It’s hard to imagine now, but believe it or not, there was a time when saying the name Benedict Cumberbatch did not make the Internet quiver with excitement. Oh, how things have changed.
Riding a wave of Oscar buzz for his performance in this month’s The Imitation Game, and coming off GQ naming him actor of the year in September, we should be reaching peak levels of Cumberbatch excitement right about now. Which is why it’s odd that Cumberbatch saturation is finally running up against a bit of backlash. Specifically, this has revolved around the recent announcement that he may play the titular character in Marvel’s upcoming Doctor Strange movie, although it appears that Cumberbatch fatigue has been brewing for awhile now.
It’s hard to deny that we’ve all seen a lot of Cumberbatch lately. The ubiquitous man himself told Fast Company this week that the people who work for him “are on the verge of a nervous breakdown.” In fact, the same interview found him practically sick of himself, musing, “Look, I get accused of being overhyped, overexposed, over here and there and everywhere. The truth is [doing press] is part of my job and I work a lot, so I’m going to be talking about my work a lot. Beyond that, I want to live my life and not be in people’s faces. There’s quite enough of me out there.”
Yet the Internet still loves Benedict Cumberbatch. It’s a complicated relationship, no doubt, but there are several definitive reasons why the Batch has become the Web’s ultimate crush.
1) The Internet loves British television.
It’s hard to tell whether it was the widespread acclaim of The Office or the more cultish appeal of Spaced, but somewhere along the way, Americans became obsessed with British television. Not all British television, mind you, though occasionally it feels like things are headed that way. But the British television we did become obsessed with, we became really obsessed with. And where do all our most passionate obsessions eventually end up? Why, the Internet, of course!
Downton Abbey is regularly listicled on BuzzFeed. Doctor Who has inspired enough fan art to merit a gallery opening. Even Luther has enough fans out there that when it was announced the show would be adapted for American audiences, Twitter was blatantly vexed.
With America’s love of British television already growing, the time was right in 2010 for one actor to step forward and take that fandom to the next level. That said, a lot of this also had to do with the role he was playing.
2) Sherlock, Sherlock, Sherlock.
In many ways, Sherlock isn’t just a good example of Internet fandom, it’s the apex of it. Not that literature’s greatest detective was unpopular before the BBC adaptation. As Esquire’s Stephen Marche put it, “There is a basic fact of narrative craft that film and television and book executives all know: If you have Sherlock Holmes in a story, it will sell.”
Indeed, the past few years have also seen the emergence of the Robert Downey Jr. franchise, in addition to CBS’ Elementary. And the legendary Ian McKellan is set to portray him next year as well, in a film called Mr. Holmes. Nevertheless, the popularity of Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is definitely something special. Tumblr fandom (apparently referred to as “The Sherlock Fandom,” with a fitting air of superiority attached to it) has grown so intense, it has a separate backlash all of its own.
“The show is brilliant, but seldom more so than in how it generates sympathy for its protagonist,” writes Marche. “In the updated version, Holmes identifies himself as ‘a high-functioning sociopath,’ but the extreme facility he has with technology makes him vastly more recognizable than the straight-up mentally ill.”
For Marche’s part, this makes Cumberbatch’s Sherlock a natural fit in our current culture. “He is the basement-dwelling asshole genius we know from our own lore, of a piece with the anomic, lonely, Aspergers-y heroes of Tao Lin’s stories, or The Big Bang Theory, or the version of Mark Zuckerberg found in The Social Network,” Marche continues. “His total asociability is not a distraction from his brilliance, but the clearest evidence of it. We sympathize with him because he is vulnerable, and his exclusion of ordinary emotions is evidence of his vulnerability.”
A vulnerable, inscrutable genius: could there be a more fitting protagonist for the Internet age? If online fandom for Sherlock is a symptom of the modern era, then the next logical step is to consider who the heroes of this modern era truly are.
3) Geeks rule the world.
That’s right. If you haven’t noticed already, the nerds have gotten their revenge. How and when did this happen?
