‘The New Mutants’: The kids are alright

Carla Hoffman reviews ‘The New Mutants,’ the film based on the classic comics by Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz.

I was terrified, you know.  Despite having it marked in my digital calendar (a few times, really), despite my overblown excitement at seeing a lobby poster at the end of last year (‘this time, for sure!’ listed as the date), sitting on my couch in excitement through an online SDCC panel, I still couldn’t find myself to be excited, let alone relieved, that The New Mutants was finally going to be viewable to the public and streaming online.

Repetitive disappointment can do that to a person; the constant backstage chatter, the infinite new release dates, the literal fall of Fox Studios as an independent movie production company, mergers and major misspeaks by the director regarding casting, this movie felt destined to fail.  It was Schrodinger’s Movie: as long as we didn’t see it, the film was either a hit or bust and for a long time, it was just better not to know.

So what was The New Mutants?  Is the cat alive or dead?  Is this the secret savior of the Fox-X Franchise or an ugly cousin they had every right to keep hidden from prying eyes?  Keep reading and let’s see what we can make of it.

(SPOILERS: to discuss the movie means that we have to talk about the movie and all the twists and turns it takes.  Find your own online digital copy and watch and read along!)

Okay, I don’t have to tell you that the release schedule of The New Mutants was fraught with delays; the original posters said the movie was to be out by 2018, a year before X-Men: Dark Phoenix in 2019.  The state of the X-Men movies under Fox was on a steady decline from its revival with X-Men: First Class and the tone of the trailer released seemed impossibly different rather than the magazine glossy films that came before it.  This looked dark and full of jumpscares, it had no familiar names to its rather small cast and promised a much more intimate setting that the jet-setting blockbuster X-Men we were familiar with.  A mutant horror story was novel, pulling characters from a run now 30 years old, scaling back to what was now a sprawling epic to something more personal showed that someone in management was trying something new.  Or at least, new to them because, let’s face it, dredging up ‘80s characters in a spooky environment proved to be a hit for 2016’s Stranger Things.  All in all it was a shot in the arm for the ailing franchise.

Then corporate happened.  Companies were bought and sold.  Dates got pushed back and now we had more time to really think about this new direction and the movie we were going to see.  Was this ‘new direction’ really going to work?  Why were two characters of color suddenly lighter skinned than their comic counterparts? How many X-Men were going to be in this mutant movie?  Where did it fit in with continuity?  What’s this about reshoots?  The more release dates were shuffled around, the more we were promised with no delivery on the finished product, the more doubts crept in.  Excitement burned away into pre-emptive disappointment.  This was less about the fresh coat of paint The New Mutants was going to provide the movies and more about  the ugly old wallpaper that paint was going to cover up.  The cringey failure that X-Men: Dark Phoenix provided, there was little hope that anything from the Fox-X universe could be saved at all.  

The New Mutants’ digital release date would be the final entry for the film in my calendar. At home, tucked away on my couch and streaming to my laptop, I finally watched a movie I had waited nearly three years to see. I have to admit, dear readers, that I am truly torn on if that was the right thing to do. There’s a certain amount of safety to watching a new film on a home computer or TV; if it sucks, you can check your phone or go get a snack from the kitchen so you lose a lot of attention and immersion in what you’re watching. Larger set pieces don’t work as well on the small screen. Personal close-ups and smaller conversations can feel more personal, however. There’s so much to talk about just regarding how this movie is watched and felt in its current context and form, you may never get to the plot at all.

