A Shadow of Its Self
The central character of The New Mutants is Danielle ‘Dani’ Moonstar (Blu Hunt), who is awoken one night in her Cheyenne reservation home by the sounds of people panicking and loud growls. We later infer that her reservation was levelled and everyone, including her father, was killed by a psychic manifestation of Dani’s worst fear: a giant Demon Bear.
She awakens in a hospital facility run by Dr. Cecilia Reyes (Alice Braga). Reyes claims the facility was created by her unseen superiors to help young mutants learn to control their burgeoning powers in isolation, where they cannot hurt anyone. The facility is encased in a mostly invisible energy field created by Reyes’ powers. Dani is told a tornado levelled her home, and she suffers from survivor’s guilt.
There are four other teenagers at the facility, each with their own powers-related trauma. Rahne (Maisie Williams) can turn into a wolf, but she was abused by her town’s priest, who feared her powers, and she may have mauled him. She is gentle and very nice to Dani, even beginning a romantic relationship with her.
This is the opposite of Illyana (Anya Taylor-Joy), a racist jerk who torments Dani from the beginning. Illyana was sexually abused as a child and uses her powers to enter an alternate dimension, Limbo, and even summon a flaming sword. She is the Angelina Jolie-type in this riff on James Mangold’s 1990 film, Girl, Interrupted. Sam (Charlie Heaton) has the power to blast off like a rocket, but he discovered that power when he experienced a panic attack in a coal mine with his father. He inadvertently killed the whole mining crew. Finally, Roberto (Henry Zaga) became consumed by fire while making out with his girlfriend, accidentally killing her. His rich parents sent him to the facility to be “cured”.
But Reyes and her superiors do not intend to cure these young mutants. They intend to teach them how to direct their powers, making them into useful killers. These mutants all killed accidentally as their powers manifested, so maybe they could be encouraged to do so intentionally. If not, or if their powers become unwieldy, Reyes simply”puts them down” and moves on to a new subject.
This all comes out as Reyes’ probing of Dani’s powers lead to her uncontrollably manifesting each mutant’s worst fears. Sam’s mining crew, Roberto’s charred girlfriend, Illyana’s smiling observers, and Rahne’s horrific priest begin to appear. And eventually, so does Dani’s giant Demon Bear. Reyes and Illyana’s first instincts are to kill Dani, but soon the teens come together to rally against Reyes’ lies and Dani’s destructive bear.
Mutantcy and the development of mutant powers are the most brilliant and plastic of X-Men stories’ core concepts. The onset of powers in early adolescence has long made it a metaphor for puberty. Mutants discover their unique powers and gifts, their place in the world, as teens. But that discovery is coupled with angst.
More broadly, mutantcy has been used as a metaphor for civil rights, sexuality, ability, immigration–practically every contemporary social issue. Boone’s smartest twist was using mutant powers as a metaphor for childhood trauma. Rather than using powers as a path to strength, he makes the powers a “weakness” and inextricably links the young mutants’ use of the powers to awful tragedy. The teens draw strength from each other to help themselves cope and come to terms with the awful things that happened to them, and only then can they re-enter society. Dani’s powers expedite the process, as they force each mutant to literally confront their trauma.
For Rahne, Sam and Roberto, they would certainly rather not have any powers if they could avoid the tragedies caused by them. Illyana is different because her powers were not the cause of her trauma but her escape from it. She revels in her powers more than the others but is still hesitant to use them. Dani is different, however, as she must discover she is a mutant, discover the scope and effect of her powers, realize that she is causing the other mutants’ visions, realize she destroyed her own home, and she must come to terms with it all. That is quite the journey for her.
Blu Hunt plays the character well. She is credible and likable and carries the film. Maisie Williams also does a great job as the gentle, sweet, supremely understanding girl who grows close to Dani. The other characters are less developed, which is unforgivable in a film limited to six characters and featuring group therapy sessions.
Illyana is a pretty awful person out of the gate, a juvenile bully pushing everyone away. It is hard to root for her heroics in the climax as a result. Any likeability stems from Anya Taylor-Joy’s off-the-chart charisma, which is also the reason her career has skyrocketed since The New Mutants was filmed. And the boys enjoy far less development than Dani, Rahne and Illyana.
