If you’ve been tapped into the entertainment industry at all over the last few years, you’ve likely heard about the tumultuous release of the final 20th Century Fox X-Men-related film, Josh Boone’s The New Mutants. Set for an original release on April 13th, 2018, it was pushed three times (as far as August 2nd, 2019) until 20th Century Fox entered into sales negotiations with Walt Disney Company, which left the film in a strange stasis. Then, of course, the unexpected happened and no one knew when *any* film would be released in theaters in 2020. It had gotten to the point where the final posted theatrical release date of August 28th, 2020, was a meme until itself, a thing to be mocked rather than be believed. To make matters worse, rumors of reshoots and conflicts over the director’s vision (more horror-focused) versus the studio’s (more family-friendly) sent anyone tracking the release into a strange tizzy, presuming that whatever will be put into the marketplace would be, at best, a sad ending for Fox’s X-Men, or, at worst, the best example of cinematic maleficence since WB with Justice League (2017). With The New Mutants available to a wider audience on its home release, you’ll be able to make the determination for yourself about whether the film was worth the wait.
Dani Moonstar (Blu Hunt) wakes up disoriented in a hospital room, handcuffed to a bed. All she can remember is that a surprise storm sprung up on her reservation and her father rousted her to get her to safety. Greeted by Dr. Reyes (Alice Braga), Dani is informed that she’s in a special facility for mutants designed to help them understand and control their abilities, as well as to try to help them heal from trauma. She soon learns that she’s one of five being treated, each with their own dark reason for being there. Shortly after her arrival, she and the others begin to report strange occurrences that bring their deepest fears to life. Is this part of the treatment or something far more sinister?
A word of warning: Because this is a home release review, there is the possibility of spoilers being discussed. If you’d just like to know about the special features, skip to the paragraph after the photo of the New Mutants assembled for home release details.
If the year were 2000 and this were the first attempt by Fox to tell stories from the X-Men universe, I would’ve finished The New Mutants incredibly impressed. Sure, the details aren’t quite right, but the accomplishment of bringing five of Marvel’s lesser known heroes to the big screen is a big deal. Not to mention that the cast plays off of each other so wonderfully that the big climactic fight feels like a group coming together as one. Except it’s not 2000, this is not the first X-Men story, and using lesser known characters is not an excuse to short-hand their individual experiences or their character arcs just to meet a 94-minute runtime. Boone and co-writer Knate Lee (Kidnap) obviously have a great understanding of these characters as their individual representations are fairly on point and they manage to take a story from the ‘80s and modernize it in a way that makes sense, except where the updates don’t. Standing out like a sore thumb, the inconsistencies created are impossible to ignore. Like what? How about Anya Taylor-Joy’s Illyana Rasputin, the femme fatale known as Magik with the ability to teleport through time and space? Taylor-Joy is a proven-capable performer, even one whose mention alone suggests a certain quality for a project, and she brings balance to a character conceived of as rough on the outside and tender inside. Where Boone and Lee go wrong is with the depiction and writing: Illyana is not known to be a racist and her relationship to the X-Men’s Piotr Rasputin, a.k.a. Colossus, makes her inclusion in the film a noticeable oddity. It’s obvious that Boone and Lee see Illyana as the Bender of this “Breakfast Club” assemblage, the language she uses is so demeaning toward Dani’s Indigenous heritage that it’s difficult to believe her face turn when the crew must come together. Additionally, if Piotr couldn’t find his younger sister, he would upturn Heaven and Earth to find her and, as a member of the X-Men, he would have the assistance of Professor Charles Xavier to find her. The fact that Professor X and the X-Men are mentioned by name in the film without a single reference by Illyana implies that Boone and Lee want to distance her from the source material, wherein an acknowledgement would only heighten the danger of the kids’ situation.
The skewed internal logic of New Mutants doesn’t begin/end with Illyana, as it all hinges on Dani Moonstar. She’s the character whose initial trauma is rushed in order to move the story toward getting the five kids to work together and while also serving as the audience surrogate, a position not well served as she asks none of the relevant questions which would propel the film’s inherent mystery.. Upon waking up, she is informed by Dr. Reyes that her entire reservation was wiped out and that she, Dani, is the lone survivor. Dr. Reyes also coldly tells Dani that survivor’s guilt is common in this situation. Via Reyes, the audience is told what they need to know and Dani doesn’t question it or Reyes in the slightest. The fact that Dani wakes up in handcuffs should be a clear indicator that where she is isn’t safe, yet for some reason she never asks about the institution nor does she question Reyes when the doctor asks if Dani knows about mutants. It’s a fair question except that Dani says she’s never exhibited abilities, which would make for a fascinating character journey as she rejects her reality amid the trauma of learning her tribe is gone. Instead, there is no questioning, just blind acceptance and a brief consideration of suicide stopped by Maisie Williams’s Rahne Sinclair, a.k.a. Wolfsbane, a character Dani has forged no bond or any kind of reciprocal relationship with, the weight of which might convince Dani to pause and retract her action.
