New Mutants: The Demon Movie Saga

Review by Dave Horrocks 

"Good things come to those who wait" is an old adage whose origins are long debated. Most memorable, from my own perspective, is the 1990’s Guinness campaign, usually accompanied by some great music choices, none more so than their 1998 surfer ad. "Tick followed tock, followed tick followed tock, followed tick". The ad showed a surfer waiting patiently for the perfect wave, as the rhythmic and distorted bass of Leftfield builds in volume and intensity. Despite his friends being knocked over, the patient surfer rides the wave and returns to the beach triumphant, with his patience rewarded.
New Mutants Movie

The New Mutants movie has been well documented as having had it’s production issues, not helped by Disney's drawn-out acquisition of 20th Century Fox. It was back in 2015 when Josh Boone was brought on board to direct the film, and the first release date was announced to be 13th April 2018. Filming wrapped up in September 2017 and in the following month, the atmospheric and horror inspired trailer was released.

The reaction to the trailer was mixed. Some admired the bravery to try something different, and were looking forward to more of a horror take on comic-book superheroes. Others were happy for it to be different, just not quite that different.

There, however, were the least of the film's problems. Disney announced it's intention to negotiate with Rupert Murdoch over the purchase of Fox, and multiple delays to the release date were caused by the outgoing studio prioritising slots for the likes of Deadpool 2 and Dark Phoenix.

Tick followed tock

Without going into each and every delay, the New Mutants movie finally hit theatres on 28th August 2020. This happened without the cast and crew having the opportunity to film any of the desired re-shoots, to ramp up the horror and apply some fine-tuning. Had the acquisition been more timely, Disney may have commissioned those re-shoots, but we’ll never know, as the reality was the young cast had simply grown too old to be able to re-shoot scenes without it being jarringly obvious.

On release, the movie has received mixed critics reviews, scoring a lowly 33% on Rotten Tomatoes, 39/100 on Metacritic, and 5.6/10 on IMDb.

With the negative critical response, and a cautious public that isn’t rushing back to the cinemas in the middle of the pandemic, it seems unlikely that New Mutants will get anywhere close to recouping it’s $67M budget. For me personally, it’s sad that this will likely mean we’re unlikely to see this team on screen again anytime soon. Though my reasons for writing this article aren’t to mourn the loss of a missed opportunity to explore stories about young people who are struggling to deal with change, and mutations they never asked for, or wanted.

The reason for writing this is I’m a big fan of the original New Mutants comic run. They aren’t a team of superheroes who are looking to right the wrongs of evil super-villains, they’re just a group of students who are trying their best to cope with their situation, to learn how to control their powers, to fit in at school, and deal with the consequences of their actions.

Let’s go back to where it all started.

Mutant Diversity

When Uncanny X-Men made its debut in 1963, the only bit of diversity you could say was there was the fact you had one woman on a team of white guys.

It wasn’t until 1975 when Giant Size X-Men arrived, with a rebooted team, that we started to see it diversify more. We were introduced to the Russian Colossus, Kenyan Storm, Native American Thunderbird, and German Nightcrawler. Added to that team were Japanese Sunfire and Canadian Wolverine. OK, so Wolverine’s a bit of a stretch on the diversity front, but he ticks the international box.

Giant Size X-Men #1 had been written by Len Wein, but due to workload couldn’t continue writing the ongoing team book, so a young intern called Chris Claremont took over writing duties for the Uncanny X-Men and from there, the book’s popularity soared, all through the late 1970’s and 1980’s.

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the X-Men but, in my humble opinion, Chris Claremont made them.
If Claremont was paid by the word, I doubt there would be many richer writers in comics. The main thing I never cease to be impressed by though, is the dedication to his long-spanning plot threads. Innocuous bits of dialog could be picked up, and built on, years later, and I believe this could only be done by someone who was absolutely passionate about the characters and stories they were writing about. There can be no doubt that Claremont fully bought into the X-Men universe. 

So, when there was talk at Marvel that there could be another X-Men related book in the works, there was only one thing Chris could do. He had to make sure he'd be the one writing it!!

Claremont had been pondering the premise of the X-Men, and though that original team had been at Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, they;d very quickly graduated to become an established team of superheroes. They did continue at the school, but the main focus of their growth was based around working as a team,as they already seemed to have mastery over their powers.

With the ‘75 Giant size team, we also had the introduction of Wolverine, who'd left the Canadian military, and thus had to be an adult, and not really of student age.

The idea started to form around having a younger team of mutants who would study at the school, teenagers who wouldn’t have yet mastered their powers, and needed help and tutoring on how to best use them. In addition, Claremont wanted to take the idea of this diversity a step further than had been done previously.
In 1975, Cold War tensions were high between America and the Soviet Union, yet Marvel introduced a key character into the Giant-Size X-Men team; Piotr Rasputin, AKA Colossus. To be fair, Star Trek had introduced Pavel Chekov to the Starship Enterprise in 1967, but the idea of a Russian in a major US team was still far from playing it safe.

In 1982, Marvel had committed to releasing a graphic novel, but the story wasn’t going to be delivered on time. So, ahead of the planned time for an ongoing book, Chris Claremont and Bob McLeod were asked to produce a graphic novel based on the New Mutants, and had 2 months in which to complete it! To turn around any comic book in 2 months is a feat in itself, but to produce a book of such quality, within that aggressive timescale, makes me admire what Claremont and McLeod did even more.

"God Loves, Man Kills" had been planned as the first X-Men graphic novel, but needs must, so the creative team stepped up, to bail Marvel out, and to meet their commitment. All during this time, Claremont continued to write the main Uncanny X-Men title.

