‘Sherlock’ vs. ‘Sherlock’: Robert Downey Jr. or Benedict Cumberbatch?

Robert Downey Jr. (left) and Benedict Cumberbatch

It’s no mystery that we are currently enjoying a surfeit of Sherlocks. Both Robert Downey Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch are portraying that most famous of detectives, Sherlock Holmes, with wit and panache, the first on movie screens and the latter in a TV series.

Who’s the better Sherlock? It’s really a matter of preference. Each man, and each series, has its merits.

Downey Jr. plays a period Holmes who’s living, working and solving mysteries in the late Victorian era, just as author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle intended his pipe-smoking detective to when he first created the character in 1887. The 46-year-old actor takes his second shot at the role in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, which arrives in multiplexes today (December 16) and is a follow-up to the 2009 hit, Sherlock Holmes, which grossed $524 million worldwide. Nothing elementary about that sum!

Cumberbatch’s modern-day Sherlock is on display in Sherlock, the TV series, which aired last year in England on BBC and in the U.S. on PBS. The show is due to return early next year with a new batch of episodes. Cumberbatch’s private detective lives and works in contemporary London, solving crimes by taking advantage of the latest technologies, including the internet and GPS.

On both the big and the small screen, Holmes is assisted by his good friend, Dr. John Watson. Jude Law plays the character in the movie series and Martin Freeman on TV.

What’s fascinating is that, in a way, each of these Sherlocks is playing against type. The New York City-born Downey Jr. is the most contemporary of actors, a hyper-kinetic, jittery, always entertaining ball of energy. He talks at warp speed, moves fast, and is the perpetual wise guy. And so is his Sherlock. This Holmes may wear 19th century garb, but he practices ju-jitsu and comports himself like an action or spy movie hero. His Sherlock owes as much to Ian Fleming as he does to Doyle. (It doesn’t help that director Guy Ritchie treats the Holmes franchise as if he’s making Lock, Stock and Downing Street.)

Cumberbatch excels at playing period types. When one thinks of the London-born actor’s standout roles – in Atonement, Small Island, in the new screen version of Tinker Tailor Sailor Spy and on stage last winter in London in Frankenstein – they are all set in the past. So to see the 35-year-old star playing Sherlock Holmes as a current day Londoner who always considers himself the smartest and most standoffish guy in the room is almost a shock. And yet he does it with style and substance.

So, who’s the better Holmes? You have to make that call yourself. If I were forced to choose, I’d pick Cumberbatch. While I enjoy Downey’s performance as Sherlock, the films themselves leave me cold, feeling mechanical and overblown. They play like screechingly loud action movies, albeit dressed up in Victorian togs.

The TV show satisfies thanks both to Cumberbatch’s savvy and textured performance and for the series itself (created by Doctor Who veteran scribes Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat). It cleverly updates and tweaks the Baker Street-dwelling detective, making him new again even as it keeps reminding you exactly where he comes from.

But that’s my pick only if I absolutely, positively had to choose between them. Isn’t it great to have both?

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Which Sherlock is your favorite – Downey Jr. or Cumberbatch?

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