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Star Trek Into Darkness: Spoiler Review * 09 May 2013


Benedict Cumberbatch is Khan.

Don't say we didn't tell you about that spoiler warning.

The moment when this revelation comes, about an hour into Star Trek Into Darkness, is played for heavy impact, but curiously it runs the risk of anticlimax. For many, the villain's identity had been guessed over a year ago, and despite constant denials by cast and crew, and the reveal of 'John Harrison' as a cover name in both the narrative and marketing, it was, of course, the truth all along.

But putting that aside, there has to be more to this secrecy than meets the eye, and if you look at what the character of Khan ultimately means thematically and historically within this fictional universe, you cleave to the heart of this new film.

As originally played by Ricardo Montalban, Khan Noonien Singh is famous among Star Trek fans as the single most dangerous individual the Enterprise crew faced - so much so Into Darkness sees fit to cameo Leonard Nimoy as Spock Prime to drive this point home - but ultimately he is most closely associated with death, something that - aside from expendable Red Shirts (and Joan Collins) - had no major place in Star Trek before.

Put simply, Khan was the insurmountable foe that necessitated the ultimate sacrifice from a member of the Enterprise crew to save the ship and all aboard.


By concealing the identity of the character, the filmmakers effectively remove any expectation of the ending of the film from those in the know. If he had been named as Khan from the beginning, an air of predictability would instantly have been put in place. And despite the long game the film plays in siding Khan with Kirk - with whom neither party has a personal enmity with at this stage, unlike before - the instant the villain takes the Captain's chair of the USS Vengeance the inevitability of the climactic sequences kicks into gear. It is unavoidable, as the portentous weight of the name 'Khan' means necessary sacrifice to overcome this overwhelmingly dangerous opponent.

There is likely to be much debate over the validity of going beyond homage and recreating one of the most famous scenes from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan almost word for word, but it thematically circles back to the events in the 2009 Star Trek film quite explicitly in multiple ways, and in the end this leads into the entire point of the film. James Kirk continues to wrestle with the legacy of his heroic father - his victory in the previous film isn't enough to put those latent daddy issues to bed just yet. In that film, near the start, Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood) dares Kirk to do better than his father, who saved the crew of the USS Kelvin but lost his life and destroyed the ship in the process. The weight of the screen legacy of Khan gives the filmmakers the chance to force Kirk to fulfil that challenge and surpass his deceased dad - in the end, he suicidally saves the crew AND the ship, emerging as genuinely heroic while fulfilling the noble responsibility a captain should have for those under his command. Coupled with the notion established in the previous film that the altered, alternate timeline is attempting to course correct and 'heal' itself, the recreation of the end of Wrath of Khan here seems more justified - even if Spock's bellowed reaction of one of William Shatner's most famous lines threatens to tip everything into spoof territory.


When you take all this together, the shoes of Khan are very large, but Benedict Cumberbatch fills them comfortably, arguably creating a more rounded version of this character than Ricardo Montalban's original incarnation. He is far more calm and calculating, the gears clearly working under the surface to fulfil his motives and revenge, no matter who he has to work with to do it. From that initial stillness though explodes a far more imposing individual, fulfilling the traits of a 'genetic superman' in a credibly frightening and primal manner, going beyond someone who can lift a person up with one hand to a far more potent threat, capable of single-handedly clearing a room of Klingons (and their ships) while gaining a nifty trick of ripping skulls apart in much the same way Mola Ram rips out hearts in Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom. This level of brutality reveals the true side of the character, perhaps most visible in the almost incidental manner he stamps on Carol Marcus' leg, breaking it. By the time he is alone on the bridge of the Vengeance, furiously seething and biting chunks out of the scenery, Cumberbatch has perhaps brought everything full circle to Khan-past, while utterly dominating and making the role his own with a new fresh spin.

That he breaks the standard cycle and becomes the first Star Trek film villain to survive the end of the film is perhaps testament to the quality of the performance he gives - while it is likely too soon to bring him back immediately in the next film, a future return for the character would be hugely welcome, and also prove a genuine chance to do something truly original narratively with this most lethal opponent.



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