Warning: Contains Minor Spoilers
We are used to superhero movies being BIG. The action is BIG, the army of bad guys our heroes face off against is BIG and the amount of collateral damage caused in their inevitable CGI punch-up is very BIG indeed. The New Mutants, a spin-off from the X-Men franchise and therefore produced by 20th Century Fox under their existing contract, is not a BIG movie. In fact, it’s the most surprisingly small superhero movie that I’ve ever seen – and all the better for it. The COVID crisis had not been kind to Hollywood and the regular sausage-factory of superhero fare that we’ve become used to in recent years has ground to a halt, with only Wonder Woman 1984 coming out of the Warner/DC stable and nothing at all coming out of Disney/MCU. Somewhere in the middle of this, 20th Century Fox came out with The New Mutants, filmed as far back as 2018 but held in production hell until mid-August 2020.
The New Mutants is a strange crossover movie for the X-Men franchise because, towards the end of its production, Disney bought 20th Century Fox for an obscene amount of money, returning the X-Men to its home at the Disney-owned Marvel. With Disney arranging to co-own Spider-Man in 2017, that means all of the contracted-out Marvel Comics characters are back in the MCU. But The New Mutants isn’t really in the MCU and it doesn’t feel like an MCU movie. In fact, as I mentioned before, it doesn’t really feel like any superhero movie that has gone before. There’s a tight, indi feeling about this movie, which neither looks nor feels like it had a huge amount of money spent on it. That’s not a criticism, by the way; I love indi movies and have always felt that a mega-budget is by no means the indicator of a quality product.
The original comic book of The New Mutants was created by Chris Claremont and Bob McLeod back in 1982 and was the first of many (arguably too many) spin-offs from The X-Men, which was Marvel’s biggest selling title for a long time. It basically winds back the clock to the days when Professor Xavier’s mutant prodigies were teenagers in training, but brings the idea into the 80s and introduces a new cast of characters. The movie is loosely based around the ‘Demon Bear’ storyline that appeared in the comic book around its third year and the writer and director are quite insistent in the bonus material that they made the film as a horror movie rather than a straightforward super-hero film. To be frank, although it’s not your conventional superhero fare, it isn’t a horror movie and pitching it as such only really led to audience confusion and the eventual poor reception of The New Mutants at the box office (along with the fact that box office takings were virtually non-existent due to COVID).
The movie begins with Native American teenager Dani Moonstar (Blu Hunt) being the only survivor of an attack on her village by some savage unseen force. She is taken to a remote old hospital under the supervision of Dr. Cecilia Reyes (Alice Braga) alongside fellow ‘patients’ Rahne Sinclair (Maisie Williams), Ilyana Rasputin (Anya Taylor-Joy), Sam Guthrie (Charlie Heaton) and Bobby da Costa (Henry Zaga). She soon discovers that these five are the only patients in the sprawling hospital and that each of them is in possession of some kind of mutant power. Comic book fans will recognise these characters as Mirage, Wolfsbane, Magik, Cannonball and Sunspot, though their ‘X-Men’ names are never used in the movie and they are not under the tutorage of Professor X, rather being groomed for some nefarious future by an unnamed secret organisation.
Therein lies the movie’s man problem – there is no real villain in The New Mutants. Dr. Reyes is no more than a powerless puppet of some shadowy organisation and poses little personal threat to the lead characters. The strange goings-on that plague our heroes, without giving too much away, stem from a source much closer to home. The so-called horror elements are more psychological horror than blood ‘n’ guts and, in deference to the modern superhero idiom, the gang do end up fighting a giant CGI monster in the end. Apart from one or two very minor roles, the five kids and Dr. Reyes are the only characters in the movie, which will give you some idea of why I initially described The New Mutants as small. In many ways, it feels more like the pilot episode of a television series than it does a movie, with the implication of more characters and wider scenarios to come. From what I’ve read, the director intended this to be the first part of a trilogy (which the Fox / Disney sell-out may have scuppered) and that’s definitely how it feels.
Where The New Mutants succeeds is in its characterisation. All of the lead characters have been abused or damaged in some way and the young actors rise to the parts that have been written for them. Ilyana starts off as something of a bitch, but we eventually learn that this is a front to cover the fact that she is potentially the most mistreated of the lot of them. Abuse also figures in Rahne’s background and Maisie Williams plays the character with a passable Scottish accent, though the film does seem to imply (as the comics often also did) that Scotland has somehow never quite left the 18th century. Sam is the shy boy, Bobby is the confident boy, but we eventually learn that they’re not too different. Charlie Heaton as Sam does his very best to break away from his very well-known role as Jonathan Byers in Stranger Things, but unfortunately he’s been lumbered with another mopey teenager role.
Although she’s technically the focus of the movie, Dani Moonstar suffers from being one of the less developed characters, with much of her characterisation coming from her lesbian relationship with Rahne. It’s hard to develop something like this within the confines of a 95-minute film, but I think The New Mutants handles it fairly well; there’s not the time to be too coy, but the movie underplays it just enough for the relationship to be convincing. Again, this feels like something that was intended to be further developed in a follow-up movie, but it’s always unwise for a movie or TV series to rely on the assumption of a sequel, as film and TV companies are so capricious that they can pull the plug on even the most successful of franchises.
Was The New Mutants the worst X-Men film? No, not in a universe that contains X-Men III: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Was it the best? Well, patently not, but it was an interesting experiment. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m starting to get a little tired of the cookie-cutter superhero movies where our hero faces a foe of equal measure (often a dark version of his/herself) and ends up knocking seven bells out of them in a battle that destroys half a city, so it was pleasing to see a comic book movie that tries something a little different. Whether it was a success is open to debate. It certainly could have been marketed better; if you went to The New Mutants expecting a horror movie, you’d be disappointed – and many viewers who enjoy a good superhero movie might have avoided it because it was being pitched as a horror. Better to just enjoy The New Mutants for what it was: an eminently watchable, small-scale, slightly experimental, character-driven comic book movie.