rich with a cache of leftover Fire Sauce), her cat’s Instagram account medium-famous.
That list is ultra-specific, but a bunch of that is McCarthy’s Lydia Berman in Thunder Force. Trade for frazzled red hair, vintage hair band shirts, Old Style beer lunches, breakfast cereal drowned in expired milk, a “Taters!” catchphrase, and no friends or fame whatsoever and you’ve got her. True to the label, Lydia’s lovable loser has a good heart willing to support her equally less fortunate peers. That’s what led her as a kid to fend off Chicago schoolyard bullies and earn a friendship with Emily Stanton, the square-ish bookworm destined for world-changing status after the loss of her parents.
As they grew into teens, the highly intelligent Emily grew away from the irresponsible Lydia and they parted ways. Decades later, the adult Emily (Oscar winner Octavia Spencer) is the celebrated founding scientist of her own namesake biotech company while Lydia (McCarthy) is the blue collar ruffian matching the earlier description. What bends all of this to fantasy is the world they have inhabited.
Years ago, a cosmic storm unlocked superhuman traits in people predisposed to be sociopaths. That has led cities like Chicago to become tormented by those who have been dubbed “Miscreants,” lawless and violent metahumans like Laser (Guardians of the Galaxy member Pom Klementieff) with no authorities capable of stopping them. Emily’s parents were casualties of such collateral damage when she was a kid. Combating this threat has become the top political issue of a tight mayoral race between the Rachel Gonzales (TV mainstay Melissa Ponzio) and Edward “The King” Stevens (loquacious favorite Bobby Cannavale) and also the lifelong mission of Emily’s scientific work.
Leave it to the bull-in-the-china-shop character to ruin nice things. When Lydia visits Emily with the hopes of reunion, she is left alone and inadvertently receives the serum injection procedure Emily has been working on for years to grant normal humans abilities to match the Miscreants. So much for listening and not touching anything. In doing so, the tropes of the manchild now mix with those from the comic book realm in trying fashion.
From there, Thunder Force is like a weak and failing paper towel variety that only spreads a mess around worse rather than truly absorbing it cleanly. Writer-director Ben Falcone’s movie spends half its running time on childhood backstory, current rekindled buddy time, and extended hero training to form McCarthy and Spencer, both now spry 50-year-olds, into “Hammer” and “Bingo” of the self-titled duo of Thunder Force. Small characters of more grounded intelligence, like Melissa Leo’s former CIA organizer Allie and Emily’s genius daughter Tracy (played by Taylor Mosby of Breakthrough) grease a few squeaky wheels to keep things moving towards future confrontations and foregone conclusions framed as moral-tearing decisions that really aren’t that heavy.
The most abundant lubricant of all, though, comes from the melted butter caused by Jason Bateman’s tweener character of The Crab. Initially nefarious, Thunder Force strikes up an odd attraction between Bateman and McCarthy on opposing sides of the pillow fight conflicts. More than anything, Bateman turns on the charm as a winking, middle-aged thirst trap of sexualized seafood jokes that don’t all land well. You will find his character to either be a scene-stealing jolt or a complete sideshow distraction that sucks away focus. He’s probably both.
It’s comedic and storytelling decisions like Bateman’s usage and other moves that echo an in-movie debate repeated by Spencer’s intellectual throughout the show. It’s the difference between being “smart” or being a “nerd.” With Thunder Force, are we watching something smart that flips gender roles and adds playfulness to the hotly popular comic book movie scene, or are we watching a troupe of well-financed nerds who enjoy their mutual company and apply their shared humor of inside jokes the rest of us aren’t going to get in an easy mark of a genre that’s popular in order to remain popular themselves?
Thunder Force, made and wrapped before the pandemic, feels grossly like the latter. This is the fifth husband-and-wife/director-and-star collaboration between Ben Falcone and Melissa McCarthy. Sure, the Frank Sonnnenberg saying of “if work isn’t fun, you’re not playing on the right team” applies to this ensemble. Everyone’s clearly having fun but the “because I’m fun” lines aren’t enough this time. Once again, we’ve seen these “think before you act” and “don’t get carried away” manchild pleadings too much outside of superhero costumes to be duped into enjoying them just because they’re now clad in muscular leather and special effects.