Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows understands one thing well: There are few joys as great in life as having a good enemy. Chess players know it well. The clock ticks. The sweat forms on the brow. The mind racks itself, drained and strained. Mano-a-mano, tête-à-tête, blow for blow, two men go in — and one comes out. No, we can’t all get along. A man is known by his friends, but he is remembered by, and for, his enemies. Where would Batman be without the Joker? Superman without Lex Luthor? Professor X without Magneto? There’s something aristocratic about it — that one man must be subservient to another — but the greatest villains are those who could have been the greatest of heroes. They remind us of the choices our heroes make that made them other than the villain. Economics may be the study of choices, but drama is its portrayal.
Which brings us to Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty. Robert Downey Jr.’s Holmes is a role Downey was born to play, as he established in the first film. The manic, brilliant, drug-addled Holmes is well captured by the manic, brilliant, formerly drug-addled Downey. Jude Law’s loyal yet prickly Watson is a nice contrast to Holmes’s absent-mindedness. Holmes’s disguises, playful and comedic, are perhaps too much so, but it is clear that Downey loves playing dress-up — though we could have done without Holmes in drag. Holmes’s archenemy, Professor Moriarty, is well played by Jared Harris of Mad Men fame. In both characters, we see the look of recognition of a peer and the longing that a genius’s soul has for a counterpart — even a malevolent one.
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