‘The New Mutants’ Commentary Track Is the Saddest Ending Possible For Fox’s X-Men Series
I’ve listened to dozens of commentary tracks in my life, and I have never heard one like The New Mutants. It features director Josh Boone and comic-book artist Bill Sienkiewicz, whose work on New Mutants comics directly inspired Boone’s film. For 94 minutes, Boone interviews Sienkiewicz about his career: How he broke in at DC and Marvel, what inspired his distinctive art style, and what it was like working with writers ranging from Alan Moore to Frank Miller.
In 94 minutes of commentary, they talk at length about the movie they’re there to theoretically discuss a single time — and it’s Sienkiewicz who brings it up, not Boone. He asks what happened to an animated opening he helped create for the film that doesn’t appear in the final cut. Boone says they “never got it to the place we wanted it to be” and blames “the company [they] were working with, and the time that [they] had to do it” for leaving him with a subpar final product. “We didn’t want to put it in unless we really thought it was great,” Boone adds, before immediately redirecting the conversation back to Sienkiewicz’s work with Frank Miller.
There are a few other brief allusions to the film as the final credits roll; Sienkiewicz praises Boone’s stripped-down approach to the material and calls The New Mutants a “really special, lovely movie,” and then Boone segues to why he loves Spider-Man 2. By the end of the commentary, the two men have talked as much or more about David Lynch’s Dune (which Sienkiewicz illustrated an adaptation of for Marvel Comics in the 1980s) as The New Mutants, the movie playing on your television for the duration of this chat.
As interviews go, it’s not a bad one. Sienkiewicz is a brilliant illustrator and a good storyteller; if a 90-minute podcast about his career sounds appealing, you would probably enjoy it. As a Blu-ray commentary, it’s absolutely baffling — though strangely appropriate for this particular film, which Fox (who produced the film) and then Disney (who bought Fox and then released it) treated for years like the elephant — or, in this case, demon bear — in the room.
Shot in the summer of 2017, it didn’t open in theaters until the end of August 2020, a dead zone for movies in the best of times, much less the middle of a global pandemic. With almost no competition besides Christopher Nolan’s Tenet all through the early fall, the movie grossed just $45 million worldwide. For all the impact it left on popular culture, The New Mutants might as well be an illusion cast by one of the title characters’ mutant powers.
It’s just about the saddest ending imaginable for Fox’s X-Men series, which helped revolutionize the way audiences looked at superhero movies in general, and Marvel movies in particular, when the first X-Men premiered in the summer of the year 2000. At its height, X-Men was one of the biggest franchises in Hollywood; eventually, it produced hits in two totally distinct time periods, enabling Fox to create a crossover that featured both casts, 2014’s X-Men: Days of Future Past. That film grossed almost $750 million worldwide, making it the biggest (non-Deadpool) hit in the entire saga.
Like Juggernaut after he loses his balance at the top of Wundagore Mountain, it was all downhill from there for the X-Men. After Days of Future Past, the series’ only hits were solo films like Deadpool and Logan. Every single movie featuring a group of characters — X-Men: Apocalypse, Dark Phoenix, and then The New Mutants — made significantly less than the film that preceded it. While it certainly deserves an asterisk because of the pandemic, The New Mutants’ $45 million worldwide marks the lowest box-office total in the entire X-Men franchise. Even if Fox hadn’t been sold to Disney, who are sure to incorporate its characters into their Marvel Cinematic Universe, this franchise would be deader than Jean Grey at the end of Uncanny X-Men #137.
The series was on creative life support before The New Mutants, but the film itself does nothing to reverse that trend. To its credit, it has a decent handle on the characters; young mutants whose Marvel Comics counterparts were recruited by Charles Xavier to form a new group of X-Men trainees during a period when he believed the original X-Men were dead. Professor X is M.I.A. in the film — instead the New Mutants are residents of an isolated medical facility, where they are under the care of Dr. Cecilia Reyes (Alice Braga), who claims to be protecting them until they can fully understand and master their dangerous powers.
Boone focuses on just five members of the classic New Mutants team: Rahne Sinclair (Maisie Williams), who transforms into a werewolf, Illyana Rasputin (Anya Taylor-Joy), a sorceress with a magical sword and sister of X-Man Colossus, Sam Guthrie (Charlie Heaton), who can fly like a rocket, Bobby da Costa (Henry Zaga) who gets intensely hot, and most centrally Dani Moonstar (Blu Hunt) whose powers aren’t even known at the start of the film.
This is one of the ways in which The New Mutants’ central conceit of a mutant hospital doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. They know she’s a mutant, but they have no idea what her powers are? Plus, the realization that Dr. Reyes is up to no good is supposed to dawn on us slowly, but it’s pretty clear from moment one that her hospital is supremely fishy. She runs an entire mutant ward all by herself? Where are the other doctors? Where are the nurses? Who’s in charge if she has to take a sick day? It’s obviously a prison, and even more obvious that despite the vague hints that she works for Professor X, her true agenda is far more dangerous.
In interviews, Boone described his New Mutants as John Hughes meets Stephen King, and you can see the broad contours of those influences in the premise that sequesters these five kids and one adult into a single location — and in the creepy monsters that manifest out of the mutants’ memories to attack them. But Boone and co-writer Knate Lee don’t measure up to either of their literary influences. The characters themselves are fine; and the fleeting glimpses of the relationship between Rahne and Dani are lovely. There’s just too much business with the characters’ spooky hallucinations and Dr. Reyes’ evil experiments to give them their proper focus.
Whether it was Boone and Lee’s idea or Fox’s, The New Mutants also wants to have its both ways regarding its connection to the rest of the X-Men films. On the one hand, it makes tons of references, via dialogue, to the X-Men and a couple of their more famous adversaries. On the other hand, it’s very much determined to be this small, character-based teen drama set entirely in this one location, a la The Breakfast Club. If you do know the New Mutants characters and comics, that friction raises lots of questions the movie never answers. (Connecting The New Mutants to the other X-Men films, for example, means somewhere out there Colossus is totally fine with his sister being imprisoned in this horrible place, and does nothing to stop it. Even if he was convinced Illyana was dangerous, why wouldn’t he just have her come live with the X-Men?)
Nitpicks aside, if The New Mutants was legitimately scary or really captured the minds of teenagers at that age where their hormones go crazy, none of this would matter. Boone clearly worships Sienkiewicz’s work; the fact that he used his commentary track as an excuse to ask him all the questions he’d wanted to ask him since he was a kid is a testament to that. But beyond the cast and the broad strokes of the concept taken from Sienkiewicz’s “Demon Bear Saga” from New Mutants comics, The New Mutants’ movie includes few images that capture Sienkiewicz’s uniquely expressionistic visual style. A movie about a bunch of kids sitting around a drab hospital is never going to measure up to Siekiewicz’s dynamic panels. Not shockingly, that subject is not discussed on The New Mutants’ commentary track either.
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