I come to bury the longest-running continuous superhero franchise in cinema history, not merely to review its unwitting final entry.
I’ve already said my piece about the long, sad, sordid history of The New Mutants. How this movie — as with so many pictures about or adjacent to the X-Men — was put into development solely to keep the rights from Marvel for as long as possible. How the filmmakers tried to pull off a massive shift in tone just before production was set to wrap. How the cast and crew have all long since aged out and moved on. How the Disney buyout (plus the spectacular failure of Dark Phoenix and Bryan Singer’s fall from grace) cancelled whatever Fox’s plans for the X-Men franchise might have been. How Disney kept the film in theaters for as long as they possibly could through a worldwide pandemic, keeping it offline for as long as possible before the contractually mandated move to HBO Max. (Note that the film is streaming on Google Play even before it’s streaming on HBO Max or Disney+).
What we have here is an incredible rarity, gentle readers: A franchise-starting film that — regardless of how well it does critically or commercially — has literally, precisely, absolutely ZERO chance of ever spawning a sequel. No financial incentive could possibly overcome the legal hurdles involved, nor age the leading cast backward to remove the three years elapsed since production wrapped.
As a direct result, there is no reason whatsoever to see this movie, much less to pay money for it. Unless, somehow, this pathetically troubled and famously stalled production turned out to be a solid film on its own merit.
So, what have we got?
First of all, the film opens with the new “20th Century Studios” logo, which is pretty much identical to its beloved predecessor, but without the traditional “X” fade iconic to the X-Men franchise.
Then the film opens with a voice-over, reciting a variation on the parable about the two wolves — one good, one bad — inside all of us. The voice-over makes a mistake (albeit a tragically common one) in attributing the story to Native American folklore, when — by his own admission! — the fake Cherokee story was invented by white Evangelist Billy Graham for a sermon.
This is immediately followed by what may be the shittiest chase sequence I’ve ever seen. All the action is either offscreen, shot in nauseating shaky-cam, or shot in blinding darkness. Totally unwatchable.
So yeah, the film stumbles out of the gate.
From there, we go to our primary setting, a secluded hospital for young wayward mutants. The place is run by Dr. Cecilia Reyes (Alice Braga), who is of course keeping the teenagers there for her own sinister purposes.
- Our de facto protagonist is Dani Moonstar (Blu Hunt), a Cheyenne girl whose entire family was wiped out in a disaster of some unspecified kind. She’s the new kid, and the nature of her powers isn’t immediately known. (Though her callsign in the comics is “Mirage”, so there’s a clue.)
- Rahne Sinclair (aka Wolfsbane, played by Maisie Williams) is basically a werewolf. She’s also a devout Christian and the one who most firmly believes that Dr. Reyes and those in authority are acting with the best intentions. Rahne is the nice girl who’s the first to befriend Dani.
- Samuel Guthrie (aka Cannonball, played by Charlie Heaton) is a socially withdrawn loner. He’s not hurtful or mean toward anyone else, but he does tend to hurt himself an awful lot.
- Roberto deCosta (aka Sunspot, played by Henry Zaga) is a preening womanizing douchebag.
- Last but not least is Ilyana (played by Anya Taylor-Joy), who seems to revel in her own psychopathic lunacy. She’s the bully of the group.
(Side note: Aside from Ilyana’s conspicuous surname, there’s no sign that she’s related to Colossus in this iteration. However, she does get Lockheed — traditionally Kitty Pryde’s pet dragon — here adapted as a hand puppet.)
I have to applaud the filmmakers for their ambition here. They took a lot of bold steps with this film — many of which were long overdue for the greater cinematic franchise — and a few of the choices actually work. To start with, looking at the roster up top, I’m sure you’ll notice that none of the characters are household names or A-listers in the franchise. There are so many hundreds of documented mutants in the source material, I appreciate the filmmakers pulling from the C- and D-lists to make better use of lesser-known characters.
Also, we finally — FINALLY! — have a mutant-centric film that isn’t centered on any one particular mutant. Sure, Dani is the clear protagonist, but the film works beautifully as an ensemble picture with an eclectic cast. I seriously can’t believe it took this long to get an ensemble picture out of a property whose title — “X-Men” — is a goddamn plural noun!
Alas, the diversity of the ensemble cast is deeply flawed by terribly uneven accents across the board. Strange enough, the two worst cases in point are Maisie Williams and Anya Taylor-Joy, the two most talented and seasoned young actors in the cast. I have no idea why the British-born Williams seems to have such a hard time with a Scottish accent, and hell if I know why Taylor-Joy — native to freaking Miami! — was cast to play a Russian.
For another thing, the franchise is all about people who manifest superpowers roughly around puberty. With a few minor exceptions (namely Rusty Collins of Deadpool 2, and Rogue in the first X-Men film), the franchise has never really examined how puberty as a mutant would lead to seriously fucked-up teenagers. Certainly, the franchise has never explored it to this extent. The filmmakers even portray the sexual curiosity of teenagers (within tasteful PG-13 guidelines, of course). It was a bold and refreshing step for a tentpole film to take, going as far as the filmmakers do with the subject, especially for a film about teens with superpowers.
We even get a sweet little same-sex romance in there! I’d be fascinated to hear what the Chinese censors thought of that, ditto for the studio execs who covet that Chinese box office cash.
