Stuck in development hell after numerous delays spanning several years, Josh Boone’s The New Mutants finally hit theatres this month and is one of the first to do so during the global pandemic. Breaking the traditional superhero mould and fusing X-Gene mayhem with YA horror, the biggest question hanging over its head is was it worth the wait?
Warning: Spoilers Ahead
It feels like a lifetime ago when Thor: Ragnarok landed in theatres across the world back in October 2017, accompanied by the first trailer for what would be the final entry in the FOX-Men series of cinematic outings. Had this movie released in April 2018 as originally planned its target audience would still be gushing over Stranger Things and one of its stars Charlie Heaton, they would not yet have been disappointed by Maisie Williams’ final season of Game of Thrones, and they would be eagerly awaiting Anya Taylor-Joy’s next blockbuster outing between the one-two punch that would become Split and its sequel Glass. Instead those ships have all left the harbour a long time ago, and since the planned reshoots never actually happened we have to wonder what was the point of keeping this ensemble of talented young actors on the shelf for so long.
A couple of minutes and one disaster movie intro later after the lights dim and the projector powers up, the audience follows Blu Hunt’s Dani Moonstar to the mysterious medical facility in which she has woken up. Far from a traditional hospital, she finds herself handcuffed to the bed and under constant observation by biometric-scanning CCTV cameras before the initially-soothing Dr. Reyes comforts her new patient and explains her new set of circumstances. Soon joined by her four other fellow patients, or rather inmates, Dani discovers that she is being kept in an off-the-grid facility which teaches dangerous new mutants how to control their powers and reintegrate into society. However, doctoral qualifications aside, Reyes shares very few similarities with the altruistic Xavier over in Westchester.
It isn’t long before the sinister underbelly of Dani’s new home is revealed, with her housemates being kept there mostly against their will long-term with no release in sight.
The exact circumstances of her arrival uncertain, all that is known is that something devastating tore through Dani’s ancestral home and killed all of its inhabitants. She, however, is relatively unharmed and strange things begin to go bump in the night when she becomes agitated during her nightmares. With a healthy dose of dramatic irony at play by keeping the movie’s six characters in the dark until the final act, it is immediately apparent to the audience that Dani has the ability to make a person’s worst nightmare manifest in the real world. This leads to a destructive final confrontation with her inner demons as it takes the form of the Demon Bear from her childhood folklore, killing Dr. Reyes and freeing these five new mutants from under her boot. But not before they get the chance to work together as a team and embrace rather than fear their superpowers to defeat it, of course.
In many ways the movie works, making the audience care for each of the teenagers in turn except for Roberto ‘Sunspot’ da Costa, who is an unfortunate victim of sequel setup which will now never happen.
This disappointing oversight aside, by and large Boone has made great use of a short runtime to cover the backstories of four other troubled teenagers whose origin stories contain a mix of survivor’s guilt, Catholic shame, penitent mourning, and repressed sexual trauma. Far from the usual radioactive spider or gamma rays, one thing which Boone does not do with this cast of comic books characters is shy away from what makes them tick. Although it is for the most part implicit context rather than explicit content, the narrative is still served well by the gradual reveals of their individual histories.
That being said, what The New Mutants needed more than anything else is more room to breathe. Claustrophobia aside, which in fact ups the tension as the characters never leave the facility, events and exposition happen one after the other and after another like clockwork, as if a checklist of things to cover is being ticked off one by one. If the rumours of the planned reshoots being used to incorporate more horror elements are true, they would have been a welcome addition if they also brought along with them enough extra footage to bump the runtime up to two hours and allow a world to develop onscreen. Rather than escaping to the world of cinema and becoming immersed in the FOX-Men universe one last time, instead we feel more like casual observers who are simply viewing quick-cut snippets of the characters’ lives.
To make matters worse, even though she is the closest thing to a main character in this ensemble, Dani is overshadowed by Illyana Rasputin in almost every way.
With the most explicit backstory and substantial script material to work with, Anya Taylor-Joy easily puts in the best performance of the bunch and makes this another successful footnote in her growing filmography. Not that fellow sci-fi franchise veterans Charlie Heaton and Maisie Williams are pushovers, nor are the rest of the cast, but it is a simple case of another character ultimately being more compelling and entertaining to watch than the one who is supposed to be the audience’s eyes and introduction into this new world. Add in miniature dragon Lockheed, a gigantic glowing Soulsword, teleportation portals into Limbo and suddenly you find yourself just lamenting the fact that we will likely never see Magik link up with her famous metallic brother Colossus of Deadpool fame.
The aforementioned Williams also produces some of the best acting in this outing, her strong Catholic faith contrasting nicely with the real-life horror movie unfolding in front of these fictional characters. Sharing a number of touching scenes with Blu Hunt’s Dani as they explore their sexual identity and budding romance, in many ways they link up to form the heart of the movie.
Tragically, this great performance is overshadowed in some scenes by shockingly bad special effects in an otherwise impressive movie CGI-wise. Made famous for being a werewolf in an X-Man suit in the source material, here Rahne Sinclair deviates between being a regular wolf and Maisie Williams with extra tufts of fur around her neck and longer nails. In a project which contains a building-sized nightmare bear, a teleporting girl with a sword and a pair of boys who can spontaneously combust and charge through the air at extreme speeds, this is unfortunately a distractingly disappointing effort which will not age well for a character who the audience spends a lot of time connecting with and is portrayed by such a fan-favourite actor.
Also disappointing is the absence of the true villain behind Dr. Reyes and the facility, implied through context to be the infamous X-Men villain Mr. Sinister when it is revealed that Essex Corporation is the governing body. No doubt setup for the rest of the trilogy along with the pleasantly surprising connection to Logan, given that this movie is now just a one-and-done affair it instead reeks of unfulfilled opportunities.
Plagued by studio-mandated pushbacks and delays that killed any momentum the project might have had in the first place, The New Mutants caps off the FOX-Men Cinematic Universe with a whimper rather than a bang. Although it is full to the brim with young and talented actors, an appropriately eerie atmosphere, mostly-perfect special effects and a drive to do something different, this outing is weighed down by failings which are too glaring to ignore. It’s hurried runtime robs the audience of the quieter moments which are well-executed when present, its traditionally superhero-esque third act marks a tonal shift so out of left field that it gives the audience whiplash, and its efforts to tie together other projects containing an X-Gene are unfortunately too little too late and leave longtime fans of the franchise craving something that is now never going to see fruition.