Or, the hazards of adaptation and the need for more cross-genre material
During a pandemic that was showing no signs of abating, a few films were released last year against the advice of scientific and public health experts. This cautious attempt to prematurely return to “normal” was motivated by everything from blind artistic hubris masquerading as integrity to desperate attempts to stay employed to naked corporate greed, but none of the movies released had as fraught a trip to theaters as The New Mutants.
I had been looking forward to this movie since 2017, but I wasn’t willing to risk my health and maybe my life to see it. As I’ve written elsewhere, every queer geek has a special relationship with the X-Men even if it’s nothing more than a tacit acknowledgement of how the themes of the comics resonate with our personal struggles. And every X-Men fan has the team that was their first, their introduction to the world of Marvel’s mutants, from the original five of the 60s to X-Force, X-Factor, X-Statix, and beyond. For me, that team was the New Mutants. It was one of the first comics I read with anything approaching consistency, way back in middle school.
My History with the Comics
Long before I had any idea of my own sexuality, I was a gawky twelve-year-old who struggled to make friends, and was more focused on avoiding bullies and finding something good to read. The friend who had introduced me to comics only a few years earlier had tried getting me into the X-Men, but they were in the middle of the whole Madelyne Pryor storyline. I thought Mister Sinister looked cool, but found everything else very confusing.
Then, in the spinner rack of a pharmacy within walking distance of my house, I discovered The New Mutants. Here was something unlike anything I had found in any other comic! The character of Warlock and Bill Sienkiewicz’s art leapt off the page with a dynamism I didn’t think possible for what were already feeling like rote superhero stories. I don’t remember anything about those old comics. I wouldn’t have been able to tell you a single plot detail or character trait until I re-read those books a few years ago. But I remember how those comics made me feel and how excited I got reading them.
It wasn’t so much because the characters were teenagers. The drama in the main X-books about clones and love triangles felt more melodramatic than anything in The New Mutants, and I couldn’t relate to any of that. The New Mutants battled the Hellfire Club and alien invasions but were plagued with self-doubt, and fought their own inner demons (sometimes literally) as much as outside threats. Cannonball worried that he was too old to learn the full extent of his powers and Wolfsbane was forced to reconcile her religious upbringing with her new reality. I find myself relating to these struggles all over again in middle age.
The New Mutants were supposed to be introduced in their own series, but the first issue was expanded into the fifty-page Marvel Graphic Novel #4 and released in December 1982. The X-Men were presumed dead during an intergalactic civil war involving parasitic alien bugs (long story!). Writer Chris Claremont, artist Bob McLeod, and editor Louise Simonson came up with a series focusing on a new class of students for Professor Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, the respectable “front” for hated and feared mutant teenagers.
The New Mutants #1 came out in March 1983. It featured a roster of Karma (Xi’an Coy Manh), a Vietnamese psychic who can possess people’s bodies; Danielle Moonstar, a Cheyenne teenager who creates illusions based on people’s fears; Cannonball (Sam Guthrie), a coal mining teenager from Kentucky who blasts off like a rocket; Sunspot (Roberto da Costa), a Brazilian heir who draws super strength from the sun; and Wolfsbane (Rahne Sinclair), a Scottish werewolf.
Admittedly, it hasn’t entirely aged well. “Progressive for its time” is maybe the most generous way to describe the book. For all the complexity and nuance it brings to Sunspot, the condescension and stereotypes brought to the Asian and Indigenous characters practically drips off the page. Also, Chris Claremont, for all his gifts as a storyteller, never seems to trust his artist to carry an image, and feels the need to narrate the simplest of actions.
Mr. McLeod was the artist for the first few issues, followed by Sal Buscema. Issue #18 in August 1984 was the first for artist Bill Sienkiewicz, and it is not an exaggeration that he expanded what comics were capable of as a medium. He had already done artwork for Moon Knight and Fantastic Four, and his move to The New Mutants was heralded at the bottom of issue #17. In the afterword to The New Mutants: The Demon Bear Saga trade paperback, Mr. Sienkiewicz wrote, “For me, coming off three years of Moon Knight, the chance to break down a few more barriers was irresistible.” In his first issue, he introduced the character of Warlock.
Warlock was a “techno-organic” alien shapeshifter who was granted mutant status for having empathy, and joined the team in issue #21. Between his design, shape-changing, and broadening of the definition of mutant, he remains one of the most original characters in mainstream American superhero comics.
