The thing about "Trek" that is trickiest is that most blockbusters deal in good guy/bad guy narratives. It's easy. It translates. Every culture understands that. Every audience understands that. Here's a good guy. Here's a bad guy. Bad guy does bad stuff. Good guy gets upset. Good guy hunts bad guy down. Bang bang. Good guy wins the day. "Star Trek" told stories that weren't built on that paradigm, and some of those are some of the most memorable of the series. The mission they were on allowed them to simply interact with various cultures, poking their way from world to world, observing, exploring. Faced with the unknown, the Enterprise struggles towards understanding. You don't need an obvious binary bad guy to have something be interesting, but they've made that choice and they've aimed for trying to do the best possible version of it.

It's just one of many possible templates, but it's a tempting one for a storyteller, and when people look at the way Christopher Nolan took that basic structure and played such a smart variation on it in "The Dark Knight," that's why you get echoes of that in "Skyfall" and "The Avengers" and any number of other upcoming films. You see it done right, it's very appealing, and people unconsciously sort of chase that same thing through a number of other movies. There's certainly potential for it to really pay off. To do that right, though, you've got to have a great villain, a truly worthy adversary. Nolan knew what value there was in The Joker, and he got everything out of the character that he could. In "Skyfall," Mendes used a completely unknown quantity, a new character, but made that part of what was intriguing. For this film, Abrams tried a solution that's a little bit of both approaches. When we meet Benedict Cumberbatch as John Harrison, he is an unknown, a complete mystery man. Does that mystery hide a larger secret, an identity we might recognize? That's what the entire pre-release strategy has focused on, and I think it's ultimately to the film's detriment. If he is indeed playing an iconic villain, then the whole point of that is to prime the audience. Don't you want to see James Bond show down with Blofeld? Don't we want Superman to battle Lex Luthor? If you're doing the Big Villain versus the Big Hero, and you never tell your audience you're doing it, then why do it at all?

The mystery is ultimately not about Cumberbatch's character, but is instead about whoever is pulling the strings behind the scenes. In one of those occasional occurrences where Hollywood releases several things that deal with the same ideas and that even share common story elements, both "Iron Man 3" and "Star Trek Into Darkness" deal with terrorist bombings that kill innocent people, and both feature scenes that might upset some viewers right now. Both also deal with the idea that the bombings we see serve an agenda that is not immediately clear, that violence can be a sort of theater. How they explore those ideas is very different, but it is an odd parallel between the films. There is much of "Trek" that plays grim, but Abrams also fully explores the humor and the humanity in the connections of the various crewmembers. John Cho and Anton Yelchin probably have the most thankless roles this time, but they have a few moments each. Simon Pegg does very good work as Scotty, and he's part of a few of the film's biggest set pieces. Karl Urban is sidelined to a frustrating degree this time, and I would love to see him front and center for whatever's next in the series. Zoe Saldana has some quality that makes her the center of whatever scene she's in, and she is the open beating heart of the new Enterprise crew, all empathy and understanding. She's still relegated to a supporting role, though, and does what she can with it.

This is very much about Kirk, Spock, and "John Harrison," and Cumberbatch more than delivers on his first major Hollywood moment. He makes his character a convincingly physical threat, a shark of sorts. He plays beautifully off of both Pine and Quinto, and for the most part, the way the film handles his storyline pays off. The film's most controversial moment is also the most overt homage to an earlier movie, and while I think it all makes perfect sense thematically, it's so quick, so blunt, and so mechanical that it lands with a bit of a thud. I have a feeling there will be some people who focus exclusively on that moment, and they won't be able to enjoy anything about the rest of the film. I like the rest of the film and feel like the one moment doesn't take away from everything else that works.

Besides… as this film ends, the Enterprise is finally the ship that we remember, and that five-year mission has finally been offered up. What lies ahead for "Star Trek" is unwritten and exciting, and this cast is primed to do amazing things if the material is there. I want more of these movies. I want more of these characters. "Star Trek Into Darkness" is a sober, aggressively-entertaining exploration of some of the richest characters in all of pop science-fiction, and it should cement this as one of the most potentially thrilling series running.

"Star Trek Into Darkness" opens May 17, 2013.
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A respected critic and commentator for fifteen years, Drew McWeeny helped create the online film community as "Moriarty" at Ain't It Cool News, and now proudly leads two budding Film Nerds in their ongoing movie education.