It's no accident that the opening sequence of Star Trek Into Darkness involves Captain Kirk doing something he's done time and again in earlier incarnations - breaking the rules to get the job done. What IS surprising is that this time, the event is used as a catalyst to provoke some real character work in the young captain.
William Shatner's Captain Kirk was a product of the Kennedy era, a charismatic leader who inspired those around him to greater things by taking chances that no one else would have taken. He broke the rules in an era where that was celebrated, and displayed wisdom that salvaged calamities that might have gone horribly wrong under another leader. Yes, Shatner's Kirk had swagger, but it was tempered by experience.
Chris Pine's Kirk is - by design - very different in some respects. He's got the strut, but its unearned. Where Shatner's Kirk rose through the ranks and (presumably) got knocked down enough to temper his cockiness, Pine's Kirk lacks that experience. Instead, he was arguably rewarded for it, being accelerated straight to captain out of the Academy. It's easy to understand the logic at work there - Kirk saved Earth from a madman who devastated an entire fleet and destroyed Vulcan. His leadership - doing what no one else could have done - is the reason Starfleet and the human race survive. It's not hard to imagine Starfleet heads recognizing the PR value of their new golden boy.
Into Darkness feels partly like an effort to address critics who felt that Kirk wasn't ready for the captain's chair at the end of the first film. It's a tense thrill-ride designed to knock the ego out of the man with the devil-may-care attitude and put him on the path to being the leader he's meant to be, and viewed through that lens, it's largely effective.
The opening scene I alluded to earlier involves the Enterprise crew trying to stop an volcano from erupting and destroying all life on this planet. Problem: the civilization there is very primitive, so the Prime Directive applies - Starfleet cannot interfere in the natural order. Spock executes a daring plan to set off a device inside the volcano that will stop the magma, but in the process he's stranded inside. To save him, Kirk will have to order the Enterprise to leave its hiding spot in the ocean, thus exposing the primitive inhabitants of the planet to evidence of life - or a higher power - beyond their own world. This, of course, is a direct violation of one of Starfleet's most sacred principles.
So naturally Kirk exposes the ship and saves Spock, despite his first officer's own reminder that "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few." This lands him in hot water back at Starfleet, exacerbated by the fact that he filed a false report omitting the offending details, only to be busted when Spock's report details the truth in full. Kirk's threatened with being sent back to the Academy, but Admiral Pike steps in and manages to get that reduced to a mere reduction in rank to first officer of the Enterprise.
(I want to underline something here - Kirk is disciplined not only for exposing the ship to save Spock, but for taking on the rescue mission in the first place. Yes, Starfleet orders dictated that even if the mission had gone undetected, Kirk was in the wrong for saving a civilization that would have otherwise died. As out of whack as those priorities sound, it's consistent with how the Prime Directive was applied in two TNG eps, "Pen Pals" and "Homeward." Though Kirk may have too much passion, Starfleet's rigidity has its own failings too.)
The first film might have been about Kirk getting the captain's char, but this film is about him truly earning the seat, and he starts as soon as he's busted down in rank. One of Kirk's traits is that he's too easily governed by his passions. He acts before he thinks. Following a terrorist attack on a Starfleet installation in London, and emergency meeting of ranking officers is called. Kirk is the only one to figure out - just in time to be too late - that immediately reacting this way according to procedure is exactly what their adversary is counting on. And indeed, the meeting is attacked, with most of the officers killed, including Admiral Pike.
Though Kirk doesn't prevent the attack, it's notable that it's the first time we see him really thinking about a situation and not intuitively reacting to it. Right after that, Admiral Marcus gives Kirk the Enterprise back and sends him after the terrorist on a mission of revenge. This is complicated by the fact they've traced the terrorist into Klingon space and tensions with everyone's favorite bumpy-foreheaded race are so high that war seems inevitable.
So to that end, Marcus has the Enterprise equipped with long-range torpedoes and gives Kirk orders to fire them from outside Klingon space. The terrorist is not to be taken alive. Kirk's too blinded by revenge to question the unprincipled nature of these orders - or more likely, they give him an excuse to do what he wants to do any way. Others around him aren't so swayed. Scotty resigns in protest, and both McCoy and Spock push back so hard that Kirk embraces a more difficult plan to make an incursion into Klingon space and bring the terrorist into custody.
I like this a lot for what it does with Kirk's character. Shatner's Kirk was more or less fully formed and the original films rarely tried to achieve any real growth in his character. The lone exception might be his hatred of the Klingons in Star Trek VI and how he's forced to get past that. Even there, Shatner's Kirk handles things maturely despite finding his mission repugnant. Put Pine's Kirk in that film and he'd have openly insulted the Klingon Chancellor before the salad course was served at their dinner.
By the end of the film, Kirk has become a wiser, more mature commander. I like the note that the film ends on, essentially bringing Kirk's characterization more in line with the TV series-era Shatner. I feel like some of that is getting lost amid the nitpicking and arguments about canon.
I guess I can't get out of this without addressing some of the more hot-button issues in the film, so I'll touch on them in brief. Bigger spoilers await below, so don't say you weren't warned.
The Admiral's plot - It's one of the bigger weak points for me. We're never really given reason to understand why Admiral Marcus so badly wants a war with the Klingons. The province that Kirk's attack is supposed to target is uninhabited, so unless the torpedoes were secretly programmed with other targets, I don't see this working as a Pearl Harbor-like first-strike to cripple the enemy. Maybe a better solution would have been to make it appear that the Klingons were working in collusion with John Harrison, thus giving Starfleet apparent justification for a real preemptive strike.
The Klingons - Some fans argued that the marketing should have played up the Klingons. Having seen the film, I understand why they didn't. Their screentime is very limited and is little more than a plot device. If they had played up the Klingons in the trailers, those same fans would be arguing that J.J. Abrams mislead everyone into thinking the Klingons were a major part of the story. Having said that, I would have liked a little more depth to the background of the Klingon conflict.
John Harrison - I liked the Khan reveal and I like that he was used in an entirely different way here. It makes total sense to me that Section 31 would become more aggressive following the death of Vulcan. The fact that they tried to recruit Bashir in an episode of DS9 also suggests they see the value in genetically-enhanced operatives. Them seeking out Khan makes sense to me under those terms. They're arrogant enough to think they can control him, and Khan's smart enough to outmaneuver that. It's a good use of the character without merely retreading his two previous appearances.
The in-jokes and allusions to other Trek - I liked seeing Sulu get to play Captain briefly. Arguably that laid more groundwork for the character's eventual path to command than anything the original series did. The scene that invoked "New Vulcan" was a nice touch too. And hey, it was fun to see a Tribble, even if their appearance here is yet another divergence from the old timeline. But I guess this is also the most appropriate place to discuss one of the climactic moments....
Even with spoiler warnings, I'm loathe to get too in-depth here. I think the sequence I'm alluding to does a nice job of reinventing a moment from an earlier film and making it relevant to the journeys of all involved characters. A more superficial viewer might call it a ripoff, but here it's put into a context that gives the scene a different meaning that allows it to stand on its own. The emotional impact almost certainly is deepened by recognizing the callback, but I don't believe it's essential.
Basically, it's an homage done with purpose and for me, that elevates it beyond being a rip-off or in-joke. (That said, the line spoken - or rather, shouted - at the end of the scene might be a case of pushing things too far. I'm not sure it's totally earned.)
Bottom line: I liked the film a lot and I'll be eager to see it again. My wife is a near-total stranger to Trek and she loved the first Abrams film, so I'm hoping to coax her into being my "control group" for this one.