“Thunder Force,” the latest in a string of dismal comic collaborations between Melissa McCarthy and her husband, Ben Falcone, does nothing to improve upon its predecessors. It does, though, underscore how cemented in shtick McCarthy’s comic characters have become, and how much better this gifted actress deserves.
Written and directed by Falcone with slapdash insouciance, the movie follows the titular duo of zaftig superheroines, Lydia and Emily (McCarthy and Octavia Spencer) as they strive to save Chicago from genetic mutants known as Miscreants. These supervillains, we learn, trace their lineage to 1983, when cosmic rays jangled their D.N.A. (On the plus side, the rays only worked on those already predisposed to sociopathy, conveniently releasing Thunder Force from any sticky ethical constraints.)
Any crime-fighting, though, is only the silly sauce on what is essentially a story of an odd-couple female friendship. Estranged since high school, Lydia and Emily reconnect as adults when Lydia, now a Bears-loving forklift operator with an impressive beer can collection — in other words, a blue-collar cliché — stumbles into a lab where Emily, a genius geneticist, is testing mystery serums. A few pratfalls and a bit of slapstick later, Lydia has been injected with inhuman strength and Emily treats herself with the remaining serum. I have to believe Spencer was relieved to learn that the superpower it conveyed was invisibility.
As the pair, encased in costumes that make them look like unhappy 16th-century jousters, tackle an embarrassingly small number of Miscreants, a plot of sorts emerges. A skeevy mayoral candidate (Bobby Cannavale) and his pet mutant (Pom Klementieff) — who specializes in lobbing deadly balls of energy — are terrorizing voters. Armed only with a supersized Taser, and musically primed by Glenn Frey, Thunder Force must stop them. Just as soon as Lydia overcomes her lust for a man with crab claws in place of arms.
This bit of sexual slumming is enlivened considerably by Jason Bateman’s sideways-skittering performance as The Crab, a criminal with no discernible superpower and all-too-visible obstacles to romance. He’s not nearly enough, though, to rescue an indolent script with only a handful of funny lines and a seeming confusion over its target audience. The jokes are juvenile, but how many youngsters will recognize Lydia’s mimicry of a 1994 Jodie Foster in “Nell?”
For McCarthy, whose 2019 Oscar nomination for “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” was exceedingly well-earned, a return to drama might not go amiss. It would certainly seem wiser than repeating projects like this one.
Rated PG-13 for suggestive language and human-crustacean foreplay. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes. Watch on Netflix.