SPOILER WARNING: This post discusses the plot of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.
I have heard many argue that Ritchie's Holmes isn't 'the real' Holmes, for various reasons: too much fighting, too few truly genius deductions, too little time sitting around in comfy chairs in 221B expositing on the plot, that Downey was too American and that, in a nutshell, the first film was focusing on all the wrong things to make it a 'real' Holmes film – although enjoyable, it would not have the same standing in the eyes of traditional Holmes fans as a Brett or a Rathbone. What's often forgotten when this kind of argument is presented is the fact that Sherlock Holmes adaptations have been ever-changing and not entirely faithful to the canon since their inception, and it is perhaps this discrepancy with the canonical stories that allows the new Holmes adaptations to play around with and explore the original stories more.
Just like the first Sherlock Holmes done by Ritchie, A Game of Shadows is not based on any of Conan Doyle's canonical stories, but it has many references to them. The main villain this time is Professor James Moriarty, the most famous criminal to all admirers of Holmes. The film does Moriarty justice and his character is expanded further from what he is presented to be in The Final Problem and The Valley of Fear: with a striking scene in which the power of Moriarty's influence empties one of Victorian London's most busy and famous restaurants, the audience is shown the staggering amount of power that Moriarty holds over London.
Jared Harris as Moriarty is perhaps one of the best portrayals of the professor to date: he isn't afraid to step away from the hunched, wizened professor of Paget's illustrations and Conan Doyle's descriptions. His Moriarty is both reserved and theatrical, controlled and chaotic, charming and terrifying, depending on which role he plays: that of the professor or of the master criminal. It's all about the subtleties: when displeased, he doesn't lash out, but it is clear how irate he is when his pencil slips on the paper and his wrist jerks violently. Harris' Moriarty isn't susceptible to cackling or moustache-twirling like a one-dimensional storybook villain: a simple smile at the right moment accomplishes more than the loudest laugh, and makes the viewer more afraid, and also perhaps awed, of his character. Moriarty's duality of a genius university professor and a criminal mastermind is well incorporated into the narrative, both visually and though the way he speaks, when he uses astronomy metaphors and exploits his European lecture tour as a front for consorting with anarchists and planting bombs in ambassadors' chambers. With his ambitions in the film for bringing about a world war and then supplying both the sides with weapons, this Moriarty is an interesting balance of chaos and control, and the two sides are always fighting for dominance, one never quite triumphing over the other.
Something which A Game of Shadows has improved on since the first film is its female characters – in Sherlock Holmes, Irene Adler is defeated and subdued by Holmes, left sobbing and handcuffed on top of Tower Bridge as her unrequited love interest swans away triumphantly. In A Game of Shadows, Mary Morstan takes complete control of the situation when she and Watson are attacked on their honeymoon – she wields a gun with confidence and dispatches with the threat without a moment's hesitation. Madam Simza Heron, played by Noomi Rapace, is more than capable of defending her own corner with limited help from the male protagonists – she is shown with a weapon from the start, and she uses it with skill and poise. Unlike Adler in the first film, Madam Simza is never in the position of a helpless damsel in distress who is unable to fight her own battles; and, refreshingly, she shows no romantic interest in either Holmes or Watson. When placed in a mostly-male environment of a Gypsy camp, she is still independent and even waited on by the men.
Although it doesn't offer passionate sloppy make-outs (rooftop and/or rain optional) between the leading man and lady which serve to satisfy the desires of those projecting themselves into the leading man's character but are otherwise completely unrelated and unnecessary to the plot (looking at you, Iron Man 2, Thor, et cetera, ad nauseam), the film does have a coherent romantic, and most of all, realistic heterosexual plot. Firstly it's the marriage of Watson and Mary Morstan, which is portrayed with deserved respect and realism, and secondly it's Holmes's devotion to Irene Adler, which is romantic and platonic more than sexual. They are seen kissing, but only when it's used as a distraction to pilfer something from each other's person, rather than a sign of affection. Of course, the female characters in A Game of Shadows still leave much to be desired – Adler's primary weapon is still her sensuality rather than her intellect, and both she and Morstan are done away with so as to make way for Holmes and Watson's shenanigans, but the portrayal of women has still improved since Sherlock Holmes.
A further thing that A Game of Shadows does right is place the plot in a coherent and even mostly accurate historical setting – the film is set in 1891, and it is immensely pleasing to me as a Victorianist to see the start of construction of the underground railway in Baker Street. This makes sense because the London Underground was opened in 1893, so it was a nice touch from the producers to add that in. There is also the way the plot leans on the evolution of weaponry and the use of dynamite and explosives, which at the same time shows Victorian progress and the fear of what this progress might cause, and is furthermore, perhaps, a nod towards the Fenian dynamite campaigns between 1881 and 1885. There is some creative freedom employed when the plot deals with facial reconstructive surgery (this kind of surgery wasn't perfected or even performed until well into the second half of the twentieth century): however, it ties in well with the overall theme of the film of disguise and deceit, and the Victorian obsession with changing one's face to look like someone else. The huge size and power of the British Empire is felt more keenly in the way that the film shows characters such as Chinese opium smokers, Cossacks, military maps and the character of Mycroft Holmes working for 'Her Majesty's Secret Service' (which was unfortunately not officially founded until 1903, but Mycroft is more likely a homage to William Melville) and meeting other diplomats in high-profile events which decide the future of Europe.
Holmes and Watson are still the two characters who carry the film, as they should be, and Downey and Law do a very good job. There is a satisfying balance of banter, arguments, respect, and co-dependency to make their relationship believable and enjoyable, and it is no longer felt, like in Sherlock Holmes, that Holmes is the more clingy, desperate one: the affection is obvious on both sides, although expressed in different ways. There are some scenes which appear gratuitous and done as fanservice – the brief tussle on the train and the dance in Switzerland. On the other hand, there are several moments when their affection for each other is subtly, yet magnificently portrayed with just one simple look or gesture.
My personal favourite thing about A Game of Shadows was the inclusion of Colonel Sebastian Moran. Many directors either forget about or consciously axe Moran from the plot when including Moriarty, even though Holmes describes Moran as the 'bosom friend' of Moriarty in The Empty House. In A Game of Shadows, Moran is included alongside Moriarty from the start, and even though he is described by Holmes as someone akin to a gun for hire, it is shown on more than one occasion that Moran's interest in Moriarty isn't simply protecting a colleague and business investment, but that there is also an emotional connection, and perhaps a friendship, between the two men.
Although it has its faults and questionable moments, A Game of Shadows is more than a worthy sequel to Sherlock Holmes. It doesn't try to be something it's not, and it offers a satisfying balance of action, deduction, villainy, canonical references, and banter. Both the mannequin in the window of the 221B sitting room and the ending of the film promise a sequel. I, for one, welcome it.