Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 18, 2021)
Although Unhinged became the first movie to receive wide theatrical release after the shutdowns that stemmed from COVID-19, 2020’s The New Mutants offered the first wide release that boasted real box office potential. No offense to Russell Crowe and all those involved with Unhinged, but an “R”-rated thriller about a road rage-fueled maniac never seemed likely to rake in the big bucks.
On the other hand, Mutants provides an extension of the Marvel/X-Men universe. These factors made broad success more possible for Mutants than for Unhinged.
At least in theory, but in reality, Mutants didn’t sell many more tickets. While Unhinged earned $20 million US/$42 million worldwide, Mutants only got $23 million US/$46 million worldwide.
Obviously COVID damaged the movie’s financial prospects, but given the fact it barely beat a cheap “R”-rated thriller, the outlook didn’t look promising.
When a mysterious force destroys her reservation, Danielle Moonstar (Blu Hunt) winds up as the only survivor – and a curiously unharmed one at that, as she bears not a scratch. Danielle soon finds herself in a medical facility under the treatment of Dr. Cecilia Reyes (Alice Braga).
Except this turns out to be no normal hospital, as instead, Dr. Reyes runs a facility in which young mutants receive treatment – or imprisonment, as the “pupils” can’t leave and Dr. Reyes’ motives seem unclear. While in this location, Danielle meets fellow mutants Rahne Sinclair (Maisie Williams), Illyana Rasputin (Anya Taylor-Joy), Sam Guthrie (Charlie Heaton) and Roberto da Costa (Henry Zaga).
As Danielle gets to know the others, she starts to focus on the mystery of their treatment/imprisonment. As various dangers threaten, Danielle and the others need to learn to bond if they want to overcome these concerns.
Because I’m old, I remember when New Mutants debuted as a comic in 1982. Chris Claremont co-created it, and given that he acted as a strong reason that the X-Men became that era’s dominant franchise, we fans went into it with high expectations.
If I recall correctly, Mutants didn’t live up to those hopes. I don’t think fans disliked it, but I don’t remember that it turned into the powerhouse we anticipated.
The same could be said for Mutants the movie – minus those expectations, that is, as the film’s troubled production meant viewers went into it without many beliefs it’d achieve greatness. That works well, as Mutants provides a decent superhero experience but not anything especially memorable.
At least it uses the series’ original quintet – mostly. We get four of the five original Mutants from the comics, with Illyana substituted for Xi'an Coy Manh.
I want to believe racial issues weren’t the reason for this decision, though it becomes tough to think ethnicity didn’t play a part. After all, American audiences seem likely to embrace a sexy blonde over a Vietnamese character, especially since Taylor-Joy offers the closest thing to a star in the cast.
Anyway, I appreciate the fact the movie remains largely true to the comics’ first five, though it branches off in other ways. In the comics, the New Mutants acted as young pupils of X-Men’s Professor X, whereas here, we find no formal connection between the two.
Perhaps a sequel will expand these horizons – if one occurs. Mutants went through a problematic path to the screen, one so fraught that it barely found theaters at all. I wouldn’t be surprised if Disney cuts bait and leaves this as a franchise with only one entry.
If Mutants winds up as the sole film with these characters, I’ll not find myself bereft. Though probably better than its troubled production would imply, the movie seems curiously flat and monochromatic.
Granted, some of this comes by design, as Mutants comes with a claustrophobic setting that leans toward the horror genre more than usual for comic book flicks. Virtually the entire story takes place in Dr. Reyes’ hospital, a choice that can feel motivated by purse strings – fewer locations means less money – but that also adds to a sense of dread and oppression.
In addition, for all intents and purposes the movie’s cast comprises just the six actors already named. Yes, we occasionally see others – mainly via flashbacks/nightmares – but the enormous majority of the film concentrates on Dr. Reyes and the five mutants.
This also smells a wee bit of cost-cutting, but it pays some narrative dividends. Because we get so few participants, the impression that the mutants really find themselves trapped and cut off from the world escalates.
These domains feel like positive aspects of the film, but Mutants can’t do much with them, as it usually seems more like a teen melodrama than a mystery/horror/superhero tale. It devotes a lot of time to conflicts among the mutants, and these don’t allow them to develop especially well as interesting characters.
In particular, the movie sets up Illyana’s perplexing hatred for Dani. I guess this pays off when they inevitably bond and fight, but these character moments and others feel forced and not especially organic. We get the sense the roles follow their paths for contrived purposes that pay off less well than they should.
Mutants also takes forever to get where it needs to go, especially because it comes with a pretty simple plot. While it develops the overriding threat, it doesn’t need as much time as it uses, so the story can stagnate.
If it expanded the characters better, this would seem fine, but since it tends to leave the five leads as sketchy, it doesn’t utilize its cinematic real estate especially well. I get that origin stories like this tend to skimp on the big action moments, but since Mutants doesn’t explore the participants in a satisfying manner, we encounter problems.
At least the actors do reasonably well with their underwritten parts. Taylor-Joy has turned into a reliable talent, and she offers the best performance of the bunch, as she almost manages to find a real character in the underbaked script.
As for the others, they seem less effective, but none disappoint. Handed sketchy roles, they do their best.
To some degree, Mutants benefits from its relative brief running time, as it goes by too quickly for us to ever lose interest. That said, I can’t help but think a longer movie with better developed characters might seem more engaging, but then again, perhaps a two-hour Mutants would’ve become bogged down with dreary melodrama.
Whatever the case, the end result seems like a mediocre superhero movie. Nothing about Mutants turns it into a poor movie, but it lacks the spark and excitement to allow it to become better than just meh.