The New Mutants (2020)

The New Mutants (2020) Cover

The strangely long-awaited finale to 20th Century Studio's X-Men franchise has finally arrived - The New Mutants. The film, which hardly requires an introduction, is probably already best known to film fans for its infamously storied Hollywood legacy and considerable time spent in development hell, as a result of its long-mired development and production. By peculiar play of fate, its release and exhibition ultimately also mirror its creation in several ways, as the film debuts in theaters in the midst of an uncertain time for moviegoing. My own review is qualified by an acknowledgement of my shoddy viewing experience of the film at a crowded drive-in movie theater at the peak of the three-day holiday in the United States. The ecstasies and exasperations of outdoor moviegoing are likely discussion fodder for another time, but I can affirm with a great deal of certainty that my impressions of the film would likely not have improved much, even if I went to see it in some palatial large-format premium theater.

The New Mutants is most definitely an indolently constructed film, but it's also a disappointing one - it's hard to digest that a superhero franchise once as influential as this one would conclude with such a resoundingly underwhelming thud. The movie, directed by Josh Boone, angles itself to play more like a YA horror than an orthodox superhero film; yet, the seemingly subversive take is hardly enough to resurrect what appears to be an already unambitious and mostly uninventive script. Boone assembles a strong set of performers to play an intriguing array of superpowered characters, but the film never appears to have been woven together in a fashion that gives its narrative or central players their proper due. A cognizance of the fact that the film was meant to be an opener to a trilogy helps provide some context to its shortcomings, but The New Mutants feels like it was always doomed to never fully coalesce as its own stand-alone feature. It doesn’t aid that the movie runs at an unfathomably slight 94-minute length, which provides practically no bandwidth to ever fully excavate the visceral psychological or emotional subtext that should have rooted this comic book thriller. Notwithstanding the contracted and overly hastened runtime, the film still lacks any sense of real urgency and the script feels invariably underdeveloped, despite the multitude of prospects that seem intrinsically baked into the film's narrative and approach. The New Mutants never feels like it has any real meat around its bare-bone structure and execution, and often provides the sense that it never intended to aspire to have any. The film almost seems designed to play more as diverting and disposable drive-in fare rather than a full-length feature film worth paying a full ticket price of admission for.

The performances in the movie do help elevate the material somewhat however. Feature film newcomer Blu Hunt plays Danielle Moonstar, aptly also the newest addition to a psychiatric ward where young mutants are meant to be cared for and treated so as not to endanger the lives of regular civilians. As a lead, Hunt’s performance is perhaps the most predictable and passable, but she acts as an important part of a surprisingly larger, crackling and committed ensemble cast. Featuring the likes of Anya Taylor-Joy (Emma, Split) and Maisie Williams (Game of Thrones), the main performers here boast substantial chemistry that helps provide some of the glue that the film feels in desperate search of. Even despite some critics’ complaints of his fallacious Southern accent, Charlie Heaton (Stranger Things) turns in otherwise good work here as well. Unfortunately, the film hardly affords the junctures necessary for these performers and their respective characters to gel in any sort of genuine manner. Boone thankfully does avoid concentrating action into the first half of the film, which allows time for some minimal development, but none of the major characters ever leave a long-lasting impact.

Interestingly, The New Mutants initiates with an unexpectedly well-crafted and promising first thirty to forty minutes or so. As the villain, played by (no surprise here!) Alice Braga, calmly and eerily says “Did you know baby rattlesnakes are more dangerous than adult ones? They haven't learned how to control how much venom they secrete”, a bona fide sense of ominous atmosphere bubbles with potential. The claustrophobic albeit all-too-barren location of a dingy medical ward provides a historically familiar sense of setting for mayhem that affixes quite nicely to the promise of an intriguing premise. The Breakfast Club-esque setup for the characters also provides some false promises for more fulfilling character arcs and relationships further down the path of the film. Yet, the obstacles of superficially edgy and entirely tepid scares as well as generic CGI chaos, are too imposing for the film to successfully overcome. The New Mutants quickly devolves, in large part due to the fact that the script doesn’t appear to have anything worth saying or doing. It isn’t long until the curtain is pulled back, and the movie is shown to be yet another hollow spectacle that can only provide fleeting moments of suspense or atmosphere. Perhaps the most salient criticism for The New Mutants isn’t that it fails but moreso, that it fails despite all of the possibilities that come with it. Here was a chance for Boone and (formerly) Fox to create an offshooted rebirth for the X-Men franchise; one can only imagine that the squandered possibilities would have been made up for in a planned second or third film. As it stands, however, one can view the transient glints of potentiality as bittersweet farewells to a franchise that had already begun to fizzle out as of late. By the time the credits have rolled and the film has immediately been disposed of from your psyche, the wait begins for the real new mutants, under the inevitably careful subsequent creative umbrella of Disney/Marvel.

Final Verdict:Despite the potential built into its premise and approach, The New Mutants fails to extrapolate what could have been a more compelling and satisfying narrative.