When I sat down to watch Thunder Force, I wasn’t expecting Black Panther for fat women. I didn’t go in thinking that a Ben Falcone directed movie would make groundbreaking strides in cinematic body diversity. Instead, I went into the first fat female led superhero film with relatively low expectations, the main one being that Melissa McCarthy and Octavia Spencer’s characters would be would be treated with dignity.
It starts out on the right foot. Lydia (McCarthy) and Emily (Spencer) grew up in a world without superheroes but overrun with supervillain mutants, called miscreants. In true comic book fashion, one such miscreant kills Emily’s parents and in retaliation Emily vows to grow up and stop miscreants from their evil deeds. Along the way, the dedicated, hesitant, and bookish Emily meets her polar opposite, Lydia, a streetwise and reckless teenager who hates bullies and likes to stick up for the little guy by being obnoxious. After a falling out and years of not speaking, Lydia decides to visit Emily at her new lab where she accidentally injects herself with the chemical formula for super strength.
It’s pretty formulaic from there. The two form a team, try to fight miscreants played by Jason Bateman (Ozark, Arrested Development), Pom Klementieff (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2), and Bobby Cannavale (Blue Jasmine), fail a few times, and clash over their respective plans to save Chicago before putting aside their pasts and deciding to fight together to keep the city safe.
As performances go, McCarthy gives the standard “lovable’ slob we’ve come to expect from her when she works with Falcone, who happens to be her husband. Her characters in Tammy, The Boss, Identity Theft and The Happytime Murders all seem to feel like shades of each other. With Thunder Force, McCarthy’s over the top performance is expected, and at times, feels like a parody of itself. Lydia feels like a caricature of a person. In fact, Vivian Falcone’s version of the younger Lydia feels more natural and charismatic than her mother’s take on the character.
As for Spencer’s Emily, she’s completely wooden. Despite being friends with McCarthy for over twenty years, the two lack chemistry in these roles. McCarthy completely bulldozes over Spencer with her comedic antics, leaving the Oscar winner to pick up the emotional slack. Ben Falcone’s script does her no favors. Her character is completely underwritten and is given less of an arch compared to McCarthy.
With the plot being as predictable as it is and McCarthy giving us a character we’ve seen from her before, Falcone’s script plays it safe. Not only does it try to hit the comic beats you’re expecting and play into tired gags, he completely ignores the fact he is making a superhero film with two plus size women over the age of forty. While Falcone is never one to make a socially conscious comedy (Super Intelligence is the exception), his decision to ignore the impact of the groundbreaking firsts the film touts hurts Thunder Force overall. Paul Feig’s 2015 spy comedy Spy (which McCarthy also starred in) demonstrates the right way to explore these ideas, creating tension and comedic situations from conceit that no one would believe a middle aged, overweight woman in her forties could be capable of taking down the world’s most accomplished spies. The result is one of the most body positive comedies to date.
Falcone’s failure to acknowledge fatness in the film is nothing new to the superhero and comic book world, as body diversity is still a rather contested issue. Fanboys want their hot thin women with unrealistic proportions. Many argue that a fat physique goes against superhero type. I would counter that superheroes who receive their powers genetically could theoretically still be fat, just like fat people can be double jointed. Characters could still retain their fatness if they gain their powers through experimentation or a vat of toxic waste. If the only difference between our world and a superhero one are superpowers, then logically fat people would be able to fly, turn invisible, and have super strength, as we see in Thunder Force.
Comic book houses have rarely cashed in on that idea, making most of their fat characters villains, often portrayed as dumb slobs (The Blob, Penguin, The Shadow King, King Pin, to name a few of the most famous). There is a notable plus sized Marvel superhero known as Big Bertha, who can balloon up to 630 lbs and uses her body mass to become indestructible. Depending on the iteration, Bertha is portrayed as a freak show attraction, prostitute, and in her 1989 debut, as a supermodel who throws up in order to return to her size-two figure. You can imagine why Marvel hasn’t integrated her into the MCU.
Fatness is pretty much nonexistent in film adaptations of comics, except for a few side characters. The Blob has popped up in X-men Origins: Wolverine and X-Men: Apocalypse, Peter Parker’s best friend Ned is easily the largest “good guy” character in the MCU, even though he doesn’t have any powers. Happy Hogan appears in various Iron Man and Spiderman vehicles with fluctuating weights, again as a side character with no powers. Chris Hemsworth did don a prosthetic belly to become “Fat Thor” in Avengers: Endgame, but instead of using the weight gain as a device to talk about binge-eating and mental health, it was mainly an excuse to turn the God of Thunder into a depressed Big Lebowski type for comic relief. For the most part, the few fat characters who make a cinematic superhero transition are all male and mostly evil, portrayed as gross, disgusting creatures or as cheap comic fodder.
Other characters are “thinwashed” all together. The Marvel villain King Pin, who appeared in both the film and television versions of Daredevil, are played by large imposing actors who are more muscle than fat. In 2019’s Shazam, Pedro, a fat teenager, gains the ability to magically turn into an adult superhero, but instead of embracing his size and incorporating his natural body type into his superhero persona, he turns into a muscular hunk.
Like past fat superhero depictions, Thunder Force feels like a missed opportunity. Not only is it the first time fat female superheroes have appeared onscreen, its one of only a handful of superhero films led by women. Instead of Falcone and McCarthy embracing these facts and creating a smart narrative around it, the film breezes right past it. They go for the cheap laugh. “Oh a fat character is experiencing a weird side effect to their power? Let’s have her gorge herself on raw chicken. Lydia needs a love interest! Let’s have Jason Bateman wear crab claw arms! We’ll douse him in butter and Old Bay during the sex scene! It will be hilarious!” You wouldn’t see Scarlet Johansson or Zoe Saldana participate in a scene like that. These stereotypical gags may seem meaningless, but they contribute to the societal narrative that fat women are sloppy, lazy, and gluttonous archetypes without strength, control or valor. Any superhero butt-kicking that Spencer and McCarthy actually do in the film is completely overshadowed by these lazy and harmful bits.
In 2018, Sony announced they were developing a feature film based on the Valiant Comic character Faith. Easily one of Valliant’s most popular and beloved heroes, Faith is a comic book nerd and entertainment news writer by day, a superhero by night, and a passionate, funny, self-aware do-gooder all the time (think a bubbly & positive version of Deadpool). She has the ability to control air, meaning she can create force fields, shields, wind blasts, and even fly. She’s also fat, meaning if this movie were to be made, we would see a fat woman fly across the screen, defying gravity and societal expectations. It’s a shame Thunder Force can’t be that film. If only the producers were brave.
Thunder Force is streaming on Netflix. Watch the trailer below.