A film review by Craig J. Koban September 5, 2020

THE NEW MUTANTS jj
 

2020, PG-13, 113 mins.

 

Anya-Taylor Joy as Illyana  Alice Braga as Dr. Reyes  /  Blu Hunt as Dani  /  Maisie Williams as Rahne  /  Charlie Heaton as Sam Henry Zaga as Roberto

 

Directed by Josh Boone /  Written by Boone and Knate Lee

THE NEW MUTANTS - which marks the thirteenth installment of the longstanding X-MEN cinematic universe - is one of the many films this past year that was a victim of horrible release timing as a result of our current global pandemic, not to mention that it faced the added burden of being caught between a very public and recent acquisition of all of the Fox studio properties by Disney.  

Shot way, way back in 2017 with an initial release year of 2018, this Josh Boone (THE FAULT IN OUR STARS) directed comic book inspired effort was then shuffled to February of the following year, but competing directly against the juggernaut that was DEADPOOL 2 seemed silly, so it was delayed yet again.  Then Disney swooped in and became the film's new owner, and despite early test screenings of THE NEW MUTANTS going well (it apparently tested as strongly as the first DEADPOOL), the House of Mouse thought it had limited box office appeal.  Boone's film was officially removed from release, and then COVID-19 hit and the rest is kind of history, culminating with Disney unceremoniously dumping it in cinemas with little fanfare late last week.  No VOD or Disney+ streaming options were made available to anyone.   

This seems like a lot of prologue and build up for a review of THE NEW MUTANTS, but, to be fair, when a film is made and then shelved for years it's typically not a great sign of quality (Disney also, in a highly polarizing and controversial move, didn't allow for proper physically distanced screenings for critics, which further showed their apparent lack of faith in the product).  After finally seeing the film for myself at a local cinema with strict COVID measures and protocols in place, I can state that THE NEW MUTANTS is certainly no where near as awful as its troubled release woes would indicate.  It does several things absolutely right, like trying to be a bit more insular and intimate with its storytelling (it's essentially limited to one setting throughout), not to mention that it has a solid ensemble of young actors that mostly give thanklessly good turns in their respective roles.  Plus, THE NEW MUTANTS deserves serious credit for being an awful lot more progressive minded than just about every other theatrically released super hero property out there (DC and Marvel included) when it comes to its fairly frank and sincere portrait of two key LGBT characters.  Regretably, though, THE NEW MUTANTS is just too egregiously short in its running time and far too malnourished on scripting and character development fronts.  The core ingredients are here for a uniquely memorable X-MEN universe centered outing, but, for the most part, this resulting film comes off as rough first edit material needing embellishment. 

The set-up here, though, is quite good and I liked the genre mashing as well (think THE BREAKFAST CLUB meets ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST meets (uh huh) THE X-MEN and you'll kind of get the idea.  And, as mentioned, the smaller scale and focus here is a nice antidote to the bloated extremes of most other comic book extravaganzas.  The story introduces us early on to the tragic circumstances of Dani (a fine Blu Hunt), a Native American that has suffered a huge family loss becomes of some supernatural entity ravaging its way through her reservation.  Dani ends up finding herself in the "protective care" of Dr. Reyes (Alice Braga), who runs a secret and deeply secluded facility for troubled and alienated young mutants.  Dani should be initially suspicious of the fact that Reyes appears to be the only person working at this hospital, not to mention that it's far removed for the rest of civilization.  But the doctor seems kindly enough and pleads to help Dani discover her hidden mutant power, which seems to manifest itself at the least convenient times and may or may not have had something to do with that hellish ordeal back at her home that killed her family. 

 

 

As days pass Dani is introduced to the other mutant "patients" at the facility, which includes Rahne (GAME OF THRONES' Maisie Williams), Illyana (Anya Taylor Joy), Sam (Charlie Heaton) and Roberto (Henry Zaga) all of whom are slowly trying to acclimate to living daily with their extraordinary - and sometimes deadly - powers.  For all of these "new mutants," life at the hospital feels more like a prison than a place that aims to help them (none of them are allowed to leave and escape from the grounds proves to be next to impossible).  As most of these youth attempt to deal with the complexities and thorny issues associated with their abilities, Dani finds solace in a romantic relationship with the also outed Rahne, and both troubled spirits use their bond to fight their sense of hopeless isolation at the compound.  Unfortunately for all, Dani's true power begins to burst out in ways that begin to affect everyone for the worse, and exacerbating all of this is the discovery that the outwardly congenial doctor has more sinister motives up her sleeves. 

