For someone who was a big fan of The New Mutants in my formative comic book years, with a particular fondness for The Demon Bear saga (see my recent post about Bill Sienkiewicz for the effect it had), I was always going to watch The New Mutants film no matter what the reviews said. For once, the critical consensus is more or less correct – The New Mutants is neither a good film nor a disaster; I would call it an ambitious failure.
The idea of doing something different with a superhero movie is good – the MCU uses different genre aspects in its output while still adhering to a similar approach, so making a movie based on a superhero comic book that is firmly in the psychological thriller/horror area is a USP that also demonstrates the versatility of the medium. Comic books can handle the breadth of genres, so films based on them should as well. The Demon Bear storyline from The New Mutants comic book, written by Chris Claremont and drawn by Sienkiewicz, is a suitable choice for this approach, and the makers of the film (Josh Boone directs and co-scripts with Knate Lee) obviously love the storyline and characters as well. They have adapted it loosely into a traditional three-act movie, using the concept and the characters, but haven’t succeeded in translating it into something new and complete in its own right.
The set-up is intriguing – Dani Moonstar (Blu Hunt) is the only survivor on her reservation of some destructive force; she wakes handcuffed to a bed in a facility. (The facility seen from outside is an enormous old mansion, but we only see the five patients and Dr Reyes [Alice Braga] – I get the creepy intention of a sprawling single location, but it seems illogical.) She is told she’s a mutant by Dr Reyes and that she must stay at the facility while they work out what powers she has because she might be dangerous. The same is applied to the other four residents – Rahne (Maisie Williams), Sam (Charlie Heaton), Bobby (Henry Zaga) and Illyana (Anya Taylor-Joy) – to whom we are introduced in a group session where they talk about their powers. A little unsubtle perhaps, but necessary. We also learn that they all have traumas from their pasts that affect them still: Sam’s ability to generate propulsive force to fly caused the mine he was in to collapse; Bobby burnt his girlfriend when his powers manifested; Rahne was beaten and branded a witch when she transformed into a wolf; Illyana was abused by demons she calls the ‘Smiling Men’.
The stage is set for a creepy (but not scary, despite the film’s certificate and ambition) thriller in which the kids are shown interacting while manifestations of their traumas return to haunt them in a physical representation, and trying to figure out what exactly is occurring in this strange facility where they are being held (they initially believe they are being worked up to join Professor Xavier and his X-Men).
The cast works well, which is good because the film focuses on them for most of the duration, avoiding overt displays of power until the inevitable superhero-action final act. The interaction between Bobby, son of a rich Brazilian family, and Sam, son of Kentucky miners, is nicely played as they develop a friendship from the comics despite their different backgrounds. Taylor-Joy as Illyana is good (apart from the wavering Russian accent) as a foil for all, being antagonistic towards everyone as a coping mechanism for the abuse she suffered in her youth, although the character is made into more of a bully than bitchy as she was in the books. (An aside: her inclusion in this iteration of the team, which is the original New Mutants but with Illyana replacing Xi’an aka Karma, seems to be solely because Magik is the more demonstrably visual character with the teleporting and the Soulsword, although clearly the film doesn’t go for the comic-book origins of Magik’s sorcery and the Soulsword, just lumping it all in as her mutant powers.) The most interesting development is the romantic relationship between Rahne and Dani, not in the comic books, but played naturally and without it being a big deal, and which works very well.
In essence, the film feels like The Breakfast Club with scares and superpowers but without reaching the levels of interest that this premise would suggest. It is great to see the Demon Bear on screen, even if it doesn’t match the power of Sienkiewicz’s original visuals, and it loses some of the mystical otherness because it is tethered in the real world. It was a delight to see Lockheed appear as a real-life dragon (Illyana has a sock-puppet called Lockheed that she uses to voice her anguish; the sock-puppet turns real when in Limbo). I also particularly liked the visuals for Rahne in werewolf form, although I wasn’t sold on the visualisation of Bobby’s powers – I’m particularly fond of the blackout visual with Kirby dots from the original comic books, so the flames didn’t work for me (and were done just to give Bobby the trauma angle).
The film admits its debt to Buffy the Vampire Slayer with the visual link between the Smiling Men and the Gentlemen from the Hush episode by showing a clip on TV, and there are nods to the wider X-universe (the facility is run by the Essex Corporation, hinting at Mister Sinister), demonstrating the intent of the creators, and the film works as an origin story for the New Mutants outside of Professor Xavier (who was never very interested in them anyway; Magneto was headmaster of the school for longer than Xavier).
Unfortunately, the film doesn’t really come to life – it fades from the memory quite quickly after watching, not doing enough of the right things to stick in the brain and leave you wanting more. Of course, as a long-time fan of The New Mutants, I’d be more than happy to see further adventures of these characters – if this film was condensed into a long pilot for a TV show, it would be considered successful enough to warrant a commission of a season that would allow development of the characters and the relationships, as well as bringing in more elements of the New Mutants.
It’s unlikely we will see further outings for the New Mutants (certainly not with this cast – the film was originally supposed to come out in April 2018, so they’ve all aged out of their roles even if they weren’t doing other things; Taylor-Joy’s star is particularly in ascendance after The Queen’s Gambit, so would be difficult to get her to return), even if Disney wants to do more with the newly acquired IP, which is a great shame. I’m glad that the filmmakers tried something different; I’m glad that the world now has the New Mutants as a film, even if it’s not great; I hope we see something down the line. Until then, we have glimmers of what could have been.