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Yeah, it’s just, why would we wannabe be X-Men?

The New Mutants
(2020)

(SPOILERS) I feel a little sorry for The New Mutants. It’s far from a great movie, but Josh Boone at least has a clear vision for that far-from-great movie. Its major problem is that it’s so overwhelmingly familiar and derivative. For an X-Men movie, it’s a different spin, but in all other respects it’s wearisomely old hat.

Boone scored good notices – and a huge hit – with A Fault in Our Stars, so it was unsurprising Fox, even with their by then renowned lack of business acumen and management skills, should have been keen to see what he could offer the X-Men brand, the one they kind of/ sort of were embarrassed by but also wanted to hold onto as their foot in the massively-popular-if-you-cared-enough-to-do-it-right superhero genre. This had already entailed retaining Bryan Singer’s bondage gear vision for the characters and allowing novice director Simon Kinberg to helm a megabucks entry. It’s almost as if they wanted the franchise left in the worst possible bargaining position for the Disney buyout.

The New Mutants had wrapped by mid-September 2017. Since then, various stages of retooling through planned reshoots to up the horror ante came and failed to materialise (Fox saw It and decided it wanted some of that, or It), and then the Disney purchase of Fox happened. By the time Boone could have done the basic planned pickups and tweaks, the cast had aged too much for it to makes sense (Maisie Williams, in particular, looks much younger than her last couple of Game of Thrones appearances, or her risible Doctor Who one, for that matter).

The setup here has been described as The Breakfast Club meets One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but obviously with an X-Men spin, and that’s pretty much accurate. It’s evident from the opening scene, in which Blue Hunt’s Dani/Mirage is hidden by her father as their reservation is torn apart by a tornado, that she is responsible. Soon, the other patients at her hospital facility – Rahne/Wolfsbane (Williams), Illyana/Magik (Anya Taylor-Joy), Sam/Cannonball (Charlie Heaton) and Bobby/Sunspot (Henry Zaga) – are experiencing strange and spooky happenings in relation to their deepest fears, and no one is going to be surprised that it’s down to Dani. There’s also the little spin that Alice Braga’s Dr Reyes is in charge and working for the Essex Corporation in order to use these mutants as assassins (all very MkUltra, a de rigueur and now thoroughly naturalised trope).

We’ve seen enough variants of “You are the cause of it all” twists in recent years (in different forms in The Ward, Shutter Island and You Should Have Left). That might not have mattered too much if the rest of the movie were sufficiently interesting; Boone commendably generates a strong atmosphere and “character” for his environment but little else. It doesn’t help any having Buffy repeatedly checked as an influence on the TV, such that Dani and Rahne’s furtive love interest reflects Willow and Tara, while the Smiling Men match up to Hush’s Gentlemen (and just as Buffy now has a Whedon-sized shadow cast over it, the Smiling Men can boast a Marilyn Manson-voiced black spot). Taylor-Joy is essentially the Judd Nelson character from The Breakfast Club. Characters revealing their secrets/powers follow much the same principles as John Hughes’ movie.

To find positives, though: Heaton and Taylor-Joy show the kind of chops you’ve seen in previous/later appearances. Williams is surprisingly strong, given some of her non-GoT work, and certainly much better cast than her GoT co-star was in Dark Phoenix. Hunt is rather tepid, but that is in keeping with Dani herself. I liked the transformation of Illyana’s glove puppet into a real (well, CGI) dragon when she travels to limbo. Most of the effects are fairly standard issue, but a demon bear is at least an atypical adversary (outside of that Frankenheimer movie, anyway). Braga does her best with a fairly thankless role. Cinematographer Peter Deming is well versed in the horror genre, so it all looks good (even if there’s rather too much of that de rigueur green). And Mark Snow knows his spooky scoring, obviously.

I’d like to like this more, then. It’s much better made and performed than either Dark Phoenix or Apocalypse, but it’s fatally crippled by the rote storyline. Boone’s recent TV adaptation of The Stand has also met with less than adulatory responses, so those initial plaudits look to have been rather undone at this point. There was room for a horror-tinged take on the X-Men universe, I think, and it didn’t seem antithetical to the entire ethos of its brand the way Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four did (although, I felt that movie was as pilloried way beyond its flaws). The New Mutants is destined to be (un)remembered as the undistinguished footnote of the Fox X-Men run, but better it ended here, trying something less predictable within the absorbed studio’s hit-and-miss cash grabs, than the second go round of a done storyline that was Dark Phoenix.


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