Danielle Moonstar woke up on the wrong side of the world.
Actually, that’s not quite right: She doesn’t know where she woke up. One moment, she’s running from a horrific cataclysm that’s tearing apart her family’s Cheyenne reservation (a tornado, they say). And the next, she’s here: in a dark room, chained to her bed, with a curious face staring at her from the duct works that quickly disappears.
Even after she’s met by Dr. Reyes, a kindly woman in a lab coat, her status and new home feel … uncertain.
Dr. Reyes explains that everyone in Dani’s village died in the cataclysm. She’s the only one who made it through, and Dany’s survival is apparently linked to the fact that she is, in Reyes’ words, “a very uncommon girl.”
Dani’s a mutant, in fact, and she’s now in a facility for young mutants not yet in full control of their powers. The dark room Dani awakened in is part of a rambling medical facility, though one clearly past its prime. The grounds contain crumbling laboratories, prison-like dormitories, even a seldom-used chapel. Not that the current occupants need much well-groomed space. With Dani’s arrival, the compound’s population has soared to six, Dr. Reyes included.
“You’re in a safe place now,” Reyes reassures the girl. “Nothing can hurt you in here, Dani.”
But is that true?
Her fellow resident mutants aren’t all in on Dr. Reyes’ methods. A couple of them—Sam, a Kentuckian who can blast off like a rocket but has a difficult time landing; and Rahne, who becomes Dany’s closest companion—are willing to give the doctor a chance. Rich Roberto just wants out, though. And Illyana Rasputin seriously doubts that this worn, sad facility is some sort of X-Men training grounds. She seems to hate Reyes and the facility she manages. Oh, and she hates Dani, too.
But something deeper, and darker, may be at work as well. When Dani arrives, the mutants begin experiencing … what, exactly? Dark, terrible dreams? Hallucinations from the past? Demons?
Whatever they are, they haunt the facility’s darkest corners and slither into the most shadowy recesses of the mind.
Nothing can hurt Dani here, Reyes says.
But the rest know better: Dani can be hurt. They all can.
In this quasi-superhero movie, the character who seems most heroic totes not a single superpower and leaves the world (and the movie) far too soon: Dani’s father. When disaster strikes the reservation, he makes sure his daughter is safe before returning to the village to rescue others. “I have to help them,” he says, and he dies trying to provide that help. We learn that he has encouraged—and encourages—his daughter in all manner of ways, helping to instill the courage Dani needs to face her own demons.
But Dani also finds support from one of her fellow mutants—especially in the most critical moments. Standing on a ledge and ready to hurl herself off it, Dani speaks to Rahne, who tries to bring her back inside. “I want out of here, too,” she tells Dani. “But not like this.” Rahne’s kindness becomes a sort of oasis during Dani’s first difficult days in the facility.
It takes a while for the mutants to turn heroic. But, eventually, it happens. And all wind up risking their lives for others.
When Rahne talks Dani off the ledge mentioned above, a bit of the girl’s faith leaks through. “If [your village] is gone and you’re not, maybe it’s for a reason.”
Rahne is Catholic, and she remains so in spite of some very serious wounds caused by the church. When she first learned that she was a mutant, Rahne went to the priest to see if he could “pray it away.” The priest instead called her a witch, told her she was going to hell, beat her savagely and (we learn) literally branded her for what she was.
But no matter: Rahne still goes into the chapel’s confessional booth, telling an imaginary priest her sins and then giving herself assignments for penance. She says Hail Marys in time of need and reminds herself repeatedly, “Demons can’t go into church.” (That, alas, does not seem to be the case for the “demons” that stalk the facility.)
Illyana does not share Rahne’s religion. When giving Dani a tour of the place, she points to the church and says, “There’s the chapel, if you believe in that s—.” Either circumstances and her powers, though, allowed her access to a place she calls “limbo.” She tells a couple of people that she’ll see them in “hell.”
[Spoiler Warning] Dani wears a necklace with a bear on it—a gift from her father. The necklace stemmed from a metaphorical story that her dad used to tell her: Inside each of us, he said, was a bear filled with fear and rage and bad feelings, and that bear grows as we grow. The necklace was intended to remind Dani how small the bear once was. It’s a strange little story (counterbalanced by another bear story we’ll mention later). Still, Dani took the story so much to heart that (thanks to her mutant abilities) she causes a monstrous bear to manifest. It’s called a “demon” or “demon bear” by several people, and while it (or the other monsters we see) might not qualify using a strictly Christian measuring stick (it’s not a creature of Satan, but a manifestation of Dani’s own mind), we can certainly understand why it is described as such.
Dani’s father once described the human body as a “beautiful cage,” and once you’re free of it, you’re able to see your departed family again.
A battle takes place in a church, obviously damaging the spiritual surroundings. We see a monster in priestly garb.
Rahne and Dani fall into a same-sex relationship, which director Josh Boone told Entertainment Weekly serves as the “spine and focus of some of the character-driven stuff in the film.” It is, indeed, the movie’s most important relationship, and the only one that seems to have any emotion attached to it at all.
