As theaters slowly open around the country, movies are — just as slowly — coming back. This week, the first movie from a major studio arrives, “New Mutants.” It’s the first superhero film since “Birds of Prey” last February, and the first Marvel film of 2020. But what was once imagined as the start of a new branch for Fox’s “X-Men” franchise lands instead as a strange last gasp for a studio that no longer exists. The film isn’t terrible — this is no misbegotten “Dark Phoenix,” Fox’s other leftover film from before Disney swallowed it whole. But it is weirdly dated, considering it was delayed only two and a half years.
What was once imagined as the start of a new branch for Fox’s “X-Men” franchise lands instead as a strange last gasp for a studio that no longer exists.
“New Mutants” was originally scheduled to come out in April 2018, a fairly typical spot in the calendar for horror films. It followed the model established by “Deadpool” and “Logan” — genre films (gross-out comedy, Westerns, horror) recast with recognizable superhero characters from the “X-Men” comics. But the film was first pushed back to February 2019 to move it out of the way of “Deadpool 2,” then tripped up by the Disney-Fox merger talks and finally rescheduled to April. And then the pandemic hit.
When Disney rescheduled “New Mutants” to Aug. 28, it was not meant as the studio’s big return to theaters. That was supposed to be “Mulan,” now debuting on Disney+. So why is Disney so eager to get “New Mutants” out the door, when theaters aren’t even allowed to open in some states?
Considering the endless delays and rumors of reshoots and executives talking about scrapping the film and starting over, one might expect that “New Mutants” was some terrible disaster. It’s actually a rather cute teen horror film. There are jump-scare sequences and a few haunted dreams, but the PG-13 rating holds firm. In fact, a few years ago, it would have been quite a progressive film; it begins from the perspective of Dani Moonstar, one of the few Native American X-Men characters. Moonstar is played by Blu Hunt, herself of Lakota descent.
Dani wakens in an abandoned hospital where she meets a group of teens from around the world, all of whom have just manifested their mutant powers for the first time. She falls in love with fellow mutant Rahne Sinclair (Maisie Williams) in the first big-screen LGBTQ relationship in a Marvel film. They and their fellow misfit teens, Illyana (Anya Taylor-Joy), Bobby (Henry Zaga), and Sam (Charlie Heaton), fight to escape the evil Dr. Reyes (Alice Braga), who plans to use their powers for her own cruel ends.
If this film had arrived in April 2018 as planned, it would have opened in the wake of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s “Black Panther” smash hit, and a few weeks before “Infinity War.” “Deadpool 2” did quite well in that spot, as a comedic alternate to the universe’s self-important bombast. But “New Mutants” would likely also have done well there, with its diverse boundary-pushing contrasting with Disney and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And its quieter, smaller superhero format — made for a reportedly modest $80 million — might have felt refreshing.
But today, the film’s halting steps toward a less white, less heterosexual world of superheroes no longer feel as groundbreaking. This is a marker of how much the landscape has shifted. “New Mutants” is not the first Marvel film tripped up by the sudden shifting social mores. “Dr. Strange,” for example, cast the (very) white Tilda Swinton as “the Ancient One,” a move that would have barely caused a ripple in 2009 when the film was conceived, but sparked a major uproar by the time it was filmed in 2015, and became part of the dominant narrative when it opened a year later. Here, the timid nature of the relationship between Dani and Rahne, the fairly stereotyped backgrounds, the whitewashing of characters, now feel a bit disappointing.
The irony is, Disney isn’t shoving “New Mutants” out the door because of any story concerns. This premiere is all about clearing the way for the “X-Men” characters to eventually make their debut in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And the reason Disney decided on a theatrical release instead of just putting it on Disney+ like “Artemis Fowl” or the upcoming “Mulan”? As part of the deal to buy out Fox, Disney is bound by contract to premiere Fox’s already completed films in theaters. Plus, Fox already sold first run small screen rights to HBO, and therefore HBO Max, so Disney couldn’t stream it even if it wanted to.
Disney’s made it clear it doesn’t really care if the film does well, even refusing to send digital screeners to reviewers, something that was already becoming standard practice before the pandemic. Personally, I saw the film in the local indie theater’s new makeshift drive-in, which suited the aesthetic quite well. But more than a few places will not be reviewing “New Mutants” at all due to safety guidelines. Considering the movie is already dated, waiting for the film to hit streaming services is probably safer. After all, for once, this is an “X-Men” film where there won’t be a sequel.