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Review by William Connor Devlin
It may be three years late, but The New Mutants is finally here. Getting to watch what is now officially the final X-Men film made under 20th Century Fox's banner was nothing short of surreal because, at one point, I really thought it might never be released.*
Last summer, I wrote about how Disney absorbing 20th Century Fox – and by proxy, the cinematic rights to Marvel's X-Men – was something to lament. True, Dark Phoenix may not have been the quality swansong the twenty-year franchise deserved, and the series wasn't without a spotted record before then. Still, for the most part, these were genuine films in a way that entries to the Marvel Cinematic Universe aren't, frequently held back by the studio's irresolute ideas about what shape the franchise should take.
What does that mean for Josh Boone's The New Mutants? Let's consider the pitch. Boone brought to Fox what was essentially a spinoff that could function as a rubber reality horror film with young adult trappings. The goal was to create a more grounded superhero film, meaning that bizarro characters like Warlock were out. Some of the more fantastical elements, like the villainous Demon Bear, were recontextualized to fit the new narrative. After the first trailer dropped back in fall 2017 – which feels like eons ago – the marketing team made it seem like a pure fright-fest. Encouraged by the reception, Fox ordered more reshoots to make the film even scarier.
And then Disney bought Fox. Those reshoots never happened. So The New Mutants arrives now, with a bit of mystique to the brand. I suppose it's no real fault of the film's that the final product feels dwarfed by its release's troubled history. As an advocate for Fox's take Jack Kirby and Stan Lee's mutants, I'll admit that the film's disappointing, although it's never outright bad, as the critical reception might suggest. The picture that finally made it to screens feels like it was shot from a script that was a total rough draft, with all these sumptuous, tantalizing ideas that are never explored with remotely as much depth as they need or deserve. That doesn't mean that the film ever feels disingenuous in the same way as an MCU production, and there are still some good themes at play. But far too often, the film's reach seems to exceed its grasp.
Boone's concept is sound. The story sees a group of teen mutants, fashioned as angsty antiheroes rather than starry-eyed superheroes, who've been sentenced to a stay at a gothic asylum. There, Dr. Cecilia Reyes (Alice Braga) treats the young'ns as her patients, seeking to help them control their destructive, often frightening mutations. Some of the kids believe she works for Professor Charles Xavier and that this is an overlong entry exam for the X-Men; others question Reyes and her motivations. All of them are haunted by trauma from the past that begins to manifest in the present as real, tangible threats as one particular teenage mutant's uncontrolled powers threaten to consume everyone.
The problem is less with the concept and more to do with the execution. After a shakily filmed prologue depicts a tornado tearing through a Native American reservation, sole survivor Dani Moonstar (Blu Hunt) wakes up in the asylum where the rest of the film occurs. It's touted as a mystery – how did she get here, and why is she here? But it doesn't take very long to realize that the big revelations behind both those answers – that Dani is a mutant and that she's been abducted by a sinister force – and the script really hinges on the power of those discoveries. Here's a major problem that's established fairly early on – given her proximity to the major plot events, Dani Moonstar is painted as the protagonist. But she's often inactive, frequently a poor vessel for the audience, and it doesn't help that of all the young actors, Hunt's performance is the weakest of the bunch. Without a strong centering force for the narrative, be it Dani or a strong sense of momentum in the plot, the film often feels fragmented.
Then there's the way the film develops each of its teenage characters, often isolated from one another in what ultimately feels like a string of unconnected events roughly sewn together in a way that often eschews continuity. There is merit to every character's backstory, but the approach isn't quite the right one, and it starts to feel like the film is checking boxes rather than organically developing the characters. Ultimately, despite the clumsiness, the film does feel more intimate than your average superhero sprawl. You get the sense that the reshoots may have been less about making the film scarier and more about making it more coherent.
Speaking of scary... There are the much-vaunted horror elements, which were put front and center since the very first trailer all the way back in 2017. Watching the film, it's clear that Boone was either incapable of making the scary bits actually scary, or that the studio proper balked at the horror segments and had them sanded off. Either way, the film isn't very scary. Boone wanted it to be rubber reality horror, just like A Nightmare on Elm Street, complete with visual callbacks to that iconic film. There are a few moments where you can understand Boone's intention, but even fewer where it works. It's a different flavor than most superhero films we get nowadays, but it's not exactly a successful blend.
I've got a particular fondness for asylum-bound films, from the Aussie spookfest Next of Kin to Milos Forman's essential One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest. The setting is immediately oppressive and prohibitive, as it holds the characters down and forces them to worm their way out of a suffocating system. It works oddly well in parallel to exploring adolescent maturation, most likely because of the restriction involved with such a setting. A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors made it work back in the late 1980s, chronicling how adults quashed the very real, immediate needs of their frightened and damaged children to maintain a secretive narrative detailing how they had a hand in the fiery murder of Freddy Krueger.
