There aren't many movies in recent memory with as much release date baggage as The New Mutants. The delays sparked all kinds of speculation, everything from total genre shifts to major reshoots, though director Josh Boone has since set the record straight that neither happened. Now, with major studio tentpoles like Mulan being shifted to a digital release, New Mutants only feels like more of an anomaly--for whatever reason, the film did not get the video-on-demand treatment and instead opted for a semi-normal launch in what few theaters are actually open around the world. In the case of Los Angeles, California, that means an ad hoc drive-in, crafted in one of the Rose Bowl's parking lots.
It's not the most traditional moviegoing experience, but for a movie with such a non-traditional path, it feels appropriate. Bizarre release and delivery method aside, New Mutants is hardly a novelty--it's not the worst entry into the X-Men franchise you've ever seen, but it's not likely to be a very memorable one, either.
The story of a group of teenage mutants who are trapped against their will in an all-but-abandoned mental institution run by an adult mutant named Dr. Cecilia Reyes (Alice Braga), New Mutants hopes to thread the needle between heartfelt '80s coming-of-age dramas like The Breakfast Club and the horror classics of the era like Nightmare On Elm Street, all rolled up in the trappings of a superhero story. It mostly succeeds--with a strong emphasis on "mostly." It's not that New Mutants fails to nail down the hallmarks of any of its target genres--they're all there, sometimes spelled out so blatantly that they all but hit you over the head--but it fails to do anything memorable with them.
Dani Moonstar (Blu Hunt), a mutant with newly manifested powers, wakes up to find herself the new girl in an already established crew of misfits. There's the good Catholic girl, Rahne (Maisie Williams); the sweet-but-simple coal miner, Sam (Charlie Heaton); the preppy rich boy, Roberto (Henry Zaga); and the HBIC with anger issues, Illyana (Ana Taylor Joy). Each of them have their own mutant abilities--but because Dani's the only new face in the clique, none of them really dive too far into exactly how their mutant powers work on a technical level. This will probably prove a little annoying for anyone coming to New Mutants as a fan of any of these characters' comic book incarnations--the subtleties of someone like Illyana's dimension-hopping "magical" abilities or the finer points of Roberto's light-based mutation are thrown out the window. Instead, we get a rudimentary bullet-points style primer for each character--they're mutants, they're sad because their powers hurt people. Roberto is the fire guy. Illyana has a cool sword for some reason
If the core heroes are thinly characterized, the "villain," Dr. Reyes, is entirely two-dimensional. She's the only adult in the movie, and apparently the only employee of the entire institution. She spends half her screen time established as a tough-but-sincere caretaker who really, genuinely, wants what's best for these kids and the other half being foisted into the role of brutal evil-doer. She has no real story or background of her own and no motivation beyond working for or with a vaguely defined directive to keep these mutants out of the world. In a better movie--or a better franchise--she likely could have fit into a bigger picture or made a real impact, but as it stands, her only purpose is to ignite some conflict and then step aside for the CGI monsters to start terrorizing the place.
New Mutants feels less like an X-Men story and more like the premise for a young adult-oriented TV show you'd find on the CW, or sent directly to Netflix as a limited series--a problem made exponentially worse by its tight 94-minute runtime. It's not that New Mutants should have been longer as a movie, but the whole thing feels cobbled together, like swaths of exposition--perhaps ones that would have linked it more explicitly to the now DOA X-Men franchise at Fox--were peeled away in favor of the most pared down version of events possible.
It's not bad, per se. The story is mostly easy to follow, if only because the plot is something you've definitely seen before, or read in a young adult fiction novel, but it lacks any sort of meaningful style or substance. It doesn't feel particularly interested in making sure you care about or become invested in any of these characters beyond their big, painted-on archetypes--which, sure, makes sense. It's not likely we'll be seeing any of them again any time soon.
That said, the actual experience of watching New Mutants isn't terrible. It's campy--three of the five teens are doing cartoonishly overblown character accents and there are not one but two direct shoutouts to Buffy the Vampire Slayer--but the visual effects are all totally serviceable and the action isn't boring. There's even a fun little attempt at inverting some classic '80s teen romance tropes by centering the love story on Rahne and Dani, whose scenes together are far and away the most enjoyable and engaging parts of the entire movie.
Williams and Hunt's chemistry anchors the bulk of the movie. They're charming and believable together--which is no small task considering how truncated every character arc was made to fit in an hour-and-a-half runtime. If anything, the fact that the two of them are so good together, and that this officially marks the first centralized queer relationship in a Marvel movie, kind of salts the wound. There's the sense that, maybe in a different reality--one where the Disney/Fox merger didn't interfere and the X-Men franchise had been left in more capable hands from the start--New Mutants could have really been something special. Instead, it's a movie that will probably never outgrow the meme status it earned after three years in distribution hell, and definitely won't be making waves in any of the genres it tries to dabble in.
Still, in a summer where the blockbuster has all but gone extinct, New Mutants isn't an unwelcome reprieve--assuming, of course, you are able to go see it responsibly. It's not going to blow your mind, but you're not going to walk (or drive) out feeling like you wasted your time. And hey, sometimes that's enough.