The morality of the film Star Trek: Into Darkness has provoked some conversation recently. I would like to add to that conversation by analyzing one character in that film: Khan, as played by Benedict Cumberbatch.
As with other Hollywood films that seek to construct an intriguing antagonist, but then lack the courage to follow through, there is no need to construe Khan’s motives as evil. He is an unpleasant person, but being nice or accommodating is not the same as being moral. Whilst Khan’s actions are violent and ill-judged, and the character may be poorly and inconsistently written, the audience can identify a moral logic to everything he does… if they want to.
Anthony Marchetta, my esteemed colleague, recently wrote the following about Khan.
The movie is smart in portraying the similarities between Kirk and Khan. The difference, however, is obvious. Khan is attempting to use subterfuge to start an intergalactic war, and has been responsible for terrorist acts in several U.S. cities. Kirk is… much, much better than that.
I do not believe this is a fair comparison. The duality of protagonist and antagonist has its limits, and does not apply well to this film because there are three competing forces in this story: Kirk (and his crew), Khan (and the people he protects), and the Head of Starfleet, Admiral Alexander Marcus (and those in Starfleet who follow his orders).
Kirk reacts to events instead of having any objectives of his own. In that sense, Kirk is innocent; he has no machinations. But this does not lead to an easy comparison between Kirk and Khan, who vigorously pursues his objectives. We might as well contrast Khan to a baby in their crib. Clearly Khan is not as innocent as a newborn child, but few of us have that luxury, if we try to deal with real circumstances. Kirk reacts to Khan, but Khan is also responding to his own antagonist, Marcus. Marcus has coerced Khan. It was Marcus that revived Khan, then gave him a false identity and work to do. Khan knows Marcus is intending to start a war, and for a time he believes that Marcus has killed Khan’s people. We should assess Khan’s choices in this context.
Who is trying to start an intergalactic war? Marcus, not Khan. Khan was woken from stasis by Marcus, in secret, and forced to design weapons that Marcus intends to use after provoking conflict with the Klingons. In contrast, Khan’s primary goal is to save the remainder of his colleagues, who remain in stasis, and will be killed by Marcus if he does not comply. It is also possible that Khan wishes to stop Marcus’ war.
It was Marcus that instructed Kirk to violate the law and fire torpedoes upon the Klingon homeworld, supposedly to kill Khan. In reality, Marcus is also taking the opportunity to provoke the Klingons, having already sabotaged the Enterprise so Kirk will be unable to flee. If Khan is the super-intelligent person he is supposed to be, in what sense can he be in favor of this plan? He is not the type to commit suicide for the sake of Marcus’ war.
During the course of the film, Khan sometimes tries to kill Marcus, and Marcus tries to kill Khan. So the goals of Marcus and Khan should not be conflated. If Khan and Marcus had the same goals, Khan would have no need to fear reprisals against his people.
Khan seemingly believed his comrades had already been killed, until Kirk tries to apprehend him. Khan learns they are still alive when Kirk reveals the exact number of torpedoes in his arsenal (which, bizarrely, is the exact number of torpedoes needed to hide every one of Khan’s comrades). Having already saved his persecutors from a troop of ferocious Klingon soldiers, Khan surrenders to Kirk. He does not even strike back when subjected to a punishment beating.
I would question whether Khan is guilty of terrorist acts. Terror implies frightening people in order to force a change of policy. Khan is not trying to frighten anyone. There is no suggestion that he is trying to communicate a political goal or manifesto of any sort. He blows up a Starfleet facility in London, killing 42 in total, because it is a secret military base masquerading as a public library. Was this act motivated by revenge against Starfleet as a whole, is it part of a plan to gain revenge against his specific persecutor by creating the opportunity to kill Marcus, or is it a way of derailing Marcus’ plan to start war? We do not know. All three motives are believable. The character of Khan is not so well explored that we can rule out the possibility that he also wants to stop a war that would kill many more than 42.
Following this bombing, Starfleet’s leaders convene a meeting. Khan uses this opportunity to try to kill Marcus and his colleagues. Again, this violent act lacks the clear and public purpose that would allow us to categorize it as terrorism. Again, perhaps Khan is motivated by revenge, but he may also be preempting war, by striking against the leaders of a military organization intent on starting war. We cannot say for certain what Khan knows of the disposition of Marcus’ colleagues. Maybe they are naive and innocent, unaware of Marcus’ plans. Maybe Khan makes a false assumption, or is willing to treat them as collateral damage. But probably some, or most, were Marcus’ willing accomplices. After all, the Head of Starfleet cannot construct new weapons and warships single-handedly. Some of his peers must have known and supported the ‘top secret’ plans of Marcus. Khan might be called a terrorist by his Starfleet enemies, but he does not fit the normal understanding of a terrorist. He is better described as a guerrilla, a rebel, or an insurrectionist.
