History has taught film fans to be sceptical of anyone who tries to reinvigorate beloved franchises. When JJ Abram's Star Trek reboot arrived in the summer of 2009, this scepticism was fresher on audiences minds than ever before, with the looming releases of Wolverine's much-maligned spin-off movie and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, a film so bad that Michael Bay's children have since signed a pact not to reproduce, thus cutting off the infamous Bay bloodline forever.

With this in mind, the opening scene of that year's Star Trek was one of the most pleasant surprises in recent memory. It was shiny and pristine, had audience members in tears (in the first five minutes! Of a Star Trek film! There should be an Academy Award for achievements that unexpected!) and in one fell swoop set up a clever get out of jail free clause for the new franchise – placing the entire thing in an alternate time-line from Captain Kirk's Shatner years. The scene came to be representative of everything the film as a whole succeeded at – intelligent drama, action, genuine heart, and great big metal buildings floating in space and shooting each other.

Like The Dark Knight before it, Star Trek set up a near impossible challenge for its sequel. How do you top something that will likely be remembered as the franchise's pinnacle? Both The Dark Knight Rises and Star Trek Into Darkness came up with the same answer – the same again, but this time with an English bad guy and an extra ten minutes running time.

Abrams and his writing team open with an Indiana Jones In Space set-piece, succinctly catching us up on the various crew-members' relationships in the process. James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) is pissed off at Spock (Zachary Quinto) for getting him what turns out to be the shortest-lived demotion in film history, Nyota Uhura (Zoe Saldana) is pissed off at Spock because of his seeming selfishness, and Karl Urban's Bones is pissed off at Spock because he's Bones, and Bones is always pissed off at everybody. Yep, the whole crew is back, right down to Simon Pegg's Scotty and his dried-up Ferrero Rocher friend.

Where the first film essentially played out like a dramatic version of Police Academy, only set in the future and with Kim Cattrall replaced with a green alien, Into Darkness sees the crew facing up against a dangerous terrorist going by the name of John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch).

There's always been a suggestion that Hollywood's obsession with British villains stems from a sort of post-colonial racism. It's certainly true that films sometimes seem to go out of their way to make a bad guy British – Star Trek Into Darkness marks the second blockbuster in a month to re-imagine a traditionally Asian foe as one of us. The film makes valid points against this idea of historic tension, though, essentially stating it's case thusly: actually, British actors just make ridiculously good villains. We should be proud of our cinematic heritage! Whilst American actors spend their time morphing slowly into shop window mannequins or neckless action heroes, British actors seem to spend theirs sitting in dark rooms in North London, slowly developing world class scowls and subtly terrifying utterances.

As villains go, Benedict Cumberbatch is outstanding. He is everything one would want from a cinematic nemesis; equal parts charismatic and brutal. In achieving his goals, the mysterious John Harrison is ruthless, but he is also intensely clever. It would have been easy for the scene in which Harrison is captured and locked in a glass vault to echo the similar situation War Horse co-star Tom Hiddleston found himself in during The Avengers. Instead it becomes impossible not to see elements of a young Alan Rickman in Cumberbatch's wry smile and slow, devious speech.

So electric is the performance that the audience is occasionally caught cheering on the wrong man. He is likeable, though it's hard to place exactly why. For a little while we are led to believe that it is because Harrison is a victim himself – though in reality he is anything but. No – the reason Cumberbatch is so damned likeable is because the rest of the cast feels a little... diluted. Nobody packs quite the punch they did in the first film. Spock gets the most meat to his role, but last time round had to deal with his entire home planet being destroyed. Though he tries admirably, Zachary Quinto just cannot muster the Keanu Reeves style of acting required to play 'detached alien' convincingly. Chris Pine, meanwhile, has far less fun than he did in his first outing as Kirk. One of the real pleasures in 2009's film was watching a leading man who lost every fight he was in. There's still an element of that, but it's less obvious. Maybe I'm being to harsh on Pine, but I wanted to see him get beaten around a bit more. Kirk's famous womanising is limited to one scene early on, and even then you can't help but feel his second bedfellow was only added to push harder that idea of Pine being irresistible. The problem is this: he isn't. As all the press leading up to Into Darkness' release made abundantly clear (as well as the cheers of the fans outside the film's UK premiere last week), the real star of the show is Benedict Cumberbatch. He doesn't just steal the film, he engulfs it. When, in the thundering third act, he disappears for a few minutes, the entire film seems to grind to a halt.

Some have suggested that Into Darkness is a poor choice of title, given the way JJ Abram's signature direction fills the screen with glimmers and glares. I'd argue that Into Darkness comes close to describing the fate the film could have seen. Nothing is so poor as to be fairly described as weak, and for the 132 minute run-time you'd be hard pressed to pick out a moment during which you are not enjoying yourself. The problem is, when these moments do come they are marked clearly by the absence of Benedict Cumberbatch – and slowly you come to realise that Into Darkness would have been another sequel pushed back into the shadows had it not been for one towering performance.