While most fans enjoyed Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Khan Noonien Singh, Star Trek Into Darkness didn’t exactly make the majority of die-hards or even casual moviegoers happy. Lots of people have been keen to hash out why, from too many explosions a lack of exploration, but was poor marketing a part of that?
Looks like director J.J. Abrams thinks so.
It turns out that the decision to keep Khan a secret from the general populace was a directive from the studio, who didn’t want audiences to think that they needed prior knowledge of Star Trek in order to enjoy the new film. Abrams’ exact words in an interview with MTV News are as follows:
“The truth is because it was so important to the studio that we not angle this thing for existing fans. If we said it was Khan, it would feel like you’ve really got to know what ‘Star Trek’ is about to see this movie. That would have been limiting. I can understand their argument to try to keep that quiet, but I do wonder if it would have seemed a little bit less like an attempt at deception if we had just come out with it.”
The fact that Abrams is saying so at all gives us a pretty good idea of how disappointed he must be at the reaction to Into Darkness, particularly dealing with how Khan was handled. A lot of back-pedaling has already happened where this movie is concerned; writers Orci and Kurtzman both went on record to say that Khan was shoehorned into the plot because they thought his backstory “fit” with what they had done. They made point of explaining that they only put in Easter eggs for the fans when they worked with the story they’d already built—and apparently, Khan was meant to be the greatest Easter egg of all.
Could that be why the studio shied away from showcasing Khan’s involvement in the storyline? The secrecy did make it seem as though Cumberbatch’s big reveal would be showstopping. Instead it was underwhelming, particularly because Khan’s identity didn’t further the storyline all that much. At the end of the day, he just gave them an excuse to have another scene with Leonard Nimoy’s Spock.
So why was the studio so adamant about shutting down original Trek fans in favor of comforting people who have far less investment? It’s not as though embracing the fan community doesn’t work with these heavily involved yarns—the Marvel films seem to be doing just fine, offering plenty of plotlines that operate parallel to comics canon. The upcoming Captain America sequel is a perfect example of how Marvel has handled this in their marketing. People who have read the comics know the identity of the titular Winter Soldier, but for those who have only seen the films, his face is covered in the trailer and no one tells you who he is. It prevents his identification so that new fans will get a grand emotional impact when they find out who is behind that half-mask… while the comics fans can all freak out together because they know what’s coming.
Things might have gone better for Into Darkness if they’d just owned the parallels they were playing. Never mind the studio insisting that they didn’t want general audiences to think that the film was only for Trek fans—if they didn’t want to worry over that, maybe they shouldn’t have let the creative team make a film that is so clearly miming Wrath of Khan. Say what you like about shoehorning the villain in as a fun Easter egg, if the most emotionally impacting scene of the film is a direct flip of Spock’s death from Star Trek II, that’s not a cute button for fans. The homage is too direct, it’s too on the nose. Perhaps, instead, the studio should have asked the creative team to lay off on all the internal references. Then they needn’t have worried over the rest of the movie-going public feeling left out.
Hopefully it means that the studio has at least learned a lesson or two. Current rumors are pinning Joe Cornish as the next Trek director, which seems like a good fit—maybe he can prevent a re-Khan from happening again.