I don’t know what my first issue of The New Mutants was, but I know it had Warlock in it. The pages had a kinetic, abstract blend of styles that were clearly art even to my prepubescent sensibilities. I’ve had a deep fondness for this book, these characters, and comics as a medium ever since.
Why I Was Excited for the Film
After the mix of drudgery, confusion, and boredom I’d felt watching Apocalypse and Dark Phoenix, the prospect of another X-Men film felt to me the way a friend of mine who is a Star Wars fan described going to see Revenge of the Sith: preparing to go to work at a job you hate. But then I learned it was going to be a horror movie based on The New Mutants, and I couldn’t wait to see it.
Logan is my favorite X-Men film, and one of my favorite superhero films. It’s a great send-off for Hugh Jackman, and I love the way it blends Western and superhero tropes. That kind of bold cross-pollination deserves to be rewarded, and should be attempted more often.
This Saturday Night Live sketch is spot-on in how it parodies Marvel’s treatment of its female characters and fans, but wouldn’t a superhero romantic comedy be fun? (No, My Super Ex-Girlfriend doesn’t count.) Likewise, the idea of a horror movie with mutants in it felt like a great idea. Even if the movie was terrible, I couldn’t fault its ambition.
I am not one of those comics fans who instantly rejects any deviation from the source material. I think an adaptation of any work has to be taken as a discrete piece of artistic expression. As long as a film or TV show works on its own merits, I don’t care how similar or different it is to the work that inspired it.
Unfortunately, superhero movies almost instantly fell into a rut, and have been dominated by formulaic storytelling and Disney gloss long before Disney owned almost all of them. One of the best ways to shake that up is to start experimenting with other genres. Part of the success of Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Black Panther is due to their introduction of elements of space opera, political thrillers, and Afrofuturism into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, respectively.
Why not try even more? Superhero office comedies? Superhero locked-room mysteries? Superhero noir films? Superhero historical dramas? Superhero heist films? Anything to make them less like cop movies.
The secret is to love both genres. Logan works so well because director James Mangold loved the X-Men comics and Westerns enough to feature both: The comics are introduced as a real-world element in the film and the characters watch Shane on a hotel television. Meanwhile, the creators of My Super Ex-Girlfriend seem to hold both genres in contempt, despite the screenwriter going on to write three superhero films. Josh Boone, the director of The New Mutants, and screenwriter Knate Lee supposedly had asked to make a horror film by pitching a notebook full of imagery from Mr. Sienkiewicz’s acclaimed “Demon Bear” storyline for a potential trilogy.
Can you imagine what a movie featuring stuff like this would have looked like? (From The New Mutants #20. Art by Bill Sienkiewicz, written by Chris Claremont, colored by Glynis Wein, and lettered by Tom Orzechowski)
And, anyway, that first trailer looked awesome! That graveyard shot, the unnerving use of Pink Floyd, the unsettling imagery… It was one of the best trailers of 2018.
Too bad very little of that made it into the actual film.
What Went Wrong
Almost every description of the production begs to use the word troubled. A vicious cycle of rewrites that involved up to eight screenwriters before filming began. An April 13, 2018 release date. Too many other X-Men films coming out. A February 22, 2019 release date. Scheduled reshoots, some to allegedly make the film more like IT: Chapter Two. An August 2, 2019 release date. The Disney-Fox merger. No reshoots. Threats of scrapping the whole thing and starting over. An April 3, 2020 release date. The pandemic. When it was finally released, it was so overshadowed by its production history that some critics intimated that would be the most interesting part of the film.
Supposedly, Warlock was included (to be played by Sacha Baron Cohen of all people) or teased for future sequels in certain drafts. I was relieved when that was not the case. As much as I love the character, I cannot imagine him showing up as anything other than horrendous CGI. The best way to make Warlock work would be animation, which would present such tonal whiplash for a live-action movie as to be unsustainable. Not impossible, but definitely not the type of movie anyone was interested in making.
