Star Trek Into Darkness: A Spoiler-Heavy Review

I think they used “Sabotage” one film too early.

I love the Star Trek franchise, although I consider myself a casual fan (not sure what the term for that is. Trekker?). When it comes to the Trek movies, I tend not to nitpick small details. The story and its themes are what’s important to me. Star Trek (2009) was about dealing with pain and loss, the uncertainty of the future, and learning to depend on others. It almost had to be about those things, since fans had to come to terms with the retirement of the original timeline. Anyways, Abrams’ first film was very good (though it had its problems), and it did what it needed to do: get Kirk in the chair, divorce itself from the rigid continuity of the original series, and rustle up some new fans. Hollywood being Hollywood, a sequel was inevitable. Four years later, Star Trek Into Darkness has warped into theaters. Is it as good as the last one? Short answer: no. Slightly longer answer: no, because it’s better. What?…Why yes I WOULD like to elaborate at great lengths! Onward!

KIRK, SPOCK, AND THEIR BROMANCE

“Did they ever put this ‘Everything is gray now’ business up to a vote? I feel like they didn’t.”

It always bothered me how quickly Kirk got to command the Enterprise in the first movie. He basically from a cadet to the captain of the Federation’s flagship in a few days! It was a little rushed. But Into Darkness acknowledges that it WAS rushed. Kirk DID take command of the Enterprise too early. He depends too much on luck. He’s irrational. He exploits the loyalty of his crew. He really SHOULD spend a little more time at the Academy. People like Kirk: he’s smart, handsome, charismatic, and a risk-taker. Which is great, but those qualities allowed him to bypass the system and become responsible for a starship before he was ready. After all, it takes wisdom and experience to learn when to take risks and when to avoid them. That’s where Spock comes in.

In the first movie, Kirk and Spock spend a long time at odds with each other. Eventually, they develop mutual respect and admiration, but their inevitable friendship is only hinted at by Spock Prime. Into Darkness delivers on that promise by showing us how much one needs the other. Kirk must learn to keep his emotions in check and look at things logically. Spock has to accept his human heritage and understand that emotion is not a weakness. At the beginning of the film, Spock is willing to sacrifice himself on Nibiru so that its inhabitants can live (“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”), and Kirk doesn’t understand how he can accept his fate so easily. Spock, meanwhile, is the voice of reason for the vengeful Kirk after Pike dies. By the end, their positions are reversed: Kirk makes the logical decision that his life is worth the crew’s, and he sacrifices himself to save them without hesitation. Spock, moved to tears by Kirk’s death, is acting on anger when he goes after Khan moments later. Maybe some die-hard Wrath of Khan fans didn’t care for the Kirk/Spock role reversal in the final act, but I thought it was a great callback to the volcano scene. In that moment, Spock was deliberately unemotional about death, and Kirk couldn’t see the bigger picture. Neither could comprehend the other’s thought process until the whole ship and crew are threatened; Kirk is forced to start thinking like Spock, and vice versa. After the events of Into Darkness, it can truly be said that Kirk and Spock are friends, because they’ve learned from each other: they now fully understand each other’s perspective, and they’re better men for it.

VILLAINY

“Yes, Khan Noonien Singh is my birth name! Why does everyone always ask me that?!”

Benedict Cumberbatch is predictably amazing as Khan/John Harrison. In the original timeline, it’s remarked that Khan is noble in his own way, and he makes a great foil for Kirk because they have many similar qualities. The same is true in this film. Khan is a cunning and savage fighter, and he has no use for rules or limitations. In that way, he’s very much like Kirk, just distorted to the extreme. Indeed, both men are aggressive, determined, and fiercely protective of their people, but Khan is willing to do whatever it takes to get what he wants, damn the consequences; Kirk has to learn the danger of that kind of attitude.

