I get that New Mutants was under a lot of pressure to be great, to be cool, to be the hot summer blockbuster that its fellow Avengers films were. However, so much has changed in this nation since the COVID-19 lockdown in March that what was cool a year ago (or even in January 2020), may not crack a smile on an audience today. We are more aware, and more on edge, people who have been fighting an invisible virus and watching (and helping) our country fight for Black lives. Essential workers, mandatory masks, and social distancing define our lives now. We are hardened, so it takes a lot more to impress us. Unfortunately, New Mutants hits all the wrong notes with an audience who also had to decide if we wanted to risk infection just to see the film.
For many of you, the answer to that question may just be, “I should’ve stayed at home.”
It Starts Good
The base story has good intentions. Dani is a Native American girl whose reservation gets destroyed. She is told that it was a tornado, but Dani remembers it being a lot more than that. Her fears are confirmed when she wakes up handcuffed to a bed at a mental hospital. After a full scene of her dragging a bed around to check out the room, we get the story or part of it. Dr. Reyes (Alice Braga) is the doctor in charge of the hospital, which has others in it. They are there to gather information about Dani’s powers and to help her control them. Once she does that, Dani can go stay with the doctor’s friend, who we get every indication of as Professor X (unless you read the comics—then you know better).
Dani meets the other apathetic teens who are really interesting at first. Sam (Charlie Heaton) is all busted up with his arm in a cast. He wears a cap and looks as though someone is beating him. We later find that he is beating himself, trying to harness his power to get out of the hospital. Magik (Anya-Taylor Joy) is a pale, blonde stereotypical mean girl who has a serious chip on her shoulder. We later find out why, and how she is the most powerful of the bunch—too powerful for this film too. Roberto (Henry Zaga) is a rich kid who is out of touch with just about everything. He throws away his clothes rather than wash them for re-wear. His power is hidden until too much later in the film based on a guilt complex that I am not sure a privileged kid like Roberto would even feel. Rahne (Maisie Williams) is the only chipper one. She shapeshifts into a wolf and gives a whole new understanding of the devastation of religious trauma.
We slowly find out Dani’s power as each of her hospital mates are plagued by real life and murderous figments of their memories and nightmares. The Demon Bear does make an explosive appearance as well. Everyone does figure out how the horrors and Dani are connected. It happens around the same time that they meet the real Dr. Reyes. She isn’t so motherly when her protection is smothering the breath out of each one of the teens.
These Cheap Tricks Hit Different Now
Together, these are the New Mutants, but not yet. They are meant to be horror’s answer to The Breakfast Club, but their chemistry falls flat, probably due to writing that is not up to the standards of the X-Men comics. New Mutants was written by Josh Boone, who is best known for the saccharine teen drama Fault in Our Stars. You can tell that he was trying oh so hard to make these kids feel as edgy and weird as possible. But he did so by relying on the same stereotypes and tropes that BIPOC and LGBTQ creators have been calling out for years. That strategy worked to get the kids to care about his past work.
Now, audiences have been held captive while social media has served up lessons in nuance, microaggression, anti-racism, and more. Now, your average white housewife is posting in her mommy groups about the oversexualization of girls of color in something she just saw. Boone should’ve read the room before release and brought in a sensitivity reader to at least rework some of the problems.
You will feel it. Magik’s attacks on Dani are so blatantly forced and racist that they will make audience members cringe. Repeat after me, people, “You CAN writer mean girls without being racist.” Just look at the source material. In the comics, Magik was all kinds of horrible, but she was also superficial and was not invested enough to care about another person’s race or otherwise. Racism is not an opportunist behavior. It’s intentional and comes from a different place than the typical mean girl attitude.
The relationship between Rahne and Dani also seemed like it should’ve just been girls being intimately close. Girl relationships are oversexualized by men who fail to understand how close girl relationships can get. Girls can care an awful lot about another girl and those feeling reciprocated without wanting sex. As much as I am a champion of LGBTQ representation onscreen, I have to say that their relationship felt like a trope—oversexualization of girls–and maybe even a last-minute add to the script.
And Other Problems…
Another flaw is Magik. She is the most controversial character because she replaced a Vietnamese member of the team, Kharma. Boone was quoted as saying that Kharma’s story was so big that it would’ve overpowered the narrative. Well, Magik’s actually did that, so why again did we not get Kharma? I think I know why. Magik is the only one with a larger than life power that is like a rock video, or video game when she fully unleashes it. I think she was thrown in to enhance the visuals. Her whole arch seems like it could’ve been dissected from the film and real horror elements stitched in to scare the popcorn out of the audience.
The scare factor is another issue. I watched the film alone in a theater and was not the least bit affected by any of the things I saw. The jumps were nonexistent because you could predict where they would occur. The scary faceless men that we saw in the trailers were scarier in the trailers. Even the Demon Bear, when we finally see it, strikes nothing. New Mutants feels like it had so much more to say, to give. But it had to stop because the bell rang, and its mommy was picking it up after school.
A Mixed Bag
The film is saved by the acting chops of the talent onscreen. They try their best with what they were given, and the effects are not bad either. They just needed some better storytelling and direction to guide them to greatness. There are still lessons here. The next time a film is telling a story from the POV of an Indigenous character, maybe we should get an indigenous director to work this, instead of the guy I cannot end this without a word of caution. Seeing this film is not more important than your health. It is my prediction that Disney will have it available around the time Mulan is free. Decide for yourself, of course! Just keep in mind that this film may not be worth risking your life for. In 2016, yeah it would’ve been the film to see. Today, better wait for streaming.
Rating 2 of 5
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