Engaging in violence against a military force intent on war cannot be automatically equated with terrorism. There are nuances which allow such actions to be interpreted as justified war, as contrasted with terrorism, even when the violence is preemptive. In that sense, Khan engages in war, but it is not clear if his purpose is sinful or virtuous. Perhaps Khan likes killing people; he is a very angry character. But given how little we know of Khan’s motives, his actions might also reflect a genuine desire for peace, though it comes from a man who is prepared to use violent means to get the best overall outcome. In that sense, Khan’s violence is consistent with Spock’s maxim: “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”.
Khan’s character is nicely balanced during the first half of the film, but becomes increasingly simplistic towards the end. Even so, we can question the depiction of Khan as an essentially malevolent character. They key is to distinguish what we know, as the audience, with what Khan knows.
After Kirk has captured Khan, Marcus arrives and states he will destroy the Enterprise and its entire crew. The Enterprise is fired upon and disabled by Marcus’ warship, killing many. Kirk’s only hope is to engage Khan’s help and conduct a daring raid upon the ship of their common enemy. To gain Khan’s allegiance, Kirk also ‘guarantees’ Khan’s safety. Khan ably assists Kirk, even saving Kirk during the perilous transit between the ships. Does Khan need to save Kirk? Of course not. Khan killed a legion of Klingons single-handedly. He does not need Kirk’s help. An intelligent man would have calculated that Kirk is more likely to be an untrustworthy liability. So it proves when Kirk orders Scott to stun Khan, after they have taken control of Marcus’ ship.
Waking from the premeditated and unnecessary violence committed against him, Khan is furious. He overpowers the people who hurt him, and kills Marcus with his bare hands. A better man may have restrained his anger, but that does not make Khan evil. He has been repeatedly provoked and lied to by Starfleet officers. Kirk and his colleagues do not trust Khan, but what opportunity have they given him to show he is trustworthy? Now Khan does not trust Kirk, and that is understandable. He beams Kirk and his friends back to the Enterprise, with the intention of killing everybody on that ship. Khan is no moral luminary, and this violence is clearly excessive. But it is also conducted in the heat of the moment, against the soldiers of a military organization that lied and lied again. This shows Khan’s character is flawed, but not simplistically evil. After all, we are repeatedly told that Khan and his peers have been condemned to death. And yet, they are not dead. They could run away, without destroying the Enterprise. But Khan knows the law, and pride, will require Starfleet to hunt them down. If Khan destroys the Enterprise and its crew now, there is good reason to believe that nobody else knows that Khan and his augment friends are still alive. They will finally have a chance to escape their persecutors.
Spock, a man who supposedly cannot lie, deceives Khan about returning his augment peers in the torpedoes where they have been stored. These torpedoes are then detonated, wrecking Khan’s ship and causing it crash to Earth. Khan responds by furiously instructing the ship to crash into Starfleet headquarters. Again, given the context, can this be considered the response of an evil man, or just of an angry man who has been repeatedly wronged? As far as Khan knows, the people he has done so much to save have just been callously executed by yet another Starfleet officer. Khan’s response is excessive, but intelligible, without the need to posit evil intent.
I have tried to construe Khan as a character who has his own moral logic, even though it is not one I share. This moral logic is different to Kirk’s, or mine, but not straightforwardly opposed to either. It is circumstances, not character, that lead Kirk and Khan to be enemies. Is this moral absolutism, or moral relativism? I would argue it is both, at the same time, thanks to the miracles that can only be performed from the god-like position of the storyteller. Kirk is always right – even when he is wrong. Kirk was wrong to obey Marcus’ orders. He was wrong to hit an unarmed man who had surrendered. And it can be argued Kirk was wrong to use violence against Khan a second time, after Khan had saved Kirk and they had subdued their common enemy, Marcus. Hence, a kind of moral absolutism surrounds Kirk. He is right, even when he is wrong, because we are supposed to forgive his emotions and ignorance. However, this absolutism is invested in a specific, mistake-prone and lucky individual, not a moral system. Because Kirk is a moral absolute, his enemies must be moral absolutes too. However, no leeway is granted for their anger, or for the gaps in their knowledge.
This kind of absolutism, centered on an imperfect individual, is the worst kind of relativism in disguise. Anybody can make a mistake. Unlike Spock, a real person knows that no amount of logic can substitute for a lack of pertinent knowledge. We might think we are doing the morally right thing, and then learn more information that leads us to conclude we should behave differently. But in this Star Trek film, no matter how ignorant Kirk is, he is always luckily moral. This suggests Kirk has little moral compass, and is nothing more than a puppet for a godlike figure who works through him – which may be an actual god, or just a contemptuous storyteller. The ‘facts’ always fortuitously realign to suit Kirk’s intuitive perceptions. That seems to me equivalent to the worst kind of moral relativism, where each individual can insist they have always made consistent moral decisions because they can choose to believe whatever happens to justify their actions.
Khan is a moral force. He is destructive, and willful, but he acts with a purpose in mind. Khan did far more to stop war than Kirk did. If Khan had not rebelled against Marcus, then Kirk and others may have loyally followed Marcus into war. In contrast to Khan, Kirk rarely understands what will be the consequences of his actions. I submit that this makes Kirk a poor hero, and Khan far less than a villain.