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Fans of the New Mutants team, a junior varsity X-Men spinoff, have been waiting an eternity to see them realized on the big screen. Fox has been producing mutant movies since 2000, but New Mutants characters like Cannonball, Sunspot, Wolfsbane and Magik were perpetually sidelined so Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) could get multiple movies, the Dark Phoenix saga could be told (twice), and Deadpool could branch out into his own sarcastic corner of a now-defunct Marvel world.
Even when The New Mutants finally was announced, a litany of obstacles extended our wait. A corporate merger of major studios? Check. A global pandemic? Check. But I love this team, and adore these individual characters, so I went into Josh Boone’s film with an open mind and a boatload of optimism.
But The New Mutants isn’t good. It’s a strange misfire, a dated and uninspiring comic book adaptation that feels like it was made in the early 1990s, not 2017 – at the very least, long before the film industry figured out how to evolve the superhero genre. It does nothing new to expand the X-Men franchise. It does nothing new to evolve the idea of comic-book properties. It’s just… there.
The New Mutants cast is much better than the movie they appear in.
Let’s start off with the lone positive element of The New Mutants, and that’s the cast. Relative newcomer Blu Hunt plays Danielle “Dani” Moonstar, a young mutant who hasn’t realized her latent powers. She suffers a major tragedy in the movie’s opening scene, landing her in an institute run by Dr. Reyes (Alice Braga). Hunt is our window into the story, and she plays Dani with vulnerability that earns out sympathy. She has lost a lot. She’s scared of her powers, and isolated from the world. And it’s exciting watching her mature as the story demands it.
On the opposite side of the spectrum is the movie’s other standout, Anya Taylor Joy (Split) as Illyana Rasputin, or Magik. She best personifies the punk-rock attitude that Boone wants the whole movie to have… even though he doesn’t fully commit to it. Illyana is a sorceress who’s brimming with confidence. She challenges Dr. Reyes at every turn, prods Dani until she becomes the team’s leader, and is probably the only character from this flat dud that should be shuttled over to the Marvel Cinematic Universe so she can continue to explore Magik’s levels.
The rest of the cast is good, but underserved. They skim the surface of what makes the New Mutants interesting, without ever gelling as a team you’d want to follow forward.
The New Mutants is generic. Like, really generic.
The biggest crime of The New Mutants is that it doesn’t pick a lane and charge down it. If it wanted to be the first Marvel horror movie – a very interesting choice for a story about mutants locked up in an institute – it’s never scary. The elements it thinks are unnerving might unsettle an audience member who’s never seen a horror movie, but this PG-rated material, at best.
If The New Mutants wanted to be a superhero movie, it’s never exciting enough to warrant inclusion in any conversation about the memorable origin stories from the genre. Hell, just by X-Men movie standards, it tumbles under the bar established by X-Men: First Class or Bryan Singer’s effective franchise launcher, 2000’s X-Men movie.
It seems like Boone wanted to make a character-driven teen mutant movie, but stopped short of portraying every character with depth or sincerity. We learn the most about Dani, Illyana and Rahne (Maisie Williams), but nowhere near enough to convince us to invest, even if the series had some way to move forward.
The New Mutants occupies a strange limbo, which is pretty fitting, all things considered.
So, The New Mutants falls short as a proper vehicle in which to unveil a new team. But we also have to analyze all of the different ways that it works now as a time capsule for an era of Fox X-Men movies that no longer are a thing. This indisputable fact gives The New Mutants an unusual coat of dust on the whole endeavor, and it’s really tough to shake.
For example, the young members of the team think they are being tested and trained so they eventually can become X-Men, and Professor Charles Xavier is mentioned, though he does not appear (in hindsight, a James McAvoy cameo would have been bizarre). When the true mastermind behind the villainy is unearthed, it’s a deep cut throwback to a franchise that no longer exists, so the reveal lands with a thud.
Beyond the movie’s place in the grand scheme of now-defunct X-Men movies, Boone also makes deliberate choices that make The New Mutants feel dated. One, in particular, kept catching my eye. Whenever the team members congregate in the common area, episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer are playing on the TV set. That show went off the air in 2003. Why do that?
In the end, The New Mutants disappoints. It finds the right actors to play these intriguing Marvel mutants, but traps them in a simplistic, unimaginative, low-budget blip on the comic-book radar that neither hinders nor furthers the superhero conversation. I’m starting to forget it. You probably should, too.