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The New Mutants: A Retrospective

With the release of 'X-Men '97' dropping on Disney+ later this week I thought it might be fun to look back on that time the mutant-verse went full on (sort of) horror with Josh Boone's 'The New Mutants'.

The New Mutants Film Poster

Of course superhero comic book films have never shied away from horror before. Before the MCU was officially born, New Line Cinema kicked it all off in 1998 with 'Blade', about a vampire stalker who just happens to be half vampire/half human. Who could forget the blood bath opening sequence right? But a year before Wesley Snipes was kicking ass and taking names as the Daywalker, Michael Jai White was doing something similar in an adaptation of Todd McFarlene's 'Spawn'. And three years before that, Brandon Lee starred as Eric Draven, a vengeful man brought back from the dead after his lover is brutally raped and killed in Alex Proyas' stunningly gothic big screen adaptation of James O'Barr's seminal graphic novel 'The Crow'.

Interestingly enough, Todd McFarlene has revealed recently that a reboot of 'Spawn' is in the works and he is just waiting for a studio to pick it up, although it might be a few years away. A new version of 'The Crow' starring Bill Skarsgård is released in June of this year (and it looks like it's dropped it's gothic aesthetic for a John Wick approach) and we'll finally get to see Mahershala Ali in the MCU's version of 'Blade' in 2025, with it promising to remain true to the source material. All this is to say that horror may prove to be an important factor for comic book film adaptations going forward and rightly so.

But getting back to the world of the X-Men. 20th Century Fox first produced an X-Men film adaptation way back at the turn of the millennium. It was a huge success and helped launch leading man Hugh Jackman into superstardom. It spawned two sequels in the original trilogy timeline and then a further four films in an alternate timeline. And on top of that it also gave us a trilogy primarily focussed on Jackman's Wolverine character. It's safe to say that all of these films varied in quality from release to release but one thing's for sure, 20th Century Fox certainly took some risks with their content and I think for the most part it paid off. Their films always tried to appeal to the older audience too particularly towards the end of their run with the likes of 'Deadpool' and 'Logan'.

The film rights reverted back to Marvel and their parent company Disney in 2019 after the acquisition of 20th Century Fox and with it the barriers could finally be lifted. Comic book mutant characters previously owned by Fox would finally be introduced, all be it very slowly, to the MCU. Well it's 2024 and we're still waiting, although in 'Ms. Marvel' it was revealed that Kamala Khan was a mutant and in 'The Marvels' a famous member of the X-Men team appeared in the after credits scene and we were given hints that more mutants are coming very soon.

This acquisition, although clearly an exciting prospect for superhero fans going forward, actually hindered the release and subsequently the potential success of 'The New Mutants'. Production on the film began in 2017 with a release date tentatively set for April 2018. Delays inevitably happened and, as the case with most bigger blockbuster superhero films, reshoots were on the horizon. It was decided that the film's release would be pushed back again to make way for the release of 'Deadpool 2' and then 'Dark Phoenix' in 2019. While reshoots and delays certainly aren't uncommon in Hollywood, there is sometimes this negative mentality that can spread like a disease on social media and filter out into the wider society that lingers on the cusp of a film's release. Some films just aren't strong enough to rescue any of the hope that was once alive and well before and during production and sadly 'The New Mutants' was a bi-product of this negativity.

Disney reportedly weren't happy with the potential box-office return and marketability of the film so more delays happened and by early 2020 there was still no sign of it. Josh Boone had already moved on to his next project, a television adaptation of Stephen King's masterpiece 'The Stand' but had to return to help finish the film. A few adjustments were made to the final film to make it more coherent to the current Marvel product and a release date was finally ready to be confirmed but then Covid-19 hit. It clearly didn't benefit the film that different parts of the World were reacting very differently to the challenges faced in the wake of the unprecedented pandemic. It also didn't help that the film sadly failed to actually live up to its own hype. It was finally released in August 2020, almost three years after the first trailer dropped.

Maisie Williams, Blu Hunt, Anya Taylor Joy, Charlie Heaton & Henrique Zaga in The New Mutants

Boasting a cast of amazingly talented, young actors like Maisie Williams, fresh off her incredible success as Arya Stark in HBO's giant 'Game of Thrones', Charlie Heaton, who was still living with the unparalleled hype of 'Stranger Things', and Anya Taylor-Joy, who of the three was the most established and revered and has since went on to star in even bigger projects, it felt like the film would be a home run, at least within the realms of superhero features but unfortunately the reception was not good and the film ended up losing somewhere in the region of $20 million.

Based on the 1983 coming-of-age comic book series of the same name by legendary writer Chris Claremont and artist Bob McLeod, the original line-up consisted of Wolfsbane, Sunspot, Cannonball, Mirage and Karma, a super diverse team of gifted teenagers and the majority of themes would explore teenage angst and self-discovery. It's considered the first true X-Men comic book spin-off and also on occasion, featured the villain team of the Hellfire Club, a version of which appeared in Matthew Vaughn's 2011 soft reboot 'X-Men: First Class'. Other members of the comic book line-up included Magik, Magma, Cypher and Warlock. The series was officially cancelled in 1991 but continued on in some respect by artist and writer Rob Liefeld under the name X-Force.

