The last Sherlock Holmes movie thoroughly underwhelmed me. It was basically a steampunk-tinged superhero movie with Robert Downey Jr. as the star and Rachel McAdams as the Catwomanesque love interest, complete with the dumb climactic battle with a sneering villain over a MacGuffin that ends with the bad guy falling from a great height. Of course, Sherlock Holmes quickly became a holiday blockbuster, with critics and audiences alike praising the movie for its bickering banter between Holmes and Jude Law’s Watson, and for its fresh take on Holmes as a manic, druggy genius at detection and hand-to-hand combat. So perhaps it’s bad news for everyone else that I consider Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows to be a great improvement on the original.

Part of the enjoyment here comes from the superhero rule of sequels: Without having to waste time on exposition establishing the hero and his supporting cast, the second movie in any superhero series is sure to be better than the first. We already know that Holmes and Watson fight like an old married couple and that Holmes hates the fact that Watson is about to marry, so we can just dive into Downey and Law making hurt eyes at each other while desperately trying to maintain their Victorian-era dignity behind a thick veil of wit. And we’ve already been introduced to the idea of Moriarty, Holmes’s criminal counterpart (an excellent Jared Harris, all barely concealed rage and derision), so we can launch into the plot without much ado.

Shadows runs the detective and Watson all around Europe, partnering with a Gypsy (Noomi Rapace, sadly unremarkable after her star turn in the Swedish Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series) whose brother was kidnapped, and uncovering a massive conspiracy. It’s not gunning for the balls-to-the-wall fun that the previous entry attempted; we get more serious moments, and the stakes are raised considerably, which may disappoint fans who appreciated the slightness of the original. While Shadows slackens a couple of times too many, and even though the recent BBC modern-day-set Sherlock revamp makes this Holmes look a little silly in comparison, the game between Holmes and Moriarty is always compelling. Even if the audience isn