There are delayed movies, and then there’s “The New Mutants.” Originally slated for an April 2018 release before being pushed back to February of the following year, it was then delayed another six months so as not to compete with “Dark Phoenix.” Then Disney’s acquisition of Fox pushed the film back to April of this year, by which time theaters were already closed due to the pandemic. Now it finally arrives at what could charitably be described as an inopportune moment: in the middle of that same pandemic, which is very much not over.
The first, most important question any potential moviegoer has to ask themselves is whether seeing this or any film is worth the risk inherent in venturing to a movie theater. I won’t presume to answer that question on anyone else’s behalf, but suffice to say that “New Mutants” isn’t exactly a groundbreaking cinematic experience. It’s the kind of movie many fans will surely want to like — the idea of an X-Men-adjacent story with a horror slant is, at the very least, a slight deviation from the superhero norm — and while it lives up to that modest promise it certainly doesn’t go above and beyond.
Directed by “The Fault in Our Stars” helmer Josh Boone, who co-wrote the screenplay with Knate Lee, “The New Mutants” takes place at an abandoned hospital where five teenage mutants reside semi-voluntarily while learning about themselves and their powerful abilities. Our heroine is Dani Moonstar (Blu Hunt), who has yet to realize that she can create psychic projections of other people’s deepest fears. If that sounds more in line with a supervillain than a superhero, therein lies the point of this nameless facility: These adolescents have yet to harness their powers, much less decide how to wield them.
Dani’s arrival at the institution, which opens the film, is utterly traumatic: Her family’s reservation is destroyed by what may or may not be a tornado and, when she wakes up in the hospital, she’s told she was the only survivor. Overseeing this facility is a single person, one Dr. Reyes (Alice Braga), whose motives are as suspect as her qualifications; she makes vague references to her superior’s home for gifted mutants (a clear allusion to Professor X), which is supposedly where her patients will “graduate” to after completing their program here.
At its best, the story that arises from this setup is visually inventive and much darker than we’re used to seeing in Marvel/X-Men films. One of the mutants was brought here after killing 18 people, and Dani’s ability to conjure literal monsters leads to a climactic battle that’s genuinely awesome. But while it’s never actively bad, “The New Mutants” rarely imbues any of its happenings with any real heft. Like the remote hospital that serves as its setting, the film as a whole feels too closed off from the rest of its fictional universe to matter much.
In the opening narration, Dani shares a Native American proverb that foresages an important plot development. Each of us has two bears inside of us — one representing all that is good, the other representing all that is evil — that are at constant war with one another. Which one emerges victorious? The one we feed. That encapsulates the duality of these adolescent mutants, who are struggling not only to wield their powers responsibly but to even understand them: how does being able to transform into a wolf or wield a spectral sword change who you are as a person?
“The New Mutants” is far from the first superhero movie to ponder such questions, of course, and its exploration of these growing pains sets it apart from its ilk far less than its horror leanings. There’s little sense of becoming for anyone other than Dani, with the mother mutants — including the teleporting Illyana Rasputin (Anya Taylor-Joy) and lycanthropic Rahne Sinclair (“Game of Thrones” alum Maisie Williams) — largely relegated to background roles. In that sense, “New Mutants” almost has the effect of making you more excited for a potential sequel despite itself being so-so. None of the mutants’ superhero names are used once, and we’re only given passing glances at their abilities — this is very much an origin story, and one that would have benefited from less table-setting. A potential series has as much potential as the muties themselves.