Boone has given the impression that Roberto would be the central character to a sequel, so that explains the withholding of his character’s development. But given that the sequels will never happen, Roberto and Sam will remain mere sketches. The best asset of The New Mutants is its young cast of characters and their relationships. With them served undercooked, however, the film couldn’t work. It is likely these issues would have been reduced in reshoots, but we will never know.
What is left are the horror elements. The first two acts of the film are deliberately paced and talky, with the only scares coming from the gradual occurrence of past traumas that play like haunted house set-pieces. They are not overly scary, but they are effective mood pieces. But once Reyes tries to kill Dani and is mauled by Rahne, and then the giant Demon Bear bursts into the facility, the last act plays more like a dour special-effects climax.
Dani is unconscious for most of it, trapped in another plane of her trauma as her friends fight the Bear and Rahne tries to wake her. It is easy to root for her to wake and overcome her fears with sheer willpower, as she does. But the rest of the fighting is not exciting mainly because of the underdeveloped characters.
Of course, as a longtime reader of the comics, I want to see Illyana create her Magik armour and use her Soulsword to slash a Demon Bear alongside her tiny dragon, Lockheed. But she’s an awful person in the film, so she does not deserve the win. I want to see Sam blast off at the bear like a cannonball, but who is Sam? I want to see Roberto overcome his cowardice, suddenly introduced during the climactic fight, and attack the Bear with fireballs. But again, who is he?
At the end the teens grow into a team and leave the facility to face an uncertain future. Where might they end up? The next film might have developed them into an unlikely family of superpowered misfits. But the sequel will never happen. We are left with a half-baked film that was meddled with too much, that was denied necessary reshoots, that was delayed for years for various reasons. It is a sketch, a rough draft, and there will be no final version.
Prior to Covid, box office projections had The New Mutants on track to earn $20 million assuming an opening weekend in April 2020. Released at the end of August 2020, it earned $7 million opening weekend. An argument could be made that Covid reduced its revenue by 65%. It ended its compromised theatrical run with $23 million in North America and $48 million worldwide. For a film that was shelved for years and almost never released, that can be seen as a win. Indeed, if one defines a “summer film” as any film released in theaters during May through August, then The New Mutants is officially the biggest film of summer 2020, “The Summer Without Blockbusters”. That is quite a distinction.
Upon release, the film faced many criticisms. Generally, it was not received as a good film. It was also criticized for things such as Henry Zaga, a light-skinned Brazilian actor, portraying a character who has always been depicted with darker skin. This feels a bit like splitting hairs, particularly because the filmmakers made the effort to hire an actual Brazilian actor to play a Brazilian character, but I understand how this whitewashes him. Even Bob McLeod, the original artist of the comic and designer of several of these characters, joined that criticism. He also complained that his name was misspelled MacLeod in the credits, which is such a clumsy, careless error.
Boone insists that he was able to complete the film he set out to make. In fairness, the rest of his three-film pitch sounds like it would have been fun. He wanted to next make an alien invasion horror film set in Brazil. He wanted Antonio Banderas to play Roberto’s father and introduce Warlock as an alien invader. He then wanted to complete the trilogy with an apocalyptic horror film. It would have adapted the 1989 Marvel Comics “Inferno” storyline in which demons overtook Manhattan. That all could have been fun, but it will never happen.
In the end, the box office and critical reception did not matter one whit to the studio. This was a film produced by 20th Century Fox in 2017, which Disney inherited in the merger of 2019. They paid a minimum amount to finish and distribute the film, and it was done. While the Deadpool films were doing very well, X-Men: Apocalypse effectively ended the X-Men film series at Fox in 2016. The series limped to a finalé with Dark Phoenix in 2019, but few watched that film.
If Apocalypse killed the series, and Dark Phoenix was proof of death, then what was The New Mutants? It started as an attempt to expand the X-Men series and to take the series in an interesting new direction. But it arrived long after the series was finished, buried, and moved to another studio entirely. It’s a single hotel built in a desert with nothing nearby and no guests. But there it stands; alone, and haunted.
Credits Scene(s): No credits scenes. They might have created one in reshoots, but they never happened. And by the time it was released, what exactly would it have teased?
Next Time Let’s try something different! The first Disney+ MCU series explores classic sitcoms and fractured psyches. Don’t touch that dial, Wandavision will be here after a short break.