So, Benedict Cumberbatch and Robert Downy Jr. Which of the two is the better Sherlock Holmes?
Like many such questions, the answer need only boil down to individual taste. Both actors play the same fictional character in a similar way; sometimes quirky, sometimes downright eccentric, but always with a killer wit and a British accent. Both Holmes’ portrayals also have a playful, on-again-off-again relationship with his sidekick, Dr. Watson, and while both have their share of very thinly-veiled homoeroticism (one version is a bit more obvious about it than the other), Sherlock Holmes and his partner in crime-solving are always congruent with mainstream, unread ideas about the character.
What do I mean by that, you ask? Well, what does the average person who has never read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle know about Sherlock Holmes?
…If you answered something along the lines of, “he’s weird, but very smart,” that is probably correct. As long as a portrayal sticks to that basic description and comes across as fairly likeable, the average movie-goer is satisfied.
Let’s look at some of the basics of each role:
Cumberbatch’s Holmes is a bit more suave than his scruffy Downey counterpart, and while he too has many funny lines (usually revolving around his misunderstandings about social norms), his writers explicitly label him as a high-functioning sociopath. Because of the TV show format (every episode of the show is as long as a full-feature movie), we are allowed to see his flaws more highlighted and expanded upon, as he struggles to relate and care about others beyond the potential of challenges and amusement. The movie, on the other hand, mostly uses Sherlock’s faux pas strictly for humor, and virtually nothing he does has lasting consequences on the relationships in his life.
In both versions, Holmes is also heavily compared to Professor Moriarty, a criminal mastermind whose intellect is frequently described as being on par with that of Holmes himself. He was less prominent in the original book series, but has since become a major enemy and foil to Sherlock, contrasting what little humanity he can sometimes feel with wanton cruelty and depravity, emotionalism that is expressed and directed in socially-unacceptable ways.
It is heavily implied that, had these men chosen a different path in life, they could very well have switched places.
Interestingly enough, Movie Moriarty contrasts with Downey’s character by literally being everything that Downey isn’t; suave, debonair, perfectly blending in with the world around him. This man contributes to society by teaching and donating, rather than assisting the police force and insulting them the entire time.
TV Show Moriarty, on the other hand, is fairly underwhelming at first glance. He blends in too much until his villain persona is revealed, and that appears to be very immature and almost child-like, as he giggles, wastes time, and occasionally has to stop himself from full-on, screaming rage.
TV Show Moriarty was built up and kept a secret more effectively than Movie Moriarty, whose voice gives off enough presence by itself. Listening to him speak to Irene at any given time, you know pretty much everything you need to know about him on an almost instinctual level, before his face and machinations are truly revealed.
TV Show Moriarty had a bit more ease with which to hide, as the show is set in modern day and deals with themes like abundant, fully-integrated technology. He almost seems to revel in his anonymity, and the ease with which he can disappear, spy on, and command other people, whereas the movie’s character sits calmly and quietly, pretty much right up until the very end, like he is playing a difficult but engaging game of chess.
Smooth, maybe, but a little too traditional.
This gent is more of a typical mustache-twirler villain – an upper class Snidely Whiplash, if you will – while his TV show counterpart is less polished, but new and interesting. And how he relates to Sherlock is a bit more compelling than just “we’re not so different, you and I.”
A point goes to the TV show!
But hey, that’s a nice segue! Let’s now consider the Dr. John Watsons.
Depending on whom you are, you might get a kick out of the fact that Bilbo and Smaug are now awkwardly flirting and solving crimes together. They have good friend chemistry, as Watson seems to have his own Diet-Sherlock tendencies (like being bored with the peaceful, post-military life and longing to go back to the excitement and bloodshed). He’s interesting and compelling, definitely, but personally, I’m just not sure he can beat Movie Watson, who tends to be a little less lost and befuddled and more drily witty and irritable. His bickering with Downey, as well as the fact that his partner keeps dragging him back into crazy Sherlock world no matter how much he tells himself he wants to escape, is adorable and hilarious.
Here, at last, I award a point to the movie. Props to you, Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law.
But what about the brother character? Another figure who is close to Holmes, bringing out his complex personality through their interactions with one another?
Mycroft Holmes is also similar to Sherlock in many ways, but in the movie he seems to have a good relationship with Sherlock, while in the TV show it is clearly strained, perpetuated more by a grudging need for favors than genuine care and respect. Here, we can definitively say that the brother serves a very real and defined purpose in one version while being mostly superfluous in the other.
Movie Mycroft doesn’t challenge or change “Sherly” in any meaningful way; he’s just there for the sake of the plot, the humor, and the very necessary scene where he talks to Watson’s new wife, unashamedly naked.
Ugh…the point goes to the TV show, once again.
Finally, I address Sherlock Holmes himself. While Downey’s character is amusing and does more than enough to fluidly carry the rough-and-tumble films to their full 130-ish minutes, Cumberbatch is better at delivering dialogue and coming across as more socially stunted than just a generally eccentric weirdo. His movements still have tons of energy, and his face reflects the same speed and excitement of his thoughts as well, but it never really comes across as too hammy or played-up for the camera. It seems more natural and plausible, which helps to ground the story when it goes off into downright otherworldly sinister schemes and towering crime organizations.
Also, Sherlock uses certain book plots as a basis and changes them up a bit, which, while not the most faithful way to adapt a story, may intrigue book lovers enough to draw them into the show.
Some episodes drag a little, though, so you win some and you lose some.
I’ll happily go see a new movie if one comes out, but face it: Downey’s version is almost as cartoonish as Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective.
If only they’d had Vincent Price…
*None of the images in this post belong to me. Thank you for reading.