“I trust that age doth not wither nor custom stale my infinite variety.“
-Sherlock Holmes, “The Adventure of the Empty House”
Look up at the sky! Unfortunately it is neither a bird, nor a plane, and sadly it is not Superman either. What it is however, is Marvel Studios’ revenue climbing upwards with no signs of slowing down. The past decade has undoubtedly pampered fans of multiple pop culture properties quite well. From Marvel and DC comics’ adaptations on the big screen, to Star Wars seeing a new breath of life after a long hiatus, and even to the unexpected success of many television shows such as Game of Thrones, there has never been a better time to be a fan of such media. Among these, perhaps the one that has garnered the most success is concept of superheroes on the big screen. Marvel laid the groundwork for well made, long running film franchises, and others have tried (to varying degrees of successful) to emulate it for themselves. In a manner of speaking the current era is a rebirth of the superhero genre. They truly have leapt out of the pages of the comics and onto the big screen. However, the idea of superheroes is not all that new. For argument’s sake, Sherlock Holmes could be thought of a superhero as well, and hopefully it will not take too much convincing to give validity to that claim.
The image that one conjures in their minds when they hear the word ‘superhero’ is most likely that of Superman, majestic cape and all. However, as the years have gone by, the concept of the superhero has become a lot more malleable. The unyielding integrity of Spider-Man or the ruthless tactics deployed by Batman both make for very compelling characters. However, what most do not realize is that the ‘superhero’ figure has been there in the human consciousness for a long time. The word itself dates back to 1899 (Merriam-Webster), but the concept ties back into Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, where he lays the groundwork for the ‘hero’s journey’, as mentioned in the first chapter. The idea of a hero, someone greater than the average man, has existed as far back as the stories of Hercules. In the modern landscape, this idea has merely changed its outer appearance, transforming from ‘hero’ into ‘superhero’. This is quite amusing, as initially the ‘super’ represented the possession of superhuman abilities, but as the times neared the post-modern age, the high fantasy elements of flight or superhuman strength found their spaces to be shared more and more with elements that appeared to be a lot closer to reality. For example, Batman is only a regular human being, possessing abilities that are all attainable by a regular human being. Regardless, this concept of the superhero has been put in the forefront of the public consciousness, making it the newest vessel of the heroic archetype. So, how does Sherlock Holmes factor into this?
Sherlock Holmes, or rather the idea of Sherlock Holmes works surprisingly well in this scenario. For one thing, he is definitely on the side of the law; that appears to be the number one criteria for being a superhero. Though he may display questionable behavior, he has proven to be morally superior in his decisions on more than one occasion. Returning once more to his questionable actions in “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton”, the reason Holmes breaks into the man’s house is only because he (and the reader) fully understands how horrid Milverton is, in addition to being untouchable by the legal system itself. Holmes purposefully throws himself in harm’s way, putting his life and career on the line, in order to retrieve documents that would otherwise allow Milverton to carry out the heinous crime of blackmail. He states himself how there exist some crimes that “law cannot touch” (Doyle, “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton”), showing that somewhere behind the machine, really does lie the heart of gold Watson keeps alluding to. Yet, what is a superhero without a supervillain, or arch nemesis? Superman has Lex Luthor, Spider-Man has the Green Goblin, and Batman has the Joker. What of the supposed superhero that is Sherlock Holmes? Enter professor James Moriarty.
To his misfortune, the professor only appears in one Holmes story, “The Final Problem”, and is merely mentioned in passing in another (The Valley of Fear). However, even with only one short story seeing him as a prominent figure, he is forever remembered by the readers, as that story was the very one where Holmes gives his life fighting against Moriarty to the bitter end. The champion sleuth cannot be beaten by any old criminal, no. It requires, as Holmes put it, the “Napoleon of crime”, a criminal with the level of intellect as Holmes himself, to defeat the greatest detective in London (Doyle, “The Final Problem”). From a crude, elementary point of view, Holmes, Watson and Moriarty can very well represent superhero, sidekick and super villain. Indeed many probably see it that way, even if there are many more layers to the equation than meets the eye at first glance.
Recent adaptations raise Moriarty to even greater heights and always find a way to make him the ultimate villain in all of them. Much like the many versions of Holmes and Watson, there exist a wide variety of professor James Moriarty, from an unassuming female therapist (Miss Sherlock, 2018) to a bisexual, sociopath with sudden bursts of rage (Sherlock, 2010). Holmes and Moriarty, detective and criminal, superhero and arch nemesis, whatever they are looked as, there is no understating just how vibrant the dynamics are between the two. One superhuman genius in the story makes it interesting enough, but with another, that too standing in his way, will always serve to bring back readers and audiences from all walks of life.
Doyle, Arthur Conan. The Complete Sherlock Holmes. Geddes & Grosset, 2001.