On the heels of reviewing J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek Into Darkness with his re-introduction of Khan, one of the most famous villains in Star Trek lore, I couldn’t help but reminisce about Ricardo Montalban’s original performance of the same character and compare the two carnations. While I did enjoy Benedict Cumberbatch’s version in Star Trek Into Darkness, I was left waiting, longing for something more. So, I hunkered myself into my couch, pulled up my Star Wars blanket (I know, a little cross pollination here) and watched Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
Choosing only one Khan to rein supreme, without hesitation I sided with Montalban’s. It could be because I was 8 years old when I saw the film. But, there’s more. What makes Montalban’s Khan so much better? Simple: he’s fantastically ridiculous. His long blondish pre-Fabio hair, his chest always open, exposing an ever present heaving scar. On the surface, he can’t be taken seriously, but as viewers, we do. Why? Even simpler: his masterful performance. He’s completely believable, even if his outfit and the early 1980’s special effects aren’t. We can feel the malice, the hatred Khan feels for Kirk, which leads to his fatal mistake in the film’s finale. In contrast, Cumberbatch is too perfect. That is likely how Abrams wanted him, genetically created for perfection, but this is where Montalban’s Khan resonates with greater force. There was much more humanity in Montalban. Cumberbatch reminds me more of Spock than he does Kirk. Cumberbatch’s cunning and ruthless nature has a surgical precision to it – lifeless in a way. Maybe it’s just his piercing stare, resembling the dead black eyes of a shark.
Further, my liking of Montalban’s Khan goes beyond just his performance. It can’t be taken outside of the film as a whole. Star Trek II is a Kirk/Khan film, whereas Star Trek Into Darkness is a Kirk/Khan/Spock film. It is both the performances of Khan, and his foil, Kirk, that carry the 1982 film. We believe their past relationship and present cat-and-mouse game, even though they never share the screen together. This doesn’t compromise the chemistry and conflict between the two. Their relationship is completely believable. Sure, they acted opposite one another in the television series episode, Space Seed, but in the film, the blind vengeance Khan possesses for Kirk plays out without them ever meeting face-to-face. The believability is largely due to Montalban’s compulsion.
I didn’t find the same feeling in Star Trek Into Darkness. Perhaps this was due to the fact that Kirk the one enacting revenge on Khan. When our heroes turn to the dark path, are they less likable? Sometimes. Kirk wanting to avenge the death of his mentor, Pike, makes him less appealing. Abrams’s Kirk works better when he is fending off someone else’s revenge, as he did with Nero in Star Trek four years previous. With this evidence, Star Trek II’s Khan reigns supreme again. Khan consumed by revenge, frothing at the mouth to get his silvery gloved hands on Kirk is far more entertaining and passionate than Abrams’s Khan, who is more cerebral, calculated and, as mentioned before, perfect.
Will my feelings toward Cumberbatch’s Khan change over time? Maybe. With his Khan being housed in cryosleep, it is likely he will be hatched again in another sequel, this time perhaps with the vengeance and hatred of Montalban’s Khan, blaming Kirk for his slumber. But for this debate, Montalban’s Khan wins the challenge of Khan vs. Khan hands down.