Holy hell, guys, The New Mutants is out. I can’t believe it. The whole time I was watching it, I had this strange feeling, like I was going to wake up and it was all going to be a dream. This movie was honestly beginning to feel like the cinematic equivalent of Bigfoot: It supposedly exists, but no one has actually seen any concrete proof. I feel like I’ve been seeing the “Coming Soon” posters around for ages, like an ad for a product that doesn’t actually exist. It’s become such an ongoing joke that I’d genuinely started to doubt whether or not the film ever actually existed, or was just another bizarre Mandela Effect occurrence like that Sinbad genie movie.
The New Mutants may be one of the most cursed films ever made. After being announced in 2016, it went through so many speedbumps and delays that it honestly felt at some point that there was some sort of divine will who absolutely didn’t want it to see the light of day. Everything that could possibly go wrong did, in fact, go wrong surrounding the release of this film. To give just a short timeline of the sheer hell that this movie went through to be seen:
- Rumored in 2015, announced in 2016.
- After numerous rewrites, filming begins in July of 2017, finishing in September. Reports already started to leak that director Josh Boone had been frustrated by the filming process, stating that his original vision for the film had been “neutered.”
- The release date is pushed back to make room for Deadpool 2.
- Reshoots had been planned to make the film more of a Young Adult film in the vein of Boone’s previous works like The Fault in Our Stars after positive test screenings, but were dropped after the success of It convinced the studio that a more straightforward horror approach (which was Boone’s original intention) would be appropriate. More reshoots are scheduled.
- The release date is moved again, this time to make room for Dark Phoenix. Reshoots had yet to begin.
- The Disney-Fox merger delays plans again, dropping plans for reshoots altogether, and once again delaying release, this time indefinitely. Heated debate begins over whether the film will see a theatrical release, or go directly to a streaming service like Disney+.
- Reshoots are once again planned, then dropped after MCU figurehead Kevin Feige announces plans for Mutants in Marvel’s universe of films.
- An April 2020 release date is announced. Reshoots are discussed, but dropped as the cast had aged so much by this point that it would be virtually impossible.
- COVID happens, proving that God himself is now manipulating events specifically to prevent this movie from being released. Film is postponed once again.
- Film is quietly released to theaters in August of 2020, during the pandemic. Makes virtually no money.
- Film is finally released digitally in November of 2020.
Despite all the behind-the-scenes drama, the film actually had amazing potential: It was essentially billed as a X-Men horror film, which is a fantastic idea on paper. Think of how terrifying it must be as a young teenager to suddenly wake up one day with insanely dangerous abilities you can’t control? Especially powers that manipulate people’s fears, as the first trailer seemed to suggest. I love superhero films in general, but I think they truly excel when they venture into other genres. Ant-Man was a campy heist film, The Winter Soldier was a gritty political thriller, and Shazam was a fun, family-focused 80s movie with a modern sheen. That goes double for Fox’s X-men films: Logan was a bleak neo-Western and Deadpool was a satirical action-comedy, and they were two of the studio’s best products in years. And since Fox’s last two, more traditional X-Men outings, Apocalypse and Dark Phoenix, were a jumbled mess and an incomprehensible abomination, respectively, it seemed like a good idea to perhaps mix things up a bit again.
And certainly after all these years of build-up, you can’t help but to expect something spectacular, either good or bad. Surely after all this time to work on it, it’s gotta be something special, right? Either a triumph or a trainwreck, I don’t know, something to justify the wait. And yet, in the face of all the obstacles in its way, all the rumors, all the speculation, The New Mutants finally arrives. So how is it?
The basic premise of the film is this: Cheyenne Native American teen Dani Moonstar, following the violent deaths of her family and the destruction of her reservation, finds herself institutionalized in a facility full of young mutants who have similarly tragic backstories. They’re all misfits, ranging from nervous-wreck religious fanatics to full on sociopaths, and are told that they can leave once they learn to control their powers. Over the course of the film, mysterious and increasingly deadly supernatural occurrences begin to happen, having something to do with Dani’s unidentified mutant abilities, forcing the rag-tag group of outcasts to band together to not only survive, but discover the true nature of the people keeping them locked up. It’s one part One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, one part The Breakfast Club, with a healthy sprinkling of X-Men thrown in as an afterthought.
It’s so painfully obvious that this movie suffered immensely from contradictory studio interference. At times, it seems like it wants to be a by-the-numbers teen drama, at others, a full-blown supernatural thriller. Both of these different approaches can work symbiotically, of course, but there has to be nuance in how they’re combined. Instead, The New Mutants violently careens from one genre to the other, never giving the film time to appropriately adjusting its tone. There was, at any given point in time, plans to reshoot parts of the film to make it purely either one or the other, and the fact that Boone was ultimately unable to do so makes it seem like a cobbled together mess made from half-baked and incomplete pieces.
