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The Mid-Budget Comedy Is Looking for a New Home … in the Superhero Genre

Melissa McCarthy’s new Netflix movie, ‘Thunder Force,’ is just the latest to use the ultra-dominant genre as a lifeboat

Getty Images/Netflix/Ringer illustration

In the third act of the new Netflix movie Thunder Force, Melissa McCarthy and Jason Bateman have some extremely steamy sex. Sex scenes usually aren’t much to write home about, but this one is [clears throat] unconventional to say the least. McCarthy’s character whips out Old Bay seasoning from her bra and sprinkles it on her eager costar. “I’m gonna throw you in that hot tub and have myself a low-country boil,” she says. This is where it’s helpful to note that Bateman is playing a superpowered individual called “the Crab,” who has crab claws for hands. Whatever the two characters get up to in that hot tub is, mercifully, left to the audience’s imagination. But give Thunder Force some credit: You don’t see a woman hooking up with a crab-man every day, let alone in a superhero movie.

While Netflix already has dipped its toes in the superhero blockbuster pool—the streamer dropped The Old Guard and Project Power last summer—Thunder Force is a different type of gambit. Superheroics aside, the film fits neatly into the wheelhouse of director Ben Falcone, McCarthy’s husband and frequent collaborator who’s responsible for the comedies Tammy, The Boss, Life of the Party, and Superintelligence. In Thunder Force, Falcone brings the same blend of sight gags and low-brow humor, which is made somewhat watchable by a surprisingly talented roster of actors. (Joining McCarthy and Bateman for the ride are Octavia Spencer, Bobby Cannavale, Melissa Leo, and Guardians of the Galaxy’s Pom Klementieff.) Thunder Force is very much a comedy in the mid-2010s mold, but at the same time, it fits into a genre that’s been Hollywood’s biggest moneymaker over the past decade.

Mid-budget studio films, comedies especially, are increasingly a dying breed; pivoting to a streamer to poke fun at superheroes is nothing if not a sensible way to keep making silly movies at a decent budget. (If Jason Bateman with crab claws for hands wasn’t enough of a hint, Thunder Force is quite ridiculous.) While Thunder Force does include the requisite amount of superhero world-building—a group of sociopaths were struck by cosmic rays that gave them extraordinary abilities; Spencer plays a scientist developing a formula for ordinary people to fight back with powers of their own—it’s almost exclusively in the service of jokes about how superhero outfits smell awful because they’re not machine washable.

Given that mainstream audiences have an insatiable appetite for all things superheroes, Thunder Force aims to leverage that enthusiasm to draw enough eyeballs for Netflix to consider the project a win. (We’ll know the company is really pleased if it releases some self-tabulated metrics about how many users watched the movie over its opening weekend.) The fact that the movie isn’t particularly good or funny won’t matter, in the same way Adam Sandler’s critical failures didn’t matter when Netflix doubled down on its partnership with him. As far as the broader superhero landscape goes, Thunder Force will likely be a forgettable footnote. (I will be seeing Bateman’s pincers covered in Old Bay seasoning until my dying breath, though.) But the circumstances surrounding Thunder Force’s existence point toward a larger trend in superhero movies, where comedy is prioritized at the expense of action and drama.

While the Marvel Cinematic Universe is regarded as a quippy franchise that doesn’t take itself too seriously, especially compared to the often dour tone of the DC Extended Universe, the films weren’t always so comically inclined. The humor in the original Iron Man isn’t on the page so much as it was brought to life by Robert Downey Jr.’s unconventional performance, which was less Christian Bale in The Dark Knight and more “self-aware Elon Musk on the verge of an existential crisis.” (A reminder that a chunk of this movie features Tony Stark being held captive by terrorists and considering what kind of damage his awful company has inflicted upon the world.) The MCU didn’t really find its signature sauce until the now-disgraced Joss Whedon brought his sensibilities to The Avengers, a team-up movie predicated on snappy one-liners and its heroes silently bonding over shawarma.

Since then, Marvel has found undeniable success putting its projects in the hands of filmmakers with comedy backgrounds, from Shane Black to James Gunn to Jon Watts to the Russo brothers. (Pre-Marvel, the Russos won an Emmy for Arrested Development and directed several acclaimed episodes of Community.) And more recently, the MCU has embraced movies that put punch lines ahead of literal punching. Thor: Ragnarok and Ant-Man and the Wasp are so caught up in silly tangents—whether it’s Jeff Goldblum basically playing himself as a space dictator or Michael Peña arguing over the veracity of truth serum—that it’s easy to forget its heroes have to save the day. Those two MCU entries are comedies first, and action-oriented superhero movies second.

Of course, this trend isn’t exclusive to the MCU: Deadpool brought his crass, fourth-wall-breaking antics to his own R-rated stand-alone movie and an even more ludicrous sequel before 21st Century Fox was acquired by Disney. (Deadpool will be part of the MCU going forward, which should be, uh, interesting.) And outside of the larger Marvel and DC cinematic universes, offbeat superhero flicks like Super, Kick-Ass, and The Green Hornet have carved out a niche.

It’s not that comedy is the only genre crossover superhero projects have attempted—Sony Pictures’ Brightburn, released in 2019, is a nasty little horror movie that perverts the Superman mythos—but its frequency and broader box office success underlines that it’s the most seamless match. After all, how can you look at people wearing wacky costumes and not, on some level, realize how ridiculous it all is? Even Batman, long before he became a poster child for superhero broodiness to the extent that there are LEGO-based parodies, was memorably lampooned on-screen by the great Adam West.

When it comes to comedy chops, Thunder Force isn’t in the same league as West’s Batman—or LEGO Batman, for that matter—but the same unabashedly goofy sentiment applies. If superheroes aren’t going to be revered as genuine myths by an auteur with an uncompromising artistic vision that needs four hours to breathe, or so admired that they’re the subject of Best Picture rule changes, what’s wrong with leaning into the absurdity of it all, especially if doing so keeps the industry’s best comedic performers employed? Crab-man Jason Bateman might be an abomination best served with a side of warm butter, but like the rest of Thunder Force, he’s just following the superhero current to its most logical conclusion.