Saturday, December 17, 2011

Progressive Masculinity in "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows"

I am always intrigued when a sequel is able to rise above the 60% mark on Rotten Tomatoes.  Thus, with Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows hovering in the low 60th percentiles and, therefore, acquiring the status of "certified fresh" I figured I would give it a go.  I must say that I wasn't disappointed either.  But, as I tell my students, just because I liked the film doesn't mean that I can't critique it.  So let the fun and spoilers begin.

In this installment of the continuing sagas of Sherlock Holmes the detective is manic about a professor named Moriarty... or is it really something else that has got Holmes all in a huff?  At the beginning of the film Watson stops by Holmes' apartment to find the detective in a manic state.  True, Holmes is on the trail of Professor James Moriarty, but Watson is there to celebrate his stag night before he weds and cares little for Holmes' new venture.  With Watson's marriage looming Holmes' manic state seems to be worsening; as Holmes' housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson, points out he's been recently subsiding on coffee, tobacco, and cocoa leaves.  Now it is nothing new to say that the Guy Ritchie versions of the Sherlock Holmes saga are full of innuendo between Robert Downey, Jr.'s Holmes and Jude Law's Watson.  There are so many different critics and bloggers that have commented on this:

[Holmes]... more or less sabotages Watson's bachelor party, makes something of a comedy out of the marriage ceremony itself, then invades the couple's honeymoon train-compartment dressed as a woman. He tosses Mary off the train, and -- in torn dress and smeared lipstick -- falls bare-chested to the berth, commanding, 'Lie down with me, Watson.'  - John Beifuss

And I am not here to argue with them.  The bromance between Watson and Holmes is alive and well in the second installment of the series.  My interest in how the latent love between Watson and Holmes, coupled with the surprising attributes of the other male characters, makes for a stunningly progressive take on masculinity in an action film.  These men aren't your what-is-bigger-my-pecs-my-gun-or-my-ahem-masculinity sort of men.  These men are smart, they cry, they are crafty, they have strange phobias, they love women, and they love other men.  They have, in some ways, broken out of the box of stereotypical masculinity and they've done so in an action film.  This is no small feat.

First, let's look at Holmes nemesis, Professor James Moriarty, played by Jared Hess.  Moriarty is ruthless and uses his intellect to devise a plan to make money by selling weaponry after igniting a world war.  Moriarty is smart, cunning, and uninterested in women in the film.  In most action films he would be made to seem effeminate and exude homosexual vibes since real men, well, penetrate in all aspects of their life.  However, if you contrast Moriarty with Holmes, there isn't much of a difference between the two.  Holmes is smart, cunning, and more interested in Watson then women.  The one thing that divides Moriarty from Holmes is that he wants to profit off his wits and, to do so, he's ruthless and cunning.  The differences between the men is so slight that it opens up new possibilities for the cinematic other -- they can be evil because they choose to be evil, not because there are anything but white, heterosexual, and male like our protagonist  (see my other blogs on the cinematic other to see what I'm talking about).

Also, interesting in this film is Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock's brother, played by Stephen Fry.  Mycroft is your stereotypical latent homosexual character.  He is effeminate, clean, and has a man servant with him at all times.  He is a committed bachelor who wonders around his house naked while telling the newly-minted and decidedly perturbed Mrs. Watson that he "might grow to enjoy the company of a person of your gender."  In your typical action film Mycroft Holmes would be the antagonist, he's everything a real-man is not.  But he's not the antagonist of this film.  In fact, he has a lot of power working in a unspecified job in the higher levels of the English government.  It is extremely unusual to see a character like Mycroft be so integral to the success of the main character in an action film and, also, live to see the end credits roll.

Allowing men to show compassion for another man (Watson and Holmes hold hands) and a series of personality quirks (Holmes hates horses and Mycroft doesn't like to touch other people) are newer contributions to the acceptable characteristic given to male characters in the action genre.  This expansion of the masculine box is the type of progress I am happy to report.  Now if only there were good things to say about the female characters in the film...  Oh well, one step forward, one step back.