4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch

“All of us here have killed someone” — The New Mutants

Starting in August 2017, Keith R.A. DeCandido took a weekly look at every live-action movie based on a superhero comic in the weekly 4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch. He caught up to real time, as it were, in January 2020, but is revisiting the feature every six months or so to look back at the new releases in the previous half-year. Last week, we looked at The Old Guard, and this time ’round it’s The New Mutants.

There was no comic book more popular in the late 1970s and early 1980s than Uncanny X-Men. After the third-rate super-team was rebooted in 1975 by the late great Len Wein and the late great Dave Cockrum, Chris Claremont took over the writing chores and, working with Cockrum and later John Byrne, turned it into Marvel’s powerhouse, the X-Men eclipsing Spider-Man as Marvel’s flagship.

In 1982, the inevitable spinoff happened.

In the 1980s, Marvel was experimenting with new formats, including limited series and original graphic novels. The latter commenced with The Death of Captain Marvel by Jim Starlin, and three releases later, they used the format to launch the first X-Men spinoff, The New Mutants.

The X-Men were originally created in 1963 as students at a school, who were learning how to use their powers. Over the years, the book moved away from the educational aspect, with only occasional exceptions (like the character of Kitty Pryde, introduced to the team in 1979).

Created by Claremont and Bob McLeod, The New Mutants brought back that concept, providing a team of teenagers still learning how to get the hang of their powers. Following the lead of the revived X-Men team, the New Mutants came from all around the world: the Vietnamese Karma (first introduced in an issue of Marvel Team-Up by Claremont and Frank Miller), the Brasilian Sunspot, the Scots Wolfsbane, the Cheyenne Mirage, and Cannonball, from the heartland of America. Later, the team would add Magma, from a lost city that had kept the Roman Empire going for two thousand years; Magik, a Russian girl who became the disciple of a demon before she was rescued; Cypher, a linguist who was local to the area around Xavier’s School in New York; and Warlock, an alien.

The team would go through more changes after Claremont left, and eventually artist/plotter Rob Liefeld, working with scripter Fabian Nicieza, would transform the team into X-Force. The role of teenage mutants learning their powers would go to Generation X in the 1990s, and then the New Mutants concept was revived several times in the 21st century.

Some of Claremont’s best work was done in The New Mutants, including the Special Edition that had the mutants travel to Asgard, and issue #45 of the monthly series, “We Was Only Foolin’,” one of the best issues of a superhero comic in the ninety-year history of the medium.

A particularly impressive run was when Bill Sienkiewicz and his bizarre, distinctive style handled the art chores. Sienkiewicz’s unique artwork challenged Claremont to tell ever-more-surreal stories to good effect.

Inspired by the Claremont/Sienkiewicz run in particular, Josh Boone—fresh off the success of The Fault in Our Stars—created a pitch for a trilogy of New Mutants movies with his best friend Knate Lee and sent it to Simon Kinberg. Soon thereafter, Boone started preproduction work.

Boone and Lee mostly stuck with the original lineup, swapping out Karma for Magik. Maisie Williams (Arya Stark in Game of Thrones) was cast as Rahne Sinclair (Wolfsbane), with Anya Taylor-Joy (Beth Harmon in The Queen’s Gambit) as Illyana Rasputin (Magik), Charlie Heaton as Sam Guthrie (Cannonball), Henry Zaga as Roberta da Costa (Sunspot; the character was also seen, played by Adan Canto, in the future segments of X-Men: Days of Future Past), and Blu Hunt as Dani Moonstar (Mirage).

The primary change from the source material is that these mutants aren’t gathered by Professor Charles Xavier at his school in Westchester, but instead are in a hospital in a remote location and kept imprisoned until they prove not to be a danger to themselves. The hospital is run by the Essex Corporation, intended to be a reference to longtime X-villain Mr. Sinister (whose real name is Nathaniel Essex), and also seen in X-Men: Apocalypse and Logan. To that end, the character of Dr. Cecilia Reyes is used as the administrator of the hospital. A hero in the comics, Reyes here is a pawn of Essex and very much a bad guy, played by Alice Braga.

The movie was plagued by delays. Boone and Lee’s original script was more horror-oriented, but 20th Century Fox wanted something more like a teen film, and then after the success of It, Fox changed their minds and wanted something closer to the horror movie Boone wanted to do. Tie-ins to the greater X-film universe were added, then removed, then put back.

