Friday, January 1, 2010

Sherlock Holmes as Super-Hero?

I watched the new Sherlock Holmes film (like millions of folks), and several thoughts occurred to me as I watched the film:

  • I could fully enjoy the film only after I got past the fact that the film was not a (re)telling of Holmes stories, but was a reinvention or reinterpretation of the characters. That is, the film is a re-boot of Sherlock Holmes—paying homage to Conan Doyle's stories, but recreating the character anew. Many reinventions of Holmes exist, and I have read a number of such re-boots, including my favorite, The Beekeeper's Apprenticeby Laurie King. This book is the first (and best, I think) in a series of books about Holmes as an older man, as told from the perspective of a teenage American who gets to know him. It is a bold reinvention of the Holmes character. (For really bizarre reinventions of the character, read Sherlock Holmes Through Time and Space.)

  • What's with the urge to make heroes into superheroes? For those of you who haven't seen the film, this version of Sherlock Holmes likes to fight—hand-to-hand, naked-torso-to-naked-torso fights. He uses his substantial mental powers to calculate just the right angle and velocity of a punch to knock out his opponent.

  • While watching the film, I kept thinking about Bruce Wayne—and an appropriate 1-sentence movie summary could be:

"Bruce Wayne placed in Victorian England and played by Iron Man actor; Alfred the Butler morphs into Watson and Catwoman becomes Irene Adler"

Bruce Wayne and the original, Conan-Doyle version of Holmes share several characteristics. They both:

    • are excellent detectives;
    • are incredibly smart, clever, and well-read;
    • enjoy an intellectual challenge;
    • trust almost no one;
    • are comfortable with moral ambiguity.

Add superb physical prowess to Holmes's already considerable arsenal—as director Guy Ritchie does—and this Holmes is even more like Batman, without the latter's costume or the alter ego. (Of course, Conan Doyle's and Ritchie's Holmes each have several alter egos and costumes that are used in pursuit of quarry—such as dressing up as beggars, or laborers like chimney sweeps, and cab drivers.)

  • Why do we elevate heroes into super-heroes? (Note—I've added a hyphen to "super-heroes" to refer to regular heroes with "super-abilities," as distinct from the typical masked, caped, or supernaturally powered "superheroes" such as those by DC and Marvel.) I think that several factors play into the popularity of super-powered heroism like that of Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes (and that of Jack Bauer of 24—whose super-abilities include the capacities to withstand and to afflict torture on a regular basis, or Eliza Dushku's character, Echo, in the last half of the 2nd season of Dollhouse):

1. In a post-9/11 world, there an undeniable appeal of a better-than-human hero who can accomplish more that most heroes, at least to Americans (any why do I specify American here? That a topic for another blog).

2. Super-abled heroes remind us of our childhood (when all adults were more powerful than we kids were), and when "heroic" adults would swoop in to help us when we needed them to. These super-abled heroic adults were typically smarter, stronger, faster, and often more moral than were we kids.

3. Super-hero stories are comforting because we know that all will turn out well in the en. Even though we may feel tense as the story unfolds, we know in our hearts that in (American) super-hero, good will triumph over evil.

Sherlock Holmes was fun, and had a huge budget behind it (in production) and in front of it (in marketing). He's a Victorian super-hero now, and like superheroes in film, we'll be seeing more of this super-hero in the years to come. Will Sherlock Holmes backpacks, lunch boxes, and t-shirts be far behind?

Happy new year!


  1. Fascinating post, Robin - though the concept of "Iron Man" playing Batman (one step removed) blew my mind. (Of course, no more than Deadpool and Green Lantern potentially being portrayed by the same actor will!)