Two years, five release dates, and one global pandemic later, The New Mutants is here.
A group of mutant teenagers are learning to harness their superpowers with the help of the mysterious doctor Cecilia Reyes (Alice Braga), or that’s what they are led to believe. The X-Men spinoff by co-writer-director Josh Boone (The Fault in Our Stars) limps from plot point to point until it unceremoniously ends. A film that could have roared onto screens instead hardly makes a sound.
I drove into New Mutants with low expectations. Between the delays, Disney and 20th Century not providing press screeners during a global pandemic, and Josh Boone’s recent statements on casting for the role of Roberto aka Sunspot (Henry Zaga), there’s been a cloud hanging over the film.
But I still had questions. How was Boone going to translate Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz’s iconic “Demon Bear Saga” (New Mutants #18-20) for the big screen? Unfortunately that isn’t really the film Boone set out to create.
The characters of New Mutants are squeezed into a plot that’s kind of like if Stephen King had written One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, while never laying claim to any one thing in particular. The superhero horror-film moves from scare scenes to a teen-flick with attitude and chill vibez, but never fully embodies one direction or the other, leaving it without impact.
And where Boone’s New Mutants intends to scare, it simpers. The opening scene shows the film’s lead, Danielle “Dani” Moonstar/Mirage (Blu Hunt), pulled into the forest by her father as they are chased by the Demon Bear. Deep, low rumbling, atmospheric lighting, and the screams of a man literally on fire should have caused some kind of emotional response in me. It didn’t. Boone may be a fan of the “Demon Bear” story, but he doesn’t bring the audience along. The climax of the film is nice to look at, but it’s not interesting enough to bear further depth. It exists. Much like this film.
Three times Dani repeats the proverb of the Demon Bear: “Inside every person there are two bears, forever locked in combat for your soul. One bear is all things good: compassion, love, trust. The other is all things evil: fear, shame, and self-destruction.”
New Mutants feels like a manifestation of the latter. From a script perspective, Boone never gets out of his own way to let the cinematography, music, or actors actually do their job, stepping on moments that otherwise work by explaining to the audience what they are seeing with unnecessary exposition.
Illyana aka Magik (Anya Taylor-Joy) straps Roberto to a lie detector. It takes no effort at all to realize it is a lie detector. Illyana asks Roberto a question. He answers with an obvious lie. Then she tells the group she’s strapped Roberto to a lie detector. Teenagers don’t actually talk like this to one another, mutants or not. No one does this.
New Mutants deserves some recognition for bringing a queer romance to the big screen, but the relationship itself develops so fast it is almost comical; a box to be checked. The sad thing is, it’s better than any other big budget superhero flick. That doesn’t make it a functional romance.
It’s a challenge to adapt any comic book to the screen, and the carbon-copy approach can be just as clunky as the loose translation. The real problem with New Mutants is a failure to evolve beyond the superficial. Boone assigns teen mutants to teenage clichés, like the misunderstood jock (Sunspot) or mean girl with a dark back story (Magik) and expects the audience to feel something because there are violins playing in the background.
Although she’s positioned as the lead of New Mutants, Dani is scarcely given any chance to grow as a character. All the movie’s emotional development is done around her, by other cast members. It’s a missed opportunity for Dani and for the audience, and a real damn shame considering the absolute rarity of lead roles for Native Americans. It was also a chance for Boone to update the comic (with featured its own problematic depictions of race and ethnicity) but he was never the man for that job.
Boone wrote the script for New Mutants along with childhood friend Knate Lee. He’s talked at length about what the “Demon Bear Saga” meant to him growing up in an uber-religious household, an upbringing mirrored in the origin story of Rahne Sinclair/Wolfsbane (Maisie Williams). It’s no coincidence then, that Rahne feels like more the star of the film than Dani.
What Claremont and Sienkiewicz portrayed so beautifully in their comic was the true horror of growing up. It is messy, it is terrifying. The body changes, the mind alters, and fears grow so large and so fast it is impossible to keep up with them. No element of the original “Demon Bear” story ever felt like it was an afterschool special. It felt raw, scary, and real. It pushed boundaries for sequential storytelling, but also told its young readers they can and should expect more from themselves and the art they consume.
New Mutants doesn’t feel like a movie made for teens. It barely even feels like a movie that was made about teens.