For the most part, I think that all of the characters here, on paper, are compelling enough in showing them struggling with their own uncertainties and anxieties regarding their powers that have been kept secret from the world.  Roberto, for instance, comes from wealth and is a hot hunk to the extreme...like, literally hot (he can't control his temperature, which means that if he's trying to get to even first base with a girl then he lights up and goes super nova).  Sam is a traumatized southerner with a bad past and an inconsistent ability to control his super speed and strength.  Illyana is the Russian born diva of the group that relishes in causing all sorts of social chaos at the hospital (she can also morph her arm into metal and can create a burning sword at will to brandish in her iron hand).  Then there's Rahne, who can turn herself into a teen she-wolf, but just not at the right opportunity or time.   

The finest element of THE NEW MUTANTS (which Disney has utterly avoided in any pre-release marketing) is the lesbian romance that occurs between Rahne and Dani, which is delicately rendered and gives this super hero outing some much needed freshness of prerogative and approach.  Rahne is kind of an endlessly intriguing and rich character in the sense that (a) she struggles with her own Christian faith while being a homosexual and (b) being brandied as a witch has tainted her, which comes from a deplorable priest back at her Scottish village.   Her emotional struggles mirror Dani's, who's dealing with the unfathomably guilt of being the lone survivor of her clan and possessing strong psychic abilities that may have saved her people.  In many respects, the budding romance between Rahne and Dani helps the pair deal with their nagging sense of uncertainty of where they place in a world that seems to hate them.  At their best, the X-MEN films use the plight of mutants to parallel real world issues of alienation of those deemed different and misunderstood in the world.  From what I know, this might be the very first openly gay set of main characters in a theatrically released comic book film from Marvel.  THE NEW MUTANTS, because of this alone, can't be deemed as a wholehearted creative failure.  And considering the lazy spinning of the genre wheel of, say, last year's DARK PHOENIX, this represents a marked conceptual improvement. 

Where THE NEW MUTANTS does fail is in how the whole endeavor built around the wonderful character dynamics of Rahne and Dani seems woefully unfinished and rough.  Outside of those two and perhaps Anya Taylor Joy's itchy trigger fingered mutant vixen, all of the other personas populating this film are just not interesting or inspired.  The male characters alone are pretty bland compared to their female counterparts, leaving Heaton and Zaga trying to do some heavy lifting with undeveloped roles.  Braga as the Nurse Ratched inspired villain of THE NEW MUTANTS also leaves a lot to be desired and seems oddly miscast here (she doesn't have the internalized intensity or quiet spoken chilliness that the part requires).  The film builds, as most super hero fare does, to an obligatory climatic showdown between its band of misfits and evil forces beyond recognition that want to destroy them (to be kind, the VFX of the nightmarish visions and monsters here at pretty top notch, and the showdown between them and the newly bonded together mutants has some visual potency), but it's all so perfunctory and stale.   

Here's one last problem, in closing: THE NEW MUTANTS was, early on, heavily marketed as a marriage of psychological horror and comic book conventions.  That's an appealing prospect, but this film is rarely, if ever, truly frightening (even when the toothless jump-scares come they can be seen from a proverbial mile away).  It's all kind of a small shame, because there's ample goodness that permeates the film, especially on a performance front.  Williams and Hunt bring a soulful and authentic vulnerability to their gay characters that helps segregate itself proudly from the large and overstuffed pack of other mainstream comic book  films, and Taylor-Joy is cartoonishly nasty here and is clearly having fun with her vexed anti-hero that's constantly looking to pick a fight).  Yet, the limitless potential of what's given to us here is never fully capitalized on, which leaves THE NEW MUTANTS failing to materialize any lasting staying power within the genre.  It's also a film that deserved better than the rotten hand it was dealt with in the last few years, where studio takeovers and a nasty virus severely hurt its chances of evolving into something better that would properly connect with audiences.  

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