‘Star Trek Beyond,’ ‘X-Men: Apocalypse,’ and the Generic Villain Problem

Why hire a great, charismatic actor as your bad guy - and then hide him?

Join me, won’t you, in a hypothetical. Let’s say you’re producing the latest entry in a pricey, long-running blockbuster movie franchise. (Congratulations! Isn’t Hollywood cool?) The leads are long locked in on these things; the juice is usually provided by the introduction of a cool new villain. It’s an opportunity to shake things up a bit, to add some fresh blood to what could be a dormant series, so you understandably seek out the most exciting actor you can, someone whose flash and charisma lights up every film they make, and you hope they can bring some of that energy to your summer sequel. And to make sure they do, you… hide them behind layers of make-up and a shitty Halloween mask. Wait, what?

This little exercise illustrates the trouble in trying to understand what on earth the makers of Star Trek Beyond were thinking when they hired the great Idris Elba – one of the coolest, handsomest, and most inherently watchable actors on the planet – and rendered him utterly unrecognizable behind pounds of prosthetics. Early on, as he and his minions storm the USS Enterprise, he picks up Chris Pine’s James T. Kirk and lifts him by the throat; it’s an accidental echo of what became a notorious image from May’s X-Men: Apocalypse, which similarly cast the roguishly charming and endlessly entertaining Oscar Isaac as its title villain and immediately hid his features behind Blue Man Group make-up, and buried his playful voice behind a whimpering growl.

X-MEN: APOCALYPSE

Yes, yes, I know, there’s a history within these franchises and in regards to these characters and all that; Apocalypse has to look like Apocalypse, and a Star Trek alien presumably has to look like an alien. But if you’re gonna adhere that closely to these personality-free villains, why waste actors who are oozing with personality?

It’s a question especially worth asking when it comes to Star Trek Beyond, because the way that villain is conceived, written, and directed speaks so directly to what the latest film in the franchise gets wrong, and gets right. The third film in the revitalized, sorta-reboot-sorta-sequel-sorta-prequel-sorta-remake Star Trek franchise, it amounts to something of a changing of the guard after 2013’s rather less than beloved Star Trek Into Darkness; director J.J. Abrams, who helmed the first two installments, departed to direct Star Wars: The Force Awakens (he’s credited as a producer), as did the first two installments’ screenwriters, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtman (Orci also gets a producer credit here). Stepping in to direct is Justin Lin, fresh off four installments of the Fast and the Furious franchise and proving an easy fit for this series as well – some of his action beats are a little too tightly shot and a little too choppily cut, and he lets the energy lag a bit in the middle, but when he’s on, he’s really on.

Star-Trek-Beyond2

Writing duties this time fall to Doug Jung and co-star Simon Pegg, whose script feels, in a manner that’s tough to articulate, written from inside the ensemble; they nail the dynamics of the group, in toto and in its smaller variations, in such a way that (much like the best of this franchise) the best moments are the small, human ones. And Pegg is of course a comic writer of real accomplishment, so it’s no small surprise that the film plays best when it’s going for character and situational comedy. They open with an uproarious scene of an intergalactic peace offering gone awry, a scene so funny and so winking (an attack by tiny monsters reminds us what these movies have often forgot about the original series: it was, oft-times, pretty goddamn goofy) you’ll find yourself hoping the entire film could be as good. It’s not, but moments are: a similarly witty exchange about a necklace Spock (Zachary Quinto) gave to Uhura (Zoe Saldana), the interactions between Scotty and tough alien scavenger Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), and the clever use of classic hip-hop as “classical” music (“I like the beats and shouting,” Jaylah explains), set up in one scene and paid off beautifully in an action climax, which times that roar-back after the false finish of the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” so deliciously, I might’ve cheered a little.

The point is, Star Trek Beyond is at its best – separating itself from not only an ugly pack of ostensibly enjoyable summer popcorn flicks, but from the grim fake-outs and clumsy political commentary of Into Darkness – when it’s having fun, and that sense of fun is sorely missing from the generic monster they wrote for Elba. I’m not sure why they’d go to the trouble of even hiring these guys when they’re just going to hide them (let’s assume, or at least hope, it’s a coincidence that both are actors of color), but I know this much: great franchise movies require great villains, not just great actors trapped in mediocre ones.

Star Trek Beyond is out Friday.