Melissa McCarthy and Octavia Spencer make for a good pair. McCarthy — as pottymouthed and unpredictable as she is implacably sincere — is a lit fuse. Next to that, Spencer — even-keeled and venerable, yet hardly humorless, and in her best roles just as unpredictable (see also: 2019’s Ma) — might be expected to come off like one of those bomb specialists in The Hurt Locker, there to temper the scene, rein things in, pull us all back down to earth lest McCarthy blow us all to bits. A good thing about Thunder Force, the pair’s new superhero spoof (which is now streaming on Netflix), is that McCarthy hardly doesn’t get to have all the fun. That’s in part because the movie never quite lights the fuse. Its odd, likable energy isn’t striving to give us the McCarthy who’s unmatchable at her most unhinged, the ball of fury and frustration whose R-Rated jeremiads practically necessitate watching her best performances with a CPR kit handy. But nor is Spencer limited to playing the straight man to a lunatic. The archetypes are there, but the movie makes them flexible.
Which makes for a satisfying watch. McCarthy stars as Lydia Berman, and Spencer as Emily Stanton: a pair of childhood friends, now estranged, who have to save the city of Chicago from the anarchic political tampering of the so-called Miscreants, the supervillains of this story. The Miscreants were once regular-shmegular, everyday sociopaths; then an alien gene mutation struck; now they’re Miscreants, human hybrids with superpowers and bad intentions, here to dredge up all manner of evil and give McCarthy and Spencer an excuse to hang out for an hour and 40-ish minutes. It’s thankfully not an overly involved set-up. Emily’s parents, leading scientists, were killed by Miscreants when she was a kid. So she committed herself to finishing the job they started, pursuing a life of science and Miscreant study — and becoming a nerdy outcast at school, accordingly. In rolls Lydia, bullier of the bullies, there to save Stanton from herself.
The girls have a falling-out when they’re younger and the rift persists until adulthood, with Emily having become a world-renowned scientist and mother and Lydia having grown into a world-renowned mediocrity. They have no reason to cross paths — until. The title probably tells you everything you need to know about who these women become — that is, costumed crime-stoppers, enjoyably out of their depth but also somehow a fair match for the movie’s looming evil. The evil, by the way, manages to pull its weight. Jason Bateman plays a Miscreant with crab arms; his mayoral candidate boss, The King (Bobby Cannavale), hugs people to death; The King’s muscle, a fairy-nightmare named Laser (Pom Klementieff), proves funny, despite having almost no jokes, by being aloof to the point of seeming fully alien.
No one is trying overly hard, for the most part. The movie suffers when they do. Thunder Force is another of McCarthy’s collaborations with her partner, Ben Falcone (who has a small role), and bears all the effortless likability of a well-oiled machine, which cannot help but feel like a real limit on what McCarthy et. al. are capable of while also making a great case for how watchable these actors are when they lean in to being a little washed, a little lo-fi. McCarthy’s always great at playing the bull in the china shop, even when she’s as tempered as she is here. If a character says, “Don’t touch anything,” McCarthy is going to touch it. It’s just her way. Which about summarizes the movie’s approach to everything here. Sure, there’s a plot: a mayoral race to rig, a friendship to repair, a crabby romance to kickstart. Almost nothing overstays its welcome, which feels like the point. It’s a straightforward stint from actors whose version of phoning it in makes us like them more, not less. That’s something.