How about that plot, then?  Troubled teens are sent to a rehabilitation facility run by a lone woman in an abandoned sanitarium with a mysterious benefactor; a sort of Breakfast Club meets Scooby Gang scenario.  Don’t expect Citizen Kane, don’t expect “Fall of the Mutants,” this is purely a character piece for our protagonists and their traumatic baggage and you know?  It works.  This is an amazing cast who understand the very core of who these characters are and project it well in quiet moments of monologue and bombastic fight scenes.  Right off the bat, Maisie Williams is a perfect Rahne Sinclair; able to be both a shrinking violet and secret wild child, she brings a lot of warmth and empathy to the group and holds them together through their damage.  Charlie Heaton is a soft spoken toxic guilt machine who’s blasting powers look amazing in motion and bring him a lot of quieter moments despite such explosive power.  He might not look ‘comic accurate’ to long time fans, but you know who does?  Anna Taylor-Joy who has kept one single panel of New Mutants #53 alive in my mind now for years.  Burdened with the most complicated comic background, Illyana gets a streamlined version of childhood escapism to go with her ‘bad girl’ attitude.  She was a tortured child and covers that up with a new kind of armor… and then real armor in the climactic battle scenes.  Even Lockheed shows up as a plush purple dragon puppet she carries with her, which is a lot easier to explain than a space alien Kitty Pryde finds.  Blu Hunt is a remarkable Dani Moonstar and elevates a lot of the more bombastic moments you get when fighting a Demon Bear with a lot of personal wonder and growth.  This is really an ensemble cast but Hunt is a huge stand out as a lot of the action and drama revolves around Dani and her mysterious powers (okay, not mysterious if you read the books, but work with me).  

The actual script for this movie is very cheesy, so cheesy that they take TWO MOMENTS to have the characters literally watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes for quick context for what’s happening on screen.  This is very much that level of drama, teen tv horror soap opera, and the cast works so well together with such a natural chemistry and charisma you can almost forget you’re watching a very basic CW plot.  The romance between Dani and Rahne is quick and childlike, the kind of first kisses that are sweaty-palmed and impulsive in real life.  The comic relief of Roberto DaCosta (played well by Henry Zaga) is very Xander-esque and is probably my weakest link in this fantastic cast; not because of his acting because Zaga is charming as heck and brings a different emotional facet to these angsty teens.  It’s just that in this movie, not everyone got equal screen time and Berto can get lost amongst the rest of them.  Sadly, the weakest link of this small cast is their captor-doctor, Alice Braga playing Dr. Cecilia Reyes.  Someone must have needed a name for a mutant doctor and just flipped through a Handbook to get this character’s name because she has nothing in common with her comic counterpart aside from a mutant power.  When asked to be a both threatening and nurturing presence for our kids, Braga sadly can’t bring either; she’s stern, but not stern enough to be threatening.  She’s calm, but not calm enough to be sympathetic.  The biggest impact she had was confirming into a remote server that she worked for the Essex Corporation, signaling to long time comic fans that yes, she was the bad guy.  By the time her end comes at the last battle, I honestly don’t feel anything of value was lost. 

I do, however, feel a loss for what this movie could have been.  There were a lot of great ideas in there, some amazing actors and fascinating special effects to their mutant powers.  Going forward, this could have been a great mini-series on Disney+ in the style of Stranger Things, finding mutants on the fringes and recovering from their own wounded psyches. In this modern era of cinematic streaming shows, they probably could have upped the horror elements and added a little blood now and then to make their danger more tangible.  The director and writer, Josh Boone, did pitch this as a trilogy, adding characters like Warlock, Karma, even Roberto’s father (played by Antonio Banderas??!) and theming each one to a different style of horror film, from alien invasion to apocalyptic wasteland. The New Mutants is a great movie to start a series of films off, a full character drama where we meet our protagonists and send them out into the world for new adventures. Sadly, the likelihood we’ll ever get to see these movies is disappointing low.

In the end, The New Mutants is less of a problematic fave and more of a melancholy passing grade.  It’s not a bad movie, it just obviously could have been more.  Much like Illyana’s Lockheed puppet, an old and treasured friend who lived in our imaginations at one time, given life for a brief moment to kinda startling results, and buried in the rubble of a disaster. Loveable, but dirty.  

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