Who's afraid of The New Mutants? The horrific history of Maisie Williams's long-delayed Marvel film

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Ed Power
·11 min read
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Cursed? The New Mutants cast
Cursed? The New Mutants cast

In her final big cover story for Game of Thrones, Maisie Williams didn't hold back. “Who knows when the f___ that’s gonna come out, “ she told Rolling Stone, her exasperation clear.

Williams wasn’t talking about Thrones itself – or even George RR Martin’s perennially delayed the Winds of Winter. The topic of discussion was her first post-Westeros blockbuster, the New Mutants. 

Williams was 19 and one of the hottest teenage stars on the planet when she signed up to this ambitious and potentially hugely transgressive latest instalment in the X-Men franchise. She would portray Rahne Sinclair, aka Wolfsbane – described, perfectly, by Wikipedia as “a Scottish mutant who can turn into a wolf and is struggling to reconcile this with her religious beliefs”. 

The fresh-faced cast also featured Anya Taylor-Joy, then a newcomer with only Robert Eggers’s creepfest The Witch to her credit. She played Illyana Rasputin, aka Magik – a Russian superhero “mutant” with a ghost sword she could summon at will. And then there was Charlie Heaton of Stranger Things, as Sam Guthrie, aka Cannonball – a mutant who could “propel himself into the air”. 

The New Mutants was already two years behind her as Williams sat down to talk Game of Thrones with Rolling Stone in the spring of 2019. Williams was as in the dark as anyone as to why it hadn’t appeared. She revealed that she had actually button-holed Heaton, the last time they met, for an update 

“She says she saw one of her co-stars, Charlie Heaton, the other day and asked him, “What the f___ is going on with this movie?”,” reported Rolling Stone. “He didn’t know either.”

Fourteen months down the line, The New Mutants is belatedly set for its moment in the sun. Amid whisperings of studio sabotage, tensions with its hotshot director and upheavals spiralling out of Disney’s $70 billion takeover of Fox, The New Mutants is finally about to see the light of day. It will be the last X-Men film to exist outside Disney’s Marvel Universe. Appropriately, given the fraying-at-the-edges nature of the X-Men franchise, its journey to the screen has been an ordeal. 

Many of those involved still seem slightly stunned the film is finally here (although a lot could happen between now and August 28). An air of gentle shock was palpable as, on July 23, director Josh Boone and the cast came together to promote the film with a cringe-inducing ComicCom virtual “panel”. 

“I guess this whole superhero world is just bonkers,” said Williams from her kitchen. She was clearly trying to sound enthusiastic but her eyes were dark pools of dread. 

“Nobody has seen it yet,” acknowledged Boone. “But they will eventually.” Even then, a month out from its August 28 release, he sounded doubtful. 

'Bonkers': Maisie Williams in The New Mutants
'Bonkers': Maisie Williams in The New Mutants

But, really, he should have known what he was getting himself into. X-Men has been the most troubled of the major comic book franchises since making its explosive debut with the original Bryan Singer movie in 2000. 

Controversies around Singer’s personal life have cast a shadow. Constant flitting between time-lines and old and young versions of key characters such as Magneto (Ian McKellen/Michael Fassbender ) and Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart/James McAvoy) have created further confusion. 

Nor has it helped that several instalments have been 24-carat clunkers. The biggest howler – to date – was 2019’s Dark Phoenix, billed as the grand Hollywood coming-out for Williams’s Game of Thrones screen-sister Sophie Turner. 

Yet amid terrible reviews and disastrous word of mouth, it burned up on its way to the multiplex. Dark Phoenix would eventually limp to a $250 million box office – a pitiful return compared to the $2.798 billion garnered by Avengers: Endgame on a moderately higher budget. 

Dark Phoenix is said to have suffered interference from Fox executives, one final act of sabotage before they made way for X-Men’s new overlords from Disney. The New Mutants appears to have experienced the same issues, with Boone’s original concept of a horror movie with super-hero trappings watered down behind the scenes until almost nothing of his original vision was left. 

Boone had received the Hollywood equivalent of a blank cheque following his $300 million adaptation of the YA tearjerker The Fault In Our Stars, in 2014. As it happened, he had a life long dream – to adapt X-Men teenage superhero spinoff New Mutants, featuring British-born artist Chris Claremont’s iconic Demon Bear villain. 

The New Mutants comic books - Marvel
The New Mutants comic books - Marvel

New Mutants and Demon Bear had been a lifeline for Boone growing up in a religious household in Virginia. The same was true of his hometown pal Knate Lee, with whom he would write the New Mutants script (the one subsequently dismantled by Fox). 

“I was raised by very religious parents,” Boone told Entertainment Weekly in 2017. “They were Evangelical Southern Baptists and they believed in the rapture; they believed the devil was real; they believed in demons. Knate grew up in a similar environment and our entire lives we sort of hung on to each other as tight as we could. That’s how we got through the craziness we grew up in.”

Such was the duo’s passion that, after Fox agreed to take a meeting about New Mutants, Boone and Lee knocked out a graphic novel treatment. “We made a comic book with what our vision of the series would be,” Boone told EW. “We love that Fox wants to make all these different X-Men spinoffs as drastically different as they can.”

Yet no sooner had Fox said “yes”than it began to say “no”. The horror element was a stumbling block, with the studio insisting on a PG-13 rating. Boone could proceed with his original premise of Wolfsbane, Magik and the gang trying to escape a spooky secret facility, where they are being held in order to protect the world from their nascent powers. But all those jump-scares and blood splashes were out. 

