It used to be that multiple delays to a movie’s release date were a sign that something was wrong with the project. But in the case of Josh Boone’s “The New Mutants,” it’s the fact that even a global coronavirus pandemic isn’t forcing the movie to budge from its drop-dead Aug. 28 opening (after multiple postponements back when moviegoing was thought to be safe for one’s health) that looks like a red flag. Why would Disney, which acquired the project when it bought Fox last year, dump this orphaned X-Men spinoff into theaters mere days before launching “Mulan” on its proprietary streaming platform?
The answer: because Disney couldn’t keep delaying it forever, but also because this inclusive, female-empowering, youth-centric addition to the already overcrowded X-Men universe had lost its luster. After having been greenlit as a fresh take on a successful franchise by a hot up-and-coming director, “The New Mutants” was starting to feel like the Back-Burnered, Warmed-Over, Smells-Like-Old-Fish Mutants — and it didn’t help that the franchise’s last entry, “Dark Phoenix,” was such a colossal disappointment.
Re-shot, re-cut and somehow rescued from total obscurity, Boone’s movie isn’t half bad. Alas, it’s not half good either. It’s basically just decent enough to motivate those sick of shutdown to risk getting sick for real, as one of the first studio titles being released exclusively to theaters. (This critic saw it as a well-organized drive-in screening in the Rose Bowl parking lot.) Boone, who directed the hit adaptation of YA weepie “The Fault in Our Stars,” saw in the X-Men-adjacent “New Mutants” comics series a novel way to deliver wish fulfillment to teen audiences: Here, rather than granting a dying girl’s desire to visit Amsterdam, he invites young people to imagine what superpower they’d want if mutant abilities kicked in at puberty.
When her dad awakens her brusquely one night in the middle of what looks like a supernatural event, Native American teen Danielle Moonstar (Blu Hunt) doesn’t realize that she might be responsible for the computer-generated carnage outside: an ominous cloud formation, too targeted to be a tornado, that flips cars and smashes mobile homes, emitting a deep, demon-like growl as it destroys all in her path. The phenomenon obliterates the reservation and kills Dani’s dad — or so she’s told by Dr. Reyes (Alice Braga), who single-handedly runs an institution for young mutants that looks an awful lot like the hospital in “Shutter Island.” That’s because both were shot at the Medfield State Hospital, an imposing, late-19th-century red-brick asylum that makes for an ideal horror-movie location.
Boone has precisely this function in mind for the place, which takes the Ivy League comfort of Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters seen in “X-Men: First Class” and pushes it into much darker Stephen King territory. Inside the institution, Dani meets four other patients, each with wild skills it takes her some time to identify. Handsome enough to begin with, jock-like Roberto da Costa (Henry Zaga) turns scorching hot when his libido kicks in. Rahne Sinclair (Maisie Williams, “Game of Thrones”) may seem mousy, but she’s actually some kind of werewolf who can change on command. Sam Guthrie (“Stranger Things” big brother Charlie Heaton) has a thick Southern accent and the ability to shoot rocket-like across the sky. And Illyana Rasputin (Anya Taylor-Joy, the wide-eyed, ethereal-acting star of “The Witch”) is capable of teleporting and transforming her eyes and arms into weapons.
Like “The Breakfast Club” on steroids, these five misfits slowly overcome their differences, bonding and becoming friends by the time Boone reveals a twist he must have thought would blow the minds of those second-guessing how the movie relates to all the old mutants from the X-Men comics. Whereas all the films in that franchise have run with the brilliantly relatable allegory introduced by Bryan Singer’s original “X-Men” movie — in which mutants are seen as freaks by their peers much as LGBTQ teens are ostracized and feared by a homophobic society at large — Boone isn’t as clear about how to treat his characters’ so-called gifts. (That said, this is the first Marvel movie to depict an openly queer relationship, giving Dani a lesbian love interest.)
Here, these traumatized young people fear themselves, the way some adolescents freak out over physical changes brought on by puberty. This metaphor feels literal in one scene — an overt homage to Brian De Palma’s “Carrie” — when Dani finds herself drenched in blood whose origins she can’t explain. Boone, who’s clearly some kind of pulp/horror/classic-movie savant, repeatedly lifts shots and ideas directly from other sources, as in a “Psycho”-inspired shower scream later in the film. But instead of creating a new-and-improved experience for audiences, à la such magpie directors as Quentin Tarantino, he serves up something so familiar as to be clichéd.
“The New Mutants” relies on audiences being too young to get the references, who won’t necessarily pick up on the idea that he’s stolen the premise from “It” and “Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors” and “Young Sherlock Holmes,” in which a small group of young people face terrifying projections of their worst fears. At the risk of saying too much, that is Dani’s power: She can manifest whatever secret anxiety you’re hiding and manifest it in the real world, which is spectacular to witness, but such an overdone concept this many decades into the superhero and fantasy genres that audiences know how it will all play out.
What makes “The New Mutants” seem new — as opposed to an off-brand assortment of rejects stuck in the dugout during the game — isn’t their abilities but their identities. Boone commits to diversifying the sort of characters we think of as heroes (although the TV show “Heroes” did that more than a dozen years earlier, even if Marvel’s been slow to catch up), putting a strong Native woman at the center of the mix and giving her screen time to explore her romantic feelings for one of the others.
Taking a page from M. Night Shyamalan’s “Unbreakable” trilogy, Boone flirts with the idea that mutants’ powers can be used for good or evil. A college term paper or two could be written about how these characters’ abilities play into society’s prejudices about the various groups they represent: indigenous, Latinx, blue-collar and lesbian, plus a vengeful embodiment of #MeToo victimhood. In the latter category, Taylor-Joy towers over the other cast members, a movie star in the making whom Boone identified early, and who’s sly enough to walk the line between serious commitment and self-parody that constitutes camp (her character carries a pterodactyl hand puppet at all times, so can hardly be played straight).
Despite all the meddling and interference the film reportedly went through, “The New Mutants” feels pretty coherent in the end. What it doesn’t achieve is a memorable personality of its own. The project’s so committed to being a 1980s-style teen- and horror-movie homage that it never distinguishes itself. What was intended to establish the foundation for a possible standalone trilogy plays like an elaborate pilot for a series you’d never watch, and while the production values are slick, the performances and set pieces have the awkwardness of cable TV. While Marvel Studios ensured that nearly all their Disney-produced movies conformed to a single unified vision, Boone was allowed to go rogue at Fox, only to see the results treated like the company’s red-headed stepchild in the end.
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