The lack of commitment to either tone or genre really hurts the overall product, because you can genuinely see the potential that this film has if it were only allowed to go all-in. It feels like such a waste in particular that the film was unable to become status as a full-fledged horror film, because the setting and abilities of the characters really lend themselves to the concept. It’s almost the exact same set-up as The Dream Warriors, the third entry in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, in which a group of troubled teens are trapped in a mental hospital as they’re being picked off one by one by a supernatural entity, who is dismissed by the staff as simply being a collective hallucination, or a figment of hysteria. Dani’s mutant power creates physical manifestations of people’s innermost fears, which is effectively the exact same skillset of Freddy Krueger. They could have literally just copied an Elm Street movie and had a genuinely solid final product, were the production of the film not plagued by so many setbacks.
It’s a shame, too, because the characters themselves, while being fairly bare-bones, are actually pretty interesting. Dani, played by relative newcomer Blu Hunt, is the first Native American lead character and actress in a superhero film (to my knowledge), and brings a genuinely fascinating cultural angle to the usual superpowered fare. Her powers manifest themselves as legends and folklore from her tribe, which is a unique and creative approach to superheroics that unfortunately doesn’t get quite enough time to breath. She’s also one of the only openly gay superhero characters in a mainstream film that I can think of, developing a relationship with another inmate of the facility, played by Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones fame. Her character, a werewolf-like mutant who goes by the name of Wolfsbane in the comics, is another great addition to the cast, struggling to reconcile her mutant abilities with her strict religious upbringing. Unfortunately, due to the film’s haphazard pace and stilted runtime, she doesn’t quite get much to do.
Rounding out the cast is Charlie Heaton (who you probably know as Jonathan Byers from Netflix’s Stranger Things) as Sam Guthrie, also known as Cannonball in the comics. His abilities allow him to launch himself at high velocities as a human fireball, which manifested while he was working a coal mine with his father, killing him. The accidental murder of family and friends is a common thread with these characters, leading to all sorts of trauma and mental disorders. Henry Zaga, for instance, plays the mutant Sunspot, who’s ability to cloak himself in intense flame led to the accidental death of his girlfriend. Heaton and Zaga are more or less relegated to side characters, yet perform admirably in what little the have to work with.
The real standout, however, is Illyana Rasputin (aka Magik), played by the always-fantastic Anya Taylor-Joy. Despite an oftentimes terribly hammy Russian accent, Magik is by far the most interesting character in the film, both in her psychological state as well as her status as a superhero. She is heavily implied to have been a victim of sex trafficking as a young girl, which led to her violently murdering her abusers once her powers manifested. Her powers, by the way, include making portals to a dimension which is said to either be Limbo or Hell, as well as metal armor on her body along with a magic sword. She’s a bully, immediately zeroing in on Dani as the target for her torment, but is also deeply broken, lashing out as a coping mechanism. She’s also a complete and total badass, getting the only worthwhile action sequence in the film’s final act where she fights a giant demon bear. It’s ridiculous, but also the only real superhero action in the entire film. (Magik is also, admittedly, one of the few comic X-Men characters that I A) know anything about and B) genuinely love, so it was great to see her on film kicking ass, even if the film itself was disappointing).
But unfortunately, even good characters can’t save a movie if the plot is garbage, which is sadly the case here. The awkward pacing prevents any real sense of build-up or suspense, while the overall plot structure makes it difficult to really care what’s happening at any given time. The film’s real villain is someone who’s never actually shown on screen, and who viewers won’t even know about unless they have knowledge of the source material, which is a bizarrely obtuse approach to an antagonist. The characters don’t really have any believable growth, mostly due to lack of time, and yet are suddenly best friends well on their way to forming a superhero team by the end. It feels more like a rushed TV pilot than a full-length film.
I really wanted The New Mutants to be great, because it had so much working against it. We all love to believe in underdogs, which this film definitely was from the get-go. There’s a core of a great film in there, but all the best intentions in the world can’t help you when you’ve literally had to sit on the project for three years, completely unable to finish it the way that you originally planned. I know it has little-to-no chance of happening, but I’d love to see Marvel bring back some of these characters and actors when they eventually get around to bring the X-Men to the MCU, especially Anya Taylor-Joy, who seemed to be the only one truly having any fun. Then again, with the news that Jaimie Fox is returning as Electro from Sony’s Amazing Spider-Man films, maybe there’s hope after all. Although maybe, given everything that’s happened during the journey to get The New Mutants onscreen, it’s best to leave it alone.