A movie adaptation was first toyed with in 2009 by 'X-Men' producer Lauren Shuler Donner but it wouldn't be until late 2014 after the release of 'The Fault in Our Stars' that filmmaker Josh Boone and writing partner Knate Lee, both avid comic book fans growing up, would put together a rough pitch using the original comic books and present it to 20th Century Fox. It was originally conceptualised as a trilogy and after in-depth discussions with Simon Kinberg, the duo inked a deal to begin work on a script with Boone directing and Kinberg and Donner producing.

Charlie Heaton, Alice Braga, Blu Hunt, Maisie Williams & Josh Boone on set of The New Mutants

Josh Boone's big screen film adaptation focusses on Dani Moonstar (Mirage), Sam Guthrie (Cannonball), Roberto Da Costa (Sunspot), Rahne Sinclair (Wolfsbane) and Illyana Rasputin (Magik) as they are held prisoner in a unnaturally secured facility while they come to terms with their own abilities. Under the supervision of the mysterious Dr. Reyes (Alice Braga) each of the mutants must remain patient and learn how to harness their special powers so as to never be the author of theirs or somebody else's horrible tragedy, which as we soon learn they all have experienced at some point prior to their incarceration. Boone and co-writer Knate Lee decide to lean towards the teen in turmoil horror sub-genre instead of a traditional superhero movie, which by all intents and purposes, really did seem like a recipe for success, if for no other reason than it was different than but would still appeal to both a younger and mature audience. Fresh off the huge success of Andy Muschietti's adaption of Stephen King's 'IT' and the supposed rebirth of horror cinema, this version of 'The New Mutants' would look to hook a large proportion of that viewership in by the scruff of the neck. Straight from the very first trailer that dropped in late 2017 there was a sense that Boone was definitely harnessing some 'A Nightmare of Elm Street' vibes here, particularly 'Part III: Dream Warriors' and the initial reactions were very positive.

So what went wrong?

Well the film isn't nearly the catastrophe that most might lead you to believe. One of the striking negatives that's evident straight away is the lack of backstory to each of the young characters that we're introduced to in Dr. Reyes' facility. We obviously get little drops of information as the film progresses but it's not enough to make us really care about the characters. And their abilities aren't fully explored or defined until well into the film. Dani, who is our protagonist, isn't even aware of her power yet which is what the plot of the film is actually about, her discovery of who (or what) she really is. I think my main gripe about the film is that it felt more like a CW television show full of frustrating tropes. Another frustration was with how Dani sort of just accepted her fate. There are moments were she questions Reyes' legitimacy and the facilities agenda but it's glossed over way too easily for my liking.

The dialogue has some horrendously stereotypical moments too especially involving Illyana, who for the first half of the film is essentially just there to spout racial tirades to Dani, a somewhat lazy way to gain sympathy for the protagonist. And as much as I enjoy Anya Taylor-Joy and Charlie Heaton, their accents are hilarious at times and there are moments when I couldn't even make Heaton out. What I did enjoy was the relationship between Dani and Rahne, which starts out as an understanding of minds and then progresses to something physical, which really was refreshing to see.

But what about the horror?

The marketing behind the film pushed the horror aspects to the forefront and I do think it delivers for the most part. It's not overly graphic, or no more than your average superhero film, but the character of the Smiling Man is delightfully grotesque and hauntingly creepy, reminiscent of something that might appear in a Guillermo Del Toro picture. I think the idea of nightmares and visions that are explored in 'The New Mutants' are one of the positives especially the more surreal they appeared. It furthers the connection with 'A Nightmare on Elm Street'. The scares are few and far between as the film elects to create an uneasy atmosphere paired with some unsettling imagery, instead of jump scares. Illyana's flashbacks are particularly disturbing as there may be other connotations implied. It's mostly set within the location of the Dr. Reyes' facility so it's nice not to have the feeling of the apocalypse (not the character) looming over the entire film. Long empty corridors are perfect situations to create isolated horror and I do think Boone and Lee could've used these better to perhaps go even further into the anxious and paranoid driven psyche of the troubled characters.

The Smiling Man from The New Mutants

The themes explored here aren't an awful lot different than previous X-Men films. I mean the whole existence of the mutants is allegory for immigration, racial prejudice, intolerance, ignorance, the abuse of power, indoctrination, the advocation of war, genocide and everything in between. What is more horrific than that? Boone and Lee come at those themes from a slightly different angle, through the lens of the teen obviously, but they still apply.

Even though there's a mention of the X-Men fleetingly there's no real connection to the previous films. However with the reveal of the Essex Corporation (originally teased in the X-Men Apocalypse post credits scene) it does feel like that the inclusion of Mister Sinister as the big bad is what the writers were planning if a second and third film were greenlit. Mister Sinister always scared me as a kid and he does seem like the perfect character to produce more horror content through.

Sadly, after two teases, we still haven't seen a big screen version of Nathaniel Essex' alter ego but surely it's only a matter of time before Feige or someone else whispering in his ear comes up with a viable way to introduce the character. With the official announcement of the MCU's version of 'The Fantastic Four' already out there promising endless multiverse possibilities and with Marvel dipping their toes in the horror realm with 'Werewolf by Night', 'Moon Knight' and the upcoming 'Blade', the "mutant verse" seems to be the most plausible and best opportunity for horror fans. We can only hope that the possible inclusion of mutants like the Morlocks and Mister Sinister or even an alternate more terrifying version of Apocalypse, will encourage Marvel to go full steam ahead with the horror content in the not so distant future.

-Gavin Logan

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