Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows is a wretched little movie. There isn’t anything much to like here, and I thought long and hard about whether I was being fair: do I dislike Guy Ritchie’s film so much just because it has the bad fortune to inhabit the same cultural moment as Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’s infinitely superior Sherlock?
Probably, but too bad.
Getting closer to the camera isn't going to make me like you more.
This is a boring movie, and that’s the most damning adjective available, for movies. The most boring part of all is the interaction between Holmes and Watson, and how badly do you have to fuck up if you can make that boring? I ask you. So here is Ritchie’s chief sin, and it has nothing to do with the irritating slo-mo fights (that way all the fights get to happen TWICE, yippee!) or preeningly arty camera angles or even the self-conscious sepia steampunk of this imagined England. Hell, it’s not even that godawful flavor-saver on Jude Law’s mouth. No, Ritchie’s chief sin is that he has no idea what to do with myth.
Because Sherlock Holmes is the prototypical modern Western myth. Fandom, by most accounts, began with Sherlock Holmes. For the first time, a sort of collective hysteria gripped readers, and Conan Doyle’s fans even managed to exert enough pressure on the writer to force him to bring his hero back from what was intended to be his final end on the Reichenbach Falls, so spoiler alert, in case you’re illiterate and from before 1891. Fannishness is an engagement with the text so profound it upends authorial control of the story, and it would be hard to come up with a better example than those early Holmes fans wailing and tearing their hair outside Conan Doyle’s London townhouse – unless it’s 1960s Trekkies circulating samizdat fanfiction at Trek conventions, or the nine million Twilight photomanips on tumblr. I don’t personally understand fannish behavior; the Fitzwilliam Darcy action figure perched on my computer is a badge of ironic hipster humor, it should be obvious to anyone. And the Avengers action figures are there to help me think.
Mythdom works like sainthood did in the ancient church: you’re in if the people say you’re in. If you can get enough people to make a pilgrimage to your shrine, and buy your medals and fingerbones and whatnots, and if you can work up enough enthusiasm for your story, then boom, you’re a saint. (Getting your breasts cut off or your eyeballs torn out helps too.) After all, there’s a decent case to be made that fannishness began not in the late 19th century, but in the early fourth. So the people have spoken, and Sherlock Holmes belongs to all of us. By now there have been so many versions (and parodies) of Holmes that your average yurt-dweller would probably recognize the iconic deerstalker hat, if not the stories themselves.
Thus Guy Ritchie is screwed, because he doesn’t have the first clue what to do with myth. And what do you do with myth? You make it new. It’s as simple as that. If I’m telling a story that everybody knows (HINT: we know Sherlock falls off the fucking waterfall, asshole) you have to tell it in a new and interesting way, where interesting has nothing do with camera angles.
This is a lesson mastered by the Greeks some 2500 years ago. In the late fifth century BCE, Euripides wrote a play about Helen and the Trojan War. Only, Euripides wanted to make Helen a sympathetic figure to his audience (a tough sell) so he decided he would interpret the myth in an unusual way. In Euripides’ telling, Helen never got on that ship with Paris and ran away with him to Troy. No, see, what actually happened was, the gods tricked Paris into thinking he had the real Helen, when in fact what he had was a god-created phantom, and the real Helen was spirited away by the gods to Egypt, where she remained chaste and dutiful, waiting for her husband to come rescue her. So ten years of war, countless heroes dead, the blood-soaked destruction of Troy itself – all for less than nothing. The war wasn’t just petty; it was profoundly pointless. Paris never got his prize, and Menelaus never lost his wife. In re-interpreting the Trojan War myth cycle, Euripides was hinting at the larger emptiness behind every lying casus belli, every dead soldier who thinks he died for honor. That took some balls, in a society gripped by the final bloody throes of the Peloponnesian War, and whose young men were dying at a fearsome rate for the same honor Euripides mocked on that stage. Euripides didn’t tell a story; he interpreted it.
And that, of course, is Guy Ritchie’s sin. His tired, repetitive movie tells us what we already know, and doesn't interpret a single goddamn thing. Case in point: are they, or aren’t they? (Sleeping together, that is.) Homosexual or not, the relationship between Holmes and Watson certainly blurs the line between homosocial and homoerotic, and modern interpretations have to address this question in a way that fascinates and engages the audience. Moffat and Gatiss do it by turning all the surrounding characters into proxies for the doubts of the viewers—even their landlady thinks they’re gay, fer Chrissake! And so Martin Freeman’s poor Watson is perpetually shouting, I’m not gay! at a world that pats him on his repressed little head. It’s a funny bit, and it’s respectful of the real sexual tension as well as the real ambiguity in the Holmes-Watson relationship. Ritchie’s answer to this issue? Throw a dress on Holmes and make him and Watson roll around on the floor of a train. Hey, I know, put some make-up on Holmes, too! ‘Cuz that’ll be like, gay and stuff. Don’t gay people wear drag? Whatever, it’ll be funny.
What an ass.
"How sad is it that the nearest thing to honesty in this film is that I'm playing a cocaine addict?"
Anyway, I’m super depressed now, so I'm gonna go back to re-watching episode three of season two of the BBC Sherlock. And then I’m gonna have my Black Widow action figure make out with Hawkeye some more while Captain America and everybody watches. But, you know, ironically.