Humanising our heroes

Jan 24, 2014, 08:23 IST | Vanita Kohli- Khandekar

Sherlock is a globally acclaimed TV show. This contemporisation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories is mounted on feature film scale

Sherlock is a globally acclaimed TV show. This contemporisation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories is mounted on feature film scale. Each episode is 90 minutes long and tells a unique story with allusions to the original. The latest and third season was aired in the UK (BBC) and India (AXN) among other countries earlier this month. It is one of my favourite shows. However this season raised more questions instead of answering them in Sherlock’s usual fashion.

Unreal: Why do creators feel to the need to humanise heroes and superheroes who have been around for decades? 

For those who don’t watch the show, the lead character Sherlock is a brilliant albeit somewhat insensitive chap for whom the complexity of the puzzle or the mystery he has to solve is the only interesting aspect of any case. The human element totally escapes him. A show of emotion or attachment to people is not Sherlock’s thing. And the first two seasons were largely true to this. This third season Sherlock did unusual things — became the best man at a wedding, spoke of friendship, expressed affection and fear. It reminded me of Spiderman 2 or of the Dark Knight series on Batman or even the last four Harry Potter films, directed by David Yates. All of them did the same thing that Sherlock did this season — humanised the hero or the superhero.

Why do film or TV writers and directors feel the need to do this? And why do audiences, largely, seem to like it. (I don’t). Here is my guess. We all know that society is changing. Globally things have been more relaxed, more informal and more practical. We know superheroes do not exist, we always knew it. But we did not mess with that idea in a more rigid society. In a relaxed one, which consumes media differently, things change. You could be watching TV, listening to music and whatsapping all at the same time. Your involvement with whatever you are watching, in a cinema screen or at home, is really not very high. The whole idea of a wide-eyed, credulous, stuck-to-the-couch viewer is outdated, at least in most large city homes with decent internet penetration. All media consumption is now about more realistic experiences whether you are playing a game or watching a reality show.

So when it come big, tent pole fiction stories like Superman or Sherlock or Spiderman, there is a need to touch them, feel them, understand what drives these guys. It was always there. But the writers and directors did not pander to this need earlier because keeping the superhero inaccessible, emotionally and otherwise, increased his allure. It is what adds to the mystery around, say celebrities. The more reclusive and private they are the more people want to know about them.

However as the world changes, the amount of media we are exposed has increased exponentially, in just ten years.

We move from experience to experience and want to know the key points quickly. Note how most of us have become browsers thanks to the internet. Speed reading and speed watching are in. They help us cope with the deluge and choose what we want. As consumers we give very little time to storytellers to gently unfold a story and take us through his or her magic. You have to be a very cussed creator, like Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity) or a branded one like Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street) to get away with the unusual, the gentle, slow or serendipitous yarn. Most storytellers pander to the need for access and understanding of their superheroes and heroes.

There is however a small minority which includes me, which find the humanising illogical.

A hungry, broke Spiderman (like in Spiderman 2) can hardly be expected to save the world, so why show him that way.

A traumatised man who becomes Batman is asking to be exploited. And the last Bond film Skyfall, actually showed Daniel Craig as a grey-stubbled, troubled Bond. How humiliating? Can’t the heroes just be heroes? Let them live in our fantasy world where they come to save us and freedom and justice prevail. We see too many human foibles in real life. Reel life needs superheroes.

The writer is a media specialist and author. Follow her on twitter at

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