There has always been something funny about superheroes, both the bare imagination of suddenly gaining special abilities and becoming superior to everyone else, as well as the idea of celebrating that specialty by putting on a brightly colored, skin-tight suit and walking around to watch people beat. But pure superhero comedy has always been comparatively rare. Making fun of power fantasies undercuts them and makes them less exciting. And even superhero comedies still have to lead to thrills or emotional catharsis in the end – which usually means going back to a simple approach and competing with the stories that deal with the exact same content without irony or entertainment.
The serious superhero films and TV series have an easier time. Nowadays even the most important ones belong to it something Comedy elements, even if it’s just sneaky jokes between heroes or the occasional exaggerated grotesque surprise death. But there are a dozen superhero drama shows for any downright silly series like that The tickand the relationship in the film is even sharper. That was what Netflix’s comedy film was supposed to do Thunder power Stand out: Apart from scattered examples like Mystery Men or The Lego Batman movieIt competes on an almost empty field.
Instead, Thunder power could help illustrate Why There are so few pure superhero comedy films out there. Superhero Action talks to the secret kid in many of us who sees someone being thrown through a wall and thinks: Whoo that’s bad I wish I could do that. Doing the same thing and making it funny is difficult enough without juggling all of the other complicated elements that make up sharp comedy. Thunder power occasionally nailing the fun aspects of a super powerful world, mostly through sheer force of absurdity. But there are very many elements missing from good comedy in general.
Melissa McCarthy and Octavia Spencer play Lydia and Emily, two forty-year-old women who were close friends from elementary school to high school but haven’t seen each other in decades. (The two girls who played Lydia in earlier years go pretty well with McCarthy’s features and expressions – one of the first pleasant surprises in the film.) Lydia has always been brash, kind, and fearless, but she was never a great student. Emily, on the other hand, was a shy, brilliant nerd obsessed with avenging her parents. As the opening sequence of the film explains, in 1983 “a massive pulse of interstellar cosmic rays” hit the earth through a series of moving comic panels, giving the sociopaths nothing but superpowers. The resulting supervillains were called “Miscreants”. Emily’s parents of scientists were killed by miscreants, and she has made it her life goal to continue her parents’ work and find a way to empower ordinary people and create heroes to fight the bad guys.
When Lydia and Emily reunite in middle age, Lydia is a deserted and seemingly unfriendly forklift driver, and Emily is the director of a thriving tech company poised to achieve that goal alongside her brilliant 15-year-old daughter Tracy (Taylor Mosby) and her ex-CIA enabler Allie (Melissa Leo). Of course, Lydia manages to interfere and get involved in the process. After a long, unlikely series of treatments, she ends up superpowered. It doesn’t take long for Emily to have her own super skills, and they want to fight crime together.
Like so many of McCarthy’s comedies (Tammy, The boss, Life of the party, Super intelligence) Thunder power was directed by her husband, Ben Falcone, although this is his first time writing as a soloist. As in his other films, it depends heavily on the lowest comedy: pitfalls, gross gags, protracted humiliation scenarios, and McCarthy’s character who is clumsy and clueless – so clueless that she screams “Shotgun!” to indicate that she wants to drive the car she is getting in and so clumsy, she manages to turn off a prominent Chicago landmark while accomplishing absolutely nothing to excuse it. Shortly after her superhero serum is administered, her metabolism shifts until the only food she craves is raw chicken, and Falcone returns several times to the literal gag of her glittering pink glistening cups in her mouth.
Each viewer has to individually come to terms with whether they find such things funny enough to laugh when they happen again and again. But the frustrating part of Thunder power is not vulgarity or cheap repetition, it is the timing of the story. Falcone spends a good 45 minutes on setup and not because it takes that much time to provide the sparse information. Gags that go on for far too long – like Lydia and Emily, who disagree on whether Glenn Frey’s “Smuggler’s Blues” is a bop who then sings along, or a negligible character who clumsily botches knock-knock jokes – are a recurring theme. And those scratchy, overly lengthy jokes come at the expense of a really necessary character interaction.
Some of the best moments in the movie come when Spencer and McCarthy actually talk to each other like humans instead of cutting up McCarthy and Spencer refuses to react. Spencer’s performances usually come from a quiet, stable, down-to-earth location, and she logs in a lot of ungrateful time Thunder power as McCarthy’s straightforward comedy slide. The snob and slob routine is a classic comedy pairing, but in this case it mostly feels like McCarthy is having all the fun, and Spencer sticks to the task of narrowing it down without humor. Some of the funniest moments happen either when she’s not around to play Killjoy, or when Emily allows her own gentle gags, like her muttered, defiant protests that she’s a fun person, too.
Spencer also logs a ton of ungrateful time crouching invisibly while McCarthy uses her superpower to bring up the riot. Thunder power‘s trailers depended on the confirmatory image of two unlikely women strutting proudly and confidently into the superhero realm, despite being heavier, older, and sillier than the st andard superhero image. Falcone doesn’t exactly keep that promise when a black heroine literally disappears behind available cover while her white partner kicks most of the available ass.
But when the two women briefly joke on equal terms, acknowledge the mistakes that caused their friendship to break down, or train as partners, the film reveals some spark of humanity. And there are real laughs outside of their dynamic, especially when it comes to Jason Bateman’s role as supervillain The Crab. Almost all of his scenes are winners and not because he gets the best material or is a better actor than McCarthy and Spencer. That’s because his entire character is a ridiculous imagination, a kind of utter absurdity that is absent from many of the dragger parts of the film.
And Thunder power gets a similar larger-than-life charge from its bigger villains – Bobby Cannavale as the scheming Chicago mayoral candidate, The King, and Guardian of the GalaxyPom Klementieff as his miscreant killer buddy. The extended scenes of The King openly showing off his sociopathy and The Crab calmly trying to contain him are clearly from the same comedy as Lydia and Emily’s interactions. But they’re bigger, brighter, and stranger – something this whole movie could be.
As superhero stories are rampant, spawning billions of dollars in global franchises, and dominating popular culture, they have inevitably turned their backs on pure power fantasy escapism. Increasingly, filmmakers and showrunners feel the need to thoroughly question the nature of superhero narratives and use them as metaphors for how power and responsibility affect grief, racial issues, policing, parenting, and pretty much everything else under the sun. Thunder power at best, it feels like a fix, an attempt to just let heroes and villains be stupid, just have fun for once.
But in a super landscape with so much well-crafted humor mixed in with all the action and pathos, having fun that is so stupid and simple may just not be necessary. It’s worth noting that Falcone has time for one second Scene in which McCarthy and Spencer just stand around singing with another pop hit, and another in which they riffle at length about the Chicago Bears’ 1986 Super Bowl win and their rap hit “The Super Bowl Shuffle”. But he doesn’t have time to make her think twice over the course of a month with superhero treatments of weird science that an irresponsible, impulsive, clunky slacker may not be the best person to bestow superpower on. And it flashes through character building and storyline development so much that the movie feels like an outline waiting for further expansion if the characters can be stopped from exploring their obsessions in pop culture with one another.
It’s almost like being a superhero is hard, but being funny is a lot harder. Thunder power doesn’t have to rival dozens of other superhero comedies, but it does does have to compete with the dramas that mostly accept humor and self-analysis as two of their main storytelling weapons. Comedy reveals people’s flaws and weaknesses, but superhero dramas already do this work from a different direction. It’s hard to be more insightful than the people who take the job and more ridiculous than naturally superheroes. Thunder power is only occasionally revealing and almost never surprising. It comes to a world where people generally expect more from their genre than light, fun performances and a handful of over-stretched gags, and that’s all it has to offer.