Review by C.J. Bunce
Sometimes a movie is exactly what you’re looking for. If you’re a fan of the coming of age or teen horror genres and the Xavier school superheroes weren’t exactly your thing, you have a new darker team of superheroes arriving on home streaming platforms this month in The New Mutants. The most eagerly awaited movie in years is here, one we’ve previewed and re-previewed new trailers for so many times we’ve almost lost count, all due to the 20th Century Studios merger into Disney and a pandemic. Much better than X-Men: Dark Phoenix and X-Men: Apocalypse, those who are bored with over-the-top, end-of-the-world plots and love the personal stories of the X-Men in the pages of Marvel Comics–and were really, really patient–will find it was worth the wait.
Fox’s X-Men movies (or any superhero movies, for that matter) have yet to eclipse the storytelling, characterization, and ensemble of actors of Logan and X-Men: Days of Future Past, but this entry is more personal, giving more attention to each new character instead of over-stuffing the story with subplots, closer to the first and second acts of The Wolverine (another good superhero movie that tends to get overshadowed by the rest). The New Mutants is decidedly low-key compared to the execution of B-team group adaptations The Umbrella Academy or Doom Patrol. No explosions, no single memorable comic book splash page takeaway scenes–you could take away the superpowers and still have a good coming of age film about a group of troubled kids who can’t find anyone to listen or understand.
For all the delays and supposed re-writes and re-shoots, writer/director Josh Boone provides a very true-to-the-comics story demonstrating why 57 years of readers keep returning to the X-Men. It’s not an entirely original story other than young Native American actor Blu Hunt (Stumptown, Another Life) as Dani, a Cherokee orphan in the lead role, but it’s a character strong enough to at least merit one team-up sequel. Maisie Williams (Doctor Who, Game of Thrones) plays a Scottish teen named Rahne once persecuted by her church for her powers, Anya Taylor-Joy (The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, Emma, The Queen’s Gambit) plays a Russian named Illya whose violent past causes her to withdraw in a world of magic she created, Charlie Heaton (Stranger Things) plays Sam, a teen who worked in the mines in Kentucky until discovering his powers, and Henry Zaga (Teen Wolf, The Stand) plays a Brazilian named Berto, whose heat-conjuring powers ended his relationship with a girl back home. Which hero is going to make it out of the hospital alive?
Each of the five young people have either emotional issues or issues controlling their powers. Even when filmed years ago the actors were in their early twenties, but they are playing teenagers here (much like the age disparity of actors in Stranger Things). All the mutants are being monitored by Alice Braga (Elysium, Predators) as Doctor Reyes, part Charles Xavier in her efforts to help the mutants control their powers, part Nurse Ratched in her actual control over them, as they are all trapped in this institution with no other human contact, studied, monitored, and drugged. The hospitalization should conjure the hopeless hospital from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, as well as the original A Nightmare on Elm Street where, through its set and vivid monstrosities, The New Mutants smartly taps the horror genre images of monsters from dreams coming to life, Freddy Krueger-style.
The delay unfortunately robs us of any hope of a sequel. Anya Taylor-Joy has already spring-boarded into an award-winning career since she filmed this movie, and Maisie Williams became one of the major faces of Game of Thrones, but the real star of the film is Blu Hunt as Dani. In the same world of mutants that includes the X-Men of the movies from X-Men: Days of Future Past to Deadpool to Logan, and presumably the Avengers, Dani is a teenager who has mutant powers, but just hasn’t discovered them yet. What those powers are and why she ended up in a high-security hospital with other teens also with powers is the key mystery.
We never learn the comic book names of the characters that have been translated to the screen from the original comics series. But it doesn’t matter–the visuals scream out Bill Sienkiewicz’s influence and the movie looks just right. It’s refreshing, because the story skips over that framed introduction scene trope for each character like we saw in the Avengers movies. Comics fans will find more Easter eggs along the way. Keep an eye out for the television show playing in the background–it’s the “Hush” episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and its chilling villain Gentlemen from that episode seem to have been tapped for some of the movements of the haunts that come to life during the climax of the movie.
The New Mutants has some strangely-timed commonality with M. Night Shyamalan’s 2019 movie Glass. Glass was filmed after The New Mutants, but it also co-starred Anya Taylor-Joy in a dark tale of mutant superheroes being held in a facility to try to control their superpowers–scene layouts and pacing are similar. The young super-group has that same kind of support circle meeting we’ve seen in other shows, from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to The Punisher to Glass–it’s a good starting place for the young people to get to know each other and the audience to get to know the characters. The New Mutants will likely appeal more to a younger audience than Glass–its leads and character’s plights are accessible, and the chemistry among the group works.
Despite the nice use of the slow-building drama, once the superpowers emerge, then the fun really begins for the audience. It’s in large part a closed-room mystery (you’ll find no international locations or national monuments destroyed here), so the production had to tap into more confined horror genre ideas to make for some movie-worthy effects. One terror takes a form that echoes the CGI of Surtur from Thor: Ragnarok. Henry Zaga’s character takes on a good replay of Johnny Storm’s form from the 2005 movie Fantastic Four. The best of the visual effects is probably Taylor-Joy’s powerful sword-wielding arm and her… awesome transformed flying sidekick–as for superheroics, she gets the best scenes here.
Filmed more than three years ago this month, the 2017 film The New Mutants is a good X-Men movie, worthy to top off the 13-movie series of X-Men movies that began 20 long years ago, and definitely earns its place in the top echelon of those films. Watch it now, streaming on Vudu and other platforms.