The Class Is Half-Empty When It’s Full: Why ‘X-Men: First Class’ Gets an F

Maybe we’re all staring down the barrel of ‘3D fatigue’. Maybe after Tron: Legacy, and after Thor and after Megamind and after The Last Airbender and after Pirates 4 there’s just too much 3D out there. It’s not so much that 3D is the problem, it’s that the 3D is an afterthought in most cases. That the 3D is non-essential to the storytelling of the movie. And surely story-integrated 3D is not too much to ask. We’ve all seen the transformative impact this kind of thoughtful 3D can have with Avatar. Why shouldn’t other movies be held to a higher standard? Or, failing that, simply return to 2D? Maybe The Lincoln Lawyer or Source Code is a safer bet. Or maybe a 2D, non-spectacle version of X-Men: First Class would have allowed audiences to get to the heart of the matter, the core story of a brewing conflict between Professor X and Magneto.

First Class, the fifth outing of Stan Lee’s X-Men onto the big screen comes with great expectations for the cinematic brand. X2: X-Men United was after all the movie that put superhero movies back on the map, after the big-screen debacle that was Daredevil. It’s not that Bryan Singer’s original X-Men that hit theaters all the way back in 2000 was particularly bad. It’s more the case that X-Men was a warm-up act for Spider-Man and of course for X2.

And X2 had all the trappings of a died-in-the-wool summer blockbuster. It showed the absolute fear which mutants lived with. It showed the lengths hardline elements were prepared to go to, to effect ethnic cleansing on the mutant ‘threat’. It showed the absolute peril Professor X faced with his dream of human-mutant cooperation. No real surprise, X2 borrowed heavily from the Chris Claremont-Brett Anderson graphic novel God Loves, Man Kills which detailed a battle of philosophies as much as a one of force when the X-Men came up against a religions zealot who saw mutants as devil-spawn.

If anything, X2 crystallized the fact that, in X-Men cosmology, the real threat wasn’t rogue mutants or hardline extra-military elements, but a vision of triumph and destruction. After X2 it became clear that anything less than ensuring the survival of both humans and mutants, would mean the destruction of both species.

After X2 it became evident that real threat wasn’t a Cold War-style Russia, an Evil Empire held at bay by MAD. The real threat in other words wasn’t other mutants or other humans. The real threat was conceptually a Hitler, a tyrant who promised survival of one race at the genocide of another. And although X3 did significantly worse in box office takings than X2, it did manage to carry through the idea X-Men was essentially a battle about ideas. The idea of cooperation versus the idea of supremacy. In X3, perhaps for the first time in the cinematic trilogy, Magneto seemed to be genuinely a threat. There was something frightening about his personal charisma leveraged in the service of his vision of a global gulag for humans.

If for no other reason, this is why X-Men: First Class scans as such a disappointment. On the surface of it, First Class feels like a homecoming of sorts, life a setting-of-things-to-right. Produced by Bryan Singer’s Bad Hat Harry (but directed by Matthew Vaughn rather than Singer himself), First Class seems to hold some promise of recapturing box office ground lost to Brett Ratner’s X3 (something the Gavin Hood-directed X-Men Origins: Wolverine has already gone a small way to doing). It seems like all is right again. There’s a suitable budget, the dream team of Singer and Lauren Schuler-Donner is reunited. Audiences should pile in. And audiences probably will.

But the disappointment creeps in with the themes; both the themes at play in First Class itself, and the overarching theme of X-Men as a battle of world-views. First Class was supposed to be the Journey. Capital jay. We were supposed to see a Charles Xavier teetering on the brink of becoming a Hugh Hefner-style playboy, only to pull back and become the sober, dedicated man of piece we recognize in Patrick Stewart’s portrayal of the character in the original trilogy.

We were supposed to see Erik Lensher’s evolution into Magneto, a fierce and powerful protector of mutant rights with an incapacity to extend humans any compassion. We were supposed to see Dr. Martin Luther King up against Malcolm X. We were supposed to see Norman Borlog versus Greenpeace. Instead our engagement with the battle of world-views is reduced to Professor X and Magneto, Charles and Erik, playing a cordial and seemingly endless game of chess in a number of ersatz lofty locations (like the steps of the Lincoln Memorial).

The problem with First Class is that we see neither the defining events that constructed Professor X and Magneto, nor the incredible price paid for their friendship; a price that saw these men ossified in their world-views to the point where the friendship no longer exists.

It felt like we were promised Yasuhiro Nightow’s Gungrave or at least the first 7 seasons the WB’s Smallville which saw Clark Kent facing off against Lex Luthor. But X-Men: First Class offered none of this.

Maybe there is such a thing as 3D fatigue. Maybe Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides would have benefited from just plain 2D. But without the spectacle of 3D, X-Men: First Class suffers only from seeing its critical weakness of storytelling exposed.