Written by David Holland
After a roller coaster with soaring highs (X2, Days of Future Past, Logan) and devastating lows (X-Men: Last Stand, Origins: Wolverine, X-Men: Apocalypse), the X-Men franchise has been unpredictable at best. It’s hard not to compare every comic book movie universe to the MCU, and while X-Men has been more successful than some (lookin’ at you, Sony Pictures Universe of Marvel Characters), it hasn’t quite nailed the dependability of Avengers-adjacent films. It’s a shame that it wasn’t until the mutant-film-verse was in its last gasps that 20th Century Fox decided to branch out from the traditional X-Men style and try something new. It’s also a shame that the movie wasn’t better.
I always give bonus points to a movie that tries something new, and this movie definitely does. It eschews the big set-piece fight scenes and classic superhero style in favor of a small, contained, horror feel. And we’ve never really asked – what happens if you put psychologically damaged, superpowered teenagers in a confined space, and confront them with their worst fears? Turns out you can mine that question for some fresh material. I like that this movie is not about saving the universe from the big bad. In a lot of ways it’s about surviving, while also navigating the complications of adolescence and trauma. There is a lot to unpack just in those, and the clear inspirations of “The Shining” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” evoke the sense of something-isn’t-quite-right here, even in the first act. I also like the small cast of characters. When the movie started I kept going “Wait, THAT PERSON is in THIS?!” Half of the cast is Arya Stark, Jonathan Byers, and Beth from “Queen’s Gambit”.
Finally, “New Mutants” made it’s main character a queer Native American girl. That took courage. There is still a consensus among the Hollywood bigwigs that a movie, especially a comic book movie, can’t be successful without a white guy in the lead. I brought this up in “Spider-Verse” but I’ll bring it up every time: not every hero on the screen needs to look like me.
This movie is far from perfect. I found conflicting reports about this, but it certainly has the feel of a movie that was heavily reshot. In the first act, scenes end without clear reasons, and cut unexpectedly without any purpose. Dani and Dr. Reyes start a conversation in the hospital room, then cut to Reyes’ study to continue the same conversation, then cut again to Dani’s room to finish it. This example is emblematic of the jarring style that makes the movie difficult to follow at times. And as much as I do love the cast the accent work is… imperfect at best.
Most of all, the movie was billed as a horror movie, but the PG-13 rating and some of the creative decisions limit just how scary it ever really gets. In a horror movie you want to establish stakes, usually by killing a character. If you do it right, you show the audience that they won’t be able to rely on their expectations to guide them through the movie. But “New Mutants” is dealing with an established IP and hopes of a trilogy, so in addition to their mutant powers, our heroes were all protected by a thick layer of plot armor. In a monster flick, you also have to nail the monster. This was one of the most important elements of “Jaws”, for example. Hours of creative production and editing went into making a fake shark seem real enough to genuinely terrify audiences. But the final monster of “New Mutants” is a demon bear that just isn’t that scary.
“New Mutants” gets credit for trying something new, but its execution doesn’t fully land.