X-Men: The New Mutants and the story of its many delays

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Currently scheduled for an August 2020 release, The New Mutants will mark the end of Fox’s X-Men movies. – we take a look at the film’s long journey to the screen.

It’s been more than three years since Logan gave us Hugh Jackman’s swansong as Wolverine. Universally well regarded, the film sends off a character who was one of the only constants in a franchise prone to continuity-proof expansions since it first began in 2000. Indeed, it could and arguably should have served as a nice capper to the 20th Century Fox era of X-Men movies.

But even without the mooted X-23 spin-off featuring Dafne Keen’s Laura, there were still plenty of X-Men films in development before and after Logan’s release. The biggest among them were spin-off sequel Deadpool 2 and 1990s-set prequel Dark Phoenix, but projects like Gambit, Multiple Man, and X-Force were still in various stages of development at Fox up until The Walt Disney Company completed its acquisition of the studio in March 2019 and cleared out a lot of its slate.

While Dark Phoenix has been and gone in cinemas, the last and most storied production of this era is Josh Boone’s The New Mutants. Originally announced in May 2015, the film stars Maisie Williams, Anya Taylor-Joy, Charlie Heaton, Blu Hunt, and Henry Zaga as institutionalised mutant teenagers. It’s based on Chris Claremont and Bob McLeod’s X-title of the same name and reportedly brings a ‘Stephen King meets John Hughes’ teen horror angle to a franchise that only started diversifying its genres relatively late in the day.

The New Mutants was originally due on screens in April 2018, but despite the film being more or less finished, it was then delayed to February 2019, then August 2019, then April 2020, and was weeks away from release when cinemas closed due to the emerging global pandemic. It’s currently due for a cinematic debut on 28th August, but with major tentpoles like Tenet and Mulan shuffling their dates every couple of weeks, that may yet change again.

Through endless delays, abortive reshoots, and downright bad luck, the young-adult spin-off now has the auspicious position of being the final Fox-era X-Men release, before the characters are inevitably rebooted and integrated into Marvel Studios’ cinematic universe in a few years’ time.

By all accounts, it’s not going to be a typical X-franchise entry either, but the extended wait between the film being completed and being released is just one part of an overall long goodbye to the first comic-book film franchise of the modern era…

Spinning off

As discussed in a previous episode of the Film Stories podcast, Fox had prematurely come up with an end to the main franchise before, in the shape of 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand. You can find out more about the troubled development of that movie by listening to the episode below:

Thereafter, the studio developed spin-off prequels based around certain popular characters. X-Men Origins: Wolverine was a hit in 2009 (in spite of underwhelming reviews), spawning a trilogy of vastly different movies centred around Hugh Jackman’s character. However, the planned X-Men Origins: Magneto project was eventually folded into Matthew Vaughn’s First Class, the prequel that gave us James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr.

Despite being warmly received by fans and critics, First Class and James Mangold’s The Wolverine were both judged to have underperformed compared to Marvel Studios’ movies, and it was 2014’s Days Of Future Past, the trans-temporal team-up that united both eras, which drew level with Avengers numbers. Fox green-lit numerous sequels and spin-offs in the subsequent years, starting with the long-gestating Deadpool.

Around the same time that Days Of Future Past was in cinemas, Boone gave Fox another summer hit with the young adult romantic drama The Fault In Our Stars. Boone and fellow screenwriter Knate Lee pitched a New Mutants trilogy to X-Men producer Simon Kinberg off the back of this success, and the project was officially confirmed to be in development the following year.

Moreover, Days Of Future Past had given the class of 2000 a happier ending than they got in The Last Stand, while also centralising the First Class timeline as the primary X-Men story going forward. And so the first New Mutants film was intended to be set in the 1980s, contemporary with the setting of X-Men: Apocalypse, and McAvoy’s Professor X and Alexandra Shipp’s Storm were pencilled in for cameo roles as well.

The X-Men movies have always had creative differences and continuity errors between separate instalments, but this would have been a stronger tie to the ongoing First Class sequels than we’re getting in the finished film. However, the lukewarm reception to Apocalypse prompted a rethink, and although a further instalment, Dark Phoenix, was still in development, Fox also mandated a rewrite of The New Mutants to make it more standalone, before shooting began in July 2017.

Although Boone and Lee are reportedly credited on all drafts of the script, this rewrite came at a time when studios were first starting to set up TV-style writers’ rooms to dissemble their tentpole movie scripts and put them back together again. Consequently, Seth Grahame Smith, Josh Zetumer, Scott Neustadter & Michael Weber, Chad & Carey Hayes, and at least six other writers all had a hand in the shooting script.

By the time principal photography started, the script had travelled from Boone’s original horror movie pitch to a less bloody and scary version that Fox felt would be more accessible to young adults. It was a compromise, with the director remaining emphatic about this being a full-fledged chiller, telling Entertainment Weekly: “there are no costumes. There are no supervillains. We’re trying to do something very, very different.”

