Saturday, January 14, 2012

How do you solve a problem like Irene?

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.

Supervillains lose.

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.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

I've run out of synonyms for blinding fury, so bear with me.

I've been blogging for quite some time, and I've had a few of these dry periods where I don't post much and when I do it tends to be something lackluster or sad. I suspect these periods happen because I'm not especially anxious or angry about something fictional (and I have a rule where I try not to blog politics or work) usually use this blog as an outlet for rage. I do this for rational and irrational reasons. I prefer expressing my anger to bottling it up. I've found that if I dedicate some time to writing about my reaction I can often find the underlying truth to it, the real cause of my anger rather than the often frivolous-seeming trigger. It lets me network my outrage, find people who feel the same way about these things and commiserate. And it lets me do some writing that can be clever and beautiful.

I'm not about to say everything on this blog is clever and beautiful, but every once in a while I get a turn of phrase or an analogy that makes me really proud. I think there's a poetry to ranting, if you really get yourself going, and you can come up with some vivid images and phrases to convey your level of upset to someone who is not reacting as severely. I'll often get a little carried away by that and express a higher level of indignation than I feel.

All the more disappointing then, when I run across something so infuriating, so gut-wrenchingly awful and insulting that I can't outline my reasons for it or come up with a pleasing way to express just how terrible I think it is.

I came across that today. The preview for Secret Avengers #21, courtesy the vigilance of David Brothers:

Let's move in for a closer look, just to make sure we're seeing this right.

Yes, that is Captain America saying "I'm going to let my friends torture you" like it's some sort of cool badass fucking thing for him to say.

I agree with David on the reasons this is vile. This subject for Americans is too raw and important to be treated like this.

And maybe it's a trick, and he's just trying to intimidate the guy but you know what? Fuck that. Fuck that stupid idea where it's okay to pretend we don't have any principles like it's not something that treads on the line of not actually having any principles, where it's okay to pretend threat of torture is good because it's not as bad as actual torture.

And oh god, just the thought that this character, the symbol not of everything my culture is but every ideal my culture aspires to be, actually walking out of the room to let someone else do this is so infuriating I can't even verbalize it. I was so angry when I read that page that I had to stand up, and walk back and forth doing breathing exercises so I wouldn't fall into a hyperventilating frenzy at just how careless a treatment of the subject and the character this is.

There's a way to handle this and show the character isn't perfect. Ed Brubaker wrote a scene in the "Winter Soldier" storyline where one of Captain America's colleagues, a Vasily Karpov, tortured a Nazi for information. He didn't interrupt. He in Karpov's territory, outnumbered by Karpov's men, and had the rest of the Invaders and the war effort to think about it. He stood outside the tent brooding, and confronted Karpov about his methods. He showed clear disapproval, but he compromised himself and it was clear to him they only shared a side against a common enemy. And later when Karpov turned out to be a fucking horrible piece of shit it was reinforced that the sorts of people who do these things are bad people, at least. At best, it reinforced for the character that he should never have allowed this sort of shit to go down in a camp he was in, or allied himself with that sort of man.

This? This is bullshit macho posturing. This is "See how badass he acts and sounds?" This is the loophole as a joke to show he's kinda clever, in addition to being unprincipled. This is treating Captain America like one your anti-heroes, because hey, everyone loves them and really they're the only kind of heroes you can write.

Except he's not like them. As David says, he's like Superman and represents the best of us. Captain America is your honest-to-god every good thing from the American culture, everything worth saving of our values, placed into a body that can make a difference in the world. He's the guy who is not only supposed to adhere to the moral standard, he sets it for the other heroes. Your anti-heroes, your fallen noir stars, your monstrous demeanors that cover hearts of gold and tarnished but upward-looking souls will pull this. They're coming from the bottom up, and steeped in the flaws of humanity. Captain America is already up there, though. He's established as an idealized hero, to the point that in the MArvel Universe he is the indicator of which side occupies the moral high ground. Having him do something like this, even in his Steve Rogers super-soldier leading a covert team garb, Says something about the moral high ground.

Even as a trick (ETA: It is not a trick), this is the further dilution of the sincere sadistic brutality into acceptability as "tough tactics." This is a complete misunderstanding of Captain America, the subject of torture, and the reality of what's going on in the United States right now.

The only thing left to say is Fuck You, Warren Ellis. Avengers is not Nextwave. Captain America does not fucking act like that, especially not for one of your cheap fucking jokes.