‘The New Mutants’: The Long-Delayed ‘X-Men’ Spinoff Is A Surprising Blast Of Young Adult Horror

Editor’s Note: ‘The New Mutants’ was reviewed after a public screening at a drive-in theater. Given the ongoing health concerns regarding COVID-19, we recommend listening to experts and understanding the facts before deciding to go to a theater.

Where is the love for young adult horror? Over the past few years, we’ve seen writers work hard to reclaim the significance of young adult fiction and horror movies to general audiences. These two forms of storytelling – often regarded as “less-than” by those with the keys to the canon – have benefited from the work of critics and creators alike, allowing unexpected films to cross over into mainstream success. But for as much as audiences have reclaimed young adult and horror fiction, it is the intersection of the two – horror pitched at teenage audiences – that is still so often overlooked.

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For Josh Boone’s “The New Mutants,” this is one problem of many. Plagued by production delays, character whitewashing, and an ill-conceived theatrical release, ‘New Mutants’ has suffered from any number of self-inflicted wounds. But the biggest surprise? Not only is ‘New Mutants’ not bad, but it also has the potential to be remembered as one of the best ‘X-Men’ movies of its generation.

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The last thing that Danielle Moonstar (Blu Hunt) remembers is the destruction of her reservation. The next is the voice of Dr. Reyes (Alice Braga). Reyes runs a facility for new mutants – part medical clinic, part rehabilitation center, she has dedicated her life’s work to helping these teenagers gain control of their powers and come to terms with childhood trauma. Some, like Rahne Sinclair (Maisie Williams), have made great strides in controlling their abilities. Others, like Illyana Rasputin (Anya Taylor-Joy), seem to have no interest in ever being anything other than a force of destruction.

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In time, we learn that Dani and her fellow patients share more than a survivor’s guilt: each of the mutants under Dr. Reyes’s care has taken a life with their newfound powers. For a few, this was an involuntary reaction; for others, it was an act of aggression against their tormenters. But as Dani works to understand her talents’ true nature, her newfound friends find themselves plagued with nightmares about the lives they’ve taken. And before long, these nightmares begin to manifest themselves in the physical world, creating real-life monsters that the patients are powerless to resist.

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Famously based on the “Demon Bear Saga” of Chris Claremont’s original comic book series, ‘New Mutants’ takes more than a few liberties with its source material. Much of the story has been repositioned to navigate this decade’s byzantine licensing issues in Marvel movies. However, rather than work against the movie, these limitations quickly become some of the film’s biggest strengths. ‘New Mutants’ has its nods to other superhero films – it even uses footage from James Mangold’s 2017 standalone film ‘Logan’ – but once mutants are established, ‘New Mutants’ quickly veers off into its own unique direction.

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Much of what makes ‘New Mutants’ a success can be defined by the things it does not do. ‘New Mutants’ rejects the apocalyptic stakes found in so many superhero films, choosing instead to unfold as a one-location story. None of the patients ever step food outside the hospital grounds, and the emptiness of the facility – and the localized nature of the threat – keep the focus on the emotional stakes of the characters. Boone’s film also saves its splashiest effects for the final battle. Much of the film is focused on the post-traumatic stress of its characters, foregoing CGI fight sequences in favor of scenes with a bunch of troubled teenagers doing their best to act tough.

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This allows the ensemble to shine. After years of star-studded blockbusters, it’s refreshing to see a handful of young actors starting with a clean slate. So much of the superhero game has become a balancing act between contractually obligated stars and emerging talent meant to fill out the next decade’s upcoming releases. This can often lead to an unspoken tension between the familiar and the unfamiliar, but here the cast is on equal footing. The film’s standout is Williams, whose quiet empathy as Rahne – especially in the moments where the film explores the blossoming romance between her and Dani – shows how well-rounded the actress has become since her early “Game of Thrones” days. When paired with newcomer Hunt – and the always-wonderful Taylor-Joy – ‘New Mutants’ has all the talent it needs to sell trauma and adolescence.

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But while ‘New Mutants’ might be considered a success by superhero standards, it truly shines as a work of horror. The film’s best creature is the Smiley Men, the childhood nightmares of Illyana that manifest themselves through Dani’s powers. Equal parts Slender Man and monster-of-the-week – several episodes of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” can be seen playing on the facility’s television, a not-so-subtle reinforcement of the film’s intended balancing act – these creatures are themselves a bridge between childhood and adulthood. Illyana’s childhood memories have twisted the masks these men wore into eyeless faces. The shape of the danger is childlike, but the threat to Dani and her friends is genuine.

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At its best, ‘New Mutants’ serves as a superhero homage to ‘Dream Warriors,’ the much-beloved “Nightmare on Elm Street” sequel that featured a group of institutionalized teenagers taking the battle to Freddy Krueger on his turf. Trading that franchise’s infamous serial killer for a glowing fear bear – a bit of creature design that has no business working as well as it does – ‘New Mutants’ ultimately delivers on the promise of its superpowered potential. Licensing issues or not, you cannot make an “X-Men” movie without a superpowered battle scene, and ‘New Mutants’ proves that less, not more, is the secret to any good spectacle. In particular, Taylor-Joy’s climactic (and teleportation-heavy) battle should make for a popular YouTube clip for years to come.

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Given the myriad missteps it took to get here, now might not be the right time for “The New Mutants” to find an audience. But as a smart calibration of young adult themes and teen-friendly horror, this is a film whose appeal may end up outlasting some of the higher-profile releases that have already come and gone. If ‘New Mutants’ is any indication, the future is bright for young adult horror, even when that future is being carved out of the husk of billion-dollar properties. Here’s to the future audiences who will unleash their inner fear bears. [B]

“The New Mutants” is out now in theaters.