I've held off on blogging about Irene Adler because after the double-punch of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows and Sherlock S2E2 A Scandal in Belgravia everyone seemed to have stated what we need to know about her. They've covered the problems of oversexualizing her, making her a subordinate to Moriarty, making her a love interest, becoming a damsel in distress, giving Sherlock a ridiculous amount of power over her, and the major problem of making it so that she doesn't win out in the end. All of these being things that are not in the slightest canonical (fucking one King does not a Femme Fatale make), undermine the theme of the original story, but somehow appear to be popular in adaptation after adaptation after adaptation.
And while many of you seem to be more focused on Moffat than Ritchie, I think we mostly agree A Scandal in Belgravia was a far better showing, even for all it's flaws. Those of you who haven't seen A Scandal in Belgravia and are jumping to the conclusion that it makes the exact same mistakes Guy Ritchie did in his two movies, you're jumping the gun. Irene's far more formiddable in Sherlock than in either of those movies, she makes a far better showing, and I believe she's placed equal to the level of Moriarty and Mycroft there. At the very least, it's something we can argue about over several seasons. Do my blood presure a favor and actually watch this one before you start throwing the same criticisms Ritchie is deserving of at Moffat.
But there is one big problem that I haven't seen anyone touch on. One major change from the canon that leads to all of the smaller problems with Irene. One major change that is at the core of what pulls the rug out from under those of us who loved the original Scandal in Bohemia story. One major change that betrays a complete misunderstanding of the point of A Scandal in Bohemia and the real reason Irene Adler could win against Sherlock Holmes and walk away from him scott free holding everything she ever wanted.
Stephen Moffat and Guy Ritchie made the exact same mistake that a million fanfic and pastiche writers have before them. They looked at the Rogues Gallery of Sherlock Holmes for a formidable female villain, someone with potential for romance and intrigue, and picked out the perfect-seeming Irene Adler. This is understandable. She's popular among fans, particularly female ones. She's one of his best known opponents, possibly the best known after Moriarty. She looks good in a suit. Her story involves political and sexual intrigue. She's cunning and resourceful. She won.
There's just one small problem.
Irene Adler isn't actually in the Rogues Gallery of Sherlock Holmes.
Look back at A Scandal in Bohemia. She's not the bad guy. She's the good guy. Sherlock's client is the bad guy, wrongly pestering his ex-girlfriend and painting her as a extortionist when all she wants to do is live her life. He lied to Sherlock Holmes. Her explanation for trying to keep a little insurance against future bad behavior from this man is perfectly understandable. The entire story is a misunderstanding.
And that, more than anything else, is why she got to win. Because in addition to being his equal, beating him fair and square, she was also on the side of right and he was the manipulated one.
Listing her among his "villains" is like listing Spider-man as a Daredevil villain.
I think I understand their logic. I love Sherlock Holmes, but there's only a few recurring characters and the active ones are men. But they want a really notable woman, a strong feminine presence (notice I didn't say strong woman character) for female fans to latch onto and straight male fans to be attracted to. And really, we all do. We want a decent dose of estrogen in these stories. Oh, there's Mrs. Hudson and Watson's wives and plenty of the clients, bystanders, victims and villains are women and they run the gamut from smart and willful to pathetic and panicky, but none of them shine like Irene. We love Irene better than any other woman because she was a match to Sherlock and she threw his unbelievable sexism back in his shocked face with three words. So we not only want to see Irene, we don't want her to disappear at the end of the first story like she does in the canon. We want her to come back for a rematch. We want to see her as a regular recurring character.
But because she began as an antagonist, a lot of "further adventures" want to keep that dynamic. So they come up with the interpretation of this character as a badass "Femme Fatale" (a role that in Sherlock's Gallery goes to one Isadora Klein, who lost) and the most coldly clever woman of the canon (actually, Maria Gibson was a hell of a lot more clever than Irene and she would've gotten away with it too if not for those meddling kids) that basically places her somewhere on the supervillain scale. This leads to our next problem.
Oh I know, we've been reading grown-up pessimistic comics for so long we've forgotten this but in Sherlock Holmes stories this remains the rule. The Bad Guy loses. The criminals get caught. Justice prevails. The minor bad guys pay and the major bad guys might dick around for a while before they lose but in the end... Supervillains lose. That's why Sherlock can be the biggest jerk in London and we still love him, because he uses that horrible personality for good and he is very, very effective at it.
And before you say it, yes, Moriarty loses.
Canonically speaking, he loses in the first story he appears in just like everybody else does.
In adaptations it takes a while. That's what makes Moriarty Moriarty. But he always loses in the end. We know this. We expect this. We sat in that theater last month knowing exactly what would happen the second Mycroft said 'Reichenbach.' We'll all be glued to our sets tomorrow even though we're absolutely sure of the outcome. An experimental writer or two might throw this in our faces but the truth of the franchise is that at the climax, two men go over the falls and one man walks away. The supervillain does not walk away.
And so by the rules of the franchise, when we incorrectly position Irene Adler as a supervillain, she loses. And no matter how well you do it (and Moffat does manage this well, while Ritchie's Irene is more a nuisance and a henchwoman than a real threat, Moffat's is a full-fledged crime boss playing at Mycroft's level and poised to win completely at the climax), you're going to miss the appeal of the original story when she loses.