What’s more, the filmmakers use this concept to make some poignant statements about mental illness, suicidal ideation, self-harm, etc. This material dovetails beautifully with the themes of the source material, and of course writer/director Josh Boone — who got this gig hot off The Fault in Our Stars — makes elegant work of it. I’ve seen better, sure, and far be it from me to say with any authority that it’s accurate or sensitive to those with mental illness. But I still think it works well enough.
There’s also the matter of casting a Native American girl — played by a genuine Lakota actress — as our lead. That’s a novel move for (what would’ve been) a tentpole film, and I want to give points for representation. Alas, when the film bookends with misappropriated Native American fakelore, I have to take those points right back for laziness. Sorry, but there’s no going halfway when it comes to cultural representation — either get it right or don’t even bother.
Which brings me to the horror aspect. Again, I can appreciate the ambition in trying to make an ensemble teen coming-of-age/horror blend. The problem is that they should’ve gone ahead and tried to rip off “Stranger Things” instead of waiting for It: Chapter One to beat them to the punch. The horror is thin, the timing is all out of whack, and the lame attempts at scares only serve to break up the pacing. It doesn’t work.
Then there’s the matter of the world-building. The filmmakers presuppose that the audience is already familiar with the X-Men, the Xavier Institute, and so on. Fair enough. So did the Deadpool movies — no sense in wasting precious screentime to tell the audience what’s already common pop culture knowledge. However, it’s a bit problematic when we don’t know if we’re dealing with the Patrick Stewart era, the James McAvoy era, pre- or post-Logan, or a totally new continuity altogether. (Something the Deadpool films never had to worry about, due to the self-referential nature of the property.)
More importantly, the grand central mystery of the film — not to mention the entire horror aspect — only works if the audience has no clue who Dani Moonstar is or what she can do. Granted, she’s a lesser-known mutant who’d be unknown to anyone unfamiliar with the comics (or that one episode of “X-Men: Evolution”). But if the filmmakers expect the audience to have a base-level understanding of the X-Men without expecting that same audience to look up Dani Moonstar on Wikipedia… I dunno, that seems like a stupid call.
Speaking of which, Dani breaks the plot by draining the suspense, and Ilyana breaks the plot by punching it full of holes. You don’t even need Wikipedia to know that she’s far too OP for the plot to handle. It’s bad enough that Ilyana seems to conveniently forget that Dr. Reyes’ force fields can’t do shit against a mutant who can teleport. It’s even worse when the headstrong arrogant bully turns into a cowering mess until she finally remembers she can tear through a whole army of nameless, faceless goons.
And then the climax happens.
I get what the filmmakers were trying to accomplish with this. In theory, the climax is all about the characters (most especially Dani) confronting their fears and inner demons by way of an epic fight scene. It’s a fine idea in theory. In practice, it’s a chore to sit through. Of course it doesn’t help that Ilyana’s powers are so pathetically ill-defined that the climax exposes just how broken she is, Dani is of course the only one who can really save the day, and the other three characters are just kinda there. But the true failure here is with Josh Boone, who demonstrably doesn’t have the VFX touch or the action chops to deliver a huge epic set piece like he’s trying to deliver.
The New Mutants was a fine idea that got dealt a bad hand. And I’m not even talking about the Disney buyout or the drawn-out post-production. Even if those weren’t a factor, the film still would’ve been dragged down by a studio with no idea of what to do with the X-Men property (aside from churning out films to keep the rights and/or raise the asking price for the buyout), not to mention a director who simply wasn’t trained or equipped to juggle all the genres he was trying to take on. Plus, I have to assume that Maisie Williams and Anya Taylor-Joy were brought on for star power — there’s no other explanation for how two otherwise brilliant and battle-hardened young actors could’ve been so painfully miscast.
Yet in spite of all that, there’s a genuinely good teen drama somewhere in here. In those moments when the film slows down and lets us have fun with the characters or really get to know them, you can see the heart and the effort that got put into the film. This is where Josh Boone has been known to excel (again, see The Fault in Our Stars), and it’s where I came to genuinely love these characters.
Alas, the genuinely solid character drama in here was ultimately drowned out by the tepid horror and lame CGI spectacle that would’ve sold this movie and whatever sequels it might have had. Even if a sequel was on the table, I don’t think I could’ve recommended this.
So ends the long and uneven 20-year history of the X-Men on film, under the stewardship of 20th Century Fox. It’s still unclear what Disney and Marvel Studios plan to do with the property (and I’m sure the pandemic hasn’t helped), but Kevin Feige himself has made it clear that we won’t be seeing any more of the mutants onscreen anytime soon. Hell, after so many decades of self-sabotage, Marvel has only just begun rebuilding the X-Men brand in comics by way of such recent storylines as “House of X” and “X of Swords” (both very well received, I might add).
What’s tragic is that for all its faults, The New Mutants — doomed to be an overlooked footnote in the cinematic history of the X-Men franchise — has a lot of great advice for future movies. Make it a true ensemble franchise where every star and character has a chance to shine. Delve into the pathos of the characters. Don’t shy away from the deeply personal and fucked-up parts of what it means to be a mutant — hell, lean into that. Take a good solid look at what persecution really looks like in the modern day — from racial profiling and police brutality to the concentration camps of Dachau and Xinjiang — and have the guts to portray that with mutants as an allegory.
Let’s all hope and pray that more talented filmmakers will have the wisdom, the budget, and the creative freedom needed to learn the right lessons from the past two decades.