And this is simply the odyssey of getting to theaters, never mind all the issues that arose from the film itself. Smarter people than me have written and talked about the issues of colorism in film and comics, and The New Mutants’ handling of Sunspot, and to a lesser extent Dr. Cecilia Reyes, was the latest example. Mr. Boone commented that he wanted to focus on Sunspot’s class instead of his race, sounding like a middle-class white guy who’s recently gotten done binge-watching The Wire. Speaking to iO9, he said:
“I didn’t care so much about the racism I’ve heard about in Brazil, about light-skinned versus dark-skinned. To me, it was I wanted to represent Brazil in a positive way and I wanted to find somebody who seems like he could look like a guy who’s had the silver spoon in his mouth, who has like a really rich dad and [Henry] just exemplified all these things.”
There’s no reason the character of Sunspot can’t address both racism and classism. In fact, that’s exactly what he did in the comics. The character’s origin is inseparable from the racism he experiences, and it’s the inciting incident for the discovery of his mutant powers.
This may seem like a contradiction of my earlier point about adaptations being discrete entities, but this isn’t a cosmetic change. Complaints that Hugh Jackman was too tall to play Wolverine or that Kathryn Hahn was too young to play Agatha Harkness were overcome by the charisma of those performances. Even if Henry Zaga were the best actor Brazil had to offer, it does not negate the centuries of prejudice and erasure that led to his casting in the first place.
Not so coincidentally, this was the first argument Mr. Boone tried to make in that same interview, echoing centuries of white supremacist arguments about how “these are just the best people for the job.”
“It’s like maybe if Henry didn’t exist, I would have found somebody who was darker skinned who exemplified what I needed. But it was never about the color of their skin for me.”
This is either completely disingenuous or willfully ignorant about the world we live in.
This is not a new problem for the X-Men films. Days of Future Past, in which Mexican-American actor Adan Canto played Sunspot, boasts one of the most diverse casts of any superhero film before Black Panther, but only for about fifteen minutes, until all the minorities are literally left out in the cold as cannon fodder while the story shifts focus to all the white characters. This might have been a metaphor for something, but the movie never acknowledges this.
The problem of ever-lightening skin tones has persisted in comics for decades. In addition to Sunspot, it has happened to The New Mutants supporting cast member Stevie Hunter, and don’t get me started on what they’ve done to Storm. How has Marvel somehow gotten worse at coloring POC characters in almost forty years?
Sunspot’s casting was singled out by New Mutants co-creator Bob McLeod in a Facebook post that detailed his misgivings and frustration with the film. “I was very disappointed that Roberto isn’t short and dark-skinned. Yet another example of Hollywood white-washing. There’s just no excuse.” He didn’t think a horror film was how “the characters should be introduced to the public at large,” but he and I can agree to disagree.
He ended by describing one of the greatest insults and indignities a creator could face. “And now, the movie has come out at last, and apparently they’ve credited someone named Bob Macleod as co-creator. They couldn’t even be bothered to check the spelling of my name sometime in the last three years. And that can’t be fixed. That will be on the movie forever. I think I’m done with this movie.”
After however many screenings and hours in the editing booth, no one thought to check the spelling of this man’s name? It’s appalling.
What makes this especially objectionable is that the filmmakers, as fellow genre creators, ought to be sympathetic. It’s hard enough working in comics with editors and studio executives to say nothing of how the medium still doesn’t enjoy the respect it deserves as an art form.
And Bill “Most Mispronounced Name in Comics” Sienkiewicz’s name was right there! But when it came time to credit the person who helped create the characters in the first place, they couldn’t be bothered to get it right. I felt insulted on Bob McLeod’s behalf when I read about this.
Fortunately, this error appears to have been fixed for the DVD release, so at least Mr. McLeod was proven wrong on this being on the film “forever.” Cold comfort, I’m sure.
The Film Itself
The New Mutants arrived in theaters on August 28, 2020. Screeners were not provided for critics, and most chose (rightly) not to see and review it. What reviews there were ended up being tepid and damning by faint praise.
With all this negativity as an introduction, I didn’t want to spend money to watch the film. I don’t own a car, so a drive-in was out. I didn’t even want to rent it for $5.99 from Amazon. I settled on borrowing it from the library, which is how I get most of my comics anyway. I signed up, and was 67th in line (so close!) for the 27th copy of the DVD. Two months later, here we are. When I did check it out, there were 19 people waiting for it, so that gave me one week to enjoy it and take notes.
