In more ways than one, Josh Boone’s The New Mutants marks the end of a long goodbye to Fox’s X-Men franchise – here’s our review.

There’s a suitably superstitious quality to The New Mutants as the thirteenth film in the X-Men series. Beyond the unlucky-for-some scheduling issues, (more on which here) Josh Boone’s unintended capper to the 20th Century Studios (nee. Fox) era of Marvel’s mutants has a pleasingly distinctive YA horror edge over its predecessors. Contrary to what some have reported, it’s a significant improvement on entries like X-Men: Apocalypse and last year’s Dark Phoenix.

Written by Boone and Knate Lee, (in tandem with a veritable army of uncredited studio-hired script doctors) the film starts with young Native American girl Dani (Blu Hunt) waking up in a mental hospital after the destruction of her reservation. Head doctor Cecilia Reyes (Alice Braga) tells her that she has displayed mutant powers and she’s being held for her own good, along with several other newbies.

Her fellow inmates include Scottish werewolf Rahne, (Maisie Williams) Russian firebrand Illyana, (Anya Taylor-Joy) Brazilian jock Bobby, (Henry Zaga) and orphaned country boy Sam, (Charlie Heaton) all of whom are recovering from traumatic events in their past. Working on themselves with the scant hope of graduating to Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, the mutants find themselves tormented by manifestations of their worst fears.

This long-delayed spin-off was originally greenlit at a point when the X-Men franchise was set to diversify development with a range of R-rated spin-offs, and it shows. It may not go down as well as the Deadpool movies or the magnificent Logan, (the film that is most prominently referenced in this one’s world-building) but that commitment to finding new angles comes across more uniquely here than it did in any of those films. It leans far harder on the teen movie aspect than the much-vaunted horror, but in doing so, it plays to its strengths.

Some have snarked that you could easily file the franchise references off and make this a standalone fantasy-horror movie, but that’s not true at all. Loosely adapting the celebrated X-title of the same name, Boone and Lee have made a movie about the gifted youngsters who slip between the cracks. While the nods aren’t central to the story, that context is essential in a situation that requires the absence of established benevolent characters like Professor X. When it does use intertextual continuity, it’s always in service of the story, rather than setting up further instalments.

What’s more, despite all the rewrites, the writers have managed to stick to their original “Stephen King meets John Hughes” pitch here and added lashings of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and A Nightmare On Elm Street for taste. Crucially, there’s absolutely no shyness or studio-mandated innuendo about exploring teenage experiences the way those touchstones do, rather than sticking with the franchise precedent.

In terms of what it does get from the previous films, we have a cast with different power sets who are all dealing with different dimensions of Rogue’s enforced abstinence in the early sequels. On one hand, there’s a blossoming same-sex relationship and on the other, there’s a character who can’t get “too hot” or he’ll burst into flames, but the more platonic trauma lends weight to the proceedings too.

Where this kind of thing became a limiter for Anna Paquin’s character, (who has much more fun in the comics and cartoons) it prompts a comparatively frank exploration of these characters. Even the film’s clunking, mandatory CG-heavy finale provides the sort of showdown you haven’t yet seen from an X-Men movie, as a result of that character development.

Meanwhile, The Breakfast Club was another proudly stated influence on the script, and you can roughly align the five leads with those characters at different points in the movie. The standouts are Taylor-Joy, who’s terrifically mean in rolling the criminal and the princess into one, and the top-billed Williams, who embodies the teenage angst that powers the film more effectively than anyone.

Considering how this was intended as a trilogy-starter, it also works perfectly well as a self-contained story. Irrespective of the rescheduling prompted by other, (largely worse) films supplanting it in the release calendar, this is nothing like the calamity that was expected and even gleefully anticipated in some quarters. On the film’s own Buffy-esque terms, the film is like Tara in that episode where her family turn up and start talking shit about how evil she is, and it turns out she’s just fine.

Finally grappling with the uncanniness of the X-Men, The New Mutants takes the pressure off of saving the world and turns the screws on the teenage trauma at which previous films have only hinted. Where the most recent back-to-school entries simply re-ran old scenarios, (literally, in the case of Simon Kinberg remaking X-Men: The Last Stand as Dark Phoenix) this is considerably easier to invest in. While it’s bound to disappoint some fans by retaining the Fox movies’ trademark disregard for the source material, it’s a pleasing outlier from a (black leather) uniform series.

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