▶︎ The New Mutants is in UK cinemas.

An (almost appropriately) orphaned offshoot of the 20th Century Fox X-Men franchise, Josh Boone’s The New Mutants has been held up for several years and arrives after corporate mergers have consigned it to a shut-down alternate universe. Marvel’s mutant properties are on hold awaiting reboot as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and this was always a pendant to the series which began with Bryan Singer’s X-Men (1999).

Conscious of impending doom, Fox – a name now chiselled off the famous 20th Century logo after 85 years on it – had a policy of risk-taking with this comic book property, which yielded sports like Deadpool, Logan and the TV show Legion, alongside the more standardised spin-off The Gifted. The Deadpool and Wolverine films, and even Legion, focus on superheroic male self-pity; this interestingly skews younger and female – which could well explain the studio’s iffiness on the project, as well as the hostility from a certain segment of the fanboy media.

Picking up a thread flapping since the after-the-credits tag of X-Men Apocalypse (2016), The New Mutants adapts an X-Men spin-off comic created in 1982 by writer Chris Claremont and artist Bob McLeod (though specifically drawing on the ‘Demon Bear’ arc, illustrated by Bill Sienkewicz).

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Anya Taylor-Joy as Illyana Rasputin

Cannily, Boone and co-writer Knate Lee make a key premise change that shifts to a darker tone. A long way from being a traditional superhero movie, this is closer in tone to teen-themed horror films like the Elm Street franchise – especially A Nightmare on Elm Street III: Dream Warriors (1987) – or the earlier Anya Taylor-Joy vehicle Morgan (2016). A group of superkids with uncontrollable abilities are confined in a mansion a lot less cosy than Professor Xavier’s school with their worst fears manifested as creepypasta bogeymen or deep-fried dead relatives.

While bigger franchise films are timid about inclusivity – hinting that supporting characters might be gay in scenes that can’t be edited for the Chinese release – this admirably allows Cheyenne dreamweaver Blu Hunt and Scots werewolf Maisie Williams to have the beginnings of a relationship which is the emotional core of the (very female-led) film but not its focus. Taylor-Joy’s ‘mean girl’ Russian witch, a survivor of horrific abuse whose ‘happy place’ is apparently Hell, runs off with the film, sniping nastily via a glove puppet dragon and producing a magic sword from her arm when she has to go up against a CGI incarnation of Sienkewicz’s scratchy demon bear.

While on hold, the film seems to have been pared back – which works to its advantage. The team-up-against-a-monster finale isn’t as overblown as, say, the finish of Apocalypse, allowing relatable character drama – always the heart of Claremont’s redefining work on X-Men comics – to register.

Originally published: 7 September 2020