Bill Bria’s review published on Letterboxd:
It’s interesting how the 20th Century Fox Mutantverse (for lack of a better name) didn’t go out with a bang but a sustained fade instead. That is, if it goes out at all—it seems Disney/Marvel are interested in keeping some of what Fox built over the last 20 years alive in some capacity, and what exactly will remain “canon” is unclear, doubled by the fact that the Mutantverse timeline is a mess before one even approaches combining it with other universes and continuities.
Perhaps that’s why The New Mutants, the current “final chapter” in the Mutantverse for now, feels as unique and special as it does. For most intents and purposes, it stands alone, a self-contained story that contains the idea of a world where mutants exist, a few canny references to Charles Xavier, and that’s about it. Some reviews have unkindly referred to it as a glorified television pilot episode, but this attitude seems unfair toward a movie that is what superhero films used to be—not a first installment of infinity (stones, haha), but a film that leaves room for sequels yet doesn’t need them, one that can be in its own groove tonally and stylistically. Loosely adapted from the “Demon Bear Saga” by Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz, the film sees Native American mutant Dani Moonstar (Blu Hunt) trapped inside a facility/clinic/mental asylum for young mutants after a tragedy decimates her reservation. Her fellow inmates—arrogant but guarded Roberto da Costa (Henry Zaga), haunted Sam Guthrie (Charlie Heaton), badass mean girl Ilyana Rasputin (Anya Taylor-Joy) and soulful Rahne Sinclair (Maisie Williams)—are all very troubled, and thus very dangerous. Their doctor-cum-warden, Cecilia Reyes (Alice Braga), placates them with soothing platitudes about baby rattlesnakes and the like, but seems very interested in controlling them as opposed to helping them. And help they need, given the fact that they all have deep seated, debilitating fears from their past, ones which someone seems to be bringing out of them and making real.
As that description implies, director/co-writer Josh Boone and his writing partner Knate Lee decided to take the already surreal and eerie tone of the comic and make a superhero horror movie with it. It’s quite honestly shocking that this hasn’t been done before in a big way with Marvel or DC characters who aren’t already horror tinged—at least not properly, as Doctor Strange had the potential but squandered it in order to be more of a lighthearted comedy. It’s even more surprising the Mutantverse hadn’t attempted it before, nor the teen drama angle (hence the hiring of The Fault in Our Stars’ Boone). As such, The New Mutants feels like a fresh new angle on comic book adaptations, despite the existence of stuff like Blade, Swamp Thing, and Constantine, given that the film is dealing with a universe and material previously treated with other genres like grand scale soap opera, melodrama, science fiction and the western. Being a self-admitted fan of Stephen King, Boone gives the material an It/Stand By Me-style feel of teens in peril, coming of age while the world (and even themselves) threatens them at every turn. There’s also a heavy dose of Nightmare on Elm Street here, specifically Dream Warriors, as the kids are menaced by supernatural forces while the adult authority figure refuses to assist them.
Sure, the fact that Disney essentially sat on this film for way too long and then effectively dumped it in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic lends it an unfortunate stink, and there are some issues—the international cast struggle mightily with their accents, some moments are too on the nose to work, and the third act ends in a big CGI-smash fest, as it must. Yet the cast work very well as an ensemble, their different looks and rhythms giving them a natural diversity that’s ideal for a “team up” movie, and that final CGI fest is at least really pretty. Along the way, Boone creates some genuinely unsettling images and setpieces, particularly the “Smiling Man” creatures who are highly reminiscent of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s “Hush” gentlemen (as a nod, several episodes of “Buffy” play on a TV in the background). There’s also a neat continuity twist in the movie, kinda ruining what I said about the film standing alone, but it’s only there if you know what you’re looking for—the footage Dani sees of mutant kids being tested and tortured is from Logan, the same footage used to portray that film’s shady organization and its experiments with mutants, their DNA, and creating on-demand killers. With this film’s revelation of the organization behind the facility our heroes are trapped in, the connection makes perfect sense, even if we have no clue what year or era this movie takes place in (Logan’s near-future? Present day? Who knows). While not revelatory and certainly not enough to rescue the Mutantverse from the MCU’s (likely) revamping, The New Mutants proves just how much potential remains in the X-Men material. It’s a shame and kind of ironic that a move about facing and overcoming fear was bogged down by a studio’s fear of its possible rejection—let’s hope it helps inspire whoever takes control of the characters next to be less afraid of taking chances.