The New Mutants (2020)
Everyone Has Demons.
After her village is wiped out by what appears to be a savage storm, young Cheyenne Dani Moonstar (Blu Hunt) awakens in a school/ hospital/ prison for young mutants run by Dr. Cecilia Reyes (Alice Braga).
Dani is, of course, a super-powered mutant ala the X-Men, just like fellow inmates Illyana Rasputin (Anya Taylor-Joy), who can teleport and generate a mystical ‘soulsword;’ Sam Guthrie (Charlie Heaton), who can rocket through the air like an invulnerable cannonball; Rahne Sinclair (Maisie Williams), a mutant werewolf; and Roberto da Costa (Henry Zaga), whose body becomes super-hot.
However, the exact nature of Dani’s powers is still unknown, which is a bit of a problem seeing as whatever wiped out her village seems to be coming back (you didn’t really think it was just an extreme weather event, did you?) and besides that, Reyes’ hospital is a far more sinister joint than Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. What exactly is going on here? And can these new mutants overcome their differences and distrust in time to find out?
Man, poor New Mutants — this flick never really had a chance. The very last of the Fox X-Men films, it was shot way back in 2017, but studio cold feet following the relative failure of X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) led to recuts and planned reshoots (which apparently never eventuated, but who can say?). Then Disney bought Fox. Then Covid-19 hit, and I honestly can’t say what mandated a theatrical release for The New Mutants when it is clear to even the most casual observer that Disney really has no interest in the film, which is effectively the last vestige, Deadpool notwithstanding, of a franchise they’re looking to reboot and rejig as soon as humanly possible.
But The New Mutants did get a theatrical release, and the critics give it an almighty bollocking, with it now sitting on 33% on Rotten Tomatoes. Director Josh Boone — The Fault in Our Stars (2014) and the upcoming The Stand TV miniseries — proved that he needs to be at least one step removed from social media, reacting poorly to criticism leveled at the film, including that he whitewashed Roberto, originally a dark-skinned Brazilian in the source comics. A mooted trilogy has been scrapped, and any notion of The New Mutants being integrated into the Marvel Cinematic Universe is well and truly out the window. Bugger.
But here’s the thing: The New Mutants is pretty good.
Not earth-shattering. Not genre-defining. But a pretty good teen horror flick set in the X-Men universe (although you could blink and miss that) wherein a great cast battles demons both literal and personal in a dank and foreboding prison/ hospital that feels kind of like the Overlook Hotel by way of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). Why such tight security? Well, as Dr. Reyes observes, baby rattlesnakes are more dangerous than adult ones as they can’t control how much venom they inject, and the same is true of baby mutants; this is a safe place for the tween superteam to learn how to use their powers.
Except, of course, there’s more to it than that, but The New Mutants is less concerned with plot than character. The vibe here is The Breakfast Club (1985) meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer (indeed, the film is set in the ’90s, and Buffy VHS tapes are on constant rotation in the hospital rec room), and all the young characters are dealing with their tumultuous teenage emotions, the most prominent of which is guilt. Appalachian Sam accidentally killed his coal miner father when his powers first manifested, while Roberto badly burned his girlfriend. Scottish Rahne, raised in a deeply religious community, was literally branded a witch by the local pastor, and Illya … well, Illya’s backstory goes to some genuinely disturbing places, and her combative, nigh-bullying attitude makes a whole lot more sense when the penny drops.
The young cast is truly impressive. If you’re a fan of the comics (the movie is based on the ‘Demon Bear’ storyline by writer Chris Claremont and artist Bill Sienkiewicz), the casting of Taylor-Joy and Williams is an absolute slam dunk, but they’re simply the most notable out of an excellent ensemble. I dig Charlie Heaton as the aw-shucks good ol’ boy Sam, I dig relative newcomer Blu Hunt as our POV character, and although he’s probably given the least to do out of everyone, I enjoy Henry Zaga as the outwardly arrogant, inwardly tormented Roberto. The nascent romance that blossoms between Dani and Rahne is genuinely sweet, and Illya’s journey from anarchic rulebreaker to self-sacrificing hero works a treat (in much the same way it worked for Hugh Jackman’s Logan back in 2000).
Still, I wonder if the film’s low-key scale works against it for most viewers? We just saw The Avengers save half the universe from Thanos, so perhaps downgrading the scale to the purely personal level in a cape caper wasn’t going to fly — the stakes here are largely personal and emotional, and even the physical threats that do manifest largely stem from emotional causes (which is true of the best films anyway, but here it’s explicit). I’m here for that, but maybe not many others are?
The last 20-odd years of increased superhero dominance of the screen space have been … well, interesting might be the safest adjective. I’ve gone from utterly giddy (I couldn’t believe I was seeing Wolverine fight Sabretooth on the big screen back in 2000, let alone seeing the Avengers come together in 2012) to more than a little jaded, but still by and large enjoying myself. The thing is, the freshness of the cape genre depends on creators finding new, or at least relatively unexplored, space within its confines. ‘Queer mutant Breakfast Club fights demons’ is a tagline we’re not going to get again anytime soon, and novelty is its own value. I don’t know if The New Mutants is worth a trip to the cinema in These Uncertain Times, but it is worth a look, and it’s a damn shame we’re not going to be spending more time with this mutant crew.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Travis Johnson