The long (and unfinished) path to Sherlock Holmes 3: the sequel that refuses to happen

Sherlock Holmes
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Sherlock Holmes 3 is now said to be a priority for Robert Downey Jr and his production company – but it’s taken over ten years already to get that far.


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It was on December 16th 2011 that Warner Bros released the sequel Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows into worldwide cinemas, returning a handsome profit for Warner Bros and Village Roadshow Pictures (with over half a billion dollars banked) by the time its run was complete. Directed by Guy Ritchie, and reuniting Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law as Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, it laid a very clear commercial and critical path to a third film. It seemed, in truth, inevitable.

In fact, even before A Game Of Shadows landed in cinemas, Warner Bros was moving towards at the least completing a trilogy. Drew Pearce had been hired to pen a script, with both Downey Jr and Law oftentimes expressing interest in returning to the franchise.

But what this began was a decade-and-change list of false starts, set against a changing ecosystem of film and TV. Suddenly, a film grossing half a billion dollars didn’t look quite as impressive, bizarrely. But several other reasons for delays sprung up.

Appreciating that the hugely popular and successful Sherlock television series came along in 2010 and itself took up some of 221b Baker Street’s oxygen, there still seemed little reason the two shouldn’t co-exist. After all, another hit series – Elementary – also popped along, and earned itself a comfortable living.

Yet a third Sherlock Holmes film kept hitting obstacles. Some of them fairly obvious, given that Robert Downey Jr was by now one of the biggest movie stars on the planet, and had a slate of projects both for Marvel and then for his own production company (Team Downey) that required his attention. Downey Jr’s schedule would go on to be blamed often for the assorted delays, even though he managed to slip in several other projects around his Marvel work.

Separately, Guy Ritchie found himself attached to a series of huge blockbusters – Aladdin, that really odd King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword, the fan favourite The Man From UNCLE (the latter two intended to be franchise-starters in their own rights) – and his schedule crammed up too.

Yet even in the midst of all of this, the creatives were given opportunities to shoot down the possibility of Sherlock Holmes 3, but didn’t. Inevitably, whenever they had a film out, questions came up about continuing the franchise, and an underlying keenness kept coming through. In 2012, producer Dan Lin said they were just waiting on the screenplay, for instance. Move forward several years, and Robert Downey Jr was insisting in 2016 that the project was a live one and even might shoot that year. In came James Coyne to take a fresh stab at the screenplay just weeks later. Against that backdrop, producer Joel Silver was happy to tease the idea of even more movies as he was out promoting 2016’s The Nice Guys.

Sherlock Holmes A Game Of Shadows

Yet Sherlock Holmes 3 kept falling into limbo, as other projects appeared to take priority.

It’s said that there’s a moment in the filmmaking process where everything needs to come together – the studio, the creatives, the script, sheer good luck – and that magical combination continued to evade the project. When it was being talked up for shooting in 2016, there was a growing sense of believe it when I see it, and that was not proven to be an unwise approach.

In fact, by the end of 2016, it was almost as if they’d admitted some degree of defeat and gone back to square one with Sh3rlock.

Nobody called it that.

Still, a writers’ room of scribblers was reportedly brought together to try and crack the script. This was the era where writers’ rooms were being hired to crack the stories for franchise features, but even then, not for one single film. Sherlock Holmes was proving a tough nut to crack though.

Amongst the scribes brought in were Nicole Perlman (who was put in charge, off the back of her work on Guardians Of The Galaxy), as well as Rogue One’s Gary Whitta and Tomb Raider’s Geneva Robertson-Dworet. By the time word of the film surfaced again, none of the writers hired were being credited with the script, as this time Chris Brancato had been recruited to crack the case.

This was 2018, and Guy Ritchie was feeling some blowback from the commercial disappointment of The Man From UNCLE and King Arthur. Making a third Sherlock Holmes at this stage seemed to make sense, even as he was shooting the live action Aladdin (which would go on to become the biggest hit of Ritchie’s career in 2019).

Brancato seemed to have cracked it at least as well, as in the summer of 2019 came the announcement that the film had qualified for tax credits from the US state of California. Gunning for a December 2021 release date at that stage, the film was being supported by over $20m in tax breaks. But what appeared to have unlocked the film was a change in director.

Choosing his follow-up project to 2019’s superb Rocketman, Dexter Fletcher – a filmmaker who’d also acted in Ritchie’s debut Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels – jumped aboard the film. Finally, preparation could begin in earnest. Downey Jr’s time in the Marvel universe was complete, so his schedule was more open, and Fletcher spent a lot of time with him, shaping the script. Jude Law was making space. Warner Bros was keen. A greenlight was given. It was going to take an act of God for Sherlock Holmes 3 to now be stopped in its tracks.

You know what happened next.

Realistically the film was getting to a position where it was finally ready to go in 2020, before Covid-19 hit the planet, and film production – amongst many other things – was turned on its head.

Early work was underway on the movie and Fletcher was very much intending it to be his next film, but the pandemic meant its moment was gone. Fletcher, keen to get moving on a film, would jump to Renfield and then to a big screen reworking of The Saint, neither of which he’d see to fruition. Downey Jr then had another project he needed to get moving, and Sherlock Holmes 3 was moved to the back of the fridge again.

It’s come back into the limelight over the last month or so with the confirmation from Team Downey’s Susan Downey that the project is very much a priority one. Remarkably, the core creatives remain involved, even though we’re over a decade away from the release of the second film. They can hardly pick up where they left off, goes the theory, although James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way Of Water did demonstrate that audiences will return for a sequel, even if the previous film was a long time in the past. Indiana Jones & The Dial Of Destiny is next to put that thinking to the test.

But in the case of Sherlock Holmes 3, which may or may not happen, there’s still that sense of believe it when we see it. Fletcher for one has admitted he’d been keen to return, while he was promoting his recent caper Ghosted. Guy Ritchie meanwhile now has a big Disney live action remake he’s committed to again, in the shape of Hercules. If they wait for the latter, it’s going to add a few more years to the schedule.

Yet Downey Jr is still keen. Law is still keen. There’s an insistence that there’s still a strong script out there for the movie. Eventually, they’re just going to have to make the jump, or leave us awaiting Enola Holmes 3 instead, a movie franchise that’s kicked off since we last saw Downey Jr and Law on Baker Street. Because as things stand, it feels like there’s still more chance of that happening than Downey Jr getting his comfy looking jacket on again…

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