“First the digital revolution elevated alpha nerds such as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates to unprecedented power and influence,” The Guardian’s Andrew Harrison wrote last year. “Then Hollywood rediscovered a rich stream of intellectual property and coincident nostalgia in geek touchstones Star Wars, Marvel Comics and J.R.R. Tolkien at the turn of the century. Coding nerd Shawn Fanning overturned the music industry with Napster, a geek project extraordinaire. Celebs got in on the act, with R&B producers The Neptunes rebranding as N.E.R.D. and stars as unlikely as Justin Timberlake, David Beckham and Myleene Klass donning thick-rimmed specs in the mid-noughties. Sitcoms The IT Crowd and The Big Bang Theory set out to satirise a geek world that was becoming more visible and powerful. Face it, can you fix your own PC?”
Harrison also notes that, “the phrase “geek chic” has been introduced into the Oxford English Dictionary,” and that, “the high end of the culture defers to geek-priests such as Malcolm “Tipping Point” Gladwell, Steven “Freakonomics” Levitt, and statistician Nate Silver, surely the world’s only functioning sports psephologist.”
Some of this is rather obvious; we’re all aware by now how popular The Big Bang Theory is. Perhaps what makes Sherlock an interesting case is that so much of the “geek” culture around it is driven by women. Harrison posits that, “Geek culture is now powerfully feminised, from convention cosplay—there’s enough material in all those Princess Leias to build countless theses on gender identity—to movie franchises that at least acknowledge that female viewers exist.” Much of this manifests online, and has Harrison also observes, there is, “a thriving world of geek girl sites and blogs such as TheMarySue.com.”
Furthermore, in talking to the site’s managing editor, Susana Polo, Harrison was told that these subsets of female nerds have always been around. The difference is that “they’re just more visible now.”
Sadly, this visibility has had its downsides, too. Harrison mentions that “an ugly backlash from men who claim that they’re “fake geeks” who are—irony within irony—only getting involved to win attention from geek boys,” which leads him to conclude, “We’ve clearly reached some kind of end point when the sort of people who used to be shunned can now think of themselves as prize catches.”
Except that Cumberbatch’s popularity represents less an end point than a beginning. Sherlock’s female fans have proven that geek culture doesn’t just belong to men, and they’ve made Cumberbatch a bonafide star in the process.
4) Everyone is tired of cookie cutter leading men.
In a lengthy piece on Cumberbatch’s sex appeal, Vulture’s Jada Yuan recently analyzed his desirability among women (and men) by asserting that the cold genius of his most famous character highlights “the immediate warmth and playfulness Cumberbatch emanates in person, and it’s enough to rip all the world’s knickers asunder.”
His sex appeal is also having a ripple effect across Hollywood. In a way, it’s a wonder that the Cumberbacklash didn’t start last year, when it felt like he was in everything. Among the titles America’s favorite British import popped up in were Star Trek Into Darkness, 12 Years a Slave, August: Osage County, and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. However, his biggest role last year was also his biggest failure, that being the the Julian Assange biopic, The Fifth Estate, which tanked at the box office.
But Cumberbatch’s inescapability in 2013 was still an important moment for shifting cultural norms. The Hollywood Reporter went so far as to put him on the cover of their “New A-List” issue, a classification which, despite his setback with The Fifth Estate, has only been reaffirmed since. Decca Aitkenhead, in another piece for the Guardian, wrote last September, “Before Sherlock, he’d been a slightly odd-looking character actor accustomed, he liked to joke, to ‘big parts in small films, and small parts in big films,’ having played Stephen Hawking, Van Gogh and William Pitt, as well as supporting roles in Atonement and The Other Boleyn Girl.”
Aitkenhead goes on to recall how Cumberbatch’s “vertiginous cheekbones, snub nose and slanted green eyes have had him famously likened to an otter, but Sherlock had transformed him into a pin-up.” She doesn’t play down Cumberbatch’s looks entirely though, writing that he is “unlike any actor I’ve come across.”