In a similar way to how Giant Size #1 had introduced new characters, Marvel Graphic Novel #4 took us through an efficient walk-through of the new characters and backgrounds. We first met the young Rahne Sinclair in Scotland, whose mutation allows her to transform into a werewolf.

We were then quickly introduced to Roberto Da Costa, a mixed-race Brazilian boy who absorbs and channels solar power. Sam Guthrie was working in the coalmines of Kentucky when we met him, as he used his invulnerability while flying at jet speed, to rescue his father. The final new character introduced was Native American Danielle Moonstar. ‘Dani’ had the psychic ability to telepathically create illusions of someone’s fears or dreams.

Claremont also brought in a character he’d co-created with Frank Miller as part of Marvel Team-Up #100 in 1980, the Vietnamese refugee Xi'an Coy Manh, AKA Karma. In the early 1980s, the US was still smarting from the Vietnam war, and the move to bring her in was reminiscent of the introduction of Colossus to the X-Men team, several years before.

Karma had the ability to take control of another person’s mind, and her origin was a particularly brutal one. While fleeing South Vietnam to the United States on a cramped boat, they were boarded by Thai pirates, and both Xi'an and her mother were raped. Xi'an’s mother did not survive the ordeal. No matter how many times I revisit the story, it’s a very difficult read.
Clearly, the team came from different walks of life, and had very different backgrounds, but, did you notice anything else that seemed a little out of the ordinary? The majority of the team were females!

This subverted the natural convention for teams in comics, where male characters generally outweighed the number of females, in both Marvel and DC. The best part was that there was no condescension, or gender-defining stereotyped label shoved on this new dynamic, like, the X-Women, or something similar. There just happened to be slightly more women than men. That’s the start and end of it.

I periodically go back to the original New Mutants run, which began in 1983. I love how the characters were struggling to come to terms with their powers as they tried to get to grips with being part of Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, and get to know the other students. They of course did run into situations that required the use of their powers, but they were far from a well-oiled team of superheroes.

The team went through some changes. Early on, Karma was presumed dead in issue #6, and didn’t reappear again until issue #34. On the plus side, we soon had Amara Aquilla (Magma) and Illyana Rasputin (Magik) joining the team.

It wasn’t just on the page where we saw changes either.
Bob McLeod had started the series as the artist, but the job was passed on to Sal Buscema pretty quickly. It’s with issue #18 however, when Bill Sienkiewicz came on board, that the series took a turn, and adopted a much darker tone. This started off the iconic "Demon Bear" Saga. The painted art style was out of the ordinary at the time, and I believe it had a significant influence on the comics of today.

I only caught up with the New Mutants series years after it had finished, but I wonder what it would have been like to open up that first issue of the "Demon Bear Saga", and be treated to Sienkiewicz’s art style back in 1984?

In earlier issues, Dani had had visions of her parents being killed by the Demon Bear, and was haunted by them. Without much support or backing from the rest of the team, Dani went to confront her demons, only to be brutally mauled, and left for dead. Though the battle occurred off-panel, you can imagine the treatment Leonardo DiCaprio that got in The Revenant wouldn’t be far off... only it was a much bigger bear!! Dani’s mutant power was to create illusions, she wasn’t super strong, or invulnerable, and had to be rushed to the hospital if her life was to be saved.
Unlike more modern comics, which are often written with the eventual trade paperback collection in mind, these three issues dropped in little nuggets, to be picked up later. Rachel Summers, the daughter of Scott Summers and Jean Grey from an alternate future, made a brief appearance, and we also get the first fairly cryptic appearance of Warlock, who woulld later go on to become part of the team. We even got to see Carol (now Captain Marvel) Danvers, in her old Binary persona, with the Star Jammers.

As much as I love this story, I do think they’re a bit of a distraction for new readers who might just want to dip into this definitive New Mutants story, just to see what the team are all about.

Despite these distractions, we were constantly treated throughout the arc to the spooky and haunting visuals of Sienkiewicz. They had pulses quickening, as the threat of the Demon Bear became clearer, and more ominous.

The way Claremont pays attention to his characters, and the team dynamics and politics, is one of the features of his stories that makes him one of my all-time favorite writers. Though the story centered around Dani Moonstar, after her mauling she spent most of the story fighting for her life in a hospital bed, and it was the remaining New Mutants who had to pull together to confront the Demon Bear.

A central character in battling the creature was Magik, Illyana Rasputin. Illyana actually made her debut in Giant Size X-Men #1, and only seemed to be there as a plot device for Colossus’ origin story, for him to rescue his little sister. However, she was later aged up after apparently been taken to Limbo (essentially Hell) by the demonic Belasco, where she lived for many years. Illyana’s presence on the team was unsettling, as the rest of them wrestled with how much they could really trust her.

Rahne, aka Wolfsbane, in particular didn’t trust Illyana, or the nature of her powers.

Despite the mistrust, the team of teenagers eventually managed to overcome their foe. Even after the bear possessed Police Officer Tom Corsi, and nurse Sharon Friedlander. Again, Sienkiewicz didn’t take an easy option with the possessions, and gave readers more brutal and striking visuals.

Having decided to produce a live action New Mutants story, it seems only logical to choose the "Demon Bear Saga" as the source material to start with. Like myself, Director Josh Boone is a big New Mutants fan. He’d mapped out a potential trilogy and I’d have loved to see his vision realised on the big screen.

Unfortunately, as the thirteenth movie in the X-Men universe, I have to say that 20th Century Fox has had more misses than hits. Only the recent Deadpool movies make it close. Who knows what a darker comic movie might have looked like under Josh Boone, had he been left to realise his Claremont/Sienkiewicz inspired vision? No one will ever know, but I can’t help but think it would be better than the end result.

Regardless of the movie though, the "Demon Bear Saga" remains my favorite New Mutants story. If you haven’t picked it up, I highly recommend you check it out.

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