Over three years ago, the first trailer for “The New Mutants” (2020) enticed viewers with the promise of an X-Men horror film. An avid horror fan who grew up indulging in superhero media, I was hopeful that this film would connect the two genres. Teenagers trapped in a mental hospital facing off against their fears may sound like a common horror storyline (it’s shockingly similar to the plot of 1987’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors”), but the inclusion of X-Men characters like Magik (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Cannonball (Charlie Heaton) was meant to introduce new elements into the premise. However, after years of delays and reshoots, “The New Mutants” proves disappointing to both fans of horror and Marvel comics alike.
Even setting aside the obnoxious characters, bland setting and inconsistent narrative, the biggest flaw of “The New Mutants” is that it’s not even a horror film. If anything, it’s merely another action film with minor horror elements. Although this hybrid sounds similar to a horror film, the former incorporates brief instances of fear to facilitate its action scenes, as opposed to the latter, which doesn’t rely on action to prolong terror. “The New Mutants” was not the first to do this; superhero films such as “Spider-Man: Far From Home” (2019) and “Doctor Strange” (2016) use terror fleetingly. “The New Mutants” particularly fails as a horror-superhero film due to its use of the Smiley Man (Dustin Ceithamer), a secondary antagonist reminiscent of Slender Man with pink skin and a white smiley face mask. While the character is creepy, it doesn’t act as a threat for the group, and its inclusion is simply a catalyst for brief fight scenes. The film has few moments that will make a viewer’s skin crawl, but to consider it a horror film is a stretch.
A better example of a horror-superhero film is “Brightburn” (2019), a movie about a young boy who wants to become a villain, directed by David Yarovesky. Although the film has its flaws, it clearly marks itself as a horror film through its use of tension and violence. When the film incorporates action scenes, horror doesn’t function independently; instead, their amalgamation shows off the atrocities and horrors committed by the lead. Yarovesky’s ability to direct a superhero-horror film is largely the result of his previous experience within the horror genre, as seen in his 2015 film “The Hive.” Conversely, Josh Boone, director of “The New Mutants,” lacks the ability to craft horror due to his inexperience with the genre. The coming-of-age and young romance films he is known for, such as “The Fault in Our Stars” (2014), bleed into this film far more than horror, evident in scenes such as the rebellious party that occurs after the group drugs Dr. Reyes (Alicia Braga).
Another difference between “Brightburn” and “The New Mutants” is their ratings — while “Brightburn” has an R rating,“The New Mutants” is rated PG-13, likely because studios often try to keep their movies under the R rating to expand their audience reach. Due to this, one could blame the failures of “The New Mutants” on its rating, as gore is often a defining feature of horror. However, terror has found a way to flourish under a PG rating, and there are various ways to do so. Some films tone down the gore and expand upon childhood fears for adult audiences, as in Tobe Hooper’s “Poltergeist” (1982). Others turn disturbing ideas into whimsical ones, like in “Little Shop of Horrors” (1986). Often though, the best way to produce scares under a PG rating is through the use of obscuration. The unawareness of main characters in films such as “Cloverfield” (2008) keeps the audience unaware as well, thereby forcing the viewer to be as attentive as the main character. “The New Mutants” had plenty of paths to craft a good horror film with a PG rating, but instead proves to be another bland superhero film to add to the growing catalog.
There are many factors that should have helped solidify “The New Mutants” as a good entry in the X-Men franchise. The special effects are nicely done and fit well with each of the mutants’ respective powers. The acting is adequate overall, with Maisie Williams and Blu Hunt providing the film’s best performances. The film ends with a message about how important working together is, a staple in superhero films. “The New Mutants” isn’t a bad film per se; it’s just not one that deserves anything other than a shrug.
Horror films and superhero films rarely ever cross paths. While “Brightburn” (2019) stands as one successful example of the hybrid genre, in “The New Mutants,” terror only occurs in brief instances throughout the action. Although the film includes more examples of horror than preceding Marvel films, it still ends up as a lazy continuation in an already oversaturated genre.