The “Airplane!” school of chock-full-of-jokes conceptual parody, with its fourth-wall-smashing stupido-smart goofiness, had a pretty impressive run. It ruled for several decades, spawning everything from the “Airplane!” creators’ own “Naked Gun” franchise — to me, the media-age Marx Brothers-worthy masterpiece of the form — to the Wayans brothers’ “Scary Movie” franchise to several dozen comedies, from “Hot Shots!” to “National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon 1” to “Not Another Teen Movie,” that skewered genre after genre after genre with the puckish satiric glee that most of them deserved. But the “Airplane!” school didn’t stick around long enough to mount a full-scale comic attack on the superhero movie. Which is too bad, since it could have been stupendous. What comic-book films, with their authoritarian heroism and CGI bombast, just about cry out for is a parody that’s massively scaled in its high-flying mockery.
A movie like “Thunder Force,” on the other hand, would like to skewer the genre, but it’s basically a whiffleball action comedy studded with middle-drawer Melissa McCarthy gags. The movie teams McCarthy and Octavia Spencer as estranged high-school pals who get back together after a reunion and turn themselves into a superhero team called Thunder Force. Lydia (McCarthy) has super-strength; Emily (Spencer) can turn invisible. Both are devoted to fighting Miscreants, mutant sociopaths who came into being when a pulse of interstellar rays struck the earth in 1983. The two get their superpowers after being injected with a genetic formula pioneered by Emily’s corporation. Inside, though, they remain their deeply ordinary selves, which is part of the joke, though it isn’t much of a joke.
They’ve got armored suits that make them look like members of a medieval S.W.A.T. team. They’ve got a name — Thunder Force! — that sounds just ridiculous enough to have been the title of a Howard Stern “Fartman” movie. They’ve got a purple Lamborghini, which it takes them a minute to stuff themselves into (or wedge themselves out of).
And when they meet the Crab (Jason Bateman), a Miscreant with crustacean pincers for arms, who for some reason is holding up a convenience store, Lydia looks into his eyes and it’s love at first crab pinch. There’s a fantasy sequence in which the two dance to Glenn Frey’s “You Belong to the City,” which is amusing, though I kept thinking that if this had been an “Airplane!”-style spoof, that dance number, with Bateman’s crab/human Lothario in a powder-blue tux, would have grown progressively more absurd, getting loopier and loopier, until it detonated the audience with laughter.
How much of a loser-slob is McCarthy’s Lydia? She’s a lonely alcoholic forklift operator who’s also a metalhead, the kind of person who sits in her kitchen in a VAN HALEN KICKS ASS T-shirt, taking bites of cereal with spoiled milk, which she then remedies by pouring in a beer (“Know what? Gonna thin that out”). She wears an Army jacket and has no friends, though she does have a funny moment when she shows up at the security desk in the office building that houses Emily’s genetics corporation, asking to see her ex-friend (“Estranged, I think, puts a stink on it that it might not warrant…”).
At her best, McCarthy is a whiplash wizard who can wake you up with the perky slap of her delivery. Yet if you watch the movies she’s made during the decade since she broke through with “Bridesmaids” (2011), and you look for the really good stuff, what you’re talking about is bits and pieces of “The Heat” and “Tammy” and “Spy.” None of those movies has much in the way of comic vision. They’re rickety gag dispensers at best. And the fact that McCarthy was so terrific in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” just proves she’s worthy of a comedy that’s so much more than a thinly programmed laugh machine. A comedy like…well, “Bridesmaids.” Or the recent “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar,” in which her former “Bridesmaids” costar Kristen Wiig aimed higher and scored.
“Thunder Force” is the fifth McCarthy movie that her husband, Ben Falcone, has directed (in this case, he also wrote it), and it will come as no surprise to consumers of their past collaborations (“Tammy,” “The Boss,” “Life of the Party,” “Superintelligence”) that this one, too, is slapped together. I’ve chuckled, here and there, at these movies, but in general le cinéma de Falcone is not a pretty (or very funny) thing.
Lydia and Emily have to defeat a Miscreant named Laser (Pom Klementieff), who’s like a Euro dominatrix shooting out lightning bolts of blue fire. They have to face down a megalomaniac mayor (Bobby Cannavale) who’s the kind of generic blowhard Trumpian fascist who calls himself “the King.” And the two have to work out their issues. Emily is the overachiever to Lydia’s bull in a china shop, and Spencer’s performance is, in fact, so earnest that she and McCarthy never establish a shared spirit of comic verve. McCarthy and Jason Bateman sort of do, though their romantic dinner date seems out of a different movie. When the waiter suggests that they order the seafood tower, “Thunder Force” forgets itself entirely and becomes a “Saturday Night Live” sketch. The Crab tells Lydia that the reason he’s a nice Miscreant is that he’s only a “half-Creant,” which she mis-hears as “half-Korean,” which turns into a running gag. If you think that’s funny, then run, don’t crab-walk, to see “Thunder Force.”