A few years ago, the X-Men film series looked nearly unstoppable, notching a variety of tonally distinct and well-reviewed hits like Deadpool, Logan, and X-Men: Days of Future Past. The New Mutants was supposed to be another string to the franchise’s bow, a more intimate and YA-inflected horror story about a fresh team of super-powered youngsters. Multiple release dates and one huge corporate acquisition later, it’s a postscript – a curiosity that Fox (via new owners Disney) is launching into theatres as a mid-pandemic trial balloon.
In some ways, this represents a back-to-basics approach. The very first X-Men movie, released some 20 years ago, had its budget slashed and release date shuffled, forcing the movie to rely on character more than spectacle. New Mutants echoes that approach more intentionally, featuring just six characters: five teenage mutants imprisoned at a facility run by a single adult. Dr. Reyes (Alice Braga) claims that the kids are being treated and tested for their mutant abilities, hinting that her boss is the benevolent (and completely unseen) Professor X.
Newest detainee Danielle (Blu Hunt) wakes up at the facility after a murky disaster that appears to have killed her family, and it takes everyone a while to figure out her specific power set. Actually, it seems to take everyone a while to figure anything out; four of the five teens are unusually pliant to their captor’s whims and unquestioning of her highly-questionable motivations. The holdout, and movie stand-out, is Illyana Rasputin (Anya Taylor-Joy), a mean Russian girl with a wonderfully bizarre set of affectations (she totes around a dragon puppet and seems to have access to a variety of hair-styling equipment) and gradually-revealed superpowers.
But if Taylor-Joy is the only cast member to really nail that mix of rebellious teen spirit and mutated weirdness, the rest, including Maisie Williams (from Game of Thrones), Charlie Heaton (from Stranger Things), and Henry Zaga (from the Teen Wolf series), are still a likeable, watchable bunch. They go through the motions of both Breakfast Club-y bonding and horror-lite hallucinations, with a few cursory nods to the greater X-Men universe. The scares aren’t that scary, and despite his experience adapting The Fault in Our Stars, director and co-writer Josh Boone seems out of his depth as he tries to connect mutant-powered angst to a larger world of adolescent feelings.
Yet despite, or perhaps because of, the movie’s modest budget and aims, The New Mutants is entertaining and sometimes even affecting. It helps that the movie foregrounds its female characters (including a same-sex romance) in a way that its splashier Marvel cousins rarely bother with, and gets things done in a compact 94 minutes. It’s hard to dislike a superhero movie that throws in a Replacements tune, no matter how briefly. Ultimately, this final X-Men footnote does feel like an oddly fitting way to cap a series that’s full of origin stories in miniature. The New Mutants offers a batch of compelling ones, even on its way out the door.
- Director: Josh Boone
- Starring: Blu Hunt, Maisie Williams, Anya Taylor-Joy, Alice Braga, Charlie Heaton, Henry Zaga
- Release date: September 4