Some films emerge into cinemas so tainted by stories and gossip about their tortured production that they simply never stand a chance. The New Mutants is a prime example: set up as a horror-themed spin-off of 20th Century Fox’s lucrative X-Men franchise, it was shot in 2017, delayed for reshoots, delayed again as Disney purchased Fox, saw the entire X-Men line discontinued from underneath, and eventually released to theatres two years late in the middle of a global pandemic. As I said: some films simply never stand a chance.
The New Mutants opens on native American Dani Moonstar on the run from an unseen monster that decimates her home community. When she wakes, she is locked inside a near-empty hospital. The one remaining staffer – Dr Cecilia Reyes – explains that she has been placed in the secure facility because she is a mutant, and must learn to control her powers before she may be released. Dani is, of course, suspicious, and with fellow patients Sam Guthrie, Illya Rasputin, Roberto da Costa, and Rahne Sinclair works to uncover the truth behind their imprisonment.
As released, The New Mutants is a fatally compromised picture. It is a clear victim of reshoots and indecision by two separate studios, made redundant before its debut, and given a theatrical slot for no other reason than to defray costs. This is honestly a deep shame, because even obscured by these factors it still holds much to applaud and recommend. It advances the X-Men films in an interesting fashion, re-working the familiar elements through the twin lenses of teen drama and supernatural horror. It also benefits very much from having a clean slate in terms of character. The main X-Men line ended in hideous shape, with a tortured continuity caused by vague half-reboots and a lack of vision so profound it saw Dark Phoenix effectively remaking X-Men: The Last Stand with even less creative returns. The New Mutants genuinely feels like an attempt at something new.
For all of its promise, it does get off to a rocky start. The film’s first act is easily its weakest, low on activity and high on exposition. Characters are not well defined, and take a long time to be established beyond stereotypes. The screenplay, by director Josh Boone with Knate Lee, feels deeply lacklustre. The film also feels bizarrely under-population with a cast of six. There are no supporting characters or even extras. The young mutants are inconceivably trapped in a disused hospital by one person, and the lack of additional staff, guards, or orderlies simply beggars belief. The result is a film that, more often than not, resembles a cheap TV pilot. Events accelerate in the second half, and The New Mutants concludes with a likeable and intriguing ensemble cast – only they have run out of movie.
For the most part the cast are excellent. Anya Taylor-Joy is the stand-out as Illya Rasputin, known in the comic books as Magik, and brings a huge amount of presence and charisma to her role. Also strong are Blu Hunt as Dani, aka Mirage, and Game of Thrones alumnus Maisie Williams as Rahne, aka Wolfsbane. Perhaps less successful are Henry Zaga as Roberto, aka Sunspot, and Stranger Things‘ Charlie Heaton as Sam, aka Cannonball. In the former’s case it feels like the case of an under-written character. In the latter’s it feels more like an actual poor performance.
This film was clearly conceived as the first in a series, and suffers as a result. Much of the plot feels like the first act, and circumstance has now robbed the story of a conclusion. There are also strange implied links to both X-Men: Dark Phoenix and Logan, suggesting an abortive attempt to expand the franchise into a Marvel-style shared universe.
Ultimately The New Mutants is a solid superhero origin buried underneath a range of bad luck and poor choices. The second half is honestly quite good, but sadly that is not enough to really save it. It is a sad missed opportunity. It is the fans of the original comic book for whom I feel sorry – a chance to finally see their favourite characters on screen, and Fox and Disney together have let them down.