Two years, five release dates and a global pandemic later, The new mutants is here.
A group of mutant teens learn to harness their superpowers with the help of mysterious Doctor Cecilia Reyes (Alice Braga), or so they are led to believe. Co-Writer-Director Josh Boone’s X-Men spin-off (The fault in our stars) limps from point to point in the plot until it ends unceremoniously. A movie that could have roared across screens instead barely makes a sound.
I entered New mutants with low expectations. Between the delays, Disney and the 20th century not providing press screeners during a global pandemic, and recent statements by Josh Boone about casting for the role of Roberto aka Sunspot (Henry Zaga), there has been a hanging cloud above the film.
But I still had questions. How was Boone going to translate the iconic “Demon Bear Saga” by Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz (New mutants # 18-20) for the big screen? Sadly, that’s not really the movie Boone set out to make.
The characters of New mutants are in a hurry in a plot that looks like if Stephen King wrote Flight over a cuckoo’s nest, without ever claiming a particular thing. The superhero horror flick goes from scary scenes to a teenage flick with attitude and chill vibes, but never fully embodies one direction or the other, leaving it without impact.
And where is Boone New mutants intends to scare, it’s simmering. The opening scene shows the film’s star Danielle “Dani” Moonstar / Mirage (Blu Hunt) being dragged into the forest by her father as they are pursued by the Demon Bear. A soft deep rumble, atmospheric lighting and the screams of a man literally on fire should have elicited some kind of emotional response in me. That was not the case. Boone may be a fan of the “Demon Bear” story, but he doesn’t train audiences. The climax of the movie is fun to watch, but it’s not interesting enough to endure any more depth. It exists. Kind of like this movie.
Dani repeats the demon bear proverb three times: “Within every person there are two bears, forever locked in a fight for your soul. A bear is all good: compassion, love, trust. The other is all evil: fear, shame and self-destruction.
New mutants feels like a manifestation of the latter. From a script standpoint, Boone never goes out of his way to let the cinematography, the music, or the actors do their job, walking through moments that otherwise work by explaining to audiences what they see with unnecessary exposure.
Illyana aka Magik (Anya Taylor-Joy) ties Roberto to a lie detector. It doesn’t take any effort to realize that this is a lie detector. Illyana asks Roberto a question. He answers with an obvious lie. Then she tells the group that she tied Roberto to a lie detector. Adolescents don’t really talk to each other like that, mutant or not. Nobody does that.
New mutants deserves some recognition for bringing queer romance to the big screen, but the relationship itself is growing so fast it’s almost comical; a checkbox. The sad part is, it’s better than any other big budget superhero movie. That doesn’t make it a functional romance.
It’s a challenge to adapt any comic to the screen, and the carbon copy approach can be just as awkward as free translation. The real problem with New mutants is a failure to evolve beyond the superficial. Boone assigns teenage mutants to teenage snaps, like the misunderstood jock (Sunspot) or the bad girl with a dark back story (magik) and expects the audience to feel something because there are violins playing in the background.
Although it positions itself as the leader New mutants, Dani has virtually no chance of growing as a character. All the emotional development of the film is over around her, by other cast members. It’s a missed opportunity for Dani and for the audience, and it’s a real shame considering the absolute rarity of lead roles for Native Americans. It was also a chance for Boone to update the comic (with his own problematic depictions of race and ethnicity) but he was never the man for this job.
Boone wrote the script for New mutants with childhood friend Knate Lee. He spoke at length about what the “Demon Bear Saga” meant to him growing up in an ultra-religious household, an upbringing reflected in Rahne Sinclair / Wolfsbane (Maisie Williams) origin story. It is therefore no coincidence that Rahne feels more the star of the film than Dani.
What Claremont and Sienkiewicz described so well in their comics was the real horror of growing up. It’s messy, it’s terrifying. The body changes, the mind changes, and fears get so big and fast that it’s impossible to keep up with them. No element of the original “Demon Bear” story ever felt like it was an after school special. It was raw, scary and real. He pushed the boundaries of sequential storytelling, but also told his young readers that they can and should expect more from themselves and the art they consume.
New mutants doesn’t sound like a movie made for teenagers. It hardly looks like a movie shot about teenagers.