When Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof finalized the script for Star Trek Into Darkness, they made a bold decision (presumably under the guiding hand of J.J. Abrams) to include a twist not based on information delivered in the movie itself, but based on real-world knowledge of the series’ history. When the destructive John Harrison reveals himself, in fact, to be Khan midway through the story, it’s an unnecessary twist designed specifically and solely for fans who knew who the hell Khan was to begin with.
In an alternative universe where the simple act of making a Star Trek sequel didn’t bring Khan to every film journalist’s mind immediately, it could have been a magic moment, but it was also always destined (in every universe) to be a head-scratcher for those outside the know. They didn’t spend the movie building up the mythos of Khan — they spent the movie displaying how vicious “John Harrison” could be and then revealed, gasp, that he had another name! It was a reverse Keyser Soze. Just like that — poof — John Harrison was gone.
Which is what makes Abrams’ room temperature regret about lying to the press about Benedict Cumberbatch playing Khan leading up to the film’s release all the more bizarre.
He told MTV:
“The truth is I think it probably would have been smarter just to say upfront ‘This is who it is.’ It was only trying to preserve the fun of it, and it might have given more time to acclimate and accept that’s what the thing was. 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 thing is that the marketing wasn’t the problem, it was the structure of the movie itself. Had Abrams and the marketing team openly admitted that Khan was the villain, it would have made the first half of the movie even more confusing. In reality, as soon as they chose to obscure Khan’s identity within the movie itself, they were sunk. What else could they do? They dug themselves a mystery hole and had no choice but to lie during the promotional campaign.
And not because they would have been forced to market solely to fans as Abrams suggests here. That’s absurd. Telling movie journalists and fan sites that Khan was in the mix would have been easy to separate from the broad marketing to attract filmgoers. They had plenty of explosions to feature in the trailers without needing to give Cumberbatch’s character a name.
So, no, Abrams shouldn’t regret obfuscating that identity during interviews. He should regret obfuscating the character’s identity within the storyline.