Processing the Aurora theater tragedy has been a very different thing. This time it wasn’t in some far-off foreign marketplace which most of us aren’t familiar with. This time it was in a movie theater showing the sort of film most of us go to see. The inseparable link to the Batman in it all has had me considering our icons, probably as a distraction from the horror of it, and brought up one particular aspect of my love of Sherlock Holmes. So be distracted with me for a moment.
Batman’s universe has always been a place of tragedy, from his parents to his sidekicks to the city of Gotham itself. Horrible things happen in the Batman’s world because he is an avenger and needs something to avenge. If you compare him to Superman, whose powers allow him to see trouble about to happen and race to defend people against it, you can see that the rise in Batman’s popularity has been born of our pessimisms. Once we hoped science and social change would improve our lives and protect us. Now, it seems we just have resigned ourselves to the world being a broken thing and just want Batman to hand out the beatings. Superman comes from a mindset that good men will always be more powerful than evil and defend us. Batman pits darkness against darkness to avenge what has already gone wrong. Ironically, this summer’s blockbuster movie The Avengers was really about defenders of our world, despite one line thrown in specifically to justify the name.
So when you think of Sherlock Holmes, do you think of him as an avenger or a defender?
The mystery genre, which we always place Holmes in, would tend to tell you he’s an avenger. Mysteries, as a whole, tend to be about murders and finding out who the killer was, so he or she can be brought to justice and receive the punishment that society doles out as its polite version of vengeance. But Sherlock Holmes? So many of Holmes’s greatest cases contained no murder whatsover. He stops a bank from being robbed of its gold. He settles a conflict between a singer and a king that could have led to bad things for both. He helps a man learn to trust his wife again. Sherlock Holmes even stops murders from happening.
During the sixties, posters for A Study in Terror tried to advertise Sherlock Holmes with the slogan “Here comes the original caped crusader!” Ironically, they were using the popularity of the light and comic Batman of that era to promote a dark Holmes film about Jack the Ripper. At the time of that poster, Batman was a defender on television and Holmes, in the Ripper film, was the avenger. But with his powers of observation, enabling Holmes to see potential trouble the way Superman’s telescopic and x-ray vision did, the original Sherlock Holmes was as much defender of London and England as an avenger of it.
What will Holmes be in the future, as our culture molds the legend to serve its needs? We shall see. I’m hoping he’ll remain a defender. Defenders serve as a shining light for our hopes, our aspirations, and our ideals of what society can be . . . a better place to look in a time of tragedy.