Attn: Spoilers ahead
J.J. Abram’s much anticipated Star Trek: Into Darkness is an action-filled space adventure. Picking up with the crew of the Enterprise, Into Darkness begins with Kirk, Spock, and company saving a planet from destruction. After an attack on Starfleet, it is up to the heroes of the Enterprise to save the day, and they deliver. Abram’s second Star Trek movie is entertaining and action packed. However, it is the characters that carry the story, and as much as that is owed to the heroes, it is also due to Abram’s stellar re-imagination of the villain Khan.
There are two main types of villains: the evil villain and the sympathetic villain. Some villains, like the Joker, are pure evil and “just want to watch the world burn.” Others, like Loki, are sympathetic, with tragic back-stories or misunderstood motivations that attempt to justify their actions. The cultural trend for the past few years has leaned towards sympathetic villains, such as in Wicked, a retelling of The Wizard of Oz from the Wicked Witch of the West’s point of view, where the story is subverted and the villain is in fact the hero. This was original and refreshing…the first time. Now, it’s a little old. Don’t give me a villain with a tragic childhood that explains (or excuses) his bad behavior. Give me a villain who is ruthless and evil, a villain who is actually a villain.
Enter John Harrison, a.k.a. Khan. From the very beginning, Khan exhibits a cold and calculative ruthlessness that makes him a stellar villain. With disturbing calm, he orchestrates the explosion of a Star Fleet database. He attacks the Star Fleet command in San Francisco, killing Admiral Pike. And then he takes down a small army of Klingons. He is five steps ahead of the crew of the Enterprise, and, quite simply, a badass.
Then J.J. Abrams throws the viewers a twist—Kahn is a sympathetic villain, too. He’s trying to save his crew, his family. All of the bad things he’s done…it’s all to save the people he cares about. He even sheds a few tears. Once Kirk and the audience know this, Khan is not the bad guy, Admiral Marcus is. Admiral Marcus is the one trying to start a nuclear war with the Klingons and Khan is just a superhuman peacekeeper.
But Abrams isn’t about to settle and give the audience a sympathetic villain. Yes, Khan is trying to save his family, but he is still as ruthless and evil as he threatened to be. He and his family were, recall, eugenic murderers. Disregarding an agreement with Spock, Khan attempts to kill the entire crew of the Enterprise, even after Spock keeps his end of the bargain. And when his ship is about to crash, Khan steers it to crash in Star Fleet headquarters.
Khan is a good balance of the sympathetic and evil villain. He has righteous cause that drives his action, a cause that Kirk identifies with—the desire to protect the people you love. But Khan is not overly sympathetic. He is not misunderstood or justified or excusable. He is evil, and that’s what a good villain needs to be. Evil. And sometimes hot and British.