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Badass Benedict Cumberbatch swaps Sherlock for outer space in Star Trek: Into Darkness

Forget Kirk and Spock, Star Trek's biggest draw is its new mystery villain. It's a bold move, says Tim Walker

At the end of last year, as it prepared to launch the marketing campaign for its latest tent-pole summer sequel, Paramount Pictures decided to boldly go where no Hollywood studio had gone before. Rather than build the pre-release buzz for Star Trek Into Darkness around the franchise's iconic protagonists, Kirk and Spock, or its celebrated director J J Abrams, the studio and Abrams' production company Bad Robot led instead with the film's anonymous villain, played by an actor with a minimal Hollywood résumé.

The film's first poster showed the dastardly character from behind, dressed in an ominous black trench-coat, looking out over the ruins of a half-destroyed, 23rd-century London. The initial teaser trailer opened with Benedict Cumberbatch's remarkable, resonant narration: “You think your world is safe; it is an illusion,” he warned. “Enjoy these final moments of peace…”

Cumberbatch, it quickly emerged, would be playing a man named in the promotional materials as “John Harrison”, a super-smart sci-fi terrorist with an illustrious Starfleet career behind him. Though the 36-year-old actor is known in the US for his performance in Sherlock, he is hardly the star that he is in Britain. Yet despite the relative anonymity of both the character and the performer, the internet went wild with anticipation.

Only in recent weeks, as the film enters the final promotional stretch before its UK release on 9 May, have the trailers foregrounded the film's hero, a young Captain Kirk. Yet the fans are still focused on his nemesis. Paramount insiders say they planned to put the moody villain at the heart of their counterintuitive campaign for several reasons – not least that the film is named, moodily, Into Darkness.

The subtitle itself is significant. The sequel is not simply called Star Trek 2, in part because, despite its vast cultural reach, the Star Trek brand has negative connotations: kitschy sets, hokey dialogue, William Shatner. “What J J Abrams has done with the franchise,” says Alex Billington, founder of the film blog FirstShowing.net, “is to make it more cool on a mainstream level, so that you don't have to be nerdy to love Star Trek. He wants everyone to be as excited about it as the nerdy fans are.”

Though it may be beloved by Trekkie purists, the original TV show and the films that followed never attracted big audiences beyond the US, and while its 2009 reboot was well received at home, it failed to make such an impact overseas, in the markets that Hollywood studios see as key to their future. Abrams' Star Trek took $258m (£166m) at the US box office, and just $128m (£83m) in the rest of the world. In a bid to attract global non-Trekkies to the sequel, Paramount's president of international distribution Anthony Marcoly told The Hollywood Reporter: “We've tried to get away from the Trekkiness of it all.”

Cumberbatch's casting is key to that worldwide appeal, studio executives suggest. He may be popular in the UK, but in the Far East, he inspires fanatical devotion. He's a heartthrob in China, which recently became the world's second-biggest movie market. Arriving at the airport in Tokyo for a recent junket, he was mobbed like a Beatle. Meanwhile, to avoid being bogged down in sci-fi genre hokum, much of the action of Into Darkness takes place on Earth. Among the early scenes – as that poster suggests – is a terrorist attack on London.

The Paramount strategy somewhat mirrors Warner Bros' campaign for its forthcoming Superman reboot, Man of Steel. Warner Bros has had huge success in repositioning the defunct Batman brand under Christopher Nolan's direction, also by making its tone darker and its look less kitschy. The latest batch of viral teasers for Into Darkness – so-called “disruptions”, which take the form of sinister, static-obscured broadcasts by Cumberbatch's villain – are almost identical to a recent viral ad for Man of Steel, featuring the voice of Michael Shannon as that film's antagonist, General Zod.

There are precedents for promotional campaigns based on bad guys, such as the Joker or Darth Vader, but both of those characters were known quantities, familiar to audiences from earlier films or comic books. John Harrison, by contrast, is a brand new baddie… Or is he? In fact, much of the buzz about Into Darkness has concerned the true identity of Cumberbatch's character, and most fans are convinced he'll turn out to be Khan, a favourite antagonist from the original series of Star Trek, and from 1982's Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

Like Nolan, Abrams has made a virtue of mystery before now, for example turning the plot secrets of his television drama Lost into fevered speculation, which kept the audience intrigued to the end. In the case of Into Darkness, Trekkies have been engaged in a search for online clues as to whether Cumberbatch really is Khan, even as they try to avoid the plot spoilers. It seems likely, though, that this film will be an origins tale for its villain, just as the 2009 film was for Kirk and Spock.

And while it pays to keep the Trekkie base happy, it hardly matters to most of the film's hoped-for audience whether Cumberbatch is a classic Star Trek villain or not – only the nerds will be fully aware of the Khan heritage. Says Billington: “If the character turns out to be plain 'John Harrison', but he's still just as badass as Khan would be, then I don't think his name makes much difference. Whoever he is, this guy's going to be an iconic villain, who will represent sci-fi this summer and beyond.”

Indeed, if the early reviews are anything to go by, then Cumberbatch is likely to be the film's break-out star – and next time he tops the bill of a blockbuster, it won't be so unexpected.

'Star Trek Into Darkness' is released on 9 May