Boone’s contract, moreover, obliged him to film whatever script Fox settled on. Presumably to his dismay, an outside writers’s room was recruited, the screenplay pulled apart and reassembled over and over. By the end some 12 writers – in addition to Boone and Lee – had contributed to the script. 

Still, Boone was an amiable sort and a collaborator by instinct. Eventually he and the head of Fox’s film division, Stacey Snider, agreed a screenplay described by Snider as “ a superhero movie set in a Breakfast Club-like setting whose genre is more like The Shining than “let’s save the world”.”

Shooting was underway. Boone was happy. The young cast was happy. Fox was happy. And then a supernatural clown entered the frame and chaos ensued. 

“IT was released in early September and did incredibly well for Warner Bros., even beyond the studio’s wildest nightmares, er, dreams,” went a March 2018 report on industry website the Tracking Board. “In response, Fox cut a trailer for New Mutants that played up the scary elements from the film, essentially selling it as a straight-up horror movie….Because of that well-received trailer, audiences were now expecting a horror movie.”

Demon Bear, as seen in The New Mutants
Demon Bear, as seen in The New Mutants

That idea wasn’t necessarily terrible. The success of Ryan Reynolds’s Deadpool and James Mangold’s Logan showed there was space in the wider X-Men universe for films that struck a tone radically different from mainstream superhero movies. 

The problem was that, by the time Fox decided it wanted the New Mutants to be IT with spandex tights, filming had long since wrapped, the cast scattered to the four winds. Boone had moved on, too, and was prepping a CBS All Access adaptation of King’s The Stand.

Moreover, the FX-heavy second half of The New Mutants was essentially locked in. Which meant that if Fox wanted to crank up the horror element it would need to re-do the first hour. Boone was informed reshoots were required. 

He was fine with that. And then he waited… and waited. At the time rumours began to circulate that Fox executives were briefing against Boone and that when and if New Mutants flopped he would be made carry the can, much as Josh Trank had for Fox’s calamitous Fantastic 4 reboot from 2015. 

Somewhere along the way a plan to introduce Don Draper himself, Jon Hamm, as villainous Mr Sinister in a closing cut-scene was abandoned. Antonio Banderas was initially lined up as replacement, but Fox had soon given up on the idea of potential sequels – so he was also out.   

Anya Taylor-Joy as Magik in The New Mutants
Anya Taylor-Joy as Magik in The New Mutants

Maisie Williams was waiting, too, when Rolling Stone asked her about The New Mutants in 2019. She said reshoots were due, to make it “scarier”. What she didn’t know was that Fox had already reversed course – largely because, with all that time passed, the stars had aged too much.

Williams, for instance, was now verging on 22 and looked very different compared to when shooting the New Mutants in 2017. The same could be said for the conspicuously-less baby-faced Taylor-Joy and Heaton. All the script re-writes in the world couldn’t negate the passage of time. 

Disney’s acquisition of Fox initially threatened to become another spanner in the works. But having kicked the tyres on the project, Disney decided earlier this year to proceed. Finally Boone received the call for which he’d waited.

There would be no-reshoots. However, New Mutants still required a substantial degree of nipping and tucking. “We came back and finished it up,” Boone told EW in March “It took a couple months, and it was nice to be able to come back. Knate, my co-writer, and I, we hadn’t seen it in a year. We did a bunch of things here and there that we hadn’t thought about or noticed a year before.”

The question was how would Disney position New Mutants? Dark Phoenix had been an inglorious final chapter for the X-Men under Fox. Going forward, Stan Lee’s uncanny mutants were to be folded into Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe, overseen by Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige. All of which made the New Mutants the demon-headed stepchild of both X-Men and the MCU. 

Disney would also have to deal with a potential “white-washing” controversy. Mutant Roberto da Costa, aka Sunspot, is a dark-skinned biracial Brazilian in the comic. In The New Mutants he is portrayed by the much paler, albeit still Brazilian, Henry Zaga. And rumblings have erupted on discussion forums that actress Blu Hunt, though Native American, is not “dark” enough to play Cheyenne mutant Danielle Moonstar, aka Mirage (Hunt is Lakota). There has been some pushback against this. Yet Disney would obviously rather skip the rumpus completely.  

So the omens were initially ominous. “The studio is unimpressed with New Mutants, an X-Men spinoff with a haunted-house vibe,” Variety reported last August. “[Disney] believes it has limited box office potential.”

One radical option was to officially incorporate the New Mutants into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. On paper it seemed a stretch, with the New Mutants’s brooding tone a poor fit for the upbeat and “quippy” home of Iron Man and the Avengers. 

Yet at one point the possibility seemed to be under serious consideration, with Disney fan club website D23 proclaiming last January that New Mutants would be a “new addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe”. This caused a calumny and all references to the film as part of the MCU were removed. Disney later stated the original notice had been an error.

Where does this leave The New Mutants ahead of its release at the end of the month? In normal times, the vultures would be circling. But that was before coronavirus laid waste to the film calendar. In the US, Boone's film is scheduled for release a week before Christopher Nolan's Tenet, meaning The New Mutants may have the field to itself. Internationally, the two films will be going head to head.

If it’s terrible, The New Mutants will probably flop anyway. But if it’s even passable, then Boone could have his vindication. His teenage ambition to bring the Demon Bear to the screen could well go down as a dream fulfilled rather than a nightmare inflicted on unsuspecting audiences.