In fairness to Thunder Force, a high-concept science-fiction comedy vehicle for Melissa McCarthy written and directed by her husband Ben Falcone that was released as a direct-to-streaming exclusive in the first third of 2021: it is better than Superintelligence, a  high-concept science-fiction comedy vehicle for McCarthy directed (but not written) by Falcone that was released as a direct-to-streaming exclusive in the last third of 2020. Let us be clear that this does not mean that Thunder Force is good, or even that it's not extremely bad. "Well, it's still better than Superintelligence" - or, for that matter, "Well, it's still better than Tammy", the most actively embarrassing of the five Falcone/McCarthy pictures - is sort of like "Well, the toilet seats didn't give me gonorrhea" in a restaurant review.

Anyway, the specific high concept this time is: superheroes. Though it's not a concept that Thunder Force takes all that seriously, using all of the jokes that show up in all of McCarthy's bad movies, but changing the wallpaer to have more CGI. The hook here is that in 1983, extraterrestrial radioactivity or some such thing triggered a selective wave of mutations that gave some people superpowers, but it worked in a strangely selective ways, only affecting sociopaths. Thus there is a race of supervillains, called "Miscreants", and one such baddie operating in Chicago killed the parents of a bright young kid named Emily. With the orphan ending up at the mercy of public school, she came under the wing of the crude, tough Lydia, and the two were best friends until a falling-out in high school. Some 25 or 30 years later, Emily (Octavia Spencer) has devoted herself to developing superpowers for normal people, as the only way to fight the Miscreants, while Lydia (McCarthy) remains crude and tough. They cross paths when Lydia attempts to badger Emily into coming to their high school reunion, and Lydia inadvertently straps herself into a high-tech science chair that injects her with the super-strength formula that Emily has developed; annoyed but undeterred, Emily still takes the "turn-yourself-invisible" pill, and the two women repair their friendship while fighting crime as Thunder Force, and uncovering Miscreant shenanigans in the city's mayoral race.

There are no end of problems with the film, but the biggest one I'd attach strictly to the story I just sketched out is how indifferently it tosses lumps of plot onto a perfectly adequate narrative spine. It would be hard to overstate the degree to which Thunder Force doesn't care about being a superhero movie, and once it has to actually start following through on that, it basically completely folds up: after having stretched a training montage out to something like 10 minutes of screentime, it then covers Thunder Force's entire crime-fighting career in the span of a newscaster saying words to the effect of "the crime rate has gone down thanks to Thunder Force". And in turn means that once the inevitable action-movie finale starts to kick in, it feels unearned and unwanted, a sequence of comic book fighting beats plugged in lazily and gracelessly, barely even flavored with any actual jokes.

On the other hand, this means that the action finale fits in pretty well with the rest of Thunder Force, which is in general barely flavored with any actual jokes. Not in the sense of "well, this is somebody's sense of humor, but it's not mine", but in the sense of, "wait, I think you forgot to put jokes in your comedy". Or maybe Falcone thinks they're jokes. But McCarthy is putting absolutely no energy into them. Early on, for example, there's a conversation between her and Kevin Dunn, playing the adorably crusty owner of her favorite diner, and it has been written to have the kind of snarky-unto-hostile banter that is one of McCarthy's go-to comic modes, but it's performed and cut with a perfunctory listlessness that lets the ostensibly punchy dialogue spill out onto the floor like a potful of cooked spaghetti. There is no effort at putting rhythm or any kind of shape onto the blathering, just watching with detached indifference from unemphatic camera angles as McCarthy and Dunn mumble quips at each other.

That's pretty much the entire film: shrugging at the places where comedy ought to happen. McCarthy has a shtick she can rely on where she repeats words in an agitated, irritable way, or motormouthing her way through sentences that drift off into oblivion, and sometimes she uses it to pretend that this or that bit is funny; Spencer doesn't seem to have considered that even one thing she does in the entire movie might be funny, and instead calmly navigates the two interpersonal relationships that define Emily in the film - one with Lydia, one with her own brainiac daughter Tracy (Taylor Mosby) - as though she wants us to understand the character's emotional turmoil and decision-making processes. As though the script even gives Emily an internal life! (Though it does somewhat confusingly make her the central figure of the prologue before growing the two girls up into the A-list actors, making it feel like the movie has quietly restarted once it becomes a McCarthy vehicle).

The diffident comic tone of the film is pervasive enough that basically all that actually comes across as genuinely funny - or rather, genuinely trying to be funny - is thanks to the work of Melissa Leo and Jason Bateman in two relatively small roles: she plays Emily's assistant, he plays a crab-man Miscreant who is subjected to a romantic subplot that I'm sure was meant to be vividly absurd, but is working so hard to be strange and gross that it feels more pathetic than anything. And when I say that this is the part of the film that works, I'm really scrounging for anything: my favorite joke in the entire movie comes when Leo states, in an authoritative and somewhat affronted tone, "Jodie Foster, 1994" in reference to the movie Nell (in the midst of McCarthy doing a Jodie-Foster-in-Nell impression that dies horribly for a good 10 or 12 uninterrupted seconds), and it's the tone of her delivery that entirely sells the gag. And it's, like, barely a gag. That's about the level that Thunder Force works at: Melissa Leo actually putting in the vocal effort to emphasis the comma in a three-word phrase in a way that will make her character seem amusingly ridiculous is all it takes to stand out as unusually clever. It's not that the film is actively horrendous - mostly, it's just sleepy and boring - but when a bludgeoning comic force like McCarthy barely seems to be alive on set, it's hard to feel anything but disdain for the movie surrounding her.