Could Disney Have More Faith In X-Men Spinoff ‘The New Mutants’ Than Fox Did?

January 6, 2020, 9:00 PM UTC

It’s been half a decade since The New Mutants first began taking shape at Fox, and the troubled X-Men spinoff finally appears to be headed to theaters—for real this time.

In a new trailer released Monday morning, writer-director Josh Boone’s long-delayed superhero pic appears much the same film it was when Fox first started marketing it nearly two-and-a-half years ago. Even more surprisingly, the film—about five young mutants held prisoner in a secret facility—has a release date of April 3, just three months away.

That The New Mutants is hitting theaters at all, let alone so soon, constitutes a radical shift in fortune for Boone’s film, which has spent the past few years trapped on a hard drive at Fox headquarters. The New Mutants first entered development in 2015, with Boone attached to write and direct a darker, young adult-centered X-Men movie with a distinct tone and vision outside of the franchise’s core films. The Breakfast Club, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest were all thrown out as creative influences.

Fox, at the time, was hot on Deadpool, its R-rated superhero hit. After years in development, that film had become a smash hit, making $782 million worldwide against a svelte $58 million budget to become both the highest-grossing X-Men film and R-rated film (until it was surpassed by its sequel, then last year’s Joker).

Cameras first rolled in 2016, with production finishing up the next year; plans to release the film in April 2018 were scuttled in favor of opening another Fox superhero title, Deadpool 2, but reports eventually got out that Fox was unhappy with Boone’s cut of the film. Though there wasn’t necessarily “bad blood” between Boone and executives, as some fan sites speculated, the release of It in September had reportedly led executives to ask for a different, scarier version of the film than they’d originally reached a deal with Boone to make—without crossing into R-rated territory.

Further delays, cast member shifts, and extensive reshoots—reportedly aimed at making The New Mutants scarier—set the film back even further until it was eventually undated from Fox’s slate to avoid conflicting with Dark Phoenix, the “core” franchise’s next step after 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse.

Then came Disney’s acquisition of 20th Century Fox. Well after Boone had wrapped production on The New Mutants, the ground didn’t just start shaking beneath his feet: it fell out entirely.

Remember, the first trailer for The New Mutants dropped back in October 2017, promising a darker X-Men spinoff with young stars like Anya Taylor-Joy (then hot off her breakout role in Robert Eggers‘s 2016 folk tale The Witch), Maisie Williams (riding the wave of HBO’s Game of Thrones, which had just concluded its penultimate season), and Charlie Heaton (of Netflix’s Stranger Things, still climbing in popularity between seasons 1 and 2). The film would be edgy, scary, and teen-targeted—the first X-Men horror movie.

But as Disney picked up the keys to the Fox catalog, that framing for The New Mutants began to feel increasingly out of step with the new owner’s family-friendly modus operandi. And when Dark Phoenix emerged as a significant bomb last summer, forcing Disney to take an expensive write-down on what was meant to be one of Fox’s most bankable assets, many speculated that Disney would simply torch the X-Men to the ground and rebuild. (That Disney had hobbled the film by firing its marketing team months before led some to speculate that its executives had wanted this outcome all along, given that Dark Phoenix aimed to set up future X-Men films Disney had no intention of making.)

Kevin Feige, architect to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, expressed interest in developing X-Men films, which has felt, subsequently, like something of a double-edged sword. The tones of Fox’s X-Men films were grittier and somewhat stranger—and in Deadpool‘s case, raunchier—than those of many a film under the Marvel umbrella. While Deadpool could run independently on Ryan Reynolds power, and was already a proven box-office hit, the same couldn’t be said for other X-Men entries. And with Hugh Jackman done playing Wolverine after 2017’s Logan, and the other actors not far behind, how was Marvel to exactly introduce Fox’s mutants to its Avengers? Dark Phoenix and the undated New Mutants began to feel increasingly like vestiges of a fallen empire.

