Elementary, Mary Sues, and damaged heroes


Been watching Elementary. I suspect Johnny Lee Miller's version of Sherlock Holmes owes more than a bit to Dr. House: jacket over t-shirt, beard stubble, uses hookers. (For my money, Hugh Laurie is the best recent version of Holmes, even better than Benedict Cumberbatch.)

So, the Elementary Sherlock, based on Dr. Greg House, based on Conan Doyle's canonical Holmes, based on the real-life Dr. Joseph Bell. And certainly, why not? Sherlock Holmes is a richly multifaceted character, and like that other famous fictional detective, Batman, there are many versions, and there will be many more.

Can't help but compare, of course. Miller's Holmes plays the violin once, off-camera, and never does so again. Right move, distance yourself from Cumberbatch's more classic interpretation. This Holmes is more punk rock: tattoos, grungy brownstone, a lock-picking hacker, channel-surfing on a multitude of flatscreens. It struck me how anyone can do their own version just by picking out certain elements from the canon Holmes's extraordinarily vast skill-set. Has anyone ever argued that the original Conan Doyle Holmes is a Mary Sue? I don't think so.

There's been some Tumblr debate on how the concept of the "Mary Sue" is sexist, how there's no real term for a male power fantasy character ("Marty Stu" and "Gary Stu" are about tied, neither having anything like the recognition or impact of "Mary Sue.") I'd say cheap escapism by any name still stinks.

Some might consider Batman a Mary Sue. I don't agree. Batman is driven by obsession, utterly without joy, and of course, of course, he'd sacrifice it all just to get his parents back. He calls to the possible nobility in us, but I for one would not trade places and live Batman's life, with the accompanying psychic trauma, not for all the Bat-gadgets in the world. Of course Batman's crazy, and his madness keeps him sane.

Batman = Sherlock Holmes + The Count of Monte Cristo. Neither Holmes nor Dantes are Mary Sues. They are certainly admirable, in certain ways. But we see how they've lost, or willingly sacrificed, a great deal to become what they are. We wonder if we could, or should, make the same choices, under the same circumstances? We think we can make better deals with our lives, gain without giving up so much. We wonder if that's cowardice, creeping in this petty pace from day to day. Their way seems like fantaticism, but maybe that's the right way, at least in some things? They don't live easy lives, or offer obvious answers.

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