Is The Identity Of STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS’ Villain A Spoiler?

An attempt to understand what exactly is and is not a spoiler in a modern narrative.

This article will spoil most things about Star Trek Into Darkness, including, as the title indicates, the identity of Benedict Cumberbatch's character. 

What is a spoiler? I used to know for sure. Darth Vader saying he was Luke’s dad - that was a spoiler. Spock dying in Wrath of Khan - that was a spoiler. Bruce Willis’ ghost status - that was a spoiler. A spoiler used to be a major plot twist or a huge reveal. These days, I’m not so sure. Spoilerphobia has become rampant, and it seems as though any element of a movie - from casting to the basic premise - is considered a spoiler by some. The leader of this movement is JJ Abrams, whose Mystery Box marketing technique earned him a spot at a TED Talk... and may have hurt Star Trek Into Darkness at the box office.

I’ll leave that up to you guys to argue in the comments. What interests me about the Mystery Box in STID is the question of whether the Khan reveal really, truly was a spoiler. I’ve been accused of ‘spoiling’ the movie by openly discussing the fact that Benedict Cumberbatch’s John Harrison is actually Khan. I had this information before I saw the movie, and so did not know how it would be used in the film. Having now seen the film and given it a lot of thought, one thing is pretty clear:

John Harrison’s identity is not a traditional spoiler. It’s not even really a reveal, because when Harrison tells the crew who he is it has no meaning to them. A reveal should be meaningful in the context of the movie itself, and should be meaningful for the characters or the plot. His identity has absolutely no impact on the plot of Star Trek Into Darkness. If Harrison were to remain Harrison only minor details would need to be changed. I actually think keeping Harrison simply Harrison and making him the subject of illegal genetic tampering (which would harken back to Khan and the Eugenics War) would have made the film stronger and Cumberbatch’s character more vital. But this isn’t about how I would have made the movie, it’s about whether or not this detail is a spoiler.

What IS a spoiler in the movie is Admiral Marcus’ role in everything. That’s the actual reveal of the movie, the fact that Starfleet command is behaving badly. That’s a secret worth keeping, and the reveal that Marcus is the baddie, while not the most shocking event in motion picture history, is an actual twist on what we expect from the character. By having Khan revealed in the marketing the film would have further protected the Marcus twist, as everybody would have assumed Khan was just the big baddie and that Marcus was the benevolent Admiral we thought he was. That sort of honest misdirection has been used in Trek before: Wrath of Khan protected its big plot point through misdirection, by having Spock fake die in the beginning. Spock's death had been leaked to the fan press in advance, but anyone walking in with that knowledge would have assumed the rumors referred to the Kobayashi Maru scene ("Aren't you supposed to be dead?"). It was a clever solution.

Because Khan’s identity means nothing to anyone in the movie and because the fact that who he is impacts the plot in almost no perceptible way, his reveal is by definition not a spoiler. The only way that Khan could reasonably be considered a spoiler is if you consider any easter egg, cameo or in-joke a spoiler, because within the context of the movie Khan is only an in-joke. His reveal has meaning only to the audience, and even then only to the specific subset of the audience who knows Khan’s importance in the canon. If that’s the argument then the Khan reveal is a spoiler in the way the Thanos reveal was in The Avengers - a wink to the fan, but not an integral part of the actual storytelling (in fact Thanos probably left many non-nerds baffled). You might rather not know Thanos shows up at the end of The Avengers, but it’s in no way ruining the movie to have that information.

That said, some would say it’s better to not know Thanos is going to show up (I knew and I really loved the movie anyway, but that’s me). Those people - the people who, I think, are expanding the definition of what’s truly a spoiler - would consider the Khan reveal to be a spoiler. To those people I apologize. I should not have ruined Star Trek Into Darkness’ winking in-joke for you.