It was supposed to be a new era for Marvel’s mutants on the big screen. Instead, it wound up being its unceremonious end. After Disney’s absorption of 20th Century Fox, this film — which was meant to be a Big Bang for a new generation of superhero movies — died before it ever had a shot. Now that it’s streaming on HBO Max, perhaps it’s about to get a second chance.
Directed by Josh Boone, The New Mutants is an adaptation of X-Men giant Chris Claremont and artist Bob McLeod’s spin-off X-Men comic book series that began in 1982. True to its title, the comics follow the next generation of mutants who come under the tutelage of Professor X (and later, Magneto) at Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. Like the revolutionary “all-new, all-different” X-Men, the New Mutants were ethnically diverse, with mutants hailing from a mix of Brazil, Vietnam, Scotland, and the southern United States. The Cheyenne Native American superhero “Mirage” is famously one of the most prominent characters in the New Mutants.
The New Mutants was not welcomed with open arms when it quietly released last year in August 2020. The film stands with an abysmal 35% “Rotten” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. But the movie has never been more accessible than it is now on HBO Max. And maybe, just maybe, it’ll finally have a real shot at being something, anything, other than a forgotten footnote.
With its strong ensemble cast — which includes genre stars like Maisie Williams (Game of Thrones), Charlie Heaton (Stranger Things), and a pre-Queen’s Gambit Anya Taylor-Joy — and an experimental tone unlike anything in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it deserves at least that.
The movie takes a lot of obvious inspiration from the comics, but only one issue of Claremont’s New Mutants comics left the biggest impression. In issue 18 of the original New Mutants comics, legendary artist Bill Sienkiewicz came aboard for what Boone described as a “darker and more surreal and impressionistic” effort than any X-Men comic before. “It felt like Stephen King meets John Hughes,” Boone told Entertainment Weekly in 2017.
Boone, who previously directed the 2014 teen drama The Fault in Our Stars (and was recently a creative force in the streaming series version of Stephen King’s The Stand) tapped into that abstract horror influence with The New Mutants. Primarily inspired by horror literature rather than horror movies (though Boone did profess admiration for 1973’s The Exorcist and 1980’s The Shining in a 2016 interview), Boone said he intended to make “a full-fledged horror movie set within the X-Men universe.”
“There are no costumes. There are no supervillains. We’re trying to do something very, very different,” he told the magazine.
Boone did make something different — just watch any of the trailers to get a sense of how un-Marvel Cinematic Universe the movie is meant to be — but nothing was scarier for the New Mutants than corporate mergers. As broken down on the exceedingly long Wikipedia page, what happened first were planned reshoots that meant to make New Mutants even scarier after the success of It in 2017. As the story goes, Boone and co-writer Knate Lee arrived at a compromised vision of the film with Fox that had New Mutants feel more YA in tone than outright horror. When It blew up, Fox changed its mind and wanted a real horror movie. (In the end, no reshoots happened. Boone said in March 2020 that the youthful cast had aged since the cameras last rolled.)
Around the same time The New Mutants underwent tonal surgery, 20th Century Fox was absorbed by Disney in a huge $50 billion-plus merger meant to beef up the Disney+ streaming library. Between the movie’s scary tone (Variety reported in August 2019 that Disney felt the movie had “limited box office potential”) and Disney’s visible streaming pushes, there were unfounded rumors of a direct-to-streaming release for the movie.
By the end of 2019, the movie had a secure theatrical release date of April 3, 2020. But what no one saw coming was the Covid-19 pandemic, which sent all of Hollywood into a confusing spiral. The New Mutants was in a rare state of completion — it was more a matter of how does this thing get out there? — and eventually came out on August 28, 2020, to little fanfare, grossing $46.9 million worldwide against an estimated $80 million budget.
In the end, whether The New Mutants was deserving of a better outcome or not, it at least represents a potent “what if?” in the superhero industrial complex. This year, fans went ga-ga for WandaVision, a wildly experimental Marvel production that flirted with supernatural horror. Before Marvel Studios takes full credit for innovating horror in superhero stories, remember that The New Mutants tried it first.
The New Mutants is streaming now on HBO Max.