If the novice seeks to understand fan-fiction, forget Fifty Shades of Gray – you could go far worse than start with the latest in Guy Richie’s Sherlock Holmes franchise. In the truest traditions of the genre, it buzzes with geeky sentimentality and Conan-Doyle in-jokes, but it manages to unite this nerd instinct with a sense of the absolute best a modern blockbuster has to offer – quick wit, huge explosions and an iconic wardrobe.
The ‘game’ of the film’s title is an international web of political intrigue and anarchist terrorism climaxing at an international summit in Reichenbach, and a diplomatic dance across a chequer-board ballroom floor. It’s a fast-paced border hopping steampunk adventure, crossing Western Europe with a boundless energy that defies the viewer to get bored. A sense of the unsettling interconnectedness of events, with powerful first movers at the centre of the web, neatly mirrors the malevolent secret society plot of the first film, and both installments seem to address a zeitgeisty fear of the powerful elite and their vast networks. Robert Downey Jnr’s Holmes must be the postmodern hero of the hour – he must be clever, connected and good with new technologies in order to log onto and subvert the network. Our hero’s social world is expanding to include vital figures such as his brother Mycroft, a one man British government played as an amiable but distracted clever-fool by Stephen Fry, and new sidekick the gypsy Madame Sims, who brings an alternative cultural viewpoint and niche set of skills to the table.
The heart and soul of the franchise, though, is the delicious relationship between Holmes and his Doctor Watson, played with the same unexpected charm of the first film by Jude Law. Bromance is rarely achieved in modern cinema without a side helping of misogyny, and A Game of Shadows is no different in that it mostly associates women with domesticity, and domesticity itself with the constraining of male self-expression. But the pain of this is mostly neutralized by the irresistible queer reading of the Holmes and Watson relationship. When Holmes pushes Watson’s wife off a speeding train, the film is signposting the homoerotic subtext of the books with a cheery bombast typical of the franchise. Where Holmes and Watson were flirtatious ‘bros’ in the first film, they’re now a married couple straight out of screwball comedy. Perhaps in the next film, it would be nice to see a female character fit comfortably alongside this relationship, as Noomi Rapace’s sadly underwritten gypsy knife-thrower fails to make any real impact.
The most commendable aspect of the franchise, however, is its ability to find continuity between a long-dead, pre-war era and the concerns of modern comic-book superheroism. 1890s literature offers familiar tropes to contemporary culture, particularly the symbiosis between the antisocial super hero and his arch nemesis – but it was also a golden age of literary male friendship. Yet there is more to the sense of familiarity we have with the era – we share a fear and awe of the power of technology, and we also have a richly multicultural landscape to navigate, only now as a product of globalization rather than empire. The message of Sherlock Holmes is that the hero must be adaptable to change – the detective of the original stories still seems strikingly modern, and in A Game of Shadows he must master the modern world with its surgical innovations, new chemical formulas and high speed transport. Luckily Holmes is a modern enough action hero to meet these challenges; the viewer is advised to be similarly adaptable to change.