LOS ANGELES — Professor James Moriarty has taken a lot of heat the last century for crimes he didn’t commit.
The archrival of Sherlock Holmes, who called his nemesis the “Napoleon of crime,” appeared in only two of Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales about the great detective.
Yet in post-Doyle fiction about Holmes and in many movies, including Robert Downey Jr.’s sequel “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows,” Moriarty has loomed as the grandfather of all supervillains, the forerunner to Ernst Blofeld and many more James Bond baddies, along with legions of heavies that make life difficult for comic-book superheroes.
“I can’t think of a supervillain in a sort of obvious commercial sense before Moriarty in literature,” said Guy Ritchie, who directed 2009’s “Sherlock Holmes” and the sequel. “He really has become the most famous villain in literature, for not doing a great deal, either, by the way. But it is interesting how he’s carried so much momentum. He’s an elusive character, really, and he gained his equity as much by being elusive as for being potent.”
That elusive presence of Moriarty as a diabolical puppet-master of worldwide chaos, an evil doppelganger with an intellect possibly surpassing that of Holmes, was touched on at the end of Mr. Downey’s “Sherlock Holmes” two years ago.
The new movie, which opens Friday in North America, unleashes Moriarty in all his malice, played with quiet, chilling detachment by Jared Harris.
“You could say that Blofeld was a version of Moriarty in that he was created for the same reason by Ian Fleming,” Mr. Harris said. “You have Superman, you have to create a Lex Luthor or you have to have a kryptonite. Otherwise, there’s no jeopardy in your story. You have someone who’s invulnerable, who never loses. After a while, you get fed up with the stories.
“He’s there for the reason that the audience would feel like somewhere out there lurking is this opponent for this character they’ve come to love, and they start worrying for the future of that character. Will he be all right? Will he finally meet this person? What’s going to happen?”
In “A Game of Shadows,” Holmes has come to obsess over the shadowy Moriarty. Mr. Downey’s Holmes, aided by loyal but bickering buddy Watson (Jude Law), uncovers a scheme by the professor that could launch a World War I-style global conflict years earlier, in the late 1800s.
Mr. Harris brings cool menace to Moriarty, whose previous screen incarnations range from a holographic character on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” to Laurence Olivier as a subconscious boogeyman for Holmes as the detective undergoes psychotherapy with Sigmund Freud in “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution.”
“He’s like the shark in ‘Jaws.’ You have to imagine him a long time before you actually meet him,” said Lionel Wigram, a producer on both “Sherlock Holmes” movies. “He’s the spider who sits at the center of a web of crime. He’s the first organized crime boss, and you get the sense of this massive worldwide network of stuff that he’s into. You just sense that Holmes, were he not so horrified, would be mesmerized by how brilliant Moriarty is.”
“A Game of Shadows” sends Holmes and Watson out of England to continental Europe in pursuit of Moriarty, a voyage similar to their journey to escape the criminal overlord in the short story “The Final Problem.” That was the tale the Holmes-weary Conan Doyle used to kill off his detective along with Moriarty in a death match that sends them tumbling over Switzerland’s Reichenbach Falls.