Further delays happened when it was moved, first to avoid competing with Deadpool 2, then again to avoid the also-delayed Dark Phoenix, and then Disney bought Fox and it was delayed again, and then movie theatres all closed in spring 2020.

When theatres reopened in a limited capacity in the summer, Disney decided to release The New Mutants in August, to an unsurprisingly poor box-office showing. While Boone and Lee planned a trilogy, with a second movie involving an alien invasion with both Karma and Warlock appearing, and a third movie that would adapt the “Inferno” storyline from the comics, at this point, any sequels to this film are unlikely, especially with Disney planning to incorporate the X-characters into the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

 

“Demon bear—let’s play a game!”

The New Mutants
Written by Josh Boone & Knate Lee
Directed by Josh Boone
Produced by Simon Kinberg, Karen Rosenfelt, Lauren Shuler-Donner
Original release date: August 28, 2020

Screenshot: 20th Century Fox / Disney

On a Cheyenne reservation, Dani Moonstar is awakened by her house being on fire. Her father brings her out of the house. The entire reservation seems to be under attack. Dani’s father leaves her by a tree, then goes back to try to help more people.

Dani falls unconscious, and then wakes up in a hospital bed, to which she’s handcuffed. Dr. Cecilia Reyes introduces herself and explains that this hospital is for mutants whose powers have manifested in a dangerous manner. They don’t actually know what Dani’s powers are, but they do know that she was the only survivor of a tornado that destroyed the reservation she lived on.

Dani meets the other teenagers in the hospital in a group session: Roberta da Costa, a rich Brazilian boy who refuses to reveal what his powers are or how they manifested; Sam Guthrie, a Southern kid who worked in the coal mines with his father, and whose power is the ability to rocket through the air at high speeds; Illyana Rasputin, who can teleport and also has a “soul sword,” and who always carries a dragon puppet named Lockheed; and Rahne Sinclair, a Scots girl who can transform into a wolf. (Dani later sees that Rahne has a “W” branded on her shoulder.)

Rahne actually shares how her powers manifested, unlike any of the others: she transformed into a wolf one day, feeling incredibly happy and free. But her pastor, the Reverend Craig, condemned her as a witch.

Reyes takes blood samples from Dani and tries to determine what her powers are. The kids spend some time together, though Illyana takes great pleasure in being cruel to everyone, especially Dani. Rahne and Dani bond, however.

At one point, Illyana shows Dani that the gates aren’t locked—but neglects to mention that there’s a force field around the whole facility, created by Reyes. That’s her mutant power.

One night, Sam has a nightmare that he’s back in the mine with his father, where he was killed. Over the next several days, they all experience intense real-seeming visions of their greatest fears. Roberto relives when his powers manifested and he burned his girlfriend alive, while Rahne is confronted in the shower by Reverend Craig, who brands her a second time—and the brand stays, even though this can’t have been real, as Craig is dead, having been killed by Rahne.

Illyana suffers the worst, as she was attacked as a child by strange men with smiling masks (or, at least, that’s how she remembers it).

While the kids think they’re being groomed to become X-Men, assuming them to be the “superiors” that Reyes is always talking about, the hospital is in fact run by the Essex Corporation. They send Reyes an e-mail instructing her to euthanize Dani, as she’s too powerful. Even as Reyes takes Dani off to kill her, her powers continue to manifest, re-creating Illyana’s army of smiling men, who overrun the hospital. Rahne goes to fetch Reyes, only to find her about to kill Dani. So Rahne uses her claws on Reyes and frees Dani, just in time for the demon bear—a creature that is truly what destroyed the reservation, and seems to be some kind of manifestation of Dani’s powers—attacks the facility. It kills Reyes, and almost does the same to the kids before Dani finally is able to calm it down.

With Reyes dead, the kids are free to leave.

 

“They made us cry, so we made them smile”

Screenshot: 20th Century Fox / Disney

The New Mutants was one of my absolute favorite comic books as a kid, and it has remained so throughout my adulthood. I still go back and reread the stories every once in a while.

So it was really disappointing to see them finally adapted to the screen and have it come across as a mediocre pilot for a goofy show about teenagers with super-powers on the CW.

