Buffy The Vampire Slayer, the show not the movie, makes two appearances in Josh Boone’s long-delayed superhero spinoff The New Mutants. Both times, it’s playing on a television set in a shared living space, half-watched by the title characters, a ragtag team of angsty teenage proto X-Men. Clearly, the footage is meant to serve as a nod to Buffy’s big influence on both the general teen-horror vibe of this Marvel Comics adaptation and on specific moments in it, including a sweet smooch between two smitten girls and the appearance of a race of tall, grinning monsters not quite well-dressed enough to pass for Gentlemen. But to court such comparisons is to do no favors to a movie so imprecise in its genre pastiche. While The New Mutants aspires to some inventive mash-up of high-school soap, haunted-house movie, and comic-book origin story, each of its elements feels half-baked; if Boone studied Buffy for reference, he clearly paid as little attention to it as his horny, preoccupied protagonists.
The kids come from Marvel’s very first X-Men spinoff. Launched in the early ’80s by prolific X-architect Chris Claremont, The New Mutants returned the franchise to its hormonal roots and to the classrooms of Xavier’s academy, filled by a new generation of multi-national teen heroes. The professor and his school are nowhere to be found in this big-screen version, which arrives now on home-viewing platforms after its (very belated) theatrical release. The film takes place instead, and damn near entirely, within a different manor—one part research compound, one part asylum, no parts distinctive. It’s here that Cheyenne teenager Dani Moonstar (Blu Hunt) awakens after the mysterious eco disaster that wiped out her family. She’s a mutant, though her powers remain unclear. At least, that’s what she’s told by Dr. Reyes (Alice Braga), who runs the facility and keeps its patients confined within—for their safety and everyone else’s—via the glowing orange force fields she generates.
Dani’s the latest addition to a new class of angsty, fresh-faced adolescent mutants trying to get a handle on their abilities. The group includes Rahne Sinclair (Maisie Williams), a lycanthropic Scottish girl plagued by Catholic guilt; soft-spoken Kentucky coal-miner’s son Sam Guthrie (Charlie Heaton), who zips around on jet-powered legs like a cannonball; Brazilian rich kid Roberto da Costa (Henry Zaga), a human solar panel with no identifiable character traits; and withering Russian rebel Illyana Rasputin (Anya Taylor-Joy), who can open wormholes to a hellish alternate dimension called Limbo. (Presumably, this is where Fox left the movie for all those years.) All of the teens are haunted by the demons of their past—eventually quite literally, as The New Mutants takes a turn for Dream Warriors territory, pitting its institutionalized ensemble against malevolent manifestations of their fears and trauma.
That’s an interestingly psychological angle for an X-Men movie… or it would be, if any of these X-minors had psychologies to speak of. Boone has assembled a fine cast of young stars (all noticeably younger here than they are now, thanks to the film’s stay in release-date purgatory), but he’s barely found a personality for any of them. One of the first Native American characters to co-headline a mainstream comic book, Dani has been reduced to nothing but her cultural heritage; she’s a one-dimensional YA cipher. Taylor-Joy, currently flying high on Netflix’s hit series The Queen’s Gambit, comes closest to finding an actual human being in this roster of stick figures. But that’s mostly just by virtue of playing the most adversarial of the team—a mean girl whose immediate, inexplicable bullying of Dani turns distastefully racist at times.
There’s not much personality in the filmmaking, either. Boone, who brought the twinkly teen-lit tearjerker The Fault In Our Stars to the screen, fares best when steering the movie toward ordinary hormonal conflict and desire; you can see the faint impression of a solid John Hughes imitation in a brief montage of the kids dancing to The Replacements or a scene where Dani and Rahne sneak off for some alone time in a cemetery, making this the rare, maybe even first comic-book blockbuster to feature a gay love story. Unfortunately, Boone proves much less adept at staging digitally enhanced showdowns. There’s not a memorable action scene or good hero pose in the whole film, which is a problem given how fully it eventually devolves into the usual green-screen rumble, all overqualified actors throwing 1s and 0s at tennis balls.
Nor does the movie really work as horror: Its monsters are generic digital phantoms, its haunted house spatially ill defined and low on atmosphere. The script, which Boone co-wrote with Knate Lee, borrows plot elements from what’s generally considered the definitive New Mutants story, “The Demon Bear Saga.” If only the director had searched for visual inspiration in its pages. He might have found some in the groundbreaking Bill Sienkiewicz artwork, which dared to collapse the boundaries between a growing X universe and a plane of deeper subconscious terror. No one who’s read that revered arc will be surprised by the villain reveal, but they may be disappointed with how much a CGI interpretation neuters its nightmarish power.
All told, The New Mutants marks an underwhelming end to a series that basically kicked off the whole modern era of superhero cinema, created a continuity nearly as convoluted as the comics, and alternated increasingly interchangeable sequels with some genuinely novel variations. It’s not quite the disaster one might expect from a film with such a tortured, years-long path to theaters. But maybe that’s because Boone takes no big swings over this brisk, bland 94 minutes of setup; it plays like a glorified pilot for a series that would likely limp to complete its episode order. Perhaps Boone should have taken a closer look at the iconic teen drama he salutes in the margins of his own vaguely spooky coming-of-age project—or even at some of the comic-book dalliances of its writer-creator. Even a mangled bit of Whedonese about a toad struck by lightning could benefit a superhero story this starved for character.