Things become even more interesting when you stack John Harrison – a.k.a. Khan Noonien Singh (Benedict Cumerbatch) – in Star Trek Into Darkness up against all the aforementioned villains. For example:

  • All of these antagonists are “terrorists” with ulterior motives; Killian is seizing more power and control, the League of Shadow members want to instate a new world order (free of Gotham City) and Khan intends to resuscitate his fellow genetically-superior people from cryogenic sleep – in order to continue their centuries-old mission of wiping out inferior humans.
  • Khan doesn’t use the smoke and mirror techniques favored by his peers. He’s the purest Machiavellian opponent of the lot, choosing to withhold the truth – while technically never lying about his intentions – and help others, so long as it serves his cause and grand scheme.
  • The conflict between Kirk (Chris Pine) and Khan starts out personal (after the death of Captain Pike) then evolves into something more philosophical – going with your gut (Kirk) versus careful plotting and scheming (Khan) – whereas the fight between Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Khan begins more philosophical, then ends up becoming very personal after Kirk is left (almost) dead.

Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness – like The Mandarin in Iron Man 3 – begins as a ham-fisted (but, nonetheless, compelling) allegory for a real-world terrorist, before the audience gets to meet him up close and personal. It’s at that point when the film reveals that Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller) is the war hawk who freed Khan from his hibernating state and is manipulating him for his own purposes.

However, whereas Iron Man 3 made a joke of the old-school Mandarin – suggesting that the puppet-master is more dangerous than the puppet – Into Darkness does not sacrifice the qualities of classic Khan. Furthermore, Star Trek‘s idea that a weapon can be more dangerous than the person wielding it, feels less conventional by comparison (though, again, that’s partly a matter of narrative preference).

Secrecy: It’s Not Always a Good Thing

What’s all the more interesting about these films is that Cumberbatch playing Khan was one of the worst-kept “secrets” in recent blockbuster history (the same goes for Miranda Tate being Talia al Ghul in Dark Knight Rises); yet, the twist in Iron Man 3 has, again, prompted noticeably more controversy and disappointment within the larger geek community.

The cynical response would be to claim that fanboys (and fangirls) don’t like being tricked, but that argument doesn’t really hold up when examined under a microscope (like what’s been attempted here). Point being, the twists in the Dark Knight trilogy and Star Trek Into Darkness served a purpose beyond just surprising the viewers; they made the villainous characters stronger and enriched their relationships to the heroes (heightening the emotional impact of their actions and their metaphorical significance).

The Iron Man 3 twist may have pulled the rug out from under more people, yet it didn’t reveal much of anything new about either the heroes or villains – nothing that early segments of the film hadn’t strongly alluded to already – so it came off as kind of trivial and even insulting, for related reasons.

In the end, that seems to be where the difference lies: when it comes to the use of familiar or classic villains, these geeky genre films need to make sure any twist has a distinct storytelling purpose. (Admittedly, though, when that happens, it seems to become easier for fans to guess how, exactly, the baddies are going to be implemented. So, in the end, it’s hard for me to recommend that this “villains with a twist” trend should live on.)

What do you think? Is it possible, in this day and age, to pull the wool over fans’ eyes on these well-established comic book and geek franchise blockbusters, by keeping the villain’s real identity secret (assuming they were not created solely for these films)? Do all these twists seem forced – in an effort to fool the masses – or is there a secret to their successful execution?

Star Trek Into Darkness and Iron Man 3 are now in theaters.

The Dark Knight Trilogy is now available on DVD/Blu-ray.

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