Plenty was already written about the X-Men genre-bender The New Mutants in the years before its actual release. Thanks to its very public production troubles, post-production tinkering, and release-date delays since its teaser trailer premiered in movie theaters way back in the Before Times of 2017, The New Mutants has been engaged with more as a News Item than as a Movie. I’ve even personally contributed to that phenomenon myself, cheekily declaring it to be “The Defining Film of the 2010s” a full year before it ever screened for the public. After living with the Idea of the movie and its bungled potential to mutate the superhero genre into an entirely new beast for multiple calendar years, general audiences (or at least the nerds who pay attention to this kind of cultural runoff) couldn’t help but enter The New Mutants with rigid preconceptions of what it was going to be – whether expecting a playful superhero-horror genre hybrid or an incomprehensible editing room disaster. It’s hilarious to me, then, that its journey into wide distribution ended with the film being unceremoniously dumped into empty movie theaters in the middle of a global pandemic, then quietly surfacing on cable television just a few months later to practically zero fanfare. In retrospect, it was the only fitting conclusion to that sad, drawn-out saga.
Approximately one million years ago, I was pretty dang excited for The New Mutants. The now-ancient teaser trailer for the film/news-item promised an X-Men version of The Dream Warriors, indicating that the superhero genre had established a sturdy enough cultural footing that it could now experiment with subgenre detours—including, apparently, Nightmare on Elm Street riffs—without alienating general audiences. The finished product (which is, reportedly, the exact version of the film director Josh Boone intended to release in the first place) is unfortunately much more timid than the horror genre detour I was expecting. Instead of a Mutant Dream Warriors creep-out, The New Mutants is essentially just the YA version of Glass. Its target audience skews way younger than what I initially hoped for, reeling in the broader possibilities of a superhero-horror blockbuster to settle for a PG-13 thriller aimed specifically at teens. It even openly acknowledges that aim by including multiple scenes where the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV show is playing on a background television, clearly indicating the exact kind of media it hopes to emulate. Re-orienting its context from X-Men on Elm Street to over-the-plate PG-13 horror required a major expectation adjustment for me. Once I understood where it was coming from, though, I actually found the film passably decent . . . give or take a few ridiculous accents & wigs.
Like The Dream Warriors, The New Mutants features a small group of traumatized teens living in shared confinement in a mental ward, each haunted by the literalized versions of their worst nightmares. Except, in this case the teens are all X-Men type mutants in training. Also, instead of their worst fears being brought to life by the wicked scamp Freddy Krueger, it’s the fault of a new recruit who doesn’t yet know how to control her unwieldy powers. Because this is a superhero film, the surrealism of that teen-mutants-vs-their-own-psyches premise is eventually reduced to a smash-em-up CGI battle with a single, destructive villain (in this case, a kaiju-scale Demon Bear), but there are some truly great creature designs & jump scare gags in the build-up to that inevitable climax. Its commitment to PG-13 scares means there’s no true body count, and the cast is rounded out by less-than-charismatic performances from TV-star teens who got their start in now-dusty properties like Game of Thrones & Stranger Things (including a career-worst performance from usual-MVP Anya Taylor-Joy). As far as tween-friendly horror goes, though, it ain’t half bad. If nothing else, it scores easy bonus points for being centered around a cute, queer romance that’s more genuinely hormonal than what’s typical for the superhero genre, even in properties that are supposedly aimed at adults.
As a news item, The New Mutants was a cultural time capsule that typified a wide range of ways mainstream blockbusters were marketed, edited, distributed, and passed around between corporate buyouts in the 2010s. As a movie, it’s nothing special – especially not in a market already flooded with similar #content like Split, Morgan, Legion, The Umbrella Academy, and Ms. Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. It could have been a game-changer within the superhero genre, had it taken the genre-blurring risks teased in its early advertisements. Still, that doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyed for what it actually is: a dumb-fun popcorn movie for teens.