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Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Tag Archives: Benedict Cumberbatch

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Benedict Cumberbatch can’t throw a punch. At least not when he’s playing Sherlock Holmes. Khan in Star Trek into Darkness throws plenty of punches, but he’s a eugenically bred superman. Dr. Watson reports in A Study in Scarlet, Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes novel, that the “excessively lean” detective is “an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman,” but we have to take his word on it.

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I wouldn’t know what a “singlestick” is if not for Jonny Lee Miller’s portrayal of Holmes in the aggressively updated CBS series Elementary.  A singlestick, it turns out, is a stick you smack your opponent on the top of the head with. That’s what the BBC wanted to do to CBS when they heard the Americanized Holmes was premiering in 2012, because CBS had been in talks about producing a version of the BBC’s already aggressively updated Sherlock. But then the BBC would have to accept a head smack from Warner Bros. since Sherlock premiered a year after the 2009 Sherlock Holmes hit theaters.

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Sherlock is the bastard brainchild of two Dr. Who writers; Elementary midwife Robert Doherty cut his teeth on Star Trek: Voyager; and the Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes started life as a comic book that producer Lionel Wigman penned instead of the usual spec script. When director Guy Ritchie got his hands on it, he was thinking Batman Begins. The Marvel formula was succeeding at box offices by then too, so Holmes’ superpowered intellect would have to be “as much of a curse as it was a blessing.”

A young Holmes should have nixed the forty-something Mr. Downey, but who can say no to Iron Man? Especially when Ritchie planned to restore all of Doyle’s “intense action sequences” other adaptations left out. You know, like when Holmes sneaks aboard the bad guys’ boat in “The Solution of a Remarkable Case”:

“With a lightning‑like movement he seized the hand which held the knife. Then, exerting all of his great strength, he bent the captain’s wrist quickly backward. There was a snap like the breaking of a pipe‑stem, and a yell of pain from the captain. Nick’s left arm shot out and his fist landed with terrific force squarely on the fellow’s nose.”

Oh no, wait. That’s not Sherlock. That’s Nick Carter. I’ve been getting them confused lately, and I’m not the only one. Carter premiered as a 13-episode serial in New York Weekly in 1886, the year before A Study in Scarlet premiered in England’s Beeton’s Christmas Annual. Carter was created by John R. Coryell and Ormond G. Smith, but Street & Smith (future publisher of the Shadow and Doc Savage) hired Frederick Van Rensselaer Dey to write over a thousand anonymous dime novels between 1891 and 1915 when Nick Carter Weekly changed to Detective Story Magazine.

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Doyle wrote a mere four novels and 56 short stories, with the rare “action sequence” lasting about a sentence: “He flew at me with a knife, and I had to grasp him twice, and got a cut over the knuckles, before I had the upper hand of him.”New York Times film reviewer A. O. Scott labels Holmes a “proto-superhero,” one who’s “never been much for physical violence,” crediting the Downey incarnation for the innovation of making the detective “a brawling, head-butting, fist-in-the-gut, knee-in-the-groin action hero” (what one commenter called “The precise opposite of Sherlock Holmes”). The film opens with Downey in a bare-knuckled boxing match, displaying the skills Doyle only hints at. Apparently Holmes once went three rounds with a prize-fighter who tells him, “Ah, you’re one that has wasted your gifts, you have! You might have aimed high, if you had joined the fancy.”

Nick Carter, on the other hand, has the fancy: “He bounded forward and seized in an iron grasp the man whom he had just struck. Then, raising him from the floor as though he were a babe, the detective hurled him bodily, straight at the now advancing men.” Yes, in addition to all of Holmes’ sleuthing powers, Carter has superhuman strength. And a bit of a temper—the secret ingredient American producers feel is missing from all those stodgy British incarnations.

Jonny Lee Miller’s Holmes doesn’t hurl men like babes, but he has broken a finger or two sucker punching serial killers. The leap over the Atlantic has made the Elementary detective’s passions more violent than his London predecessors. He also has a tendency to wander onto screen shirtless, displaying tattoos and a well-curated physique. His drug problems seems to be a carry-over from his Trainspotting days, which means the English accent is as authentic as Cumberbatch’s. In fact, Miller and his BBC counterpart co-starred in a London production of Frankenstein in 2011. You’ll never guess who played the doctor and who the monster. Literally, you’ll never guess—because Miller and Cumberbatch swapped parts nightly. Mr. Downey was busy completing the sequel Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, and so was not available for matinees.

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Plans for a Sherlock Holmes 3 have been in talks too, but Downey was busy with Avengers, Iron Man 3 and now Avengers 2. Why settle for a proto-superhero when you can play a real one? At least the long-delayed season 3 of Sherlock finally arrived. It was perfectly fun watching a barefoot and CGI-shrunken Martin Freeman chat with Cumberbatch’s growly dragon in Hobbit 2, but nothing beats the Holmes-Watson bromance—a delight the otherwise delightful Jude Law and Lucy Liu can’t quite deliver with their Frankenstein partners. Sherlock is also the last show my family still watches as a family, so I don’t mind the BBC cauterizing the Nick Carterization of the character.