I don’t think it’s too controversial to say that Nero from Star Trek (2009) wasn’t a particularly compelling villain, but thanks to great writing and an intense, nuanced performance from Cumberbatch, we don’t have that problem here. Interestingly, in his first appearance on the original Star Trek show, Khan was initially going to be a big Nordic guy in order to hammer home the whole Nietzschean ubermensch concept. It wouldn’t surprise me if Cumberbatch’s casting was a clever nod to what almost was.

MAKING THE MOST OF AN ALTERNATE TIMELINE

WOO WOOOOOOO WOO WOO WOO WOO WOOOO (Imagine that noise coming from a theremin and you’ll get it)

Into Darkness makes excellent use of the alternate timeline concept established in the first film. The chain of events that brings the Enterprise into conflict with Admiral Marcus and Khan can be traced back to Nero’s attack on Vulcan and Earth. The Federation’s leadership realizes that it’s vulnerable, so it becomes more paranoid and militaristic, aggressively exploring as much space as possible. They find Khan (Presumably aboard the Botany Bay), realize who he is, and exploit his strategic genius in order to prepare for inevitable conflicts with the Klingons and other threats. It’s an interesting idea that Khan, despite being from the past, would have a better understanding of weapons than people living in the more peaceful 23rd century. We can also see less obvious signs that Starfleet has become more militaristic: the uniforms are darker, more official looking, and certainly not what we would expect from benign explorers (whether they were meant to or not, they reminded me of the Soviets). At any rate, the story manages to address 21st century terrorism and our responses to it without appearing heavy-handed, not an easy accomplishment.

I saw Into Darkness with a friend who had seen the 2009 movie and nothing else from the Star Trek franchise. He also thought it was great, and I believe that’s evidence enough that Abrams has succeeded at making Star Trek accessible to new audiences without alienating old fans. The references to the original timeline were enjoyable (though not too excessive), and I think it was smart of Abrams to have Into Darkness mirror The Wrath of Khan without blatantly stealing from it. In a way, it’s comforting to know that some things are MEANT to happen, regardless of the timeline we’re in.

BUT WHAT ABOUT EVERYBODY WHO ISN’T KIRK, SPOCK, OR KHAN?

Given the huge focus on Kirk and Spock’s budding bromance, the supporting cast is surprisingly well-developed. Even though he’s not in the movie for long,Bruce Greenwood’s Admiral Pike adds a lot to the story. Into Darkness confirms his status as Kirk’s surrogate father, and their scenes together are really touching; we can tell that they genuinely care about each other. Uhura has more to do this time around, and her interactions with Spock are a little more believable. It doesn’t look like we’ll see the resurrection of the Kirk/Spock/McCoy relationship that anchored the original films, but Karl Urban is more comfortable as McCoy this time around, and the character’s friendship with Kirk is strengthened; he also gets to participate in more of the action, which is fine by me. Scotty continues to be comic relief, but he plays a major role in the movie, demonstrates his expertise, and gets some good dramatic moments as well. Peter Weller and Alice Eve are also great as Admiral and Dr. Marcus, adding emotional heft to the Enterprisetussle with the Vengeance.

NITPICKS (OKAY, FINE…I DO HAVE A FEW)

There are some minor things I would have changed. I will now list them:

1. Sulu and Chekov have nothing to do. I wanted to see Sulu fence again and I wanted Chekov to see some combat.

2. Not enough Klingons. Especially disappointing, given their awesome redesign. Here’s hoping the next one will be about them.

3. Always nice to see Nimoy, but his cameo felt really forced and didn’t contribute much.

4. I was fine with the naked cat ladies because…well, OF COURSE they would be unclothed after spending the night at Jim Kirk’s place. But the scene with Carol Marcus changing in the shuttle was an unnecessary, blatantly obvious chunk of cheesecake trailer-bait.

5. I don’t expect anybody to agree with me on this one, and I admit it’s weird, but I REALLY like the design of the Starfleet flight suits in Into Darkness, and I kind of wish they had been the new standard uniform. It seems really unfair that the female crew members have to wear skirts all the time.