Ratings and reshoots

Even after Deadpool and Logan proved there was a very lucrative market for R-rated X-Men movies, The New Mutants was somewhat hemmed in during shooting and during the initial editing process. The stories rang uncomfortably of 2015’s Fantastic 4, a similarly dark take on Marvel IP that was famously disowned in a tweet by director Josh Trank on the day it came to cinemas, after more than a year of battling with Fox over the final cut.

Fortunately for Boone, the blockbusting success of It just a few weeks before principal photography concluded had Fox and every other studio in town in the mood for a more King-flavoured projects. Unlike Trank’s experience, all indications are that the studio executives grew warmer towards his approach as time went on, starting with a teaser trailer that amped up the horror in a bit to appeal to the It crowd, which was released online on Friday 13th October 2017.

A further feather in the film’s cap was its test screening scores, which reportedly tallied with those of Deadpool, albeit with a vastly different tone. But the studio still had notes and with the Deadpool sequel pencilled in for a May 2018 release, The New Mutants was pushed back a whole 10 months to February 2019, and that’s when things started to stall. Having reined in the horror during principal photography, Fox now wanted extensive additional photography to add more scary scenes, with Boone on writing and directing duties.

It proved tricky to complete this work owing to the availability of the young cast – for starters, Williams was off filming the final seasons of Game Of Thrones and Heaton was working on Stranger Things. Speaking of stranger things, the rumour mill pumped out various reports of an entirely new computer-generated supporting character being added to the film in post-production.

If true, there’s no telling how this would have worked logistically, but in any case, reshoots were put off for long enough that the cast’s young age became a factor. Where Game Of Thrones sees Williams grow up on screen as Arya Stark over several seasons, it’s about as hard to seamlessly insert shots of an actor who’s two years older as it would be to insert a CG character that nobody acknowledges in the existing footage.

According to Kinberg, the dithering over reshoots owed as much to deciding what to reshoot as to actors’ availability, but scheduling clashes played as much of a part in the subsequent release date changes. Dark Phoenix was moved back from an October 2018 release to The New Mutants’ February 2019 date, bumping it to August. Then, when the Disney merger was complete, and the studio moved Dark Phoenix into the cancelled Gambit movie’s June date, Boone’s film was temporarily stricken from the schedule altogether.

The Josh Boone cut

Released a few weeks after Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame, Dark Phoenix would go onto be the lowest-grossing and worst-reviewed entry in the series, throwing any residual plans for a Kinberg-helmed trilogy well and truly out of the window. With fan scuttlebutt about the X-Men finally joining Marvel’s cinematic universe, The New Mutants was still up in the air.

Despite early reports that Disney might release the film on Disney+ or Hulu rather than give it a theatrical run, it was eventually rescheduled for April 2020. What’s more, Disney invited Boone and Lee back in late 2019 to oversee the completion of post-production, based on the positively received scarier cut they had put to test audiences back before reshoots were mooted.

Boone had been preparing to make a TV adaptation of Stephen King’s The Stand (a project that has only got more frighteningly timely in the last six months) but was happy to come back and complete the film with the benefit of a year’s hindsight while putting on the finishing touches. And so, the completed film was finally screened for the cast and crew in March 2020, some two-and-a-half years after filming concluded and with absolutely no need for reshoots.

For the cast, the lack of information other than internet scuttlebutt about reshoots had been frustrating, but the reaction seems to have been one of the relief from all concerned. Indeed, Maisie Williams told EW “the movie is exactly the movie we set out to make. I was nervous when they were talking about reshooting or re-editing that it was gonna be very different, but honestly, it’s exactly what we set out to do.”

There’ll be no need for a hashtag demanding that Disney release the Boone cut then. Around the same time as the cast screening, the finished film went before the MPAA and was given a PG-13 certificate for “violent content, some disturbing/bloody images, some strong language, thematic elements and suggestive material”.

The not-too-distant future…

When cinemas closed, the film was so close to release that Amazon had already generated a pre-order page for the home release, which caused further confusion about the release when it popped up in May (which we reported here). With a new August release date in place, it’s notable that Disney is, for now at least, keeping The New Mutants on its theatrical schedule as opposed to releasing it on streaming services, a la Artemis Fowl. Given how much revenue the studio has presumably given up by putting Hamilton on Disney+ for subscribers to watch at home, instead of sticking to the planned 2021 theatrical release, this may be either a show of faith in the film, or a sign that it’s not compatible with the House of Mouse’s streaming brand.

Whether that August release date holds, or if it’s about to get another date, (which would be its sixth!) The New Mutants could now benefit from the distance from both the heights of Logan and the nadir of Apocalypse and Dark Phoenix. With all other X-Men projects on hold (even Deadpool 3 seems to be in limbo at present) until Marvel Studios picks the characters up again, Boone’s teen horror flick has room to be even more strikingly different. On the down side, it would have to outperform all expectations for New Mutants 2 and 3 to get made.

For more than 20 years, Fox’s X-Men franchise remained relatively immune to the ever-accelerating reboot cycle but entailed many stories of directors fighting and losing with studio executives behind the scenes. With all credit to Boone, it sounds as if he might actually have won this battle, so here’s hoping the result bares up to that victory whenever the film finally arrives.


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