An X-Men movie made its debut in the United States this weekend and earned a whopping $7 million at the box office. In any other context, this would be an unmitigated disaster, but this isn’t a normal year—nor is the film in question a normal X-Men entry. With the country still in the throes of a devastating pandemic, the notion of returning to the movies should feel iffy, no matter how many safety measures are being put in place by major theater chains. (Including limited capacity at screenings.) It’s hard to imagine any film making bank right now, but The New Mutants is a fitting sacrificial lamb because it carried zero expectations.
In the tragicomic saga of The New Mutants, simply getting released is a major milestone. Originally slated to come out in April 2018, the film has bounced around the release schedule for years. It’s even kind of bounced around studios, becoming a Disney movie after the company acquired 20th Century Fox in 2019. The New Mutants is the last vestige of Fox’s pioneering X-Men movie era, as mutants will presumably—or as Thanos might say, inevitably—get tossed into the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the future. But the film was such a mess that, at one point, Fox reportedly considered scrapping the entire project—and the reviews that have come out appear to confirm that The New Mutants is on par with Dark Phoenix. (Translation: not very good.) But at least Maisie Williams is having fun with the whole ordeal.
If you’re wondering why The New Mutants wasn’t quietly released on a Disney-owned streaming service—the live-action Mulan is getting the VOD treatment this week, even though it shows a lot more promise and cost $200 million—director Josh Boone vaguely alluded to a contractual obligation that the movie must get a theatrical run. In that sense, even though it was a dumpster fire of an on-screen product, The New Mutants did bring something of value to its parent company: a chance to test the box office waters to see how comfortable Americans are returning to theaters.
The answer, though, might as well be a shrug emoji. The movie was projected to earn between $8-10 million, and fell a million bucks short of that (admittedly low) expectation. And while a haul of $7 million wouldn’t be considered a victory for any film outside of a micro-indie—let alone a superhero movie—the fact that The New Mutants made that money with only 62 percent of theaters open, at limited capacity, and without major markets like New York or Los Angeles to rely on, would indicate American moviegoers are not totally turned off to the idea of hitting up the multiplex.
Whether that’s a good thing is another proposition entirely. Epidemiologists have repeatedly stressed that going to theaters—with recycled air and large groups of people sitting in a dark room for a couple of hours munching on popcorn and candy and slurping soda—is about one of the riskiest activities you can participate in. And for all the safety measures the likes of AMC and Regal are putting in place, there’s no accounting for human error/entitlement. I recently took a day trip to my local zoo, and saw countless attendees remove their masks after getting past the initial security clearance. It was an uncomfortable experience, made slightly less anxiety-provoking by the fact that the rampant rule-breaking was happening in an outdoor space, which minimized the risk of infection. I wouldn’t trust a dark theater full of strangers in America to keep their masks on with my literal life.
Everyone has a different level of risk tolerance in 2020, and for some, the theatrical experience is sorely missed and too good to pass up after months of isolation. But with all due respect to The New Mutants, the real test of the American moviegoing appetite—the one that may end up shaping what happens with theaters for the rest of the year—will arrive over Labor Day weekend with the highly anticipated release of Tenet. Christopher Nolan’s latest time-fuck also launched this weekend, earning $53 million across 41 international markets, which Warner Bros. chairman Toby Emmerich considers to be a “fantastic start.” Granted, other countries are in much better shape from a public health perspective; the risk of going to a theater in France is not nearly as bad as going to a multiplex in Texas or Florida. But if Tenet were to make similar box office numbers in its domestic debut, then other blockbusters still aiming to come out this year—such as Black Widow and Wonder Woman 1984—might well stick to their release dates.
The whole ordeal is hard to swallow: It’s great that Nolan is such a champion of the theatrical experience and wants to save multiplexes, but when the experts are warning the American public that going to the movies is about the worst thing you can do to avoid getting sick, a major opening weekend for Tenet might not be something worth rooting for. And when you’re looking to corporate monoliths like Disney, AMC, and Regal to set policy based on anything other than profits, that probably means there’s been a failure on the part of the people who are actually supposed to be in charge.
In many ways, this coming weekend’s showdown between Tenet and Mulan—two $200 million blockbusters getting a theatrical release and a pricey VOD tag, respectively—could represent the short-term (and possibly long-term) future of the industry. How these two movies fare will be closely watched and have serious implications—for Hollywood and, um, human civilization. It should swallow up any discourse surrounding The New Mutants, a movie that should fade into obscurity after its brief moment in the spotlight. And after everything that The New Mutants went through on and off screen, such an outcome feels like the only thing it was ever destined for.