It’s fair to say that Josh Boone’s The New Mutants hasn’t had an easy road over the last few years, including strife between the director and Fox over the film’s direction, five release date delays and a disruption from the pandemic. Many X-Men fans were hoping it would be worth the wait, especially since the mutant series was diving into super-powered horror rather than an action-packed punch-up, something not really seen in typical comic book movies (aside from Blade and Hellboy, of course). Unfortunately, the end result is something much more disappointing.
The New Mutants sees Danielle Moonstar (Blu Hunt) wake up in a remote facility for young mutants to hone their abilities so they don’t become a danger to themselves or others. But as the group she’s stuck with are haunted by demonic apparitions, it becomes clear that something or someone is out to get them. And truthfully, there are genuine moments of greatness scattered among the mediocre superheroics. When it really lets the horrific elements run wild, it shows off the potential with the eclectic group of mutants. It’s just a shame that these moments are all too fleeting. The chilling Slender-Man-style Smiley Men are undeniably creepy. Their elongated bodies and bony fingers are almost corpse-like, but they don’t get the focus they deserve. While Josh Boone stretches his horror limbs with The New Mutants, the film never reaches a terrifying crescendo. There’s so many opportunities for some great jump-scares or visions that could make the audience recoil in shock, but the pacy editing undercuts any tension instead of leaving the monsters to rattle the audience.
If anything, the trailers were scarier than the film itself. And although the cast members also have plenty of potential to be compelling and interesting, the majority of the actors painfully over-act most of their scenes to a cringe-worthy effect. Perhaps most disappointing of all is how Illyana Rasputin instantly dislikes Dani Moonstar, because the clunky script combined with an over-the-top performance from Anya Taylor-Joy makes their entire rivalry (if you can even call it that) nearly unbearable. Luckily once The New Mutants moves further into the reason behind all these unnerving threats plaguing the team, Anya Taylor-Joy starts to ease off and have a little more fun with the role. And yes, seeing her jump in-and-out of Limbo is incredibly satisfying as she’s wielding the impressive Soulsword. However, slick special effects still don’t make up for the yawn-worthy writing from Boone and Knate Lee.
It’s a good thing that the Demon Bear of it all works well in Dani Moonstar’s character development alongside her blossoming relationship with Maisie Williams. Arguably the most memorably horrific moment in the film is when Rahne Sinclair/Wolfsbane’s backstory rears its ugly head and she’s brutally attacked by a petrifying figure from her past. Yes, the CGI Smiley-Men and the behemoth Demon Bear are expertly brought to life, but that singular scene will easily leave a bigger impression on the audience than the main villain of the film. Although to give credit where it’s due, it’s refreshing to see an LGBTQ relationship pushed to the forefront of the film, and the connection between Rahne and Dani is genuinely quite tender.
Josh Boone also throws in a few references to the wider X-Men world. Knowing they won’t be followed up on now that Disney has acquired Fox is bittersweet, especially with one name-drop that a number of fans will instantly recognize. The biggest reference of all comes with the not-so-subtle inclusion of Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes in the background of two scenes. And all it achieves is reminding the audience just how good this teen-horror adventure could’ve been. Truth be told, you’d be better off rewatching Buffy. One of my biggest gripes with the film is how, visually, these characters are great, but they’re not all explored as heavily as Dani Moonstar because of the condensed run-time. Charlie Heaton’s Cannonball feels a little more lively than the rest due to his southern accent and his fighting style, but Henry Zaga’s Roberto da Costa (A.K.A Sunspot) feels like a typical entitled brat who’s been cut and pasted into the film.
Annoyingly, The New Mutants haunts each hero individually before getting to the real meat-and-bones of the story, which really kills the pace. It’s essentially a similar situation to IT: Chapter Two, where the members of the Losers Club have to face their own fears by themselves. Let’s face it, the draw of any superhero team-up is to watch them band together to fight some strong, imposing villain, but here that’s just dragged out. It makes the 98-minute runtime feel like a two and a half hour movie. But hey, at least Demon Bear looks cool for the five minutes he’s on-screen.
What’s equally disappointing for comic-book fans is how the film doesn’t properly adapt the team, and The New Mutants co-creator Bob McLeod recently voiced how disheartened he was (although took the time to praise the cast) when he saw his name misspelled in the credits. Josh Boone praised the source material in the film’s virtual San Diego Comic-Con panel, but that all feels a little fake now. I’m sorry to say it, (because I honestly wanted to love The New Mutants) but it’s an incredibly underwhelming experience. Hopefully it doesn’t put off other studios from attempting to bring more horror into comic book movies and TV shows, because when it’s done right, it can work brilliantly. (We’re looking at you, Swamp Thing.) In a time where going to theaters is a riskier decision in the United States, it might be worth waiting for The New Mutants to arrive on home release, or at the very least, seek out a drive-in theater instead.