The film’s plot isn’t complicated, so that shouldn’t have been part of the apparent problem selling it. Five mutant teens are locked away at a mysterious facility where they are studied by (evidently the only adult there) Dr. Cecilia Reyes (Alice Braga). But when new patient Dani Moonstar (Blu Hunt) arrives, stranger things (ahem!) start happening, with each young hero facing their literal inner fears. They will have to work together if they’re going to figure out how to stop it. And while none of that is terribly novel, the film remains engaging throughout thanks largely to the fine ensemble cast bringing these sympathetic characters to life, and to the low-stakes but claustrophobic scenario that generates sufficient intrigue and emotional investment.
The New Mutants
Is New Mutants scary enough to be deemed a full-on horror movie? No. Is it melodramatic enough to be a straight-up YA movie? No. Is it bad? No. It’s perfectly watchable, competently made, and actually gets better as it goes along. What starts as just an OK movie ends as a good one. Even the visual effects aren’t that bad, with some by the end involving characters like Anya Taylor-Joy’s Illyana Rasputin (aka Magik) actually being pretty great. (Wolfsbane’s canine form is far better than the CG dog in every scene of The Call of the Wild.)
Director/co-writer Josh Boone made a film that’s akin to the first X-Men movie — which, if you revisit it now, is about as ambitious and expensive-looking as a cable TV series pilot — but Boone made his film in an era where the scale and stakes of superhero movies are required to be more epic in order to appeal to a mainstream audience. If the first X-Men movie was made now — with its simplistic train station fight sequence and final showdown where a handful of people scuffle at the Statue of Liberty — it would likely have suffered the same fate as New Mutants.
New Mutants is anchored by its solid cast, led by Blu Hunt as Dani Moonstar (that this is the first comic book movie featuring a Native American lead character and actor shouldn’t be overlooked) and Maisie Williams as Rahne Sinclair (or, as Marvel Comics fans know them, Mirage and Wolfsbane, respectively). The movie develops a romantic relationship between them, and it’s all handled in a very sweet way befitting puppy love (that’s not a Wolfsbane pun!). Both Dani and Rahne — all five members of the team, actually — are frightened and have been emotionally scarred by what their powers have wrought and that affects how they view themselves and relate to others. For Dani and Rahne, they have each just found someone who understands and accepts them.None of the New Mutants like having their powers but they begrudgingly accept them because they see no alternative. Each character is only at this facility because their powers got someone killed, leaving most of them riddled with survivors’ guilt. Of the five, Taylor-Joy’s rebellious and rude Illyana is the most adept with her powers, something the movie puts to great use in the homestretch. Charlie Heaton’s everyman Sam Guthrie probably has the most dangerous abilities but the movie never quite unleashes them, letting Illyana have all the big crowd-pleasing superpower scenes. Ditto Henry Zaga’s cocky Roberto Da Costa who gets a memorable powers-revealing scene but never really gets to show them off in the last act. (Zaga’s casting, it should be noted, has been blasted by many, including New Mutants co-creator Bob McLeod, as whitewashing a character who was dark-skinned in the original comics.)
There’s one fun section in the second act that’s a riff on a sequence from The Breakfast Club, which Boone has cited as an influence on his film. These John Hughes homages lend the film some coming-of-age movie warmth and splashes of levity. As for the horror aspects, Boone didn’t lie when he said there are shades of Stephen King in the movie, particularly Firestarter. Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer clearly plays a heavy influence as well, specifically the iconic “Hush” episode, with scenes from the show appearing multiple times. But The New Mutants starts with a long period of quiet, familiar set-up, building to a more rewarding and lively second half.
The first act is at times sluggish and rote, with exposition aplenty. And while all the cast is solid, the respective accents of Taylor-Joy’s Illyana (Russian) and Heaton’s Sam (a Southern drawl) may prove vexing to some ears. I also could have done without one glaringly on-the-nose music cue, which is when Sam — who was a coal miner like his daddy — briefly recounts his past as the country classic “Coal Miner’s Daughter” plays on the radio. We get it! He’s Southern and he mined coal! There are also plenty of moments where you’re left wondering why a particular character doesn’t just use their specific powers to get out of the jam they’re in at that moment. These nagging questions are enough to pull you out of things for a second.As a movie set within the X-Men universe, The New Mutants contains a handful of nods and Easter eggs that fans of both the movie series and the comics should recognize and appreciate. New Mutants was indeed setting up a whole new direction for the X-franchise before the Disney acquisition of Fox put the kibosh on that. But this movie also works as a standalone film, a stray without a pack to belong to now that the MCU has control of the X-Men.
The New Mutants had already gained cult movie status before its eventual release thanks to its storied delays; now that it’s a one-and-done entry in a retired franchise, and a legit good movie, it should earn its place as a midnight movie classic. I saw The New Mutants at a drive-in, which was not only the safest way to see it during the pandemic but might also be the best and most fun way to experience it.
Every X-Man Ever