Jada Yuan probably captures his place as a leading man best, claiming that “’The Internet’s Boyfriend’ is both an accurate descriptor of Cumberbatch’s current place in popular culture and the name of one of many Tumblrs dedicated to him.” Cumberbatch’s own stance on this fame doesn’t hurt either. “Members of his rabid thinking-women’s fan base call themselves the Cumberbitches,” Yuan writes. “The object of their affection has said he thinks ‘Cumberbabes’ is more feminist, or ‘the Cumbercollective.’” And in case all that isn’t enough to convince you that Cumberbatch is the Internet’s ideal boyfriend, there’s also #cumberwatch, which monitors the star’s whereabouts.
Though Cumberbatch tells Yuan, regarding his Internet persona, “I flirt with it. I have fun with it,” he’s also expressed dismay over it in interviews, thereby allowing himself the perfect balance of humility, but not too much humility. However, no matter what Cumberbatch thinks of himself, by now, Hollywood has clearly paid attention to the Internet, and made Cumberbatch a full-fledged leading man and definite mainstream sex symbol. People magazine may have just declared The Avengers‘ Chris Hemsworth the sexiest man alive, but does it surprise you for even a second that there was a Facebook campaign advocating Cumberbatch be given the title?
This wouldn’t be without precedent, as it happens. Glamour has previously ranked him as the fifth sexiest man alive. And the Sun has given him the top spot twice.
Most significant of all though may be when he was crowned the world’s sexiest male movie star in Empire magazine. More tellingly still, coming in at second place was Tom Hiddleston, while actors like Zachary Quinto, Mads Mikkelsen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Lee Pace, and Cumberbatch’s Sherlock co-star, Martin Freeman, made the roster, too.
What does this new crop of A-Listers have in common? For one thing, there’s their place in genre films (Hemsworth’s work as Thor could be tied into this trend as well). There’s also their largely British background; Hugh Dancy, Ben Whishaw, and Matthew Goode wouldn’t look out of place among these names either. But beyond that, there’s a pervading theme of a more eccentric, foppish, and sensitive image. Heck, even Ryan Gosling could fall into this category, as it was feminism that helped make him a meme, too.
In contrast to the macho types we’ve all become accustomed to seeing in Hollywood movies, much of the new A-List appeals to more specific, unique sensibilities, fostered by the Internet’s love affair with counterculture.
Meanwhile, Cumberbatch has all but acknowledged his part in this. Yuan brings up an incident wherein “a fan asked, during a Reddit Ask Me Anything Q&A, if he and his fellow angular Brits Tom Hiddleston and Matt Smith have cheekbone-polishing parties. Cumberbatch answered the question by telling his admirer that, ‘We like nothing better than buffing our Zygoma. And imagining a horny time traveling long overcoat purple scarf wearing super sleuth nordic legend fuck fantasy. Get to work on that, internet.'”
And surely, somewhere the Internet did.
5) He keeps just enough distance.
Whether it’s playfully punching a journalist in Keira Knightley’s honor, dressing up as Mr. Napkinhead, strutting like Beyonce, or any of the other number of viral-ready stories about him, there’s seemingly no end to the charm bomb that is Benedict Cumberbatch. The guy can barely open his mouth without having the Internet swoon.
Except that for all his boundlessly entertaining shenanigans, there’s also an unknowability about Cumberbatch that keeps the Internet coming back for more. Discussing his aforementioned AMA, Cumberbatch told Fast Company, “Reddit is obviously an extraordinary thing. It was so nice to have direct contact in one moment with a group of fans. I just regret so many things that I don’t have enough time for… Brilliant though the immediate outreach of social media is, I’m very, very happy to walk away.”
Sadly, unlike many of his show business peers, Cumberbatch is not on Instagram or Twitter, nor does he have an official Facebook page. But maybe that’s the final key to remaining the Internet’s biggest crush. A crush is generally someone who inspires severe attraction, but from afar. The denizens of the Internet can ask Benedict Cumberbatch to be their boyfriend all they want, but in the end, it’s not going to happen; you can only fly so close to the sun, after all.
Of course, this rejection may only cause the crush to deepen, before the Internet finally takes the hint.
Photo via tnssofres/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)