I appreciate that Josh Boone loved the Claremont/Sienkiewicz run on the book, but it wasn’t a horror comic. Yes, their first storyline involved a demon bear, but that was just the latest powerful villain that the heroes had to face. The comic was about kids trying to come to terms with their powers and with growing up and with being forced into the role of superheroes even if they didn’t really want to be.

More to the point, it was fun. It was one of the most enjoyable comics, even when it was pouring on the angst of life as a mutant.

Occasionally, Boone remembers that he’s doing a movie about teens, like when Illyana spikes Reyes’s tea so they can play, or when they sneak up to the attic. But mostly it’s a horror piece, and to drive it home, Boone and Lee have changed every character’s origin just enough to add murder to it. Sam didn’t just blast out of a coal mine, he killed his father and several other miners while doing it. Roberto didn’t just manifest his powers (which now include extreme heat, unlike his comics counterpart) in front of a bunch of people, he killed his girlfriend while doing so. Rahne wasn’t just condemned by her priest, but she killed the priest, too. And the demon bear is apparently a manifestation of Dani’s fear, and it destroyed her home.

Except it’s not entirely clear if that’s so, because the movie never really tells us what the demon bear is, beyond the Inevitable CGI Monster That Our Heroes Must Fight that has been the go-to of far too many climaxes in this rewatch. Worse, we never get a good sense of Illyana’s past. The smiling killers (all voiced by Marilyn Manson, which is pretty fabulous, actually) seem to have Russian prison tattoos. Is this how Illyana remembers them, filtered through the fear of a small child? In the comics, Illyana was taken as a seven-year-old to Limbo and raised by the demonic sorcerer Belasco. Time passes differently in Limbo, so she returned instantly, but seven years older. As a teenager, she became part of the New Mutants, but she always had a darkness about her.

Hilariously, Illyana is the one character to whom no changes needed to be made to make her a perfect horror-movie character, but instead Boone has reduced her to the mean girl.

At least she’s played by a talented actor. Anya Taylor-Joy does excellent work as an Illyana whose nastiness covers up horrific trauma. Maisie Williams also is fabulous as Rahne, as she beautifully conveys the character’s pain and anguish.

Sadly, the rest of the cast isn’t up to snuff. Henry Zaga and Charlie Heaton manage not to actually give Roberto or Sam any kind of personality, and Blu Hunt spends far too much of the movie just staring wide-eyed. Dani is the center of the film, and also one of the strongest of the original New Mutants, and Hunt doesn’t quite pull off the gravitas necessary for the role.

Worst, though, is Alice Braga’s charisma-free performance as Reyes, and that’s before we even get to the character assassination of turning Reyes into a villain. Arguably the finest contribution Scott Lobdell made to the X-Men during his time writing their adventures in the 1990s, Dr. Cecilia Reyes is a great character, a mutant who doesn’t want to be a hero, preferring to keep working as an ER doctor. (She was particularly well used in Marjorie Liu’s run on Astonishing X-Men in the early 2010s.) Seeing her transformed into a bland, villainous henchthug for the Essex Corporation is depressing as hell, and Braga does nothing to make the character in any way compelling.

Perhaps not surprising given the multiple reshoots, this is a movie that is neither fish nor fowl, with not enough fun teenage stuff to be the Breakfast Club-esque teen movie it sometimes leans toward, not enough chills to be a strong horror movie, and not enough heroism to be a proper superhero film. The New Mutants deserve so much better than this.

 

And so, once again, the great superhero movie rewatch has caught up to real time. I originally envisioned this year-end roundup as being way longer, as the original plan for 2020 was to have ten new comic-book superhero adaptations out, and we only got four, with a fifth (Wonder Woman 1984) coming on Christmas Day, finally. With a vaccine for the coronavirus on the horizon, there’s a good chance we will finally see the postponed Black Widow, The Eternals, The King’s Man, Morbius, and Venom: Let There Be Carnage, along with other releases next year. We will likely continue the every-six-months look back, and WW84 will be part of the June 2021 revival of this feature.

As ever, thank you all so much for reading and for commenting. Have a wonderful and safe holiday season.

Keith R.A. DeCandido also is doing a rewatch of Star Trek: Voyager every Monday and Thursday for this site, plus reviews of each new episode of Star Trek: Discovery when it is released on Thursday.

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