At long last, “The New Mutants” has hit theaters. Originally scheduled for release in early 2018, the movie was delayed repeatedly during Disney’s acquisition of the 20th Century Fox film studio, which owned the X-Men stable of characters. And now, finally, it’s been unceremoniously released during the throes of COVIDtide as a sort of trial balloon for the theater industry.
But surprise of surprises—it’s actually good!
Following the sudden death of her father and tribe, young Dani Moonstar (Blu Hunt) finds herself in a tightly controlled facility for juvenile mutants with unknown or uncontrolled powers, overseen by the enigmatic Dr. Cecilia Reyes (Alice Braga). She quickly meets the four other residents of the institution: coal miner’s son Sam Guthrie (Charlie Heaton), wealthy Brazilian heir Roberto da Costa (Henry Zaga), Scottish girl Rahne Sinclair (Maisie Williams, last seen as Arya in “Game of Thrones”), and vindictive Russian killer Illyana Rasputin (Anya Taylor-Joy). Unsurprisingly, it turns out that Dr. Reyes has some ulterior motives, forcing the five New Mutants to make a play for freedom.
Plot points like these may sound familiar, but “The New Mutants” is a very different sort of X-Men movie than its predecessors. Most importantly, the movie spends more time on character development across-the-board than almost any other superhero tale since Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” trilogy. Each of the five New Mutants has killed someone close to them, and the audience walks beside them as they struggle to work through their grief and guilt in different ways. (On that note, these characters’ backstories, in particular Illyana’s, are some of the grimmest I can recall in superhero fandom. Despite the PG-13 rating, don’t take kids.)
Given the film’s introspective tenor, “The New Mutants” doesn’t prioritize big-budget action sequences. There’s certainly a great showdown at the end, but at bottom this is a film that draws most of its power from setting, mood, and internal struggle. (Lest you worry that this sounds like the shoegazy ennui of Josh Trank’s “Fant4stic,” I assure you it is far superior to that debacle.)
No doubt “The New Mutants” will be a polarizing, even off-putting, film for those viewers longing for “Avengers”-style mayhem. But I think this is a film that has rather more on its mind—at least implicitly—than many critics or audiences will give it credit for. For one thing, perhaps the most distinctive thematic undercurrent in “The New Mutants” is its engagement with what one might call the goodness of embodiedness.
About halfway through the film, Dani wistfully recounts a bit of Indigenous folklore speculating that the soul only finds true peace when liberated from its bodily shackles. And Dani is willing to act on that belief: shortly after arriving at the facility, Dani climbs to the top of a clock tower and prepares to kill herself—an action that would seem to, on Dani’s reasoning, instantly free her from the material world and reunite her with her lost father. But in that moment of decision, the one who stops her is Rahne—who, fascinatingly, remains a devout Catholic despite the fact that her trauma came at the hands of a priest. (For what it’s worth, “The New Mutants” may have the most explicit engagement with religion of any superhero film in recent memory.)
The anthropological vision that subsequently plays out onscreen has far more in common with Rahne’s Catholicism than Dani’s mysticism.Specifically, the movie is not simply a story of the New Mutants coming to terms with their psychological trauma, but also with their very existence as enfleshed beings with strange giftings.
For the most part, the powers wielded by the New Mutants are profoundly embodied superhero powers: Sam launches his own body with concussive force, Illyana girds herself in mystical armor, Roberto ignites himself, and so on. There’s no mind control or manipulation of cosmic forces: the powers on display here emerge from within, and profoundly affect, their users’ physical flesh. What unfolds onscreen is indeed “mutation” in the fullest, most painful sense.
And the ultimate resolution of the film demands that the New Mutants accept these traits as intimately bound up with their identities: indeed, the final chaos only stops once Dani—whose power is more “supernatural” than the others’, although still more tangible than, say, Professor Xavier’s telepathy—finally confronts what she is capable of unleashing, and does so in a spirit of acceptance. Genuine redemption, in short, is not found in escape from embodiedness, but from understanding its nature and limits.
The relationship between bodies and identities strikes me as an infinitely rich topic, but one that doesn’t usually come into view in superhero flicks. In opening up the space to ask that question, “The New Mutants” truly sets itself apart from its peers.
Is it worth making the trek out to see? I’d say absolutely yes—this is pretty close to the superhero movie I’d make if someone in Hollywood cut me a check. Those expecting generic popcorn fare may leave disappointed, but anyone willing to think a little more deeply about what they’re watching will wonder why this film took so long to hit the screens. More like this, please.