Who Are You Calling A Bad Guy?

In the movie Wreck-It Ralph, unhappy video game villain Ralph is fed up with his lot in life. A well-meaning fellow villain encouragingly tells him “Ralph, just because you are ’bad guy’ doesn’t mean you are bad guy.”

True enough. But Star Trek Into Darkness is probably the first film I’ve seen where the villain is debatably more moral than the hero.

Don’t believe me? Okay…

Star Trek Into Darkness spoilers! And I mean BIG spoilers!!!!

Stop now if you haven’t seen the movie!

Still with me?

Okay then.

Taking the plot in chronological order: Khan is awoken by Admiral Marcus and manipulated into helping Marcus prepare for – even provoke – a war with the Klingons. Khan has no choice: his crew, his ’family’, are being held hostage by a ruthless man (said ruthlessness is later demonstrated on screen by Marcus’ behaviour towards Kirk and his crew, so Khan is clearly right to fear him.)

Understandably, Khan tries to escape Marcus’ clutches. Not, we should note, by attacking Marcus. There’s no evidence his scheme to smuggle his sleeping crewmates out of Marcus’ clutches involves any violence.

The scheme is discovered, and the missiles are removed from Khan’s control. He tells Kirk later that he assumed his crew had been murdered. Which is fair enough: Marcus has a big secret to conceal, the crew are evidence against him, and, as we’ve already noted, Marcus is quite prepared to kill to achieve his ends.

So, Khan sets out for revenge against the whole of Starfleet. Maybe an overreaction. But Khan presumably has no idea how official Marcus’ actions were, or which officers are corrupt and which aren’t. For all he knows, they’re all guilty.

He comes up with an elaborate plan to bomb the facility he worked for. (Worth remembering that everyone there is breaking Starfleet regulations by functioning as a spy agency.) That plan involves offering a father a choice no parent would refuse: but it is a choice. He could refuse. Marcus later claims he was ’forced’ to commit the bombing, but Marcus would say that, wouldn’t he…

People die, here and in Khan’s later attack on Starfleet HQ. Few of them deserve it. I wouldn’t justify that objectively –  but in cinematic terms, we’ve excused far worse when it was committed by a character labelled ’hero’ instead of ’villain’. If, say, Bruce Willis’ family were killed by corrupt cops, and he then took an attack helicopter to their precinct, killing corrupt and honest cops alike, we’d probably cheer him on.

Khan goes to ground on the Klingon homeworld, which initially feels like a dumb choice for a genius: but in fact, it gets him exactly what he wants. Marcus puts the missiles in space, on board the Enterprise, where Khan has a chance of getting to them and verifying whether his crew are dead or still in there.

While on the Enterprise, Khan is a model prisoner. He tells the truth when questioned, makes no attempt to escape (despite being inexplicably transferred to the insecure sick bay), and warns Kirk about the danger he’s in. He doesn’t even resist when Kirk tries to beat the crap out of him after his surrender.

Under threat from Marcus, Kirk asks Khan for help to infiltrate the enemy ship. Despite Kirk’s suspicions, he does nothing during the infiltration to betray their alliance. Indeed, he saves Kirk’s life on the journey between ships (self-interest, perhaps, but I bet Khan could have taken that ship alone – or at least believes that he could…)

And, at the moment their alliance triumphs over Marcus and they take his ship, the deal is broken – by Kirk!

Recovering from being maliciously stunned, Khan finally snaps. He brutally attacks his betrayers, threatens to wipe out the entire crew in order to get his people back, then opens fire on the Enterprise. Hardly saintly, but this is a desperate man trying to protect his crew from a man who’s used and betrayed him…

And who can blame him? It turns out that Spock programmed the missiles he just beamed aboard to explode – and Khan has no idea his unconscious crew were removed first, remember. He thinks his people are dead. His suicide run at Starfleet HQ is the last revenge of a man who’s lost everything…

Ah, I hear you cry. But Khan is a war criminal, a genetic Nazi who wiped out those who didn’t live up to his idea of perfection…

But is that even true? Admiral Marcus says Khan’s a convicted criminal, but we’re way past believing him. Alternate Spock from a parallel universe says that the Khan he knew did terrible things. Does that necessarily mean this Khan did?

