Review: ‘The New Mutants’ is not as bad as you expect. No, really.

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    The Los Angeles Times is committed to reviewing new theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries inherent risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the CDC and local health officials. We will continue to note the various ways readers can see each new film, including drive-in theaters in the Southland and VOD/streaming options when available.

    Much like the teenage characters in a coming-of-age film, “The New Mutants” spends most of its runtime trying to figure out its place in the world. It also just needs to find people — or an audience — who will accept it for what it is.

    It’s impossible to ignore the long journey this lingering loose end from 20th Century Fox’s “X-Men” franchise took to finally getting released. After the first teaser was dropped in October 2017 announcing April 13, 2018, as the release date, the Josh Boone-helmed “The New Mutants” was delayed and delayed and delayed and … delayed, before ultimately hitting whatever theaters that are actually open right now.

    Some of these snags were beyond its control: Disney’s acquisition of Fox and a pandemic that has completely changed how we go about our everyday lives. But there were also rumors about reshoots (which were eventually debunked) and that studio executives were unhappy or unimpressed with whatever version of the film they had seen.

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    ‘New Mutants’ hits virtual Comic-Con. Does that mean it’s finally ready for theaters?

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    ‘New Mutants’ hits virtual Comic-Con. Does that mean it’s finally ready for theaters?

    Director Josh Boone, star Blu Hunt and the rest of the cast talk about the long movie journey for “The New Mutants.”

    All that is to say, expectations were tempered for the socially distant, drive-in showing of “The New Mutants” Disney held at the Rose Bowl last night. (The film was not formally screened for press ahead of release, which is usually another ominous sign of little faith from the studio releasing it.) It turns out that wasn’t a bad thing.

    The film opens with a frantic scene involving Dani Moonstone, played by actress Blu Hunt, being awoken by her father (Adam Beach) to try to escape an unspecified catastrophe wreaking havoc on her Native American community. When she wakes up handcuffed to a hospital bed, it is revealed that she is the sole survivor from whatever happened at her reservation.

    Dani, the newest patient at a facility led by Dr. Reyes (Alice Braga), has been institutionalized to learn to control her emerging powers. Also learning to deal with being new mutants are fellow teens Rahne Sinclair (Maisie Williams), who tries to reconcile her faith with multiple aspects of her identity; Illyana Rasputin (Anya Taylor-Joy), a fragile bully with an imaginary companion; Sam Guthrie (Charlie Heaton), who actually believes he is a danger to others; and Roberto da Costa (Henry Zaga), who plays up his arrogance and privilege.

    Like Dani, all of the teens are coping with grief and trauma associated with their superpowers. But anybody familiar with the comic book characters will quickly see through the mystery of Dani’s powers and the reason behind the scary happenings affecting the teens.

    Based on Marvel’s comic book superhero team co-created by Chris Claremont and Bob McLeod, “The New Mutants” should be approached more as a YA coming-of-age film with a dash of fantasy horror than a superhero tentpole. As might be expected from Boone, who is best known for directing 2014’s heartbreaking romance “The Fault in Our Stars,” the movie is steeped in teen angst and familiar tropes and is a bit light on terror (though the latter is also likely due to its PG-13 rating).

    “The New Mutants,” which Boone scripted with Knate Lee, is also heavy-handed in the metaphor that adolescence can bring uncontrollable, scary, life-altering change, even featuring glimpses of a TV playing episodes of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” to help drive the point home. (Though the clips from two of the show’s classic episodes, “The Body” and “Hush,” also serve to foreshadow upcoming plot points.)

    Sony’s most recent “Spider-Man” films have set a high bar for teen superhero movies and it would be unfair to compare “The New Mutants” to anything firmly set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the current standard-bearer. But Boone’s film does demonstrate that there are different ways to approach these franchises outside of the binary of lighthearted/fun and dark/gritty movies that permeate the superhero genre.

    The strengths of “The New Mutants” have more to do with its stakes being small — and a focus on telling stories about these characters instead of apocalyptic end-of-the-world threats. Whatever else is happening, these teens struggle with what life has thrown at them. They just happen to have superpowers.

    With Dani and Rahne’s budding romance, “The New Mutants” is also the rare LGBTQ-inclusive superhero film. And while it may seem rushed, their relationship also feels honest and becomes a central part of the storytelling, grounding the magical monster antics with a sense of humanity. That’s something that is still groundbreaking for a Disney release in itself (even if they inherited it in a corporate takeover).

    Hunt and Williams’ performances are among the film’s strongest, along with Taylor-Joy as the magical warrior who receives perhaps the most straightforward action sequence.

    Although the incorporation of a queer love story is worth celebrating, it’s disappointing to see the character of Roberto, the Brazilian teen whose powers have kept him from getting close to others, white-washed on screen. In the comics, Roberto is introduced as an Afro-Brazilian athlete and a racist incident is the catalyst for his powers emerging. It’s no knock on Zaga’s performance, but nothing about Roberto’s story in the film required him to be played by a non-Black actor.

    It is safe to say that “The New Mutants” is not for everybody — its introduction of these new heroes plays a bit more like a TV pilot setting up adventures to come than the farewell to a long-running franchise. There’s a sense that the film never quite figured out what it wanted to be as it juggled its teen horror and superhero elements, but it remains entertaining for what it is. And after dreadful installments like 2019’s “Dark Phoenix” and 2016’s “X-Men: Apocalypse,” it is by far not the worse X-Men movie ever made.

    Rating: PG-13, for violent content, some disturbing/bloody images, some strong language, thematic elements and suggestive materialRunning time: 1 hour, 38 minutesPlaying: Rose Bowl, Pasadena; Mission Tiki Drive-In, Montclair; Rubidoux Drive-In, Riverside; Van Buren Drive-In, Riverside; and in general release where theaters are open

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    Tracy Brown is a digital editor and writer working in entertainment for the Los Angeles Times. She helps provide digital content for the Arts and Entertainment sections and has also written for the Travel, Books and Image sections. A Long Beach native, she graduated from UCLA.

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