For the love of God, someone send Nick Fury after Sherlock Holmes.
I have no problem with characters that are terrible, or even just irritating, people. Lots of characters that I enjoy immensely in fiction are people I would either outright avoid or attempt to sucker punch if I met them in real life. It’s why I love villains, and antiheroes, and made-up people whose diabolical behaviour, snark and flaws I can study in a detached sense. But only to a certain point, and that point is where these characters start actually getting called, as they say, on their crap.
When a villain or antagonist acts awfully, we know it’s not alright because they’re portrayed as the villain and (hopefully and presumably) defeated or at least confronted by the hero or protagonist. Their blatant assholery or people manipulation or flat-out evil is pointed out as a bad thing and within the story world it’s brought to justice. The problem arises when these negative traits appear in the heroes of a story, and the story then goes ahead to treat this bad behaviour as, sub-textually or otherwise, the morally right thing. Protagonists will be rude or downright horrid to other characters, make a mess of things and act, whether in sweeping gestures or in everyday circumstances, in ways that we as members of a polite society are pretty sure we shouldn’t if we want to be accepted and not spurned, or at least complained about when we can’t hear.
Yet, these characters will go on like this undeterred because they make up for their behaviour by doing things no other character can do with whatever main character power-up they have, and thus they’re never (or at least very rarely) reprimanded for the things they do, in more ways than one. If the other characters just brush it off, it’s cemented as an okay thing to do in-world, and from a meta perspective, this character is still being portrayed as the hero of the story for all their awfulness, and thus the message being beamed to the audience is that this is the right and proper thing. And that makes me grind my teeth.
We need look no further for a perfect example of this than the most recent series of the BBC’s Sherlock. Sherlock Holmes is an old character, to be fair, and the one that kind of made the whole ‘aloof and prickish genius’ thing cool, but season three exemplifies everything wrong and annoying with that trope. It’s been shown by the other Holmes adaptation on TV that just because a guy is super smart and is the star of the series, you’re allowed to acknowledge and tell him off when he does something annoying or inappropriate. Yes, you have been created to be superhuman, and your pretentiousness is a defining trait, but it doesn’t mean everyone has to put up with you.
At present, the BBC’s Sherlock has pulled off his cleverest trick and successfully faked his own death, but now (that the actors have finished their stint in Middle Earth) it’s time to bounce back and reinstate the crime-solving status quo. You cannot do this, though, without the characters reacting to the fact that he lied in such a horrifying and life-shattering way first. John Watson is appropriately enraged that his dearest friend did this to him, and after Sherlock shows up in a waiter disguise at a restaurant he’s dining in, John is suitably unamused by the whole thing and launches him across the room.
I’m sure that if I had been only just recovering from the crippling grief for my suicidal best friend, only to have them reappear with a fake moustache declaring “Not dead” like something straight out of a fan comic, I would be confused and furious too. The thing is though, John’s perfectly justified behaviour is not only the odd one out in all Sherlock’s friendly reunions, but it’s treated by everyone present (including John’s fiancée) like he’s being a drama queen. And when he flips out again at the end of the episode after Sherlock tricks him into apologising by making him think they’re both about to die via bomb blast, he just gets laughed at. The hero is laughing about his cruel prank that has clearly made his friend emotionally distraught, so presumably we as the audience are expected to follow his lead. This is kind of cemented when no one else points out there’s anything wrong with anything our detective’s done. In fact, they’re all having a tea party at the end.
Now, WB and I have been going on a Marvel bender lately, so while it’s fresh in my mind let’s compare Sherlock Holmes to another egotistical male fantasy that’s been played by Robert Downey Jr—Tony “I am Iron Man” Stark is equipped with perfect genius combined with natural charisma and piles of inherited money, with endless knowledge, cool cars, sci-fi toys and beautiful women at his fingertips. He’s another jerkwad genius hero, making up for his flat out lack of personal people skills with his smarts and ability to save the day and propel the story.
The difference here is, he’s actually called out on his crap, which is basically what Iron Man 2 is 100 minutes of. His assistant calls him on his crap. His best friend calls him on his crap, complete with donning a spare Iron Man suit to stage an intervention when he’s making an ass of himself. The villains (which in a way he’s created himself) call his crap. The undercover agents call his crap. Samuel L. Jackson locks him in his house to prevent him from performing anymore crap.
Yes, Tony Stark is a hero, and he is celebrated, but everything he does is not automatically excused because of that fact. Being able to save the day, whether it’s solving mysteries or blowing up evil robots, is not mutually exclusive to being flawed, rude or terrible people, and one does not cancel out the other. You have to acknowledge this, or we’re going to end up with a bunch of snarky super-intelligent main characters that just get on everyone’s nerves and remain that way. Faults never acknowledged, how can those characters ever hope to look at their lives and their choices and develop? They’ll become stagnant, and it will become progressively less believable to the audience that they’re still strutting around being asses to everyone and everyone is still okay with it.
Maybe it wasn’t entirely fair to call Sherlock Holmes as a whole an egotistical male fantasy, but you have to admit there’s an element (male or otherwise) of wish-fulfilment in these characters that have all the wit and outspoken confidence we ordinary real people wish we did, combined with a complete lack of consequences you’d find in the real world for speaking our brilliant minds. But the thing is, it’s not alright to broadcast the message that people can be horrible to their ‘inferiors’ just because they’re intellectually gifted, or rich, or awesome. Being the main character does not equate to burping rainbows and an inability to do anything wrong.
Because quite frankly, I don’t think we should be encouraging that it’s funny to insult or emotionally manipulate your best friends. And on a purely viewer-approval level, that endless vicious cycle is going to get really unrewarding to watch and it’s going to be really, really difficult to believe that everyone does love and applaud this character when all they do is insult and undermine people. Having them at the centre of your story doesn’t mean they have to be perfect, in fact it means they should be far less than perfect, because it makes them three-dimensional and interesting.
Give us a hero we actually want to root for, even when he does mess up, by acknowledging first that he’s capable of doing that and giving him room to develop out of his faults. If you’re going to make your lead a ‘lovable rogue’, you have to include elements of them that are actually lovable and not just snark and an air of superiority that we’re supposed to like, or the story’s going to fall flat on its face.