Henry Cavill’s Sherlock Holmes Sued Because Of Kindness

Arthur Conan Doyle's estate sued Netflix over Henry Cavill's portrayal of Sherlock in Enola Holmes, saying a portrayal of the character as kind infringed on copyright.

By Chris Snellgrove | Updated

Henry Cavill

Even though he’s not suiting up as Superman anymore, Henry Cavill has found plenty of projects to keep him busy outside of James Gunn’s new DCU. For example, he starred as Sherlock Holmes, the famous detective created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in the hit Netflix movie Enola Holmes and its sequel. Cavill played the detective as uncharacteristically kind towards his sister, and The Hollywood Reporter confirmed that Doyle’s estate sued Netflix over the kindness of that portrayal before ultimately settling the matter out of court.

Part of what made this lawsuit so ironic is that Henry Cavill’s Sherlock Holmes isn’t even the focus of those movies. Instead, the films follow Millie Bobby Brown as she takes a break from Stranger Things to portray Enola Holmes, the titular character and sister to Sherlock. While Arthur Conan Doyle’s estate seemingly had no problem with Netflix making entire films out of the character of Sherlock’s sister, the estate was apparently taken aback by Cavill’s performance as Sherlock.

The lawsuit seemed doomed to failure from the very beginning for a simple reason: most of the Sherlock Holmes stories are now in the public domain, meaning that filmmakers and showrunners can bring these stories to life without infringing on Doyle’s estate. However, the estate asserted that Sherlock Holmes only developed empathy in one of the later books that remained under copyright. Therefore, they saw Henry Cavill’s Sherlock expressing kindness and empathy towards Brown’s Enola as an infringement of their copyright.

millie bobby brown
Millie Bobby Brown as Enola Holmes

While Henry Cavill didn’t have to defend his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, the producers of Enola Holmes stepped up to offer the obvious rebuttal: that the Doyle estate was trying to get around the law and create a kind of perpetual copyright (who are these guys, Disney?) by forbidding this character from showing basic human warmth or kindness of any kind. In other words, this lawsuit seemed like one big cash grab.

However, perhaps sensing that a prolonged court battle was the last thing they needed, Netflix ended up settling with Doyle’s estate out of court. We don’t know how much they settled for, of course, but it seems that Netflix was protecting its right to create a franchise as much as it was protecting its actors like Henry Cavill. After all, they settled out of court in late 2020, which cleared the way for Netflix to release an Enola Holmes sequel just last year.

Interestingly, if we take Doyle’s estate at face value, this would explain why they were so offended by Henry Cavill’s portrayal of Sherlock Holmes and not Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal. Back before he joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Cumberbatch starred in the BBC’s Sherlock, and he gave a performance that made many fans think Sherlock was somewhere on the spectrum. This implicitly helped to explain both his brilliant deductions and his occasional problems with social interaction, resulting in a Sherlock who was cold and distant…just the way the estate wants him.

Ultimately, this lawsuit is a reminder that companies and estates will go to great lengths to protect their most famous characters. This is one of the reasons Christopher Tolkien was so protective of Lord of the Rings over the years, and fans still debate how accurate shows like Rings of Power are to J.R.R. Tolkien’s original vision. Still, we don’t think Tolkien’s estate has ever sued anybody for making their characters look too nice onscreen, and that’s more than we can say for the estate that owns the rights to Sherlock Holmes and how they treated Henry Cavill.