But Disney is proceeding with a release of The New Mutants, sending it into theaters even as the rest of the X-Men franchise bears uncharted territory, with it additionally unclear whether any of the Fox-era X-Men producers—including Dark Phoenix director Simon Kinberg, Lauren Shuler-Donner, and Hutch Parker—will collaborate with Feige on any future films.

The movie Boone may be able to thank most for The New Mutants seeing the light of day is, ironically enough, Joker, from Warner Bros. and DC Comics—Disney’s biggest competitor in the superhero space.

When WB gave writer-director Todd Phillips the go-ahead to pursue an edgy, provocative reimagining of that Batman arch-villain in a Scorsese-lite ’81 New York sandbox, it was a gambit even executives at that studio didn’t fully believe in. Phillips was handed a small $62.5 million budget, the lowest-ever for a modern-era WB superhero pic, with some execs reportedly hoping the modest figure would deter Phillips from making it.

But, far from a black sheep, the film has emerged as a smashing success for WB, grossing over $1 billion after earning rave (though polarized) reviews at the Venice Film Festival, and launching lead actor Joaquin Phoenix into the awards race. (He won a Golden Globe just last night, with the Oscars still ahead.)

Audiences were drawn in by Joker‘s darker tone and focus on psychological horror delivered by a prestige actor. In nearly every respect, the film was a far cry from the VFX-overrun crowdpleasers DC had previously delivered to mixed results, among them the hit Aquaman and bomb Justice League. And its success has led DC to reevaluate its plans for the future of its superhero universe, opening the door to other darker and more experimental movies.

Almost accidentally, Joker is also a vindication of Warner Bros., a proof that its past decade spent developing DC Comics titles has led to more than them merely existing as an also-ran beside the Marvel-Disney industrial complex. Joker is, beyond all shadow of a doubt, a movie that Disney would not make; and because of that, it holds tremendous value to a studio fighting to hold its space amid the shrinking real estate of theater screens not occupied by Disney.

Into that same kind of equation fits The New Mutants, a product of Fox’s post-Deadpool interest in stretching out superhero cinema’s genre potential, taking costumed heroes to a place Disney would be unlikely to follow. Now, of course, it exists as the last breath of a studio swallowed up by Disney, the unintended ellipsis at the end of a sentence Dark Phoenix‘s atrocious box-office performance last year would seem to have already punctuated.

That it will finally see its day in theaters, with a plum April release date, suggests that Disney has, if not perhaps faith, at least curiosity in seeing what audiences will make of a darker, edgier X-Men film. Having watched Joker rack up accolades and over a billion worldwide, Disney is now in an unexpectedly enviable position with The New Mutants, a film accidentally tailor-made to respond to Joker and open a comparably darker doorway for Disney and Fox (whether they plan to walk through it).

The question, really, is what Disney has to lose from releasing The New Mutants. The answer? Not much. The film’s seemingly complete, and it surely cost Fox less than half of Dark Phoenix (ballparked at $200 million), even with reshoots. If it’s a modest success, the door could swing open for future films in its mold, made small and cheap then snuck onto the release calendar around bigger Marvel Cinematic Universe tentpoles—or, barring that, onto Disney+, where part of Marvel’s Phase Four strategy will play out. And even if it disappoints at the box office, there’s no way anyone’s losing $100 millionDark Phoenix numbers—on this one.

Besides, Disney likely isn’t too worried about having a bad day at the box office that month. It will open its heavily marketed live-action Mulan remake just one week prior, setting The New Mutants up for a second-place finish at best (third if kiddie flick Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway has legs). The film’s main purpose in that slot appears to be giving Disney something in theaters to counter-program James Bond vehicle No Time to Die (out April 10) and the animated Trolls World Tour (April 17), both from Universal, ahead of Disney’s Marvel entry Black Widow opening early in May.

But intriguingly, the worst-case scenario—that Feige, as new acting overlord of the X-Men empire, would bury the film entirely—appears to have been averted. The X-Men franchise, in the unlikely form of one of its quirkiest genre experiments, will live to fight another day, at least one last time.

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