Always slightly late to the table, the Swampflix crew won’t be filing our collective picks for the best films of the decade until sometime in February. Meanwhile, pro critics have already been making busy work of distilling the 2010s into digestible Top Ten lists long before they’re even officially over. All of this discourse pinpointing the films that defined the decade—titles like Fury Road, The Social Network, Boyhood (blech), and latecomer dark horse Parasite—has me thinking about what one movie could possibly define the entire era. And since it’s apparently become acceptable to declare such things with incomplete data (some of these lists arrived as early as October), I’m just going to go ahead and stake my claim now: New Mutants is the defining cinematic work of the 2010s. It’s a film no one has yet seen. For all we know, it may not yet even be complete. Yet, its behind-the-scenes tinkering and disastrous presence in the cultural zeitgeist encapsulates so much of what mainstream filmmaking has become over the course of the decade.
It’s obvious to me that the defining film of the 2010s would have to be a superhero picture, considering what the MCU has ballooned into since Iron Man kicked off the franchise twelve years and twenty-three sequels ago. It feels like the only non-sequel, non-remake feature films that make significant box office returns anymore are superhero movies and talking-animal animation disposables, and only one of those categories eats up critical discourse space with an alarming regularity. Marvel & DC tentpole films have become such oxygen-sucking behemoths that interviewers are now encouraged to ask arthouse auteurs light-years outside their wheelhouse for an opinion on their merits (see: Scorsese’s “theme park” nontroversy). Now, the lie about the superhero movie’s cultural dominance is that the genre is in itself a vast medium open to endless possibilities — so that smaller, experimental mutations of the genre could allow for much more variety & creativity than you’d expect from a typical comic book adaptation. New Mutants was supposed to be a major experiment in that genre deviation — breaking with the superhero picture’s usual sci-fi & fantasy modes to deliver a full-on horror film. Instead, it’s become an oft-repeated joke, delivering the exact same punchline with each new announcement every few months.
I swear I saw a trailer for New Mutants in a movie theater two years ago. That surely can’t be, since the movie does not—in a practical sense—exist. It does have an excellent hook, though, as a horror film offshoot of the X-Men starring teens in a spooky asylum, like a superhero version of Dream Warriors. What it doesn’t have is the strong, personal creative vision we’ve been promised from these superhero genre detours. Supposedly, the film was a passion project helmed by two nerds who grew up with a shared adoration for its comic book source material (the same dudes who adapted The Fault in Our Stars of all people), but it’s since been taken out of their hands by the true filmmaking elite of the 2010s: boardroom directors & studio executives. The reason the movie has been delayed for two full years (so far) is because it’s been hijacked from its (admittedly mediocre) creative team to be retooled & reshot into oblivion in an attempt to “save it in the edit.” This is a signature Major Studio move that has ballooned many, many budgets in recent years, to the point where films are guaranteed to be flops before they’re actually released (Fantastic 4, Monsters Trucks, Sonic, Solo, etc.). What started as a potentially fun, tiny genre experiment is now a years-spanning money pit & a public embarrassment — a distinctly 2010s trajectory.
So if a final, set-in-stone cut of New Mutants does not yet exist, how is it that the film’s already had multiple rounds of theatrical trailers advertising its release? That’s because the #1 fetish that movie studios have discovered this decade is announcing release dates. They love it. They’re addicted to it. Years before most blockbusters (especially ones on a superhero scale) are even completed, their studios will announce their far-off release dates in a truncated press release. Now, most audiences aren’t going to have a three-year plan about what movie we’re going to be watching opening night on a specific Friday in the distant future (not least of all because it’s not guaranteed Earth will be inhabitable in the distant future). These calendar real estate claims have nothing to do with getting butts in seats. Rather, they’re about keeping almighty Intellectual Property name brands like X-Men, Avengers, and Batman in constant cultural conversation even when there’s no current product to advertise. That way, we’re constantly talking about Marvel movies that aren’t even out yet instead of smaller, original productions that could actually use the critical oxygen — thanks to fun press tricks like release date adjustments, casting announcements, and “leaked” set photos. New Mutants had had no fewer than four release date announcements to date, which means it’s done more to keep the X-Men brand alive in The Discourse than even Dark Phoenix, a film that was actually released (but no one saw). The only reason these release date delays were necessary to announce via the press is because the film didn’t make its initial self-imposed deadline thanks to its behind-the-scenes retooling. In a best case scenario, New Mutants would have been rushed to meet that initial, arbitrary deadline whether or not its CGI or sequencing were entirely completed to their best possible standard. Instead, its “delayed” release is being used as IP kindling for naive bloggers (Hello) to keep talking about X-Men movies even though we didn’t even enjoy the other, completed entries in the series of recent memory. It’s doing a great job even though, again, it does not exist.
The biggest offender in this release date fetishism and, if we’re being honest, the biggest offender in all things is Walt Disney Pictures. And, thanks to Disney’s monopolistic acquisition of 20th Century Fox, New Mutants is now officially a Walt Disney film. So far, Disney is seemingly committed to theatrically releasing New Mutants in April of 2020, but it wouldn’t be the first, second, or third time that plan changed. It’s just as likely that the film will be demoted to a straight-to-streaming release on Hulu, Disney+, or whatever other streaming service the great dictator mouse absorbs by next Spring. Or maybe they’ll scrap the production entirely, making it the newest ghost to haunt the famed Disney Vault. No matter what happens with New Mutants‘s release in 2020 (or, just as likely, 2022, 2025, or never) I can’t think of a more definitive 2010s trajectory for a movie than that. New Mutants was supposed to be a small, fun experiment that cashed in on the superhero movie’s box office invincibility to push the genre into new, weird directions. Instead, it’s now a Disney acquisition that’s little more than a ballooning budget & a series of release date announcements meant to keep its almighty IP alive in the cultural zeitgeist. It’s likely doomed to be unceremoniously dumped on a streaming service rather than reach wide theatrical distribution, and it’s all but guaranteed to be forgotten in either instance. What one movie could encapsulate mainstream filmmaking in the 2010s better than that?