In Melissa McCarthy and Octavia Spencer's superhuman comedy Thunder Force, everyone's a hero
Director Ben Falcone debuts exclusive images and tells EW how he, McCarthy, and Spencer humanized superheroes through comedy, crab sex, and '80s dance numbers.
Thunder Force (2021 Movie)
By now, most of us know how superhero origin stories go: Under every crusader's cape is a real, live Person™ grounded by earthly trifles, like daddy issues, brooding self-doubt, and romantic angst. But Melissa McCarthy and Octavia Spencer's new action-comedy Thunder Force peels back an even more potent layer for the genre: Smelly super suits.
"There are so many things you start to think about with superhero movies. He's got this nanotechnology, but how does Iron Man wash his suit?" writer-director (and husband to McCarthy) Ben Falcone tells EW of mining his vast, historical genre knowledge to map the film's tone, which both embraces and affectionately lampoons the self-seriousness of classic superhero films. "[You know] he's stinky in that Iron Man suit!"
Falcone's decades-long appreciation for comic books and their blockbuster adaptations inspired him to present "a slightly different take" on a traditional tale of heroism, one that anchors its leads with endearing humanity and relatable quirks — like a running joke about the stench of McCarthy's unwashable getup — in a story that plays on its characters' mortal shortcomings as much as it marvels at their unnatural powers.
Thunder Force follows a pair of childhood friends — the rebellious rulebreaker Lydia (McCarthy) and her bookworm companion, Emily (Spencer) — who grow up and apart in a world peppered with villainous "Miscreants" (essentially: sociopaths struck by cosmic rays that gave them extraordinary abilities). The mismatched friends later reunite after their high school reunion. Emily has since become a famous scientist who developed a procedure that gives "normal" humans prodigious brawn, and Lydia inadvertently becomes patient No. 1 — all while a power-hungry politician (Bobby Cannavale) poses a new threat to the city of Chicago.
If that setup sounds familiar in structure, your expectations are right where Falcone wants them.
"I wanted to make a movie that lives comfortably in the world of superhero movies — that's also really funny," Falcone explains. "I wanted to utilize those tropes in a way I could spin toward comedy, but I wasn't trying to make fun of superhero movies, because I do love them with all of my heart!"
Falcone's dual approach is clear in his presentation of quintessential images: In Thunder Force, flexing superhuman strength leads to hefty collateral damage (Lydia can throw city buses clear across town, but destroys a city monument in the process), sleek hero mobiles aren't friendly to mature bodies (the duo's purple Lamborghini rides cool and low — too low for the women to gracefully exit), and those pristine, crime-fighting costumes (made in collaboration with The Amazing Spider-Man and The Avengers minds at Ironhead Studio) definitely aren't machine washable.
It all adds up to an amusing portrait of heroism rooted in authenticity and charm.
"Being so immersed in the tropes is one of the reasons why Octavia's character listens to [Glenn Frey] pump-up music before they go on a mission, which could be seen as satirical, but I just wanted to make [my] version of The Thing walking around with his beer. Like, this guy is the strongest thing in the world, but he walks around crushing beers!" Falcone says.
But for every charmingly jarring beat Thunder Force hits as Lydia and Emily battle almighty Miscreants (Avengers star Pom Klementieff plays one) and their brutish henchmen (including Falcone in a small role), the helmer throws in an absurdist, fantastical wrench just when you feel the film veering into formulaic territory.
For starters, there's a hilarious third-act sex scene involving Jason Bateman's Miscreant outcast The Crab (he's all man, save for two limbs' worth of pincers), melted butter, and Old Bay, atop a surreal, mid-heist dance number involving heavy wire work and tons of '80s fringe.
"We're in a genre where you can go for it, where magic happens, where amazing things happen," Falcone says, admitting that he and McCarthy — who devised the makeup and hair for the dance sequence (and harnessed herself into a rig for her own stunts) — let their imaginations run wild over their fifth feature collaboration as director and star.
It's these innocent, practical eccentricities that make Thunder Force an engaging deviation from the Hollywood norm. Still, there's greater depth to the project as well. Falcone says the fact that the film slots two women over 50 into the roles of leading superheroes wasn't a personal mandate, but its significance deserves to be celebrated nonetheless.
"When I came up with the idea for the bones of the story, it was: What would happen if the world was overrun by villains and we had to create heroes. Who would do that? It'd be someone who's really smart and rich. Who could play that? Octavia! And we've wanted to work with Octavia forever, so it was less [about starting] from this place of their age, gender, or anything else, and starting from a place of 'Who's a brilliant person?'" he remembers. "As we developed it, I hadn't seen ladies in their mid-40s as superheroes, it's something you don't see a lot. It was fun, but more of a side-effect than a frontal try."
And with all the might of her Oscar-winning chops guiding her performance as the brainy mastermind, Spencer, too, fell victim to on-set hijinks. Like the time a rogue gust of wind endowed her glam squad with abnormal powers.
"Octavia's hair [blew off her forehead], and I saw her very mellow hairdresser, Shannon, just go whoosh, like.... Just running," Falcone says. "I was like, 'Shannon, we're not going to use it, I promise!' I don't know that I've laughed harder on a set. It was just the quietest woman who's the most professional, just talking and hanging out, then she was just gone. She had super-speed. It was so much fun."
In the land of Thunder Force, there's a hero in everyone.
Thunder Force storms Netflix on April 9. See EW's exclusive preview images above.
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