The New Mutants (2020) | poster excerpt, IMDB

The New Mutants’ Cursed Journey to Theaters: A Horror Story

The New Mutants had a long, circuitous journey to the big screen as the final Marvel Comics film produced by 20th Century Fox before its merger with Disney.

The New Mutants
Josh Boone
20th Century Studios | Marvel Entertainment
28 August 2020 (US)

Following the enormity of culminating 11 years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) with Avengers: Endgame (Russo Brothers, 2019), the last 20th Century Fox-produced X-Men film, Dark Phoenix (Kinberg, 2019), and a sort of Endgame epilogue, Spider-Man: Far From Home (Watts, 2019), Marvel films went on a bit of a hiatus. Both MCU and non-MCU Marvel films were being scheduled and produced, but audiences needed a bit of a breather from the constant barrage of Marvel films.

The hiatus was set to end with the long-delayed release of The New Mutants (Boone, 2020), the final Marvel film produced by Fox before the Disney Fox merger of 2019, to be released over nine months after Far From Home. If all went as scheduled, The New Mutants would be followed by Black Widow in May, Morbius in July, Venom: Let There Be Carnage in October, and Eternals in November.

But, of course, everything changed when Covid-19 became a pandemic, and the world shut down. Millions of lives were lost around the world, as were jobs when businesses reacted to a massive paradigm shift in how they operated during the pandemic shutdown. On the entertainment side of things, productions were halted and theaters were shuttered. Streaming services enjoyed a boom from much of the quarantined population watching anything they could to pass the time. Meanwhile, Black Widow (Shortland, 2021) was delayed 14 months, Morbius (Espinosa, 2022) was delayed 18 months, Let There Be Carnage (Serkis, 2021) was delayed 11 months, and Eternals (Zhao, 2021) was delayed 12 months. Every Marvel film afterward also shifted accordingly.

But what of The New Mutants? What about this cursed film that was pitched in 2015, filmed in 2017, and had still not been released in pre-pandemic early 2020? This film that had endured studio meddling and second-guessing, major script revamps, the end of its parent film series, and a massive studio merger was now contending with the largest pandemic in 100 years. Would it ever get released? If so, how? After all the delays, was the film even worth seeing? Read on for a production story more interesting than the film itself.

The X-Men comic series was effectively cancelled in 1969. But after six years of reprinting old stories, the book (a complete comics series) was revitalized with the classic Giant-Size X-Men #1 (May 1975), by Len Wein and Dave Cockrum. That issue introduced a new, internationally diverse group of mutants to the series, and immediately led to new ongoing stories in X-Men written by Chris Claremont. By the early-‘80s, Claremont had turned X-Men into a comics juggernaut and Marvel editors sought to expand the line to more titles.

The first idea was a team of younger mutants, students at Professor Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, who were still experiencing adolescent struggles and had not mastered their powers enough to be full-fledged X-Men. This strategy, refocusing on the school aspect of the X-Men world as a way to introduce new characters that appeal to young readers, would be used many times in the X-Men books, notably Generation X in the ‘90s and New X-Men in the early-‘00s, but New Mutants was the first.

The team is introduced in Marvel Graphic Novel #4 (November 1982), and their ongoing series began with New Mutants #1 (March 1983), both by Claremont and Bob McLeod. The concept was partly inspired by Giant-Size X-Men #1, with a very international team. The cast originally consisted of Karma, from Vietnam, Cannonball, from Kentucky, Mirage, from the Cheyenne Nation, Sunspot, from Brazil, and Wolfsbane, from Scotland. They would soon introduce Magik, from the Soviet Union, Magma, from a hidden Roman society, and Warlock, a techno-organic alien.

The youthful cast allowed Claremont to address adolescent angst. Artists changed several times in the first year and a half before Bill Sienkiewicz became the artist on New Mutants #18 (August 1984). This also happened to be the first part of the classic three-issue “Demon Bear Saga”, in which Mirage’s psychic abilities summon and make her a target of a giant mythological bear spirit, a symbol of indigenous genocide at the hands of white settlers. The story’s dark shift in tone combined with Sienkiewicz’s startling, abstract art style redefined the series.

Soon, the demands of other X-Men spin-off series stretched Claremont too thin, and writing of New Mutants was taken up by Louise Simonson. She was eventually joined by Rob Liefeld, a very popular artist, and Liefeld’s popularity allowed him to have a greater say over the creative direction of the series. Cable, a time-travelling warrior, was introduced in New Mutants #87 (March 1990), and he becomes the leader of the team, pushing them in a more militaristic direction. Soon after, Simonson was unceremoniously pushed off the book as Marvel handed the reins to Liefeld.

After introducing characters such as Domino and Deadpool, Liefeld ended the series with New Mutants #100 (April 1991), then relaunched it as a hard-edged action book with X-Force #1 (August 1991). Incidentally, Liefeld and several other major artists revamped/disrupted many series around this time, isolating long-standing creators like Simonson, before they suddenly left Marvel to form Image Comics in 1992. Marvel editors were left to pick up the pieces. The cast of New Mutants was incorporated into various X-Men books over the years, and there have been several relaunches of the title. But the definitive run will always be Claremont and Simonson’s work from the ‘80s.

The original X-Men films were released from 2000 to 2006, when X-Men: The Last Stand (Ratner, 2006) effectively ended the story. After that, the producers shifted focus to a series of spin-off films featuring characters such as Wolverine and Magneto. Around the release of X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Hood, 2009), producer Lauren Schuler-Donner stated that New Mutants was among the properties they could use to take the films in a new direction. But nothing was developed until Josh Boone, fresh off his breakout hit, young adult novel adaptation The Fault in Our Stars (2014), approached Fox with a three-film pitch for a New Mutants series in 2015.

He was hired to direct the first film, which he wrote with his childhood friend Knate Lee. The initial concept for the film was an adaptation of the Demon Bear storyline from the comics, creating the first major horror-tinged comic book adaptation. At the time Boone was hired, X-Men: Apocalypse (Singer, 2016) was in production. That film, set in the ‘80s, reintroduces younger versions of classic X-Men characters such as Cyclops, Jean Grey, and Storm.

Boone’s idea was to set The New Mutants three years after Apocalypse, with Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) putting Storm (Alexandra Shipp) in charge of a facility for young mutants who have no control over their powers. This would help Storm overcome her trauma from Apocalypse. The small cast of misfit teen mutants locked in the facility evokes The Breakfast Club (Hughes, 1985), whereas the psychiatric nature of the facility evokes One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Forman, 1975) or Girl, Interrupted (Mangold, 1999). Once the horror kicks in, Boone was inspired by the likes of Stephen King.

These influences, along with Boone’s success in the young adult arena, made this an attractive and relatively low-budget way to expand the X-Men film series in interesting directions. The success of Deadpool (Miller, 2016) encouraged Fox to attempt more intense, perhaps R-rated comic book films. The film was scheduled for release in April 2018 and everything seemed on track. But then, Fox got cold feet.