Star Trek Into Darkness Brings Villain Into Light
Posted on June 4, 2013
Warning – This review contains spoilers.
After J.J. Abrams successfully rebooted the Star Trek franchise, fans eagerly awaited the second movie. More excitement ensued once they made the announcement that actor Benedict Cumberbatch of Sherlock fame had signed on to play the villain. Speculation ran rampant that he would be playing the infamous Star Trek villain Khan. Even though that little aspect got spoiled for me before I went to see the movie, I still was excited to see how he would play it out.
Khan Noonien Singh, played by Ricardo Montalban, made his debut in the original Star Trek in “Space Seed”. In it, Khan introduces us to his superhuman abilities bit by bit. Of course, it wouldn’t be nearly enough fun without him seducing a mere human woman to help him bring the rest of his other superhuman crew to the Enterprise. After his benevolence turns sour, he and his crew try to take over the ship with the intent to exact revenge. And we learn just how bad they can all be by their treatment of the beloved crew including a strike to Nichelle Nichols‘ Uhura. Oh how they use and abuse the women to show their absolute villainy that must be stopped by Kirk and the crew.
In a show of mercy, Kirk decides to allow Khan and his crew to be banished to an almost dead planet on the ship The Botany Bay, so ironically named because of the link of Australia to prisoners. It is this act of mercy that comes back to bite Kirk and crew in the butt when Khan works his way back from exile in the second Star Trek movie, The Wrath of Khan wreaking revenge on everyone involved in the exile. He risks his entire crew and own son in his grand amount of hubris.
Khan remains one of the most beloved Star Trek villains, so it’s no wonder that J.J. Abrams chose to resurrect that story line. Since it’s Abrams’ second movie, it’s only fitting that he uses Khan again. And Cumberbatch does a fine deep-bass-voice job of it as the superhuman who uses his massive intellect to manipulate the Federation to his own use. So, check – Khan is manipulative and super smart. He’s a formidable foe for Chris Pine’s Captain Kirk and Spock played expertly by Zachary Quinto. Even in the moment where the original Spock, Leonard Nimoy, gives the hint of how truly bad Khan is, those of us familiar with the show and the prior movie can see the parallels playing out in this alternate timeline. Of course, it wouldn’t be a decent homage to the original movie without someone yelling, “Khan!!!!!”
While I truly enjoyed the movie and found it to be as brilliant if not slightly better than the first Abrams reboot, I kept having this niggling feeling about Cumberbatch as Khan. At least Montalban was an actor of color who could possibly pass for the Indian role the villain’s name suggests. That name itself is made up of three Indian surnames, so it doesn’t make sense all together. Yet it is intentionally meant to indicate a character of ethnicity. So why would Abrams choose a very white actor to play the iconic role?
If he needed actors who would pull in an audience, the cast from the first reboot movie does just fine. And they brought their “A” game to the movie continuing their very accurate yet still their own homages to the original characters. There really was no need to bring in another known name.
As a person who watches Bollywood films, there are some fine Indian actors out there that could have done a terrific job with Khan. My first choice would be Hrithik Roshan who has done well with both action movies like Dhoom 2 as well as dramas like Guzaarish. Another actor that does well with action and drama is Saif Ali Khan. For true screen gravitas, my third choice would be Abhishek Bachchan, who is not only a great actor in his own right but is also the son of the famous Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan. My list could grow of excellent Indian actors who would have done well as Khan.
I know I have a tendency to bring up the issue of race and diversity in stories such as Hunger Games, in writing fantasy, and now in Star Trek. There’s another way to consider the use of a Caucasian actor. Instead of showing the villain to be a person of color, it is a member of the hegemony who takes terrorist action. That could be seen as a bold move and against the fantasy genre that likes its villains to be persons of color.
So does it matter to the story that Khan is Caucasian and not truly Indian? That’s a more difficult question. I do know that Cumberbatch played the part well, and Khan was even more intimidating this time around as he brought a different darkness to the role. The movie overall is a success, and gives me hope that Abrams may actually do a decent job rebooting Star Wars, or at least bringing it back to semi-glory. Hopefully he’ll do more with diversity than give us more Jar Jar Binxes. In the meantime, here’s hoping he chooses from some more of the awesome Star Trek stories to continue that franchise before moving on.