'WARE: as per usual, I'm going to play fast and loose with spoilers. Also as per usual, I am much more about character growth and momentum than I am plot twists, but some things happen in the movie that affect the characters in very significant ways, so...'WARE.
This review came extremely close to being subtitled "Holy Hell, It's Like They're Adults." Previously on Star Trek, the Romulans made their appearance several decades ahead of schedule, leading to a Spock who is much more defensive about his mixed human/Vulcan heritage. Rather than growing up in a stable, apple-pie home, James Kirk is alternately neglected and abused and is heading towards nowhere good. And the nature of the Federation itself is different, warier and less inclined to trust. (Nyota Uhura remains a BAMF. Every universe needs a through-line.)
Bringing the Romulans in early in the first movie was a stroke of genius, as 1) it allows for a darker Federation to fit a more cynical generation, but 2) gives the characters a reason to state why their moral stances matter. Cynicism is easy. Optimism--real optimism, not naivete--is difficult. That's why it's laudable, and that's a big part of why I love the rebooted Star Trek so much. This crew knows the universe can be an ugly place, they just choose to focus on the beautiful parts.
(Pretend there's a segue here.) A massive part of why I love Chris Pine's take on Kirk so much is his warmth and lack of ego. He keeps the essence of Kirk, but adds to him a generosity of spirit, an instinctive kindness, that Shatner's Kirk lacked. It grounds him and keeps him likable even while Kirk is doing incredibly bone-headed things. (Original recipe Kirk was the youngest captain in history after training for fourteen years. Reboot Kirk did it in three. Yeah, he's gonna be a bonehead a few times.) In the first movie, Kirk isn't thinking about leadership, he's just trying to burn out lingering self-destructive impulses. Into Darkness Kirk still isn't really thinking about leadership at the onset, but he's emotionally healthy in a way that 2009 Kirk wasn't. He's processed his issues, he's moving forward like a grown-up. While he's basically allowed to have daddy issues for the rest of his life at this point, Kirk's Batman in the second movie moments are born of freshly-laid grief rather two decades of festering wounds. Twenty minutes and one sharp look from Spock, and he came to his senses to be the legitimate hero again. The big theme of this movie was the nature of good leadership, so I might have squeaked and flailed when Kirk's Crowning Moment of Awesome involved sacrifice rather than testosterone.
No, that moment went to Nyota Damned Uhura. One of the (many) excellent things about the 2009 movie was the way it singled out each character and gave them a moment to shine before a new audience. The sequel is no different (Sulu!), and I freaking loved that the big moment of kicking ass and chewing bubblegum came at the hands of Spock and Uhura rather than the ostensible leading man. Kirk is not the only one who doesn't have a scrap of ego to him; well-done, writers.
Kirk isn't the only one who went about the business of growing up, by the way. Spock is still struggling with his dual natures, he's just pushing himself towards numbness rather than rage. (And he gets taken to task for it by both Kirk and Uhura in the movie's funniest scene.) This Spock has had a rougher life than the 1960s version, this one is still looking for his balance...but he's pointed in the right direction. The kid's going to be all right.
And now we address our bad guy: I will freely admit that my eyebrows went up when I heard that Benedict Cumberbatch was going to be playing Khan. In retrospect, I retract my reservations. Star Trek tried very hard and broke ground in a lot of ways, but it's still a universe in which the world was nearly ended by those weirdo Asians. Casting one of the whitest guys who ever whited as the most notorious villain in this particular universe is probably a wise choice when you're carrying around that kind of baggage. And Cumberbatch was good. He knew exactly how to ping the right notes to make Khan appear sympathetic without tripping over the line into being a woobie, as well as being a fantastic foil for Kirk in terms of the movie's themes of leadership and character being what you do in the dark. The heroes are only as good as their villains.
So there you go. Watch this movie now, there is hardly a false note in it.
And, honestly, if there's a deleted scene somewhere involving Kirk, Spock, and Uhura realizing that they just had a three-way lover's spat, I will laugh until I pee.