A fresh batch of young mutants has arrived, but don’t call them X-Men just yet, and don’t call them superheroes, either. After surviving a freak storm that kills every person on her reservation, including both of her parents, Danielle Moonstar (Blu Hunt) finds herself in a nearly abandoned hospital occupied by four other teenagers — Rahne (Maisie Williams), Illyana (Anya Taylor-Joy), Roberto (Henry Zaga), and Sam (Charlie Heaton) — and staffed only by Dr. Reyes (Alice Braga), who tells them they’re in a training facility to learn to control their mutant abilities.
Each recruit is soon visited by haunting visions from their pasts, including some that have the ability to physically harm them. Trapped inside the hospital grounds by a forcefield, the five new mutants slowly unravel the secrets of why they are really there, the true extent of their powers, the identity of Reyes’s employers, and the mysteries that each of them hold within themselves.
Josh: MANAGE YOUR EXPECTATIONS. This is not a huge Marvel blockbuster story. It’s a nicely self-contained story, with only one set piece, that escalates well to a cool-looking finale. It’s been 20 years — an entire generation — of the same X-Men stories, over and over again, including all those rip-offs, so going into it I was like, please, just give us something a little different. And they did! I liked The New Mutants more than almost all of the actual X-Men movies. At one point I said, “This isn’t a superhero movie, it’s a horror/haunted mansion movie.”
Arley: I will go on record saying that the X-Men movies are terrible, and I say that as an X-Men fan. I feel like with The New Mutants, they’re attempting to make a not-comic-book-comic-book movie. Whether or not they succeeded? I thought it was okay. It doesn’t really succeed as a comic book movie or a horror movie. For it to work as a horror movie, you have to be worried about the characters, but in this one you’re not really, cause you know they’re all established canon superheroes. I think the people who are going to enjoy it are the ones who are a little more open-minded with their expectations.
Josh: I had zero. I don’t think I even saw the preview. I think it works as a teen-horror, like a long episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I loved that the movie was mirroring the Buffy episodes they were showing in the background: the TV is playing the scene of Willow and Tara’s first kiss, and then a few minutes later the romance between Dani and Rahne escalates; they show the Gentlemen on TV and then the Smile Men show up. (“Hush” is my favorite Buffy episode. The Gentlemen are fantastic villains!) Soon as I saw the Smile Men, I said, “Well, that’s pretty creepy,” so it can work as a fun-creepy horror show without needing explicit mortal danger to the main characters.
Writer/director Josh Boone and his co-writer Knate Lee have also worked together on The Stand TV series (coming out later this year, and featuring Henry Zaga), and Boone has a screenplay credit for an upcoming adaptation of The Talisman, so the Stephen King influence is strong with this one. Further, Boone previously directed The Fault in Our Stars, making him uniquely qualified to helm a teen-drama-horror film.
Arley: I felt like this didn’t have to be about superheroes. It could have been magic, or psychics, or ghosts, or anything.
Josh: I agree. I kept thinking of episodes of The X-Files that were similar, but maybe that’s because Mark Snow did the music for both and it had kind of the same atmosphere, at least until the big end fight. Once Illyana started teleporting to alternate realms, it became more like Sucker Punch. But with a plot.
Arley: The thing that annoys me about the plot (kind of a spoiler) is that it’s 100%, “Oh, we solved a problem created by one of our own.” I would have preferred if they’d been fighting a villain, an external threat. Sick of superheroes just fixing their own problems as the bulk of the movie.
Josh: I had less of a problem with that — usually the annoying thing for me is that the heroes are fighting villains with the exact same abilities or technology as them. This one, though, it’s magic sword/dragon versus Demon Bear, so it’s at least visually differentiated. And these abilities tie in with some nice thematic elements of facing your fears, fighting your own demons, accepting who you are, and using your very dangerous abilities in a way that helps others. It’s pretty overt messaging, but not as cheesy as the other X-Men movies. I did get a little bit of Moana vibe when she was calming the bear, and a little bit of Brave throughout, for obvious reasons. (Magic bear. That’s the reason.)
Arley: It’s an embodiment of Dani’s own fear, which makes it kind of interesting, but I still wish it wasn’t her own powers causing it. My favorite part was the romance between Rahne and Dani. I thought Maisie Williams did a great job acting. She had scenes conveying that confused love she was feeling and she did it without saying anything! I think everyone did a decent job acting, but hers was superb. I was nervous they were going to make it this unrequited lesbian thing and then I was going to be irritated for the rest of the night. Very innocent, very well done first-love story.
Josh: I liked it, too. It was sweet, without falling too much into YA.
Though it is officially part of the X-Men movie franchise, The New Mutants feels completely disconnected from the series. Not only are there entirely new characters (with no actors reprising roles from earlier movies), tonal differences, a smaller scale, and very little in the way of superheroics to it, the film also goes out of its way to specifically avoid referring to Professor X by name (in one of the more awkwardly presented scenes of the movie), and none of the characters go by their superhero names established in the comic books, though the film does mention the X-Men. If not for that single line, you could be forgiven mistaking The New Mutants for fanfic with the serial numbers filed off.
At the time of the film’s production, Disney (owner of Marvel) was undergoing its purchase of 20th Century Fox (owner of the X-Men films), resulting in a convoluted rights tangle between the two, which might explain things. The acquisition also scuttled any planned The New Mutants sequels and orphaned any hints at tying them into the greater X-Men universe. This makes references to things like the Essex Corporation (a call back to the end of X-Men: Apocalypse and Logan) feel not like the grand reveals they are intended to be, but instead like insider information.