It’s difficult to surmise where Boone and Lee’s vision of the film and the final product diverge. Initial reports, along with the teaser and initial press materials hinted at something dark and troubling, a real attempt at taking the superhero genre and meshing it with horror in a compelling way. Considering that there is so much in the set and production design to imply degradation and affliction, not to mention the direct connection to Essex Corporation, the groundwork is there for something truly unsettling. The film even goes so far as to use footage from James Mangold’s Logan (2017) as a means of illustrating the true motives of Reyes and the fate of the five kids. This would’ve been fine as an antagonist or even bringing in the Shadow King, an X-Men villain who uses people’s fears against them, but the reveal that Dani is the true cause of it all, as presented, is so sharp and underdeveloped a turn that it creates an enormous amount of confusion over what is given. Put another way: why reference the Essex Corp if not to conjure Mr. Sinister, the figurehead referred to but never seen in other X-Men films, but then not use him? If the crux of the film was really a journey of self-discovery and acceptance, akin to The Breakfast Club, then why wasn’t more time spent exploring the fears with Dani? Why isolate each of the five so that they faced their traumas made flesh alone up until the end? These questions baffle and frustrate as they appear to have no reasonable answer, especially when there is evidence of thought and consideration present.
If learning more about the making of The New Mutants is your brand of jelly and jam, there are about 24 minutes of materials included that offer a look into the making of Boone’s film. The first featurette, “Origins & Influences,” offers comments from Boone, Lee, and comic artist Bill Sienkiewicz, the designer behind the “Demon Bear Saga” from which Boone and Lee drew inspiration for the film. In just over seven minutes, the three discuss how Sienkiewicz first came to join The New Mutants for his run of comics in 1984, how his style influenced the tonal approach for The New Mutants, and the manner in which they adapted the material. If you’re looking for deep analysis, you won’t find it, but those who seek a more cursory understanding of the source material and its connection to the film will be satisfied. The second featurette, “Meet the New Mutants”, also seven minutes, focuses more on the cast, shedding light on the casting process for Hunt and Williams, how the central cast went about bounding during the shoot, and their feelings of taking part in the X-Men universe. Again, this one is a bit surface-level, but you are offered the sense that the cast was game for Boone’s vision, seeing something different in the approach that hadn’t been done before. In particular, a reference is made of the film being akin to John Hughes-meets-Stephen King, which, from anyone who watched the film, is the obvious reference foundation, even if they don’t quite live up to it. The last bit of bonus material are nearly 11 minutes of deleted scenes that don’t offer much more than additional moments with the cast. If you were hoping for more, don’t despair as Boon and Sienkiewicz offer feature-length commentary, providing the opportunity for the deep dive fans of the comics desire.
It is the job of a critic to analysis and explore what is and not what we wish to have been given. This is especially difficult when there is evidence of knowledge and appreciation for the source material and a clear notion of intent for the film as a whole. It’s the inconsistencies and idiosyncrasies which stand out, highlighted amidst everything else, impossible to ignore. For instance, it can be explained away why Lockheed, a member of an alien race of dragon-like creatures, is presented as a hand-puppet brought to life when Illyana uses her abilities. It can even be accepted by those who know Lockheed as Kitty Pride’s companion as Lockheed also has a relationship with Illyana in the comics. What is harder to conjure sense for is the creation of a backstory wherein Illyana is a former sex slave rather than the warrior she is known to be. The fact that the only female characters are similarly abused or manipulated is so gross a trope, one wonders why in 2020, 20 years after the first X-Men story was presented are we still dealing with violence upon women as a measure of strength and herodom. You think it was a coincidence two episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was shown in the film? The Slayer herself is considered a respected warrior except she has also fallen prey to manipulation, subjection, and sexual abuse. Why this needs to continue in order to tell a story of heroes rising is beyond me. Taking all this into account, it’s difficult to applaud the positive elements in line with the writers’ intent when their utilization of built-in narrative elements are so weak and their newly created elements so uninspired.
The New Mutants Special Features
- Origins & Influences – Legendary comics artist Bill Sienkiewicz and the filmmakers explore the origins and influences behind The New Mutants. (7:28)
- Meet the New Mutants – Cast members share their experiences while filming and reveal how they bonded as a family, much like the characters in the film. (7:17)
- Deleted Scenes (10:53)
- Roberto Suns & Dani Climbs
- “She’s a Demon”
- “Everybody’s Type” & Chores
- Dani’s Nightmare – Alt
- “I Need to Cool Off”
- “We’re on Lockdown”
- Take out the Source
- Director Josh Boone Chats with Marvel Comics artist Bill Sienkiewicz (1:34:02)
- Trailers (4:24)
Available on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, and DVD November 17th, 2020.
Final Score: 2 out of 5.