The New Mutants is a curious quagmire of a film that’s been defined by “what ifs” from the moment it was announced five years ago. What if it followed Apocalypse’s example and dragged the X-Men cinematic franchise further into the gutter? What if it somehow managed to be good? What if The New Mutants actually lived up to its promise of being a new kind of comic book adaptation?
Like Dark Phoenix, the penultimate entry into this interconnected universe of X-films, The New Mutants is a number of different things, but “objectively bad” thankfully isn’t one of them. Instead, what director/co-writer Josh Boone has delivered is a take on Chris Claremont’s original vision for The New Mutants comics that’s shot through the lens of a number of different teen-focused and horror movies ranging from Carrie to his own The Fault in Our Stars. Though The New Mutants is far from perfect and you can easily spot a few scuffs and dents in the movie’s plot, it manages to stand on its own two legs and ends up being one of the more solid, if not particularly heart-pounding, on-screen stories about a bunch of young mutants coming to the realisation that their x-genes are going to forever change their lives.
While there are a few moments throughout The New Mutants that are clearly meant to act as quick introductions to the world of the X-Men for people who might not be familiar, it’s the sort of movie whose story becomes exponentially more clear and easy to follow if you come into it knowing a bit about the characters at the centre of this story. The film opens with a frantic, explosive introduction to 16-year-old Dani Moonstar (Blu Hunt), a girl forced to flee from her reservation in the dead of night when a humongous, otherworldly monster — the Demon Bear — goes on a murderous rampage through the community.
When Dani awakes in a strange hospital not long after the attack, she’s alarmed to learn from Dr. Cecilia Reyes (Alice Braga) that she’s the sole survivor, something Reyes explains is a result of Dani’s burgeoning mutant abilities. The exact nature of Dani’s powers is one of the mysteries the story invites you to figure out along with her, as she’s very much the movie’s audience surrogate, gradually meeting the other patients living within Reyes’ facility. Unlike Dani, all of the other patients know precisely what their respective powers are and have first-hand knowledge of how dangerous they can be when left unchecked.
Scottish lycanthrope Rahne Sinclair (Maisie Williams) and Kentucky-born teen miner Sam Guthrie (Charlie Heaton) are both kind, but haunted, kids who on some level truly believe that Reyes’ treatments are the pathway to them being able to lead normal, healthy lives. Roberto da Costa (Henry Zaga) and Illyana Rasputin (Anya Taylor-Joy) both instinctively adopt “popular kid” postures to mask their own respective traumas but because these five young mutants are the only people in the hospital besides Reyes, the act only serves to emphasise how neither of them has really been successful at dealing with what troubles them.
Because the film really only focuses on six characters who never really leave the grounds of the complex, the movie almost immediately has a different sort of energy than 20th Century’s other X-Men films. After characters make their first appearances, The New Mutants uses the bulk of its scenes to dole out details of the secrets and pain that the kids don’t feel comfortable opening up about during their group therapy sessions. Even as creepy, weird things begin happening around the hospital and the kids start having terrifying nightmares, the story is slow to actually wander into straight-up horror territory, and instead, spends a fair amount of time in an odd space that exists somewhere between The Breakfast Club and a very special episode of Degrassi.
Hunt’s Dani is cautious and often feels like something of a withering wallflower in contrast to her co-stars’ performances as more bombastic, angry people who have a better idea of what the hell is going on. In a number of scenes, Illyana harasses and bullies Dani both because she’s the new girl, and also because she’s of Native descent, something Dani rightfully calls out and throws hands over in one of the movie’s more honest-feeling scenes. Ugly as it is to see a character like Magik make racist taunts, The New Mutants is a movie about teenagers who have a habit of being particularly ugly — especially to one another when left unsupervised.
Flashy and action-focused as many of Magik’s moments are, Maisie Williams’ Wolfsbane is The New Mutants’ standout and together with Hunt, the pair give the movie an emotional anchor that truly does feel like something plucked out of a so-so YA drama one watches because there’s nothing else on. Both Henry Zaga’s Sunspot and Charlie Heaton’s Cannonball have the makings of being far more interesting characters who actually find some degree of emotional comfort and support in one another, but the film only just brushes against that potential as it properly begins to try to scare both its characters and the audience.
Clever a concept as The New Mutants’ spin on a haunted house is, it always feels like you’re watching a horror movie in the middle of the day, even when scenes are taking place at night. That’s not the say that the movie visually looks as if it tried to get away with day-as-night, but rather it feels like a scarer that’s been defanged by the fact that the sun’s out. There are things about the movie — like its demonic nod to Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Gentlemen and movies like Carrie — that are downright creepy, to be sure but whenever things start to become unsettling, it’s hard not to ask yourself why the kids don’t just use their dangerous-arse powers to defend themselves. The plot establishes an internal reason as to why this is, but it isn’t quite satisfying enough to make the movie feel as if it isn’t lacking something.
As The New Mutants builds to its surprisingly fantastic final battle that features a very cool spin on Magik’s mythology you can see that the pieces for a truly great X-film are all there. There’s a quiet moment where the mutants all come together to talk about the X-Men establishing that the heroes are world-famous celebrities, and the conversation ends on a note that conveys how none of the kids are particularly hyped to join Xavier and co. In that moment, The New Mutants is trying to say that it’s not really an X-Men movie, but a movie set in the world full of boundless potential that, in the end, Fox really squandered for reasons that nobody fully understands.
The studio drama that reportedly hamstrung The New Mutants encapsulates the way the studio seemed keen on fumbling the X-ball in a way that almost felt purposeful at times. In the case of this movie, in particular, being stuck in production hell and other factors like the Disney/Fox acquisition ultimately led to its release being pushed back so far that it ended up dropping in the middle of a global pandemic. Because Disney, who now owns the project, didn’t feel the need to provide press with any means of seeing the movie safely, I didn’t personally feel the need to see it because it’s just not really a great idea to go into theatres right now. Were it not for the guy a few blocks up from me who, despite the pandemic, has continued to sell bootlegged copies of movies (complete with theatre attendees coughing in the background), I wouldn’t have seen the film (don’t worry, I also bought a ticket to even things out). It’s a pity that’s the landscape The New Mutants arrives in because it deserves better.
The New Mutants isn’t the X-franchise’s highest point or its most grievous mistake, but it is a more or less straight down the middle farewell to a cinematic universe of films whose importance to this genre and others can’t be overstated.