The two first kiss while lying in a graveyard, and kiss thereafter as well. (When Rahne tells Dani she’s never done anything like this before, Dani asks, “With a girl?” “With anyone,” Rahne answers.) Before they get together, they shower side-by-side; we see each of the teens from the back, with nothing critical visible. (In a later scene, Rahne’s chest is still shielded, but viewers are given more suggestive angles and hints of skin.) In an early scene, Rahne watches a scene from a movie featuring a passionate same-sex kiss.
We learn that as a tiny girl, Illyana was imprisoned and made a plaything for a bevy of men/monsters. The movie turns these men into literal monsters; what they did to little Illyana is never spelled out, but it’s clear that the film is suggesting that Illyana was repeatedly and horrifically sexually abused. (Limbo, we learn, was the “safe place” she went to in order to escape mentally and, ultimately, physically.) She still converses with a puppet she carries with her always—a sign of the emotional scars, we’re led to believe, that she’s carried from those days.
While hooked up to a lie detector, handsome Roberto brags he’s been with too many girls to count: When the detector suggests he’s lying, he backtracks and says “three,” which is also a lie. We learn that his mutant ability—catching on fire, essentially—manifested during an erotic encounter with his girlfriend, and he’s been cautious about getting “too hot” ever since. Illyana mocks him for being a virgin, but she also aims to take that virginity away when the two swim in a pool. (She’s in some sort of bathing suit, he in his underwear.) After Roberto burns all of his clothes off, he shields his privates with a massive wood plank.
Rahne confesses to an imaginary priest that she masturbated twice in the last week.
The New Mutants is more horror flick than superhero movie, so the character of the violence we see is much darker than you might expect for a Marvel movie.
Our teenage mutants are attacked by all manner of semi-spectral denizens: A woman burning like a tree in a forest fire. A priest bearing horrific wounds and a red-hot branding iron … which he presses on someone’s neck. Humanoid, “Slenderman”-like monsters wearing smiley faces; when they’re unmasked, the visages underneath are eyeless but horrifically toothy.
Many are “ghosts,” if you will, of the mutants’ own dark pasts. We learn that all of the young mutants have killed others—often accidentally, but not always. (Illyana brags she’s killed 18 men.) We learn fairly early on that Sam, a Kentuckian who used to work in the coal mines with his father, accidentally killed his dad and most of his crew with a sudden surge of superpower. He’s literally haunted by them in one scene—the culmination of which sends him flying across a laundry room and into a wall.
In the opening scene, Dani and her father run from some horrific happening: Cars are ripped from the roads and fall again in flames. Explosions pepper the landscape. Moments after Dani’s father rushes back to help others, he returns—falling to the snowy ground as a corpse. In a more typical superhero scene, the mutants fight a gigantic creature, using their various superpowers to do so.
Someone gets attacked by what appears to be a wolf, bearing the terrible wounds for some time after. Another character is killed, masticated by a massive jaw and, well, kinda liquified.
Illyana threatens and nearly attacks Dani with a mutant-augmented arm. Sam, trying to master his mutant abilities, flies around a part of the compound and sometimes slams painfully into the ground. (He consistently sports slings, bandages and an assortment of wounds from these experiments, and Rahne suspects that he might be purposefully engaging in self-harm.)
Dani breaks through a church clock and climbs out on a steeple ledge, planning to do herself in. People are injected with drugs and have their blood drawn. Someone nearly dies from some sort of inhaled drug. One mutant runs headlong into a forcefield, bloodying her nose.
We may hear one f-word and certainly hear about nine s-words. Also uttered: “a–,” “b–ch,” “h—” and “d–n.” God’s and Jesus’ name are both misused once.
Dr. Reyes’ patients drug the doctor’s tea, putting her to sleep.
Certainly, many of the mutants show a disregard of Dr. Reyes’ authority, sneaking around and doing things behind her back. That said, it must be said that Reyes isn’t necessarily worthy of a lot of trust at times. Illyana can be pretty mean, tricking someone into smashing into a forcefield.
The New Mutants was originally supposed to be one of the buzziest entries of 2018—the start of a possible new X-Men franchise featuring some of the decade’s most promising young stars. But production issues, Disney’s purchase of the Mutants’ home studio (20th Century Fox) and, finally, the coronavirus shutdown pushed The New Mutants to the late summer of 2020—one of the first major movies to be released in theaters.
The wait was not worth it.
Admittedly, The New Mutants wasn’t aiming for the superhero bullseye. This is, primarily, a horror movie—with a little bit of John Hughes’ Breakfast Club thrown in for good measure.
Odd fit? You bet it is, and for the most part it doesn’t work. The storytelling (perhaps the result of all the movie’s changes and delays) feels muddled and confused. The intended takeaways are meek and muddled. And obviously, for many families, the same-sex romance that anchors the thing will be a deal-killer from the get-go—even for families who are just fine with packing up the kiddos for a creepy, ooky, bloody, flamey horror flick.
I did like one bear story that the film embraced at the beginning and end: Dani’s father says that two bears live in each of us. One bear represents the love and good inside us all, the other is all about the fear and evil and self-destruction. When Dani asked her father which is stronger, her dad said something nice: “The one you feed.”
That’s a good takeaway, and perhaps we should take that message to heart for the movie, too. As much as we might want to get out of the house and go to a movie, perhaps The New Mutants is not the sort of flick we want to feed.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.