So help me, I really do feel sorry for The New Mutants and the poor saps who made it. If all had gone according to plan, it would have slunk into theaters in April 2018, gotten bored reviews comparing it unfavorably to Logan as an example of trying to do a different genre than action-thriller using the ingredients of a superhero movie, the usual fans of the X-Men franchise would have seen it, it would have earned a series low of about $140 million worldwide, and everybody involved would have bolted to other projects to lick their wounds. Instead, it got stuck; stuck with Fox, who weren't sure if they wanted it to be less or more of a horror movie, and ordering up some reshoots that possibly never even occurred; then stuck with Disney, who had a very clear idea of what they wanted their comic book movies to look like, and it wasn't this; it got delayed, and delayed, and delayed, becoming a more and more visible embarrassment with every delay, until it finally stumbled into the most glaring light possible, as the first big-studio release after the first great Coronavirus Quarantine of 2020, and as the film that was thus fated to slam the door shot on the pre-Disney incarnation of the X-Men series, of which it ultimately became lucky number 13.

I mean, the film's bad and all, but it didn't deserve that. The New Mutants is a solidly middle-of-the-pack X-Men movie, pretty much right in line with the droopy, dull X-Men: Apocalypse from 2016 and Dark Phoenix from 2019 (the latter film and New Mutants were in production simultaneously in the summer of 2017). It should have been quietly let go into the night to be found by the fans who'd appreciate its marriage of haunted house shenanigans and CGI superpowers for the neat little wrinkle on formulaic elements that it was, rather than blasted into oblivion by such a harsh, bright light. It definitely didn't deserve to be hung by two solid years of stories about how it needed to be fixed and also nobody was able to take the time to fix it. But here we are.

The story, adapted by Josh Boone (who also directs) & Knate Lee from the Marvel Comics title about teenage mutants learning to control their powers before growing up to become proper adult superheroes, does theoretically get all the things right it ought to. The set-up is pared down to the bone: one creepy old hospital and the grounds surrounding it, with a sprawling cast of six whole people, and basically no superpowers at play whatsoever until the last third of the nice, trim, 94-minute feature. It's the same impulse to do something smaller with a superhero movie that initially drove Dark Phoenix, until the studio got cold feet, and it feels like the right call, both as a business decision and as art: the idea of a horror movie with superpowers is a strong one, and, horror is a genre well-suited to a small number of people in a small number of rooms.

Good intentions are worth pretty much fuck-all without execution to back it up, however, and this is where The New Mutants gets itself into trouble. Part of it is simply that there's some very obvious uncertainty about how much this can be a horror film: there are plenty of creepy hallways through which Boone and cinematographer Peter Deming send their camera skulking at a slow crawl, and there are plenty of eerie CGI beasties jumping at the camera while Mark Snow's score (which is pretty strong, as generic horror music goes) stings and jumps. But these tend to feel loosely attached to the rest of the movie, either like they were uncertainly added after the fact, or that they're what remains after most of the genre trappings were scraped away. Either way, what remains feels like it was lost in the editing room; the presence of three different editors (Andrew Buckland, Matthew Rundell, Robb Sullivan) for a 94-minute feature that shot for just over two months speaks to a post-production that had a a lot of tinkering and different approaches at play, at any rate.

Which is to say, there is stuff in here that works. There's not much story: Dani Moonstar (Blu Hunt), whose mutant powers are unclear, but probably resulted in the death of her father and a large chunk of her town, has been whisked away to this mysterious hospital run only by Dr. Cecilia Reyes (Alice Braga), who claims that this is just a place to hold new mutants (a phrased spoken aloud often enough for it to feel desperate) until they have a handle on their powers. But Dani's fellow patients - Catholic werewolf Rahne Sinclair (Maisie Williams), Russian psychopath Illyana Rasputin (Anya Taylor-Joy), who can open a pocket dimension and manifest a giant sword, Southern redneck Sam Guthrie (Charlie Heaton), who can zoom around like a bullet, and Roberto da Costa (Henry Zaga), the son of a wealthy Brazilian, who catches on fire when he feels strong emotions - inform her that this is more like a prison, and whatever Dr. Reyes is up to, it's most likely not benign. That gets us almost all the way through the film, without much development; the film is particularly bad at actually clarifying what makes Reyes a villain, other than promising that she must be. I men, just look how spooky the old hospital is. Only a villain would work there. And that really is about the level at which we're working initially.

Still, Braga gives something like an actual performance to put this all over, and that, it turns out, is The New Mutants's secret strength: it's not a half-bad snapshot of characters. This makes sense, given that Boone has absolutely no experience in either horror or action movies, but he does have experience with teen relationship dramas (his previous feature was 2014's The Fault in Our Stars - you will please note that I didn't say he made good teen dramas). And this is the mode where The New Mutants does its best work, simply letting its new mutants hang out and learn more about each other. This doesn't end up saving the film, but it at least makes it tolerable: the bulk of the cast is likable and while Braga gives the only performance that really rises up to "definitely good", the young actors playing the teens have a good sense of the personalities they want to bring in (though Taylor-Joy, who might honestly be better off with this film having been delayed so badly than if it had come out on schedule, is buried underneath a cartoon Russian accent). The only exception, unfortunately, is Hunt, who can't make anything of the film's deliberately cloudy exposition of Dani's backstory, and so relies on being blankly chipper and reactive; given that she's the de facto protagonist of this story of a team of prickly antiheroes standing against a calm sociopath, it hurts things quite a lot that Hunt has such a bland, impersonal approach to her character.

The biggest problems, though, are all about the film's ragged trip through post-production: there are scenes that pay off things that weren't set up, scenes that open plot threads that are never followed, and the film is actively terrible at transitioning between scenes. There is no sense of a cause-and-effect flow between events, just little incidents that happens one at a time and don't seem to have anything to do with each other. There's also no coherent space that emerges through all of this, at least until the action climax. Which, too its credit, is solid: it's kind of X-Men movie boilerplate, with each character having one opportunity to demonstrate their specific talent, but at least it has that specificity, and doesn't just descend into a generic light show. The downside is that the film isn't really set up to be an effects extravaganza, and so the CGI that dominates this sequence is pretty bad.

It is, then, a wholly unmemorable, anodyne attempt to slightly push the franchise and the genre before mostly chickening out; these last few X-Men movies have been pretty unmemorable as a whole, for that matter, and at least this is a hair more unusual by virtue of being a hair weirder. Just a hair, though, and this is, all things considered, a pretty limp and mild farewell to the franchise that birthed the modern superhero movie.

Reviews in this series
X-Men: The Last Stand (Ratner, 2006)
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Hood, 2009)
X-Men: First Class (Vaughn, 2011)
The Wolverine (Mangold, 2013)
X-Men: Days of Future Past (Singer, 2014)
Deadpool (Miller, 2016)
X-Men: Apocalypse (Singer, 2016)
Logan (Mangold, 2017)
Deadpool 2 (Leitch, 2018)
Dark Phoenix (Kinberg, 2019)
The New Mutants (Boone, 2020)

Other films in this series, yet to be reviewed
X-Men (Singer, 2000)
X2 (Singer, 2003)