Boone has made it clear that his New Mutants would function in the same way as that previous film. But here's the hitch - the asylum is empty. Dr. Reyes seems to function as the sole staff member. It's horribly unbelievable and frequently pulled me out of the film as I questioned the logistics. Wouldn't it have made more sense to have the hospital fully staffed to maintain an air of normalcy, especially in light of the ultimate reveal that Dr. Reyes is not working for Dr. Charles Xavier after all? How have the five mutants not overpowered her sooner? She's not particularly effective as a psychologist. Seeing the raw strength that Illyana Rasputin (Anya Taylor-Joy) has later in the film makes you wonder how they were ever contained in the first place. The ultimate reveal also uses footage from Logan, which I thought was supposed to be set in the future. That begs the question – when does The New Mutants take place? The children reference Professor X as he was in, say, X-Men: Apocalypse, but the shepherding of the Logan clips is at odds with that since the Charles Xavier of Logan is destitute and atrophying. Let's chalk it up to another weird wibbly-wobbly, time-wimey paradox for this series. Narrative continuity was never a strength of the X-Men franchise.
But emotional and thematic continuity was, and The New Mutants follows through. The franchise has always been a metaphor about the struggles of the disenfranchised, segregated, and persecuted members of society; their differences were made fantastic through various kinds of mutations. Unlike other superhero stories, having superhuman abilities and powers in the X-Men world isn't glamorous, but imprisoning and ostracizing. Way back in 2003's X2: X-Men United, there's a pivotal moment where Bobby (aka Iceman) is forced to tell his parents about his mutation in a scene built to mirror a sexual coming out. It's not subtle. It shouldn't be. The New Mutants understands so well that puberty, maturation, and adolescence can be an incredibly alienating experience. Now imagine having to do all that with uncontrollable, often dangerous powers.
If the individual character stories don't always synchronize well, they're at least effective on their own. Each mutation perfectly coincides with the very real, very palpable traumas these teenagers face. Illyana was held hostage as a small child by horrible men, only to be labeled a killer when she fought back against her torturers; Roberto (Henry Zaga) comes from a rich family who sent him away after his fiery powers accidentally killed his girlfriend, a move that distinctly feels like they're trying to dust him up under the carpet; Sam (Charlie Heaton) is at the mercy of what looks like an abusive father, whom he kills when his super-charged powers kick in while they're down in the coal mines where they work; Rahne (Maisie Williams) hails from a Catholic upbringing and is savagely branded as a witch when she divulges to a priest her ability to transform into a wolf. These play on various struggles that teenagers today face – be it pressure from parents or religious ostracization. Dani feels like the exception, and not necessarily in a good way. Her struggles are the most Jungian, with her metaphysical fears taking the form of an id that's made flesh and blood by her powers. The film never grounds her fears to a particular event or feeling, which feels like an oversight.
Dani's character is better fleshed out through her relationship with Rahne (the first major same-sex relationship in a mainstream superhero film). The rapport between the characters is sweet and naturalistic: they are brought together first by a sense of commiseration, and further united by a desire to be free of the anchors that hold them back. Interestingly, for Rahne, who is literally burned by religion, she does not entirely rebuke the church or Catholicism. Towards the end, she even takes an unconscious Dani into the campus chapel to protect her from the monstrous force that pursues them, reasoning that demons cannot enter holy places. These moments are some of the strongest in the film, harkening back to Josh Boone's The Fault in Our Stars; it's easy to see how this is the kind of material he'd be most comfortable with. There's also an enjoyable scene where the teens believe they're safe from Dr. Reyes's all-seeing eyes and play a game of truth or dare using a lie-detector test they've found.
And Dani is a rare Native American lead in a mainstream film. I'm not entirely sure the film handles the Native American concepts introduced with total authenticity. Still, they don't feel entirely mystified in the usual Hollywood way. It probably works for the best that they go the Jungian route to explain how the metaphysical might become physical. All that said, Illyana's racist comments towards Dani at the beginning feel a bit unnecessary and never fully explored. While Illyana, the most troubled and traumatized of the group, is perhaps the strongest character, helped greatly by Anya Taylor-Joy's smart and exciting performance, this ultimately feels like a thread that was left to dangle rather than be tied up. Thankfully, when the inevitable team moment does come around, The New Mutants makes it work, even if it could've been so much stronger with better execution.
Had things worked differently, and if the studio had been more decisive and committed to the horror trappings, The New Mutants could've been a unique superhero film that updated the X-Men franchise's thematic ideas palpably for younger audiences. It can't help but feel like wasted potential. Still, it does the X-Men thing of having an unusually rousing finale that's all superpowers and teamwork that shouldn't work but somehow does. And it's undeniably a risk in a genre that never takes them anymore. It'll always be remembered more for its turbulent release schedule, of course, but it's also the true end of an era. Farewell, Fox's X-Men. Rest well.
*Naturally, it has been released during the midst of a global pandemic; my viewing experience was at a drive-in, which is a great, socially-distant solution for those who might be wary of returning to the moviehouses. As always, though perhaps more now than ever, I advocate for safety and wellness first over entertainment, and couldn't recommend the fun, nostalgic pleasures of seeing pictures at the drive-in enough, especially these days.
- Release DateAugust 28, 2020