So, after all that, how is it? Not great. The plot involves five young mutants, the aforementioned Sam Guthrie (Charlie Heaton), Roberto da Costa (Henry Zaga), Rahne Sinclair (Maisie Williams), Dani Moonstar (Blu Hunt), and eventual teammate (in the comics) Ilyana Rasputin (Anya Taylor-Joy, who must’ve been relieved when The Queen’s Gambit overshadowed this). Supposedly learning to use their powers at an abandoned hospital, they are under the auspices and force fields of Dr. Cecilia Reyes (Alice Braga) who clearly has an ulterior motive. Dani is the newest arrival, but her powers are a mystery, or they’re supposed to be, except it’s painfully obvious that she’s a psychic causing nightmare visions for everyone.
All the makings of a great horror movie are present: the haunted setting, the traumatized characters, the nefarious authority figure, and abstract imagery meant to communicate serious pain. But all of them are too underdeveloped to mean anything. When the characters sneak out to dance and have fun later in the movie, I wondered why they suddenly enjoyed each other’s company.
Thin, inconsistent characterizations are helped by talented actors doing their best to elevate the material they’re given, but we have to get over the accents first. Watch an Englishman pretend to be from Kentucky, an Argentine-British-American pretend to be from Russia, an Englishwoman pretend to be from Scotland, and a Brazilian actor affect no accent whatsoever. If Henry Zaga were in fact the best actor in Brazil, as suggested by the director, no one watching this film would know.
His casting isn’t even the most problematic part within the context of the film. In a baffling change from the comics, the Demon Bear is no longer emblematic of the animal that killed Dani’s parents, but is given an origin from an invented Cheyenne “legend.” Ilyana is needlessly racist, and this is never addressed or resolved. After the first slur, Dani never has any reason to trust her. Instead, they’re basically teammates by the end of the film.
There are some good parts, mostly involving Rahne (Wolfsbane). She has a good introduction, and the makeup is better than I expected it to be. I’m always going to promote an LGBTQ romance that is depicted with the warmth and depth that Maisie Williams and Blu Hunt bring to their underwritten roles, but their quietly romantic scene felt imported from a better movie. It was affecting more because of the acting than the filmmaking.
When another character mentions they’ve “grown close” in an earlier scene, I felt like I’d missed something since they’d only had two interactions. The New Mutants does a lot of telling, then expects us to be invested in the characters, only to provide the barest lip service to character arcs.
This is the type of movie that invites nitpicking because it is neither thrilling enough to carry us along nor does it provide enough emotional investment for us to ignore such questions. If Ilyana can teleport, why doesn’t she leave? How is she able to drug Dr. Reyes? How does Roberto get Dr. Reyes’ phone? I could go on.
Footage from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Logan invite unflattering comparisons, but so much of the film is borrowed from others in a kind of shorthand that conveys nothing so much as laziness to avoid depth. The setting is reminiscent of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The aforementioned dance sequence and the final shot are supposed to invoke The Breakfast Club. Even the final fight recalls both Deep Blue Sea and Jurassic Park.
Meanwhile, less obvious references to the source material are sprinkled throughout as Easter eggs with winking obviousness and no purpose. Call it the “My name is Khan” problem: giving the audience something to recognize but nothing that resonates. If the names Lockheed, Magik, and Essex Corporation mean nothing to you, you’ll more likely be confused when they show up in this movie with no explanation, though admittedly you’re less likely to be watching this movie in the first place.
Also, this movie commits the unforgivable sin of sacrificing its climax to differently-colored blobs of special effects colliding. “Things crashing into things,” as critic Matt Zoller-Seitz put it in his still-applicable essay on the shortcomings of superhero films. The idea that these stories, no matter how experimental, must end with bright colors smashing into each other is nothing short of exhausting.
I can say that I don’t regret having watched The New Mutants, which is more than I can write about other films I’ve seen. I considered rewatching it for this piece once it landed on HBO Max, but more than one friend pleaded with me not to, insisting I watch a movie worthier of my time. I couldn’t disagree, and would only recommend The New Mutants to X-Men film completists who have probably already seen it anyway. Nothing can take away my love for the comics, though.
Perhaps the second-biggest lesson to draw from this film, after the value of putting marginalized people in front of and behind the camera, is one of scale. Some of the most beloved issues of X-Men focus on simple, human stories, like Storm and Forge having dinner or Colossus and the Juggernaut getting into a bar fight. Those have as much right to adaptation as the grand sagas of the Dark Phoenix or Days of Future Past. Insecurities and inner conflict drew me to The New Mutants as much as innovative artwork. When mutants make it into the MCU, it might be better to start small and focus on them.