Thursday, August 27, 2020

Review - The New Mutants

August 27, 2020

The New Mutants – 2020, US

One of the few comments left on this blog over its 13 years of existence was written by my mother at the behest of my niece and nephew. It seems they think I was a little too harsh on the first X-Men movie (I hadn’t reviewed it, but I had included it on a list of film that didn’t work for me.) Essentially, their argument was that the film resonated with them for the same reason that it felt routine to me – It was an origin film, and as young kids whose experience with Marvel’s mutants was primarily on the big screen, the tale was new; Wolverine’s beginnings were still a mystery, and there was a vast X-Men universe just waiting to be discovered.

Josh Boone’s The New Mutants has been made in a similar vein as X-Men. In other words, it too is an origin story, its narrative bringing its characters together for the first time and going on to explain how they became a team. So, what will those uninitiated with the comic book find if they watch it? Well, a lot to like actually. First, they’ll find interesting characters, each one with a compelling back story – some rather gruesome – and all exceptionally well-developed. They’ll also learn about these characters in a rather novel way – through conversation. This is a film that forsakes both flashbacks and the traditional narrative structure seen in origin films like Iron Man and Spider-Man. Instead, the characters talk to each other, and the origins come out when they feel comfortable opening up. Given the seriousness of some of these tales, this seems perfectly reasonable. Also, each origin story has been tweaked slightly to emphasize the danger that exists when mutants have not yet learned to control their emotions, and this adds to emotional baggage that the characters are carrying on their shoulders.  

The film owes a little to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. After a rather dramatic scene in which almost an entire Cherokee village is wiped out by an unseen force of nature, the lone survivor, a teenager named Danielle Moonstar wakes up chained to a bed in what looks like a mental hospital. She soon meets Dr. Cecilia Reyes (nicely played by Alice Braga), who informs her that she is a mutant and that she’s being kept there until she is not longer a danger to herself. Interestingly, she doesn’t add and to society. Danielle soon meets the other occupants: Rahne Sinclair, Roberto da Costa, Sam Guthrie, and Illyana Rasputin. Some of them bond; some antagonize the others. All of them eventually agree on one thing: They need to get out. At the same time, pretty awful things start happening, given them the understandable notion that evil is afoot. The only problem is that they can only leave with the approval of the doctor. (This actually makes more sense than it sounds.)

The cast gives it their all. Particularly memorable is Anya Taylor-Joy as Illyssa, superbly nailing the character’s indifference to her own carnage, while also  revealing her vulnerabilities at key moments. Watching her wield a sword while a fire-breathing dragon sits on her shoulder is quite thrilling. Maisie Williams plays Rahne, as a sweet and sympathetic character whose religious faith sustains her even as it occasionally causes her to be a bit too trusting. The rest of the cast is equally compelling. Henry Zaga gets Roberto’s swagger and romantic nature right, as well as his vulnerability; Charlie Heaton plays Sam as a wounded guardian; and in the lead role, Blu Hunt plays Danielle as a teen slowly becoming aware of herself. It is a thrill to watch all of them mature in front of our eyes. (And I am always happy to see Adam Beach on the silver screen.)

Having said all that, I must confess to being a long time New Mutants fan. In fact, I still own all of the original 100 issues of the comic book. It would be fair, therefore, to question my impartiality. However, that familiarity, like it has with so many of the other recent Marvel films, bred a bit of impatience. Walking into the theater, I knew Danielle’s powers, and so when characters demand to know what she can do, demands that she cannot satisfy because her powers have not manifested themselves yet, I wanted to yell, “I can tell you!” I had the same feeling when it came to other characters, many of whom uttered variations of the line, “I don’t want to talk about that right not” when asked to reveal their abilities. Such is the curse of being so familiar with the comic. There are also quite a few plot points that will leave fanboys crying foul. Thankfully, my niece and nephew won’t have this problem.

Perhaps the best measure of the success of The New Mutants is whether it does enough to create interest in a sequel, and I think it does. Like the first X-Men movie, it introduces audiences to compelling characters and leaves you interested in following their further adventures. I even stayed to the very end to see if there was a post-credits scene, and I was slightly disappointed that there wasn’t. That’s a good thing.

Just where The New Mutants fits into the X-Men timeline is anybody’s guess. In fact, I’m not even sure what year the film takes place. In several scenes, the gang sit and watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In another scene, we see what looks like footage from Logan in a flashback, but there’s also a reference to the X-Men that makes you think they’ll all alive and kicking. I’d love to see how they straighten that out. Will we get a chance to, though? Given that the release of the film was delayed for two years and it is opening during a pandemic, I’d say it’s unlikely. I hope I’m wrong, though. While the film didn’t entirely work for me, it did enough, and I’m sure it will be more positively received by audiences meeting these characters for the first time. I say, “Bring on The New Mutants 2!” Hey, a guy can dream, can’t he? (in theaters)

3 stars

(I’m sure my niece and nephew will give it more than that.)

*FYI to all parents out there, The New Mutants has more profanity then all other superhero movies combined.

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