Josh: Would have been funny if Maisie Williams ended up in the same X-Men movie as Sophie Turner’s Dark Phoenix, since they were sisters on Game of Thrones. This movie has a pretty good collection of genre actors: the girl from The VVitch, the guy from Stranger Things, and Arya plays a wolf (ha!). Did you notice that her character gets branded with Maisie Williams’s initials?
Josh: Yeah because it’s supposed to be a ‘W’ but the second time it’s upside down. I was thinking, “Was that on purpose?” Credits order is a huge negotiation between agents and studios and the guild, and Maisie Williams is probably the most recognizable name in that cast, but she was not the main character, and Blu Hunt was way down in the credit list even though the movie’s all about her.
Arley: The main character was a person of color, which is really cool and also relevant. They had a number of characters they could have chosen around which to build the story, and I appreciate that they picked her. They could have easily centered it around a white person. I’d have to look it up, but I don’t think this story is from the comics. They took a character and built up a deliberate, specific story around Danielle Moonstar.
Josh: Who is the Russian chick?
Arley: She’s Colossus’s sister. She has magic plus her mutant power, and she makes friends with an actual dragon named Lockheed in the Limbo universe.
Josh: Ah, that makes sense. She had a lot going on to explain with one mutation. I really liked her powers, even though I didn’t really understand them.
Arley: I feel like she was in there for the comic book fans, who know all about her, because they don’t really explain what’s going on with her.
Josh: Don’t know why she was full of Native American insults — that’s behavior you’d expect to find inside America, not from another country. I get why, from a writing standpoint — they’re trying to establish Illyana as the main threat to Dani and distract the viewers away from the real menace.
Arley: I think she was just being the “mean girl” and using whatever tool she could to be a mean girl to the new person. There were some parts where I didn’t believe what was happening on screen. How was Reyes going to keep Illyana in her room? She can teleport and has a magic sword.
Josh: Yeah, you’d think they’d have a little more staff than just one veterinarian to keep an eye on these dangerous children. I found it a little unbelievable that Roberto didn’t seem too broken up about having killed someone, unlike how Sam is wallowing in regret the whole time. The first we see of Roberto, he pops his collar in the international sign of the douchebag and sexually harasses Dani. But I don’t know, maybe being a dick is how he masks grief.
Arley: Like in American Horror Story a lot of white guys are trying hard to be inclusive but missing the point. In The New Mutants, they put the only Latino guy in the kitchen, when he’s this rich guy who throws away his dirty shirt.
Josh: I totally missed that. I mean, I saw that scene, and it made me pause because they didn’t explain why he was doing dishes (was it punishment for how he’d treated Dani? Were they all on KP rotation and it was simply his turn?) but I dismissed it because I saw later that they needed him to be isolated from the other kids. But you’re right, he would never have washed dishes before in his life.
Arley: Even if it was a punishment, maybe don’t put your only Latino character in the kitchen. I’m scared to really examine how much of Dani is stereotype or bad representation.
Josh: I found some of the dialogue a little predictable (“It’s magic!” “So am I.” and “Which bear wins?” “The one you feed.”) to the extent that I was saying the lines out loud before the characters did, but it was all pretty fitting for the tone of the film, so I didn’t roll my eyes.
Arley: Illyana’s hero name in the comics is actually “Magik.”
Josh: Ah, that might’ve been good to know. I guess it’s a bit of a trade-off: a comics fan will get more of the references, but may be getting their hopes up too high for the movie, whereas someone who goes in knowing nothing will be less likely to be disappointed. I enjoyed it as a standalone, slightly quirky, superhero offshoot. Surprisingly enjoyable. I rank it higher than Dark Phoenix, Apocalypse, First Class, X-Men: Origins: Wolverine, and probably even The Last Stand.
Arley: I mean, it’s entertaining, and that’s what you want. It’s visually fun. The sweet spot is probably viewers who have light familiarity with superheroes, who enjoy slightly dark narratives, and are just in it for a cool movie. It’s basically a new subgenre.
Disney continues its monolithic cementing of superhero film, consolidating The Avengers, Deadpool, Spider-man, X-Men, The Fantastic Four, and now The New Mutants into the same universe. The universe is already rife with continuity errors. Actors (and fans) might not have the energy to commit to another decades-long meta-narrative. A worldwide pandemic has thrown production schedules into chaos. With so many conflicting franchises, which one wins?
The one you feed.
Directed by: Josh Boone
Written by: Josh Boone & Knate Lee, based on the comics created by Chris Claremont & Bob McLeod
Starring: Maisie Williams, Anya Taylor-Joy, Charlie Heaton, Alice Braga, Blu Hunt & Henry Zaga
JOSH PEARCE, Assistant Editor, started working at Locus in 2016. He studied creative writing at SFSU and has sold short stories and poems to a variety of speculative fiction magazines. Born and raised in the Bay Area, he currently lives in the East Bay with his wife and sons and spends way too much time on Twitter: @fictionaljosh. One time, Ken Jennings signed his chest.
ARLEY SORG, Associate Editor, grew up in England, Hawaii, and Colorado. He studied Asian Religions at Pitzer College. He lives in Oakland, and usually writes in local coffee shops. A 2014 Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate, he is soldering together a novel, has thrown a few short stories into orbit, and hopes to launch more.
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