And it’s worth remembering that if the writers wanted us to be sure of Khan’s evil past, Kirk or any of his crew could have obtained evidence from another source, one less equivocal than a traitorous general or an alternate timestream. But they didn’t.

So taking all this into account, isn’t there an argument to be made that Khan is equally moral – perhaps even more moral – than Kirk?

Am I being disingenuous? Perhaps. But my point is, the labels we apply to our characters are powerful tools. “Hero” and “Villain” have a way of twisting the audience’s perception of what a character does and how justified they are in doing it. So when we use these labels, let’s use them wisely…

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Things I Learned From… Star Trek Into Darkness

Oh, so much to be learned from this movie! But most of it is going to have to be held back for a few weeks, to give everyone a fair chance to enjoy the film without spoilers. At some point, I want to talk about the way the protagonist and the antagonist of Star Trek Into Darkness face the same challenges and mirror one another’s decisions. I also want to talk about who the antagonist actually is – or rather, on whose evidence we label the bad guy a ‘bad guy’…

But today, let’s talk subplots.

Spoiler warning: no actual spoilers, but some generalized discussion of the first twenty minutes of the movie.

We all know what subplots are, right? The plots that run alongside the main action, illuminating the theme and adding depth to the characters. But Star Trek Into Darkness also features a less conventional kind of subplot – a self-contained subplot in the first act of the story, which contains the inciting incident. Without getting spoilerific, I’m talking about the brief plot taking place in and around London and foregrounding Thomas Harewood (an excellent turn from Noel Clarke).

We’re all used to the ‘cold open’, an opening that plunges the audience into the dramatic situation before the credits. Sometimes these take place before the central characters have become involved in, or even aware of, these events – eg, the opening scenes of Star Wars. Sometimes they feature the protagonist, but the subplot itself has nothing to do with the main story – eg: a typical Bond movie prologue.

But it’s very interesting to see a cold open subplot taking place, what, at least ten minutes into the movie? Especially after the movie has already opened with a Bond-style prologue that sets up relationships and theme but, in strict plot terms, has nothing to do with the main story.

Another cold open? Isn’t that just wasting screen time we could be spending with Kirk and the gang? I mean, Harrison’s a smart guy, he could have arranged [REDACTED] another way. We wouldn’t even need to see him do it. So cut the subplot, right?

Wrong.

Here’s what the subplot does for the movie.

It introduces the antagonist. Harrison’s role in this subplot paints him as ruthless, cunning and irresistible – but it also hints at remarkable power, and even compassion. Of a kind. That’s a rich, textured character right there, a fascinating character, one we want to see more of and learn more about – and we haven’t even seen him oppose our protagonist yet.

It introduces the theme. You could say that the theme of Star Trek Into Darkness is something like  ‘What are you capable of doing for those you love?” Not only what you’ll agree to morally, but what you’re capable of doing physically, the hidden strengths you’ll tap into when you have to. This subplot explicitly foregrounds that theme in a way that prefigures later events, and involves us directly in some morally difficult choices long before the central characters start facing them.

It functions – rather oddly! – as a “Save The Cat” scene. “Save The Cat” is screenwriting tutor Blake Snyder’s term for an early scene where an apparently unlikable character does something nice (the clichéd version might be being kind to animals, or giving money to a beggar) to make the audience like them. What Harrison does is appalling, but one part of it is so mythically fulfilling – even Christ-like –  that we can’t help but like him for it, despite the fact that it’s just part of a bargain to achieve his own ends.

It gives a human face to the victims of Harrison’s campaign. Since we’re avoiding spoilers… enough said.

One more thing to point out: the visual storytelling in this subplot is superb. Proof? If I remember rightly, there are only three lines of dialogue in the whole sequence, and they’re all in one scene. Everything else is visual – in other words, true movie storytelling. Take a bow, Messrs. Kurtzman, Orci, and Lindelof…