After many delays for various reasons, The New Mutants has finally arrived in theaters. This wasn’t a highly anticipated release but based on its terrific first trailer (in 2017!) it promised to be a new type of superhero film, replacing epic action and heroism with titillating scares and extreme gore. What audiences received, though, is a One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest-The Breakfast Club mash-up that’s more coming of age tale than full-on horror. Throw in some superpowers and a haunted house trope and the result is Virginia Beach native Josh Boone’s first feature since 2014’s The Fault in Our Stars.  

Mutants co-stars Maisie Williams, Anya Taylor-Joy, Charlie Heaton, Alice Braga, Blu Hunt, Henry Zaga and Adam Beach, while its script was written by Boone and Knate Lee (another VB native who worked on 2010’s Jackass 3D). It focuses on Dani Moonstar (Hunt), the lone survivor of a Cheyenne reservation decimated by a tornado. Dani wakes up handcuffed to a hospital bed, where she learns from Dr. Cecilia Reyes (Braga) she’s a mutant. Dr. Reyes promises the facility will aid Dani in controlling her powers, but first they must determine the powers Dani has.

Dani has roommates, other mutants with unique abilities and diverse personalities. Illyana Rasputin (Taylor-Joy), who is the most rebellious one (and antagonizes Dani at every opportunity); Sam Guthrie (Heaton), the quiet and reticent one; Roberto “Berto” de Costa (Zaga), the good-looking and boisterous one; and Rahne Sinclair (Williams), the shy one who connects instantly with Dani.

While Dr. Reyes oversees all aspects of their care, each mutant experiences strange and creepy encounters which tamper with their fragile mental states. And as Dani slowly discovers her capabilities, living in that hospital becomes increasingly dangerous for everyone.

Boone made some interesting choices to potentially allow Mutants to stand apart from other superhero films. He went without costumes, opted to go without a supervillain, kept the tone dark and ominous and (from a technical standpoint) opted for practical effects as much as possible. This helped keep the budget relatively low (rumored at $80 million), something studios love to see. With all that in mind, Mutants allows its characters more accessibility, especially since its cast aren’t yet big-name A-listers (although Williams and Taylor-Joy have enjoyed some level of notoriety with other projects). Boone succeeds on the surface, although the script doesn’t provide much depth for the characters. He hopes audiences will use sentiment and nostalgia to fill in the character development holes – which work, to some degree.  

Mutants struggles as a horror – there simply aren’t enough scares nor gore (but gore isn't necessarily needed). Boone and Lee’s original vision, which included those, was shot down as Fox opted to lean into The Breakfast Club instead of The Shining. That hurt the final product since the trailer pushed the horror aspect. Only after the original trailer’s positive response did Fox change course by asking Boone for reshoots. That request went unheeded when Disney moved forward with acquiring Fox - the reshoots never happened and Mutants sat on the shelf when principal photography finished in September 2017.

Two actors from the cast – Taylor-Joy and Williams, are excellent. Illyana has the combined qualities of Mean Girls’ Regina George and The Shining’s Nurse Ratched – Taylor-Joy, who has experience playing maladjusted characters, is clearly up to task, taking up the role of a bully with ease (but she loses her Russian accent from time to time). Williams is equally impressive – Rahne is nurturing and sweet, an interesting contrast to her powers. Considering most viewers know her as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones, it’s nice to see a personality shift and, thus, some range for the 23-year-old.

Hunt, who’s at the center of Mutants, has potential. This is her first role in a major film and held her own with the entire cast.

And kudos to the casting team for staying ethnically authentic, since The New Mutants was one of Marvel Comics’ more diverse titles. Hunt is Native American, like Dani; while Zaga is Brazilian (although there were issues with his casting since Berto is Afro-Brazilian). But the diversity is apparent, an aspect which nowadays is closely observed.

So, here’s the thing – it’s difficult for filmmakers to make a movie when the studio has final say. When principal creatives are hamstrung, the results can provide Fantastic Four-like results. That 2015 entry, like Mutants, was a 20th Century Fox production, so go figure. Studio meddling is to be expected, especially since Boone is an up-and-coming talent with little and/or no Hollywood power. Audiences must hope that executives and creatives are in agreement, or the final word from executives is entertaining and profitable. I admire Boone’s efforts to create a unique superhero film, though. That helped me to watch his latest through forgiving eyes. 

The New Mutants, which focuses on teenage mutants moving towards adulthood while learning to use their powers to save the world from bad guys, was always second fiddle to big brother X-Men. The film version also took a backseat, despite its promising horror potential – first at Fox, then at Disney. 

Despite stifled by studio meddling, course correction, backtracking on that course correction and expectations due to legacy (from TWO studios), The New Mutants isn’t the trainwreck its multiple delays would suggest. It lacks scares, struggles without a true antagonist, is caught between franchise building and standing alone, and boasts mid-level special effects and CGI; but the final X-Men film from pre-Disney Fox makes up for it with its gritty tone and a handful of good performances. Mutants works best when not associating it with the X-Men - a difficult ask, at best. It’s worth considering, though, if you want to like this film.

3 stars out of 5


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