Disney recently dumped a mountain of information about some of its franchises, including the next several years of the MCU which features continued entries for Captain Marvel, Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor and, most importantly, the best character remaining: Ant Man. Joining these folks are a bunch of new faces like: Moon Knight, Ms. Marvel, She-Hulk and even the triumphant return of the Fantastic 4!
Conspicuously absent from the proceedings was the X-Men who, like the Fantastic 4, were acquired as part of Disney’s Borg-esque assimilation of 20th Century Fox. As a result, neither the film or streaming slate will feature a mutant outside an unforeseen tease somewhere for the next few years. Thus we are left with the lasting sour taste of Dark Phoenix to satiate our appetite for that scandalous mutant action. It is a shame really, as we’re all set to go at least five years until we see any of those loveable weirdos-
Oh, shit, nevermind. The New Mutants came out this year- I completely forgot, and so did you.
Originally slated for release later in the summer of 2018, The New Mutants was kicked down the road like a rusty can multiple times before finally being shunted out into theaters to go head to head with one of the most anticipated films of the summer in Tenet. Oh, and amidst a historic global pandemic that has placed the heads of the theater industry into the restraints and has them waiting for the streaming guillotine to finally put them out of their misery. Needless to say, it was not launched under the best of circumstances, which is pretty much par for the course for this film.
The New Mutants, as a film, is not all that interesting. It takes place in some mental hospital/facility stuck out in the middle of nowhere and houses a handful of mutant outcasts who have been deemed a danger to themselves as well as others. They are there under the supervision of some doctor and her benefactors who will have the final say over when our motley crew can leave and rejoin the world. Except that, oh no, the doctor is actually a villain who is watching and evaluating these kids for her nefarious boss, Mr. Sinister! The kiddos learn of this- kind of- and they set up a prison break and claim their freedom. Happy ending, roll credits.
The budget for this film sticks out like the seams holding together lackluster upholstery. There are no big stars in this film, and very few recognizable actors at all. Some lady from Game of Thrones, another from The VVitch and the Byers kid form Stranger Things– no, not that one, the older one. The film takes place in essentially one setting, and the visual effects are fine- they’re fine. Not only is the film free from any big stars gracing its screen, but it actively goes out of its way to avoid even naming others.
Xavier is mentioned only a very small handful of times directly, and the X-Men as a group are only referred to, and not really ever explicitly named. This fact combined with the isolated aspect of the film’s setting gives it an oddly nebulous setting. It has no signifiers as to where it fits in to any setting either geographically or chronologically. It is its own little solar system drifting through space with no larger universe willing to take it in.
As previously mentioned, this film is not all that interesting. There are some horror elements, which are newer for both this franchise and super heroes in general, but they are pretty light, and lack the kind of impact which could have saved this film. No, the far more interesting aspect of the film is everything which happened around it, and where it does or does not fit in to the X-Men timeline. As it stands, The New Mutants is the final X-Men film developed by 20th Century Fox. Fresh off the heels of the disastrous turn which the franchise had taken since its reboot via First Class, New Mutants appears to be a stepping stone for the franchise as it….mutates into its next iteration.
Not only was the franchise likely in need of some new heroes, it needed a new villain desperately. Marvel had shown that an overarching villain serving as an existential threat hanging over the head of the entire franchise and functioning as a sort of sword of Damocles ready to cut down the heroes at a moment’s notice. Thanos did wonders for that franchise, and his role is something which can be imitated: have one major bad guy hanging around the background while the lesser villains do their bidding for a few films. Having already shot their proverbial wad with Apocalypse, Mr. Sinister was a fine second choice for X-Men. Tease him in this film, and then have him actually show up later once you’ve actually made some of the major decisions such as casting and who the heck he would be going up against after another pivot or soft reboot for the franchise. It’s a fine plan on paper….
A plan which was promptly shredded before being tossed in the furnace once the franchise passed hands over to Disney, the Thanos of modern Hollywood. Once Disney got their hands on this thing, they clearly wanted nothing to do with it. A contractual agreement kept it from being unceremoniously shoved onto Disney +, so it was unceremoniously shoved into the worst cinematic situation imaginable instead. Disney has bumped many of its other films, but without any attachment to this film, it was sent out to die and to date has only made a paltry $46 million worldwide-roughly half of its potential budget. Without any apparent plans in place for X-Men, there was no reason to sit on this film- heck, even with announced plans, this film may not have had a place, and thus still no reason to sit on it and push back its release yet another year to avoid Covid.
The end result of all this is that we have a film which is lost in time. Its original purpose seemed to be to fill the gap between phases of the X-Men franchise; keep the franchise on people’s minds while simultaneously teasing the next big villain. In many ways it is a very safe and also very risk-free plan. Even the potentially $80 million budget is light when compared to other super hero films. It was given room to be a little weird and try some new things in order to stand out and be different. It didn’t work, but the film was given that chance regardless. If it’s a success, the idea of Mr. Sinister is planted into the minds of fans and audiences while also introducing some potentially recurring characters in the process. If it doesn’t work, it has little tying it to the rest of the X-Men franchise, so the tease for Sinister can simply redone elsewhere and more fully once the direction of the franchise is actually decided on.
Unfortunately for the film, it got to be neither of those two things. It is the last feeble effort of 20th Century Fox to continue to X-Men franchise which they had driven further into irrelevance in the face of the competition from Marvel, and even DC to a lesser extent. The downward trajectory of the franchise was not corrected with this film, and it was thusly rejected by its new owners once they got a look at it. What we are left with is the unique aspect of a modern franchise film not having a franchise to belong to, as nobody seemed to want it. Fox didn’t have enough confidence in it to even bother mentioning other mutants by name, let alone actually releasing it once it was finished. And Disney tossed it out the door at the first opportunity. It doesn’t even get the indignity of killing off a franchised, as the X-Men as we knew it was long since dead once it finally hit theaters. Instead, going to see The New Mutants – yes, you can indeed still catch it in theaters- is the equivalent of witnessing the future answer to bar trivia question materialize before your very eyes. It is a cultural footnote on its best day, and it is a shame that it was never given a chance to grow into anything else.