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The New Mutants

**1/2

by Matt Anderson

published August 28, 2020

The New Mutants takes the superhero genre into some new territory, but the journey isn’t as terrifying or inspiring as it should be.

Sixteen Torches

Think of it this way. As John Hughes is to Spider-Man: Far from Home, so Wes Craven is to The New Mutants. At least sorta. The story surrounds teenagers and all those horror stories of growing up and controlling hormones — those raging, all-consuming hormones that have derailed so many a life before it ever gets out of high school.

The premise offers plenty of possibilities in itself, plus there’s a whole series of Marvel comic books dating back to 1982 from which to draw inspiration.

The New Mutants is a risky proposition. There’s no Professor X, no Tony Stark or Spider-Man. This is starting fresh with a new setting and a new batch of characters that could — if they can learn to control themselves and their unique mutant powers — join Xavier’s squad. Maybe. But that presents some challenges as a moviegoing experience. It takes time to get acquainted with new characters, particularly those who haven’t enjoyed the mainstream pop culture spotlight to the extent of a Hulk or a Thor.

Putting a positive spin on things, the kid mutants start to earn audience empathy as their back stories and childhood traumas are revealed. But it’s most definitely a rocky start with this bunch; some of them seem downright unlikeable at first introduction.

Pretty in Burnt Sienna

The story is bookended with Dani Moonstar (Blu Hunt, TV’s The Originals) relating a philosophical insight from her father. It’s about how we all have two bears inside and they’re in combat for our soul. One is compassionate, one is evil. Fair enough. As that revelation unfolds at the beginning, Dani and her father are desperately trying to escape a tornado, but to no avail. It kills her father and annihilates her reservation.

She is Cheyenne.

That’s one of the groundbreaking components of The New Mutants. One of the lead characters is a Native American (and also portrayed by a Native American). But it goes further. Dani strikes up a romance-tinged relationship with another female mutant, Rahne Sinclair (Maisie Williams, Game of Thrones).

They meet not-so-cute at Milbury Hospital, where Dani’s brought to recover from the tornado (which to her mind also sounded terrifyingly like the growl of a giant demon bear). As for Milbury, it’s part hospital, part military-grade prison.

From there, the story (written by director Josh Boone (Stuck in Love) and Knate Lee (Kidnap)) is a rather slow burn as it sets the stage for five teens with serious developmental issues (for example, one lights up like Fantastic Four’s Human Torch) to confront their first challenge as a team.

Unfortunately, that’s where The New Mutants falls flat. The action part of the story is a tepid affair involving the hospital’s lead (and only) doctor who double-hats it as a warden. That’s Dr. Cecilia Reyes (Alice Braga, City of God). This time, the fate of the world isn’t on the line, just the fate of these kids. Their future’s a dicey proposition no matter what, but when it comes down to whether they’re in an incubator to become trained assassins or next-gen members of X-Men, it’s not exactly high-stakes stuff for audiences who aren’t given quite enough reason to care.

Weird Psionics

One of the curiosities driving interest in The New Mutants is seeing where director Boone would take the material, particularly given his work on the teen drama The Fault in Our Stars. The movie’s a relatively minor success from the point of view it makes the characters more empathetic through the course of the story.

Along the way, the weirdness of seeing Illyana Rasputin (Anya Taylor-Joy, The Witch) talking to a dragon hand puppet starts to make sense, once her equally weird “power” is revealed to harken back to the age of King Arthur. Well, more directly, given this weirdness wrapped within weirdness carries the surname Rasputin, she’s a sorceress with some heavy Medieval baggage.

In what could be considered something of a minor cinematic triumph of mixing Hughes with Craven, it’s revealed Roberto da Costa, the human torch called Sunspot (Henry Zaga, the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why), is still a virgin because he literally (and accidentally) incinerated his first — and, theoretically, only — girlfriend.

Even so, five disturbing tales of childhoods gone woefully awry is more the stuff of an anthology series than a standalone movie. And, while there are some attempts at billing The New Mutants as “Marvel does horror,” the horror factor doesn’t escalate much beyond the creepy. Even as a PG-13 comic book horror story, it’s pretty tame.

So, this one has to be put in a proper perspective. It’s not a major Marvel release; it’s not part of the MCU, but it is an interesting detour into a different zone (horror), just as Deadpool delves into irreverent comedy and Jonah Hex reimagines the western.

When this crazy quintet finally confront their greatest fears and head outside to figure out where the heck they are in the real world, the big question is this: who cares? The New Mutants doesn’t hit the sweet spot of franchise building. Unlike Robert Downey Jr.’s take on Tony Stark or Chris Evans’ version of Steve Rogers, the journey doesn’t end with an overwhelming desire to see this band of characters assemble again.