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February 13, 2010

Doc Holmes

Filed under: Uncategorized — inky @ 1:18 am

I just got back from the Sherlock Holmes movie and boy are my deer tired. Of being stalked. Uh, anyway. My main thoughts are 1) yeah, that was pretty gay 2) everything with Moriarty was lame and 3) this makes a way better Victorian Doc Savage movie than it does a Sherlock Holmes movie. Not that I disliked it, you understand. Just that the ways it tended to diverge from Holmes canon are almost all ways that actually fit just fine into the Doc Savage style. (This has movie spoilers, of course.)

Uh, I guess I should take a mention to explain for the unaware that Doc Savage is a pulp scientist type from back when scientists were manly men and could totally whup your ass with their slide rules. Sort of a Tom Swift all grown up.

Right, so, let’s see. First off is the story. The basic premise — a guy pretends to do black magic which freaks people the hell out but is actually all explainable with clever tricks — is almost entirely absent from the Sherlock Holmes stories. The only example I can think of is the Hound of the Baskervilles, which itself feels a little outside the main style (what with being a novel and the pov focus shifts and stuff). The vast majority of the Sherlock Holmes stories present something inexplicable — I think we are required to use ‘outre’ at this point — but the focus is almost entirely on how it happened. In this movie, on the other hand, the focus is almost entirely on what’s going to happen (Holmes’ focus, we see at the end, is a little different, but I’m talking about what the story focuses on). Doc Savage stories, on the other hand, start out with something bizarre (people start dying mysteriously with a black handprint on them, a guy sees somebody fall upwards into the sky and vanish), and then the rest of the story is Doc Savage and his buddies chasing clues and punching bad guys as they try to work out what the head bad guy’s scheme is. Then at the end of the novel (or maybe the climax) we found out what the totally explainable scientific phenomenon is that caused the original freaky-ass events, and the day is saved for logic and reason.

This heavily foreshadows the next point, which is about punching people. I don’t really have anything to add here, except that the amount of punching here would not be at all out of place in a Doc Savage story. (The movie even has the scene where the hero is knocked unconscious and then ends up in some compromising position.)

The other thing the first point touches on is Science. While the Holmes stories do occasionally rely on mysterious poisons or new scientific discoveries, the vast majority don’t, and when they do they’re almost never the centerpiece of the story (like, in the Speckled Band there is an untraceable poison, but the real question is how it’s administered) (the Adventure of the Devil’s Foot is a notable exception, but I doubt you’ll find it on any list of favorites). On the other hand, Doc Savage stories — and this movie — are full of new discoveries.

Similarly, Sherlock Holmes villains rarely have crazy ambitions or backstories or self-images — since the focus is on the deduction rather than the case, the crimes are often very small — and Doc Savage villains almost always do. Come to think of it, it’s hard to think of a Sherlock Holmes villain who’s killed more than one person. Not impossible, but it’s rare. (And yet fanfic writers always feel obliged to put him up against Jack the Ripper.)

Then there’s the issue of ladies and sidekicks. The Sherlock Holmes stories are obviously male-dominated, as are the Doc Savage stories. But in the Sherlock Holmes stories, women tend to appear as necessary, say their bit, and get out of the way; the overall feel is that the stories are just not interested in women, and so put them in only as required. The Doc Savage stories, on the other hand, are as I said ‘Tom Swift all grown up’ — which of course means ‘grown up’ in the sense of ‘girls still have cooties’. So exactly like you’d see in comic books at the time, Doc Savage had a cousin Patricia Savage who always wanted to come along on the boys’ adventures, but usually wasn’t permitted. When she did come along, she alternated between being super-competent like her cousin and getting captured to provide dramatic tension. The movie sort of straddles the line between these two kind of female characters — Mary is a little more like the first kind and Irene Adler more like the second. In terms of other sidekicks, Doc Savage has a group of five buddies and Sherlock Holmes obviously only has the one, but in terms of overall tone the movie is much more like Doc Savage — in the books you never see Sherlock Holmes and Watson getting into an argument in the middle of a mission or even engaging in much spirited banter (Holmes does often come across with a snippy remark in the books but he rarely seems to get emotionally invested).

So yeah, there’s a lot of evidence for this making a good Doc Savage movie. I think there are just two elements common in Doc Savage stories that were missing in this, and they would probably both have improved it.

The minor missing element is weird vehicles. Like Batman, Doc Savage is always driving around in a boat or flying in a zeppelin or something. C’mon, Sherlock Holmes fist-fighting in a blimp, wouldn’t that have been great? Barring that, we could at least have gotten him duking it out with people on stagecoaches going through the London streets.

The major missing element is the surprise bad guy. For some reason — I assume this was literally in the editorial guidelines for the series — the Doc Savage stories always end up with a bit where the guy you think is the bad guy is not actually the bad guy, it’s actually some other dude who the heroes thought was an innocent acquaintance of theirs. So what the movie should have done was have some other old duffer member of the mystic order of the whatsits, and he’s nice to Holmes when they first meet and later we see him try to warn Holmes about something but then he gets kidnapped by Blackwood’s men, and at the end he shows up again and Holmes rescues him and everyone runs off with the poison gas and ha ha suckers he’s actually Moriarty in disguise and now he’s got his hands on the gas and he’s going to kill everyone. Seriously, think about how much more sense this makes.

The premise of the movie is that Blackwood is simultaneously this super-charismatic guy, this super-mystic guy (even if it’s not real he has to know all the ceremonies and stuff), this super-intelligent mastermind guy, and this super-scientific guy (to the extent of being able to plan it all, even if his buddy is doing all the actual work). It just doesn’t hold together coherently, and worse yet, his plan involves spending some chunk of time poisoned and stuck in a coffin. Would his organization really hold together while he’s out of the way? Would he trust them to dig him up properly?

Wouldn’t it make more sense if Blackwood were just a patsy? He’s the guy with the charisma and the magic lore who’s convinced it’s all real, and Moriarty is the scientific genius and mastermind working behind the scenes to convince Blackwood and everyone else that Blackwood’s magic is the goods. That’s a Blackwood who it makes much more sense would be willing to get buried, since he honestly believes his magic is going to resurrect himself. It also makes the climax better (and presumably this is why the Doc Savage stories did it all the time). You think the climax is the showdown at Parliament, and it sort of is, but then there’s another climax later just when you start cooling down. Instead, in this movie we get the climax at Parliament and then a frankly weak face-off between Holmes and Blackwood. I mean, Blackwood’s lost at this point, he doesn’t have the element of surprise or anything to bargain with (especially since he decides to 1) throw Irene off the bridge and 2) onto somewhere safe). There’s nothing much exciting to do except have Holmes explain it all.

So don’t get me wrong, I liked the movie. But if you liked it too, check out some Doc Savage. (Ideally I’d finish this off with a link to some Doc Savage stuff but, frustratingly, a few years ago all the stories got cleared off the internet. So, I dunno, check the library or amazon.)

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