In recent years, a handful of model systems from the basal metazoan phylum Cnidaria have emerged to challenge long-held views on the evolution of animal complexity. The most-recent, and in many ways most-promising addition to this group is the starlet sea anemone, Nematostella vectensis. The remarkable amenability of this species to laboratory manipulation has already made it a productive system for exploring cnidarian development, and a proliferation of molecular and genomic tools, including the currently ongoing Nematostella genome project, further enhances the promise of this species. In addition, the facility with which Nematostella populations can be investigated within their natural ecological context suggests that this model may be profitably expanded to address important questions in molecular and evolutionary ecology. In this review, we explore the traits that make Nematostella exceptionally attractive as a model organism, summarize recent research demonstrating the utility of Nematostella in several different contexts, and highlight a number of developments likely to further increase that utility in the near future.