I know. I know! I KNOW, OKAY?! I DON’T KNOW WHY I LIKE THEM EITHER!

6. Okay, this isn’t actually a nitpick at all, because I loved Cumberbatch as Khan, but I can’t help but wonder how Benicio Del Toro would have done in the role if the rumors about his casting had turned out to be true. I bet he also would have been pretty amazing. Just an observation.

WHAT’S NEXT FOR THE FRANCHISE?

Obviously, J.J. Abrams is moving on from Star Trek, which is for the best. I mean, even if he weren’t, we’d still have to wait another four years until the next movie in the series, and I REALLY don’t want to wait that long to see what happens with these Klingons! That’s where I think the series is headed, by the way (at least IT BETTER BE!). If Brad Bird were to take over like he did with Mission Impossible, I wouldn’t be too broken up about it. To be honest, I’m much more excited for the next Trek than I am for episode VII of Star Wars. But hey: here’s hoping Abrams gets better results from copying George Lucas than he did when “paying homage” to Steven Spielberg.

Why I Love Superman (Part 1: How I See Him)

I watched The Dark Knight Rises this past weekend. It was great (EDIT: Having seen TDKR multiple times since, “great” is not the word I’d use now. Impressive, perhaps. Maybe even entertaining. But “great” is giving it too much credit). One of the previews we got to see before the movie was a minute and a half teaser for The Man Of Steel, Zach Snyder’s Superman movie. Since the movie won’t be released until next summer, there obviously wasn’t much interesting footage. What little I did see disturbed me, though. Right from the beginning, the logos for DC comics and the production studios were displayed in the same black and gray as they were before The Dark Knight Rises. Then we see gray overcast skies and a depressed, bearded Clark Kent working as….a fisherman I guess. Then we hear Kevin Costner give a voiceover about how Clark has to decide what kind of man he will be. Then a reeeeallly short clip of Superman flying, and that’s it.

Like I said, they probably don’t have much footage to work with at this point, and certainly not enough for me to make a definitive statement about the quality of the movie. But, until I see evidence to the contrary, I now have no reason not to assume that this new Superman film will be grim and full of angst (similar to what Tim Burton was planning to with the character for his failed Superman Lives film). And that’s too bad. Because I love Superman, and I don’t want to see his character altered to reflect the success of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Maybe that is what most moviegoers want to see. Maybe they want all of their heroes to be flawed and unstable and perpetually brooding. Because that’s the only way they can be “interesting”, right? Well, I don’t think so.

Apparently Superman killed Mystique and wears her skin as a trophy.

You see, I love Superman. I’ve always loved him, and I always will. Not so much for what he can do (which is admittedly awesome) but for what he represents: our potential. I don’t mean flying and invulnerability and heat vision. No, I mean our potential as a species to become better people. Someday maybe we can also be selfless, compassionate, and noble. Those are the characteristics of Superman I most admire. I’m less interested in the Man of Steel than I am in the Man of Tomorrow. To me, Superman symbolizes everything that is good about us. He is all of our best qualities externalized. Maybe that’s part of the problem.

We don’t like being reminded that most of the time we aren’t living up to our potential. We want heroes who are like us instead of heroes who are what we could be. We’d rather have a hero who is motivated by negative emotions and a tragic past, who copes with his issues instead of trying to overcome them. There are valuable lessons to be learned from those kinds of characters, it’s true. But I don’t believe we should be content merely with heroes that cope. We need heroes who learn from mistakes (whether their own or others’) and move past them, heroes who grow and change with time. We need heroes who do what they do to help people, not to make themselves feel better. Superman is a hero for all of the right reasons, and he is a hero in all the right ways. So how should movies depict Superman? How should comics be depicting Superman? Well, here’s my take:

When I think of the Man of Tomorrow, I think of him as being the synthesis of two of my favorite fictional characters (maybe these choices will seem a bit random to you, but I grew up watching both of these guys on a regular basis, so I can’t help jumping right to them). The first of these is James McKay, the main character of William Wyler’s 1958 western film, The Big Country. He is a retired sea captain who moves west with his fiancee, only to discover that everyone there, including said fiancee, expects him to constantly prove his manhood in public displays. But McKay has sworn off this foolish behavior. His father died years before in a pointless duel of honor and he doesn’t want anyone to go down that same path. He has a quiet determination, he’d rather talk than fight (but fight he does when he finds it necessary), he shows mercy when he has the chance to kill his enemies, and he tries to broker a peace between two warring families of ranchers.

Movie posters used to be WAY cooler.

I’d highly recommend you watch The Big Country if you want to know more about the movie. It really is a gem. The thing that stood out to me the most, even as a child, was how cool McKay was. He’s not a western hero in the traditional sense, but that’s the point. His conduct throughout the movie essentially shows the audience that traditional western heroes aren’t really that admirable. Far more admirable is a man who wants to solve problems with words rather than guns. He doesn’t show favoritism to either side, providing solutions to their problems and pointing out their foolishness when they need to hear it the most. By the end of the movie, McKay’s actions and his sincerity have convinced many of these antagonistic ranchers to hear the wisdom in his words. Some of them don’t, or at least, they don’t care. But that’s the way it always is, right? (Psst! That applies to Superman!)

The second fictional character I see in Superman is Jean-Luc Picard, my favorite captain of the Enterprise. While James T. Kirk is certainly an awesome dude, I have to say that Picard really lives out the creed of Starfleet and The Federation of Planets the best. It’s pointed out more in Star Trek: The Next Generation than any other Trek show that Starfleet is not a military organization. The crew of the Enterprise are primarily explorers, ambassadors, and relief workers. Occasionally they do have to fight battles, but it is always as a last resort, when there are no acceptable alternatives. Picard, more so than Kirk, really exemplifies those principles.  He has some flaws, of course, but that just reminds us that humanity can always improve, even in the enlightened era of the 24th century.

“Make it so.”

One thing I want to specifically mention is how Picard interacts with less advanced cultures. Starfleets’s number one rule is called the Prime Directive, which forbids interference with the development of alien cultures. While he sometimes interprets the Prime Directive a bit loosely as the situations dictate, Picard upholds the spirit of it at all times. He understands that some worlds are just not ready for the kind of knowledge and power he has at his disposal. Whatever choices they make, it must be them making the decision. If Picard used Starfleet’s technology to solve all of a more primitive society’s problems, they would eventually lose the motivation to solve problems for themselves. This leads to all kind of conflicts within the show, of course. When should the Prime Directive be broken, if ever? How much assistance given to a world that desperately needs it is too much? (Pssst! See how this also applies to Superman?)

I hope you could see how all this tied into Superman. But allow me to spell it out just in case I wasn’t clear enough: this is how I see Superman. Obviously there have been many writers over the years who have tried a number of different approaches to the character, and many of them have been successful. But this is the approach I feel is best suited to The Man of Steel: a fusion of James McKay’s wise outsider with quiet strength and Jean-Luc Picard’s philosophical ambassador of the future.

I don’t know if this makes sense to anyone but me, and if that’s the case I apologize for wasting your time. But do me a favor: if this has piqued your curiosity even the slightest bit (whether you agree or disagree), watch The Big Country, and a few episodes of Star Trek: TNG (“First Contact”, “Who Watches the Watchers”, “The Measure of a Man”, “The Offspring”, “Wounded”) just to get a feel for what I’m saying. If you like your Superman to be more of an action hero than a philosopher, I get that. I do. I know I used to feel the same way. If you like a darker hero, I also understand. Sometimes dark heroes do seem more interesting than “boy scouts.” This post was purely opinion. Anyways, stay tuned for part two, in which I discuss some of the criticisms of Superman and whether they stand up to scrutiny.