Thursday, June 10, 2021

X-Watch: The New Mutants (2020)

Watched:  06/09/2021
Format:  HBOmax
Viewing:  First
Decade:  2020's
Director:  Josh Boone

So, way, way back when in the long ago of the mid-80's, I picked up either my first New Mutants comic, or one of my first New Mutants comics, during the "Mutant Massacre" storyline that wove between the X-Titles and a few other comics.  Seeing a bunch of high school kids who were sneaking out and getting involved in the cataclysmic events of the storyline - and absolutely shook by what they saw - absolutely registered with me.  

I was a bit of a New Mutants fan for a few years, but (a) always knew I'd missed the truly weird beginning of the comic series of the actual students at Xavier's Academy, and (b) I became irritated enough with where the comic went post-Claremont that, at some point I wrote my first letter I intended to send in.  However, rather than send in something that was just a list of grievances, I decided "maybe I can just stop reading the comic instead", and did.  I was long gone by that final, Liefeld-fueled phase.

But I genuinely liked those characters, so I didn't want to give up on them when I did.  The New Mutants in the 80's were written as high school kids going through a very weird path to adulthood, but still very much teens.  They didn't have things sorted out, they behaved often like teenagers with petty outbursts, and generally had their own soap opera going on from month to month as they sorted through psychic powers, the death of a friend, and living in the shadow of the X-Men.  But, yeah, they dated, had a rival school they clashed with, and had complicated relationships with their families.

I've since read a collection of the issues that comprised The Demon Bear Saga from which the movie borrows, and it's some pretty good stuff.  Recommended.  

I'm not sure what to make of the movie of The New Mutants (2020).  

Clearly the filmmakers were very familiar with the five main New Mutants they plucked out to appear in the movie, and they remain surprisingly true to the comics roots.  Rahne, Dani, Illyana, Sam and Bobby are five very different kids thrown together by circumstance in the comics, and that's true here as well.  I just have no idea if the movie manages to tell you who these characters are or if I already knew them well enough to map onto them what I remember.  I think so?

Seeking to separate itself from the - by 2017, wobbly to the point of collapsing - X-Men franchise at Fox, while also trying to keep it in universe, the movie is kinda/ sorta a horror film.  If Deadpool got to be a wacky, R-Rated comedy, why not have an offshoot that delves into magical horror?  

But it doesn't really work as a horror film, and it constantly frustrates as you keep thinking "why doesn't (Character) use their mutant power to overcome this obstacle and/ or leave?"  Like, if you can teleport and have a magical murder sword, why are you afraid of pretty much anything, and why can't you just... leave?

The set-up is that it's teen mutants who, when first manifesting their powers, wound up injuring someone and were taken away.  But the place is clearly derelict, and the movie does nothing to explain things like "yes, but how do they get food in and keep the mutants in?"  Basic things that an audience kind of needs answered or the set-up falls apart.  

Meanwhile, the movie is slow as molasses and - if I complained that Birds of Prey spent an hour introducing it's characters rather than getting to the story - this movie waits 30-45 minutes to introduce the characters, and then has them tell rather than show their back stories.  It's @#$%ing weird, and it seems like there had to have been multiple better ways to do this, including non-linear storytelling.  Instead, it shoves Dani Moonstar in our faces with no context, and then jump cuts to a very slow reveal of some of the basics of what's up with the hospital where she's landed, but... man.  Is it a slog.  Had the producers not wanted a "horror" movie so badly, I think they would have seen it's both too much and not enough for the first 45 minutes.  And when they want to get around to "what IS Dani's power?", it's an onslaught of information about each character that they have to monologue.  By the time we get to the "horror" of Dani pulling people's fears out of their heads, it's just a force march through the bits of trivia we heard about these same characters a few minutes before - but is that character?  Probably not.

And, of course, all of it ends in a wizard fight with powered teens versus an abstract concept, which is most definitely a choice.  

By separating the New Mutants from the X-Men, you really do entirely upend the point of the original series, and based on what I read, no one at Fox quite got that or they didn't care.  And that's too bad.  New Mutants was the AAA team to the X-Men's MLB.  They might even get called up once in a while if they could be useful.  Whatever they were doing, they were in the shadow of whatever was happening with the X-Men.  


This movie, instead, decided to tie itself to the Mister Sinister stuff that popped up in a few latter-era X-movies but never manifested in the person of Mister Sinister.  And given what it seems they wanted to do, which was deal with the Warlock/ Magus stuff in the 2nd film, and then Inferno in the third... why even introduce Mister Sinister as a background character?  

And it's a HUGE problem with the menace of the whole hospital/ clinic scenario.  Because once we figure out it's not run by Professor X (which seems reasonably clear to anyone who had seen the other X-movies where he seemed to run a summer camp for mutants), no one seems particularly interested in "who the @#$% locked us up, where are we, what is happening?"  Because it's all so late in the film, and bleeds directly into the wizard fight.  

Like, look, I have a functioning understanding of the X-books from the era this was pulled, and a few years after, enough to know what the name "Essex" means - but I'd forgotten it had shown up in Wolverine movies.  I can't imagine watching this without all that in your head and knowing or caring about what was happening on screen.

As a horror movie - aside from aesthetics, what is the horror?  What Dani is doing to her friends?  We don't know enough about them (I think) to make their inner fears come to light and have any impact.  So it becomes a mishmash of the 1 thing we know about them (or, in Illyana's case, with no explanation, really).  If the horror is that there's a small lady who has lots of rules she wants the kids to follow...  that's not really much in the way of "horror".    


Sadly, I do think all of the actors in this are pretty solid and it really is like seeing how I thought of the characters brought to life in ways the X-films only ever glanced off of.  It doesn't hurt that Claremont's presentation of the characters was always very specific and very... loud.  Lots for a writer to work with and an actor to manage with more subtlety.  And, yeah, it was a huge kick to see Lockheed show up in a movie (even if it should have been with Shadowcat, but nobody asked me).  

I just am not sure anyone really understood that what made those comics work when they did.  Marvel sure as hell didn't know and the series passed through a lot of hands after Claremont departed, ending with f'ing Cable showing up and turning them into a paramilitary mutant cult.  So.

Anway, glad I watched it.  But it's slow as molasses, and just weirdly unsatisfying as a movie and a story.  Whatever path they think they showed us Dani was on just never gelled, and everyone else felt sort of used for spare parts.  I guess, to date, the only team movie I can think of that worked without a lot of solo movies first has been Guardians of the Galaxy.  So, maybe superhero team filmmakers need to spend more time dissecting how the audience explores those characters over 2 hours of movies and walks away loving all of them.

Frankly, if Marvel/ Disney wanted to return to these characters, I'd recommend a series on Disney+ that's half soap/ half teen superheroes figuring it out.  Less focus on unravelling way, way too many mysteries in 100 minutes.

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