Of course Nick has evolved since the 19th century too: a 30s pulp run, a 40s radio show, a 60s book series. I have the anonymously written Nick Carter: The Redolmo Affair on my shelf. It’s a musty James Bond knock-off I found in a vacation house and kept in exchange for whatever I was reading at the time. I can’t bring myself to flip more than a few pages:  “I streamrollered my shoulder into his gut and sent us both crashing to the deck. I got my hands on his throat and started squeezing. His fist was smashing down on my head, hammering into my skull.”

In Nick’s defense, Doyle considered Sherlock Holmes schlock too. He hurled him over a cliff so he could stop writing his character—but the detective keeps bouncing back. Elementary is certain to be renewed for a third season, and the Sherlock season 3 finale is a cliffhanger with the next two seasons already plotted. The biggest mystery is how they’ll keep Cumberbatch out of a boxing ring.

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J. J. Abrams is not bashful about 9/11. He blew up the Vulcan home world in his 2009 Star Trek reboot and said afterwards he was aiming for the World Trade Center. The sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness, literally spells it out with a 9/11 dedication in the ending credits. Not that anyone was going to miss the parallels. An enormous, hijacked spaceship takes a suicidal plunge into a 20th century-looking cityscape and levels a block of skyscrapers? I think we’ve seen this episode before.

I admit I was startled, teetering on repulsed, to see such extreme 9/11 imagery employed for mere box office fun.  And the movie really is fun. Osama Bin Laden is played by Star Trek uber-villain Khan, who’s played by—no, not the Corinthian leather guy in the white, Fantasy Island suit, but Benedict Cumberbatch, who BBC fans already adore as their most recent Sherlock (in addition to commandeering a starship, Benedict dethroned Basil Rathbone for most flamboyantly named Holmes actor).

Cumberbatch also plays Adolf Hitler. In Star Trek mythology, Khan is the abortive product of the so-called Eugenics Wars of the 1990s. Here on our Earth, we call that World War II. The Nazis were exterminating unfit races in the service of a cleaner, ubermensch-friendly gene pool. Cumberbatch’s Khan even boasts a strain of Dalek (a latent BBC gene presumably) and so wants to expand his extermination program to a universal scale.

I’ve written elsewhere (“Heirs of Slytherin the Virginia State House”) how eugenics keeps providing Hollywood with 21st century supervillains, including most recently Voldemort, Magneto, Red Skull, and the Lizard. In my theater, Khan was scheming a room over from Iron Man 3, where evil genius Aldrich Killian upgrades himself and his minions into the “new iteration of human evolution.” But Abrams is less interested in the war of the fittest than the War on Terror.

It turns out our C.I.A. drones are fueled, literally, by more of those evil supermen. The military brass want Kirk to fire them at a targeted terrorist. No trial, no jury, just a remote control execution, what the U.S. authorizes daily in the Middle East.  Obviously Spock objects. And soon we learn a rogue admiral is undermining the very principles that America—I mean, the Federation—was founded on.

The Enterprise was always a Cold War vehicle, so there’s some whiplash in the political retooling. The admiral is Peter Frederick Weller, reprising his equally treasonous role from season five of 24 (a franchise Fox is planning to reboot too). Weller wants to safeguard us against wars to come, but the real threat is the lure of vengeance (also the name of his ship). Even a liberal-blooded half-Vulcan can long to beat the murderer of his best friend into uber-pulp. But that won’t bring him back to life. Only the DNA-fit blood of a still-living superman can do that. So listen to your girlfriend, and keep phasers on stun.

Despite the glaring plot parallels, I doubt Star Trek Into Darkness is going to stir the same waters as Zero Dark Thirty. Which is too bad. More people have already seen it. Science fiction is an especially apt vehicle for allegory—though also one easily ignored (I’m still astonished how season 3 of Battlestar Galactica, an overt representation of the U.S. occupation of Iraq told from the sympathetic POV of human suicide bombers against their literally inhuman oppressors, all but escaped political analysis). American consumers prefer their entertainment entertaining, not thought-provoking. A fact Mr. Abrams fully embraces. His Star Treks are satisfying romps, spiced with just enough current events to create a pleasing patina of relevance.

The reboot of Khan is first and foremost a reboot of Khan. It even prompted my family to look up the original episode on Hulu. For all its talk of selective breeding, the 1967 “Space Seed” is, I was surprised to find, anything but eugenically correct. Ricardo Montalbán is Mexican, a mixed ethnicity any self-respecting eugenicists would have stamped as unfit. And he plays an Indian, the warlord of a continent far far below the standards of Aryan supremacy. Eugenicists wanted to weed out not just the East, but Eastern Europe, those migrating degenerates endangering the genes that produce the likes of, say, Benedict Cumberbatch.

I don’t object to Gene Roddenberry scrambling the history books, not any more than I do Mr. Cumberbatch finding lucrative employment (Sherlock was temporarily exterminated after The Hobbit abducted his Watson, Martin Freeman). He and Zachary Quinto’s Spock (remember his villainous days on Heroes?) are ideal opponents, two super-muscled brainiacs ready to kill each other for their loved ones. Nimoy’s Spock makes a cameo too (Abrams, thankfully, does not re-explain the not-quite-a-reboot reboot premise), reminding us that noble principles (I vow never to interfere with your timeline) are plot fodder when it’s William Shatner’s doppelganger on the line.

So, yes, vanquish the supermen of evils past, put the pesky military in its Constitutional place, and let’s get this five-year mission underway. To boldly go (fifty years later, and we’re still splitting that damn infinitive) where we apparently can’t help ourselves from going again and again and again.

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