The New Mutants
The New Mutants 2020
Of all of the superhero movies of the past few years, this one was probably talked about more than it was actually watched whenever it eventually came out. It had a hugely trouble production as the studio seemingly didn’t have a lot of faith in it compared to Fox’s other mainline projects Deadpool 2 and Dark Phoenix so it got pushed back, they did some reshoots, Disney bought Fox so it got pushed further, the pandemic happened so it got pushed back even further, they wanted more reshoots but too much time had passed for their younger cast. And the articles around the project are confusing, as some say that the director wanted more horror, yet the first round of reshoots were supposedly to add more horror. And yet what the movie really could have used was, you guessed it, more horror. In the end, it didn’t fail at the levels of something like Fant4stic, but this was clearly a result of studio meddling that left us with a B- movie when there is the skeleton of an A movie.
What does work for this film is how it keeps things very small and centralized. Aside from a brief opening sequence where we aren’t really shown much aside from the main character Dani and her father amidst all the chaos, the rest of the film takes place in a single building and its grounds. There’s enough variety to make things interesting, with a graveyard, rec room, pool, church, and a variety of other rooms to suit the various getting-to-know-the-crazy-mutant-teens scenes. And the film toes the line well enough between giving fanservice for those who are familiar with the comics and therefore familiar with who these characters are from the very beginning, and giving small bits of information to the many people who are unfamiliar with these characters and are learning about them for the first time. While there are brief mentions of the X-Men, these characters aren’t superheroes or supervillains. They are exactly what the title says they are, new mutants. And despite the underlying sinister purpose of the hospital they’re in, the film treats them as people first, comic book characters second. There’s hints of one costume, but there’s not a single nickname tossed around. Each character goes by their real name, and the only way to find out their mutant persona name would be through outside information.
Where this film fails is that it doesn’t go far enough into horror territory. We’re presented with this group of traumatized teenagers with dangerous powers under varying levels of control but while these powers are used as threats at various points, it’s generally missing that sense of dread or tension. Early on, we get a fight between Dani and Illyana where Illyana shows off her power to encase her arm in magical armor and create a blade. But the mood of the scene isn’t scary, it’s more like a schoolyard or prison yard brawl about to break out between the new girl and the resident bully. Even the introductory scene where Dani wakes up chained to a hospital bed in a completely empty room is missing any sort of mood to make it feel like she’s somewhere she isn’t supposed to be and someplace she needs to leave as soon as possible. It’s just a boring, empty room that evokes confusion devoid of even the slightest underlying dread.
It also isn’t helped that while the stakes are higher than a typical superhero movie, it still trends towards the superhero team building cliche moments for the climax. Each character gets their moment to show that they’re actually able to control their powers when it comes down to the wire and we get that happy ending where everything’s going to be ok. It felt rather unearned with the majority of the characters coming to grips with their extreme traumas after just a brief conversation where they bring it up, then when it’s time to actually fight for their lives they’ve suddenly worked past all that trauma because they mentioned it that one time twenty minutes ago.
As this is a small cast, it’s worth it to actually go through all the characters here. The main character Dani is the new girl who was brought into the fold after she let loose a giant demon bear that killed several people in her reservation including her father. Her power is psionic manifestations, basically she can read people’s thoughts and make those thoughts, generally their worst fears, into reality. This is the basis for the horror throughout the movie as she is extremely powerful and has no control over what she’s doing until the very end. There’s not much to say because without it, there’s really no movie. As a character, she’s nothing too special but she serves her purpose as audience surrogate slash catalyst for the entire movie well enough. There’s also the budding romance between her and Rahne who is basically a werewolf who’s fully in control of when and how much she changes into a wolf. She was branded a witch by her extremely Catholic father which is a nice bit of double symbolism as when the W is upside down it can also double as an M for Mutant. The relationship between Rahne and Dani is one of the stronger moments and the film also casually tosses in just a single line commenting on the same sex relationship and otherwise treats it as a perfectly normal romance.
The other three characters are a bit less interesting. Sam is the Southern guy who worked in a coal mine with his father until he got claustrophobic and triggered his mutant power of explosive speed which caused the death of his father and several other miners. He’s basically the nice one. Roberto is mostly absent from the first half of the movie as the quiet one until he opens up and has a flashback scene where his Human Torch-like powers burned his then-girlfriend to death. The bully Illyana does actually have a bit more to do as she plays up the crazy using a dragon hand puppet named Lockheed. Besides creating armor for herself, she can also teleport to another dimension called Limbo and can turn her hand puppet into an actual dragon. She also has a weird traumatic backstory involving a group of faceless creatures wearing smiley face masks who abused her as a child. That entire section was a little difficult to follow as we mainly get to see the Smiling Men during one of Dani’s fears-come-to-life moments so it’s unclear whether these Smiling Men were actually faceless demonic presences, or if they were just a group of regular men who were just terrible in more realistic ways and Illyana’s fear turned them into actual demons. The only adult in the film, the doctor in charge of the facility plays things generally emotionless which could have worked better if it were amped up through the rest of the film, but she rarely felt like a threat. Her one good moment was when she was trying to euthanize Dani after being told she was too dangerous and that emotionlessness really worked in her favor as she related a story about having to put a pet dog down due to rabies. But that was less effective during the rest of the film.
Despite several flaws, the overall structure and what this film was trying to accomplish still works more often than not. As long as you’re not looking at it with a fine toothed comb it really does bring something different to superhero films by presenting the start of a horror movie. It might not go all the way but at least it’s trying to do something different and if you’re able to watch it with an open mind, it can take you along for the ride. It’s just a shame that it got trapped in this weird limbo where it wasn’t able to fully commit to something darker and more ominous. But at least they all didn’t come together to fight a glowing pillar of light reaching to the sky. Until next time, this has been Bubbawheat for Flights, Tights, and Movie Nights.