PG-13. Good for you, little known X-Men spinoff. I thought you were shooting for that hard R. It is weird that the same audience that can have backpacks and kids' clothing can also apparently go see a horror movie where someone's ripped apart, survives, and is covered in bleeding claw marks all over her body. There's also a suicide attempt and lots of scary imagery. Some of that imagery implies that one of the characters was the victim of sex trafficking. The movie also seems to hate Catholicism, which isn't my favorite element of the film. So, you know, PG-13.
DIRECTOR: Josh Boone
My excitement for this movie just kept changing, guys. Nerds out there will know the very troubled history of The New Mutants. The time around my birthday tends to be the B+ movies. These are the movies that I give my hopes up for. (For those wonder, it's mid-April.) These are the movies that tend to creep into the slate. Occasionally, some work of genius will fall in here. The genius movies tend to be directed by Edgar Wright and they don't get the press they deserve. But also, movies that sit on shelves that studios don't know how to market show up here. The New Mutants was supposed to be my birthday movie...
...two years ago.
There was a trailer two years ago and it looked rad. There have now been so many superhero comic adaptations that someone out there decided to change the genre and create a new subgenre: the superhero horror. Now, since then we've gotten another entry in this subgenre, namely Brightburn. But The New Mutants was going to take an already established Marvel property and adapt it to the horror genre. I loved it. I looked bleak and scary. It had some cast members that I was slightly excited to see in superhero roles. It took two things that I loved and then mashed them together. This was going to be the chocolate and peanut butter of movies for me.
But then it got shelved. It got shelved and it got shelved harder than almost anything else I've ever seen. It got shelved as hard as The Cabin in the Woods got shelved. That's pretty hard. Then the dreaded term --reshoots --appeared. And that's when the rumor mill started. Apparently, 20th Century Fox got really cold feet about this movie after the trailer was released. I think a lot of it came from the aftermath of X-Men: Apocalpyse and hearing rumblings of the problems that would plague Dark Phoenix. 20th Century Fox, pre-Disney, was a very gittery company. I've commented on this before. They weren't exactly Sony bad, but they were up there on the studio system suits list. It wasn't something I was excited about. There was talk about start to finish reshoots. They were talking about making it scarier. (Does that mean the original version wasn't that scary? Or did it mean that they were doubling down on the risk?) I really need to learn to take entertainment gossip with a grain of salt because, since then, I heard that the reshoots were pretty mild and that the version I ended up seeing was pretty close to the original. Who knows?
But what I can say is that The New Mutants ended up being a perfect April release in terms of quality. I mean, it is far from my favorite mid-April release movie (and considering that it didn't come out in April, as far as I remember, that's even more of a thing.) See, I'm always disappointed when something like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World or The Cabin in the Woods don't get their massive summer blockbuster releases. Those movies totally deserve it. April is for "Hey, that movie was pretty good" or "It was better than I thought it was going to be." By the time this movie came out, and all of the drama was rolling the red carpet out for the film, I had pretty low expectations. Instead, what I got was a fairly servicable horror movies that had X-Men universe characters in it. Sure, we'll never get the A-List guys to show up for a movie like this, but they got name-checked for sure. (Okay, nods, but overt nods!)
I spent a lot of time explaining what happened behind the scenes here, so I suppose that I should actually talk about the movie itself. (Note: I had a nightmare where one of my friends critiqued how badly I wrote these. Dear subconscious, I'm aware, but I only have so much time to actually write these things on a daily basis.) The smartest thing that The New Mutants does is to tear something out of the Smallville handbook. This is a world where superheroes exist, along with superheroic powers. But not everyone in the world starts off as a superhero. Yeah, nerdy old me knows the fates of a lot of these characters, but that's not the point of the film. It's not even an origin story. The best thing about the X-Men is that you really don't need to have an intricate origin story. While we do get some of the background on Moonstar, the only thing we have to no is that she is a girl who bottles up her trauma. That trauma, in turn, manifests itself through psychic hallucinations that can actually hurt others. Sure, that's a bit of a twist, but it is also telegraphed way ahead of time. It's, like, a tiny twist in a movie that really doesn't need twists. But having them not act like heroes is great. If anything, it creates a vibe more akin to A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors. I'm one of the few people who wasn't obsessed with Dream Warriors, which makes me a bad person. But The New Mutants kind of gives that movie some validity. There is something there.
But the movie also has this weird thing that bugs me. I'm going to try to find a way to verbalize it because it is a little bit of me complaining about myself happening here. (That sentence got away from me. Sorry.) The images that Moonstar produces are pretty effective. I especially like Illyana's fear of the smiling men. These images work very well and are pretty darned creepy. But the fact that the protagonist is producing these fears and phobias is a little bit...disappointing? I think my logic comes from the fact that this place is very scary. These kids are isolated in an abandoned mental hospital that has an old, dilapidated church coupled with a spooky cemetery. While I don't know if a traditional ghost story is best coupled with the X-Men, having the protagonist doing all these things without control makes her less of a sympathetic hero. I know, I know. I hear myself too. After all, she's a poor girl who is constantly exposing herself to trauma and if that's not a metaphor for the self-sabotaging behaviors that the 21st century teenager deals with, I don't know what is. It's just that there is a villain in the piece. Dr. Reyes is straight up crazy evil. She works for Mr. Sinister (which the movie is afraid to name drop) and is recruiting for an evil X-Men. (See, that's a twist...that I also saw coming.) When she puts away her professional persona and tries to kill Moonstar, she becomes a very cool villain. But the horrors aren't about her. Instead, Reyes is simply a low level mutant and that's not interesting to me. The movie starts with Moonstar having these abilities and not controlling them. But she kind of ends the movie with not really controlling them either. The big fight isn't between Reyes and the kids. The big fight is trying to get Moonstar to wake up. That's a conflict I can't really get behind.
There's a metaphor right there waiting to be picked up and explored. From what I remember, Moonstar's gender has been changed? (I could Wikipedia this, but I have zero minutes and zero seconds of time today.) The center of our film is a girl who has lost everything. She is experiencing powerlessness. She's bullied by other members of her own gender and species and she should be a dynamic character who finds herself by overcoming her traumas. That's kind of the purpose of the scream queens. Characters like Ripley or Laurie Strode start off as marginalized characters who show their true colors through the adversity that follows them. They end up becoming a bigger monster, a monster for good, than the creature that is stalking them. But Moonstar never really has that moment. Instead, she is unconscious for the bulk of the finale. Reyes ends up being a non-threat and why should we care about that? I mean, the movie still works despite my hopes for a stronger protagonist, but it did definitely rub me the wrong way.
However, there is one absolutely great thing about this movie. While it feels like a technicality, having The New Mutants being the last X-Men film released by 20th Century Fox / 20th Century Studios is a mitzvah. Dark Phoenix was borderline unwatchable and it left such a sour taste in my mouth. Instead, The New Mutants kind of owns. It's not a perfect film, by any means. If the studio system got one thing kind of right, it does feel like the audience for this movie would be miniscule. Regardless, it is the last film in the franchise and I can't complain about that for one second.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.