I just got back from watching the brand new installment of J.J. Abrams’ reboot of the Star Trek film franchise, Star Trek into Darkness. Without going into a full-scale review, I would say that this movie definitely did a lot of things well. For starters, it featured Alice Eve. Hubba hubba. It also had some amazing production design, probably the best of any science-fiction film that I can recall in recent memory.
Everything about the future world that Star Trek exists in feels real. Everything, from alarm clocks and ice cubes to phasers and space suits, feels as though it was created with believable technology and to serve a believable function. It was also visually stunning, with tons of delightful little touches, such as the transparent triangular strips on the crew members’ jackets to reveal the shirt color underneath, or the little streams of particles that the warp engine’s jetstream left behind. I’m sorry, I geek out over the little things.
Of course, it wasn’t a perfect movie. It had its flaws. But few movies are perfect, and really, I wasn’t expecting perfection. I remember having a blast watching the film’s predecessor, Star Trek, back when it was released in 2009. That film also had its plot holes and missing character motivations, some of which are repeated here, but I didn’t mind. I went into this movie hoping to have the same good time that I had with the last one, and I was not disappointed. And probably the the thing I loved about this movie the most was its villain, John Harrison, played by Benedict Cumberbatch.
I have been a fan of Cumberbatch’s work since I first saw him take on the role of Sherlock Holmes in the outstanding BBC series, Sherlock. I enjoyed Cumberbatch’s low, dark delivery, his wicked intellect and his seductive charm. His Sherlock is a character that is always thinking, you can see it in his eyes. He’s always sizing you up, and you can just tell the second you look at him that he knows that he’s smarter than you. Sherlock is almost as close to evil as someone can get while still playing the good guy, so I couldn’t wait to see Cumberbatch with the gloves off, going full bad-guy. I wasn’t disappointed. But about halfway through the film’s third act, something else occurred to me as well.
At this point, I’m going to drop the facade. If you haven’t seen Star Trek Into Darkness, set your phasers to spoiler. Benedict Cumberbatch was not brought onboard the new Star Trek film in order to play the boringly named “John Harrison.” As many fans of the series have already surmised, he is in fact taking on the role of this universe’s Khan. That’s right. Yet another character bait and switch this summer, right behind Ben Kingsley’s switch from The Mandarin to Trevor Slattery in Iron Man 3. At this rate, I’m wondering if maybe there’ll be a big twist in Man of Steel that announces Zod is actually Nuclear Man. Hey, I still like Superman IV. Jerks.
Anyway, so first of all, “John Harrison” or not, Cumberbatch did a bang up job as the bad guy in this film, and his facial contortions during his big identity revealing monologue will haunt my dreams for days to come. It also surprised me how physically intimidating he was in the film, his Khan appearing to be much more muscular than the lanky Sherlock Holmes.
But what also kind of stuck out to me were the similarities between his character and the bad guy from another dark middle chapter, The Joker from Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. In The Dark Knight, the Joker is a force of pure evil, a terrorist who strikes without warning and seeks to manipulate the heroes of the story into a position in which they are all fighting each other and the established order goes out the window.
Khan, as he is portrayed in Star Trek into Darkness, is cut from the same cloth. He is a very dark, admittedly very savage being from a different time. He was created to be the perfect warrior, and as such, is almost impossible to stop. His indifference to being pummeled by Kirk in the scene where he is placed into custody matches the Joker’s indifference to being harshly interrogated by Batman. And just like The Joker, he is a cunning adversary, able to manipulate the emotions of the hero from inside his prison cell. His actions lead to a scenario in which the crew of the Enterprise finds itself in a standoff against a Starfleet admiral, with the entire duty of Starfleet being called into question as it nears a war with the Klingons.
Throughout Star Trek into Darkness, the characters are struggling to find a balance between what is moral and what is logical. In the film’s cold open, Kirk disobeys Starfleet’s Prime Directive by exposing the Enterprise to an alien civilization in order to save Spock’s life. Spock, however, had mentally prepared himself to die on that civilization’s planet in order to uphold the rules. After being rescued, he filed a report on the incident that called into question the report in Kirk’s own Captain’s log, and caused Kirk to lose his position as captain. All because Spock was following the rules. This dynamic continues to play out throughout the film, with the two best friends struggling to find a balance between using your head and using your heart.
“You can’t even break a rule, Mr. Spock. How can you be expected to break bones?” Benedict’s Khan asks Spock in the film. Khan is what happens when no rules are upheld and only savagery remains. He is clad in the starfleet uniform, but it is an all-black one. He isn’t afraid to kill or maim anyone that gets in his way. He has no prime directive. He is a being created for war, then put on ice, then thawed out to be used for that purpose once again. He’s Starfleet without a conscience. It’s through him that Kirk learns that he must become a little bit more like Spock in order to save his ship, and it’s through him that Spock learns he must become a little bit more like Kirk in order to save him.
Likewise, Joker also represents an imbalance between two different energies. Batman and Robin have always represented a sort of balance between darkness and light, most notably in the seminal 1986 graphic novel, The Dark Knight Returns. In that story, Batman has fallen into a very dark place, having gone without a Robin for quite some time. The world he inhabits is quite dark as well, reflecting the crime-ridden cesspool that places like New York City had become in the ’80s. When a new Robin comes along in the form of Carrie Kelley, he is given an opportunity to let his guard down again, to feel compassion and hope, and to care about someone again. The Joker subverts that idea. He is a monstrous human being clad in the visage of a children’s entertainer. He is the death of innocence, the image of the unfair adult world polluting and twisting the hopefulness of youth. While Batman and Robin represent realism and optimism, Joker represents hope becoming fear, and then fear killing hope, just as Joker killed Robin in 1988.
The other way that Khan is, for all intents and purposes, the new Joker, is the role he plays within the Star Trek film series. In Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, the Joker came about during the film’s crucial, dark middle chapter. All the relevant origins were explained within the first chapter, Batman Begins, and with The Dark Knight it was time to start the game. The Joker’s presence represented what Commissioner Gordon called an “escalation” in crime that started with Batman’s introduction to the people of Gotham. The Dark Knight represents a transitional period for Gotham, from organized, mob-based crime to super-crime. Joker is the opening salvo in that attack. By the end of the film, you expect to see a whole flood of equally disturbed and demented masked goons line up to take on Batman in the sequel. And that might’ve been the case, had Heath Ledger’s life not been cut short in a tragic accidental overdose.
With Star Trek into Darkness, just as the title suggests, we are getting the series’ dark middle chapter. That’s assuming that Abrams plays this out as a trilogy. Characters are faced with death throughout the movie, not just by watching their friends die in front of them but by actually having to mentally prepare themselves for their own death more than once. But just as death itself is in many ways just a transitional period between two states of existence, so too is Star Trek into Darkness a transitional state between the crew of young, earnest misfits from the first film and the space-faring adult explorers of the future installments. At the end of the film, the crew embarks on its five-year journey into deep space, the same journey (or trek, one might say) that we found them on during the original Star Trek iteration from the ‘60s, and the famous introduction is spoken by Captain Kirk for the first time. And Khan was there to oversee this transition.
I’m not sure how much Abrams and Co. actually modeled their version of Khan or his place in their series after the Joker and his place in The Dark Knight, but it is amusing to see these sorts similarities arise. It’s probably something that I thought of because my brain is tuned to comics day in and day out, and because I have a comic-based column to write every week, but still. Both of these characters have brought a lot of joy to me as a moviegoer, and I’m sure that we’ll be talking a lot more about Khan in the next few weeks, and hopefully seeing him a lot more in future Star Trek installments.
Oh! I almost forgot! Coats! Both the Joker and Khan look really amazing wearing long coats. Definitely.
For a conflicting point of view, see “Star Trek into Darkness Hostile to Star Trek, Intelligence.”