The New Mutants
2020, PG-13, 98 min. Directed by Josh Boone. Starring Blu Hunt, Anya Taylor-Joy, Maisie Williams, Charlie Heaton, Henry Zaga, Alice Braga.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Aug. 28, 2020
There are two positions to take on The New Mutants, the final entry in the Fox era of adaptations of Marvel's X-Men comics. There's that of the filmwatcher, who goes in blind about the franchise, and they will merely be disappointed by an idiotic, nonsensical, and weirdly cheap attempt to take the stories in a new direction. Then there's the view of a fan of the comics, who have every right to be frustrated at possibly the worst read on popular characters since Zack Snyder turned Superman into a killer.
Created in 1982 by writer Chris Claremont and artist Bob McLeod (whose name, almost unbelievably, the film credits get wrong), the New Mutants were designed to be the second generation of the X-Men after the original teen lineup either graduated from the Xavier school or were replaced by more mature characters like Storm and the now-ubiquituous Wolverine. For the film adaptation, directed and written by Josh Boone (The Fault in Our Stars), four-fifths of the original lineup are in place: Sam Guthrie (Stranger Things' Heaton) aka fast-flying Cannonball; Rahne Sinclair (Williams), the lycanthropic Wolfsbane; spoiled Brazilian rich boy Roberto da Costa (Zaga), the solar-powered Sunspot; and Dani Moonstar (Hunt), whose powers are ill-defined. In one change, Boone cuts out psychic Karma, and instead uses later addition Illyana Rasputin, the teleporting Magik (Taylor-Joy). When Dani finds herself in a strange medical facility, the other three try to welcome her, but Magik revels in her meanness, throwing anti-First Nation slurs straight out of the Trump big book of racist rhetoric.
Why and how are they there? That's all explained off-camera, but somehow they ended up in the not-so-tender care of Dr. Sylvia Reyes (Braga), who subjects them to a series of random experiments and a lot of expositional therapy sessions, all at the behest of her unseen "superior." Meanwhile, bizarre monsters plague the corridors and the dreams of these mutants.
Boone announced that this adaptation was going to break from the superhero norm as a horror flick – like he was making some grand announcement. Somewhere under the generic haunted mansion format lies The Demon Bear saga, one of the all-time great X-Men plots, in which the team faces down a monster from Cheyenne mythology. The Demon Bear is in here somewhere, but so is a generic teen horror, sludgily shot, awkwardly paced, and with zero emotional stakes. Even in a cinematic franchise that has swung wildly between the heavy-hitting drama of Logan to the sloppy and derivative Dark Phoenix, and the borderline incoherence of X-Men: Apocalypse, The New Mutants is forgettable, disposable, and surprisingly badly executed. An unconvincing romance between Rahne and Dani adds none of the emotional weight needed to make slogging through the tedious jump scares worth while.
As for the comics fans, righteous rage is to be expected, as Boone pretty clearly has no clue about the established New Mutants. Race is undoubtedly an issue: Reyes is re-written from Black Puerto Rican to Hispanic, while Sunspot, who was one of the first high-profile Black characters in a Marvel comic, is similarly white-washed. In the comic, Cannonball is the valiant hero who is hamstrung by the lack of control of his powers, and here Boone gives him a tragic backstory, which is exactly what he doesn't have. Plus, in a step that I freely admit is a pet peeve but also a tedious archetype in Hollywood when dealing with supernatural issues, Rahne is no longer Scottish Episcopalian but Catholic – not the same. As for Magik, it may well be that Boone intended to fill out her snarling, racist curtness in the sequels we are mercifully avoiding (clearly signposted by not-so-enigmatic references to the Essex Corporation). Instead, he swaps out her original trauma – spending seven years trapped in the demonic hellscape known as Limbo – for an uncomfortable and tone-deaf sexual abuse subplot.
What's saddest is that this was a wasted opportunity to adapt an era-defining comic arc into something with weight, meaning, and visual flair. Artist Bill Sienkiewicz turned the comics world on its ear by bringing a surrealist, scratchy style to the staid world of the X-Men. Boone just leaves the cast flailing in a generic asylum, plagued by some dismal CGI knock-offs of the Gentlemen from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.