By Jessie Tu
Even before Melissa McCarthy and Octavia Spencer appear on screen in Netflix’s latest film Thunder Force, I was teary with emotional solidarity.
“I’m not a nerd, I’m smart. There’s a difference,” a young Emily Stanton (played by Spencer) shouts at her bullies. Along comes Lydia Berman, (played by McCarthy)– a strong teenager who rescues the vulnerable girl on the floor.
I hate violence. But it was superficially satisfying to see a teenage girl punch a teenage boy in the face after he bullies another girl. “Wanna go to the swings?” Lydia asks Emily.
I don’t know why that scene feels so emotional to me, but it’s a scene that I feel is so rare in Hollywood blockbusters. A simple scene of a girl, reaching out to another girl, offering her friendship and attention.
I remember my first day of high school and the oceanic relief I felt when Callie Frankenberg came and spoke to me, then spent recess and lunch with me.
Thunder Force markets itself as a female superhero movie, but really it’s a film about the best kind of female friendship. (The fact that Melissa McCarthy and Octavia Spencer are close friends in real life is patently obvious here).
In the next scene we see Emily make a friendship bracelet for the pair to wear, and for the next few years they are inseparable.
Lydia is white, relaxed, and not studious. She invites Emily to a Van Halen concert. Emily is black, studious and focused. She says no, she has important essays due.
Sure, there are problems with this film — Emily plays the model minority. She is saved by the white girl. Her superpower is invisibility (fitting, when black people are actually invisible on TV, film and on boards etc.) But still, the central motive of this film is to uplift– and it does it effortlessly.
Because, here’s the thing: whenever I think about superhero movies, I can’t wipe the image out of my head of a white male, excruciatingly fit, handsome Chris-Evans-doppelganger. The same goes for women who appear in these films. (I admit, I haven’t yet seen Wonder Woman because there’s no way I see Gal Gadot as anyone I can remotely relate to).
But here, finally, we have a big film that centres two women who don’t fit the supermodel stereotype that less than one percent of the population actually resemble. Finally, a superhero movie that shows who the real superheroes are in our society: women in their forties, working multiple jobs, or caring for their children or parents or the elderly. Women who are usually invisible on the big screen.
Fast-forward twenty years, Lydia (McCarthy) is a Forklift operator and Emily (Spencer) is the founder and CEO of her own biotech company, STANTON 4.0.
Emily’s aim is to power herself up with kick-ass superhero abilities so she can avenge the death of her parents who were killed by these evil baddies called ‘miscreants’.
Lydia is her playful, rebellious self in the office and accidentally administers herself with the power of super strength. The pair go on to fight the evil ‘Laser’ (Pom Klementieff) and ‘The King’ (Bobby Cannavale) whose character is whole-heartedly based on former US president, Donald Trump.
Cannavale plays a pretty convincing narcissist, but when he begins killing his own team members, things feel a bit too close to reality.
Taylor Mosby plays Emily’s daughter, Tracy; a smart, likeable 14-year old who plays Fortnite with Lydia and stays up late reading “Molecular Thermodynamics of Complex Systems” (to which her mother says “phewww. I love that one. Can I read it again after you finish?”) She becomes the Q to their James Bond, introduced to their new gadgets, suits and sports car.
Jason Bateman offers a reliable chuckle, playing ‘The Crab’ — a member of The King’s evil team who is actually only ‘Half’creant’ (not Half-Korean’) and falls in love with Lydia — they have an epic dance sequence, spoofing off La-la Land.
There’s really no need to look at the Rotten Tomato score of this film, (it’s not very high) but I don’t care. Neither should you. Here, finally, we have a movie with explosions and black and white narratives of good and evil that centre women in their 40s.
It’s a good reminder to all of us that everyday, the superheroes around us are women who are too often consciously wiped out of these sorts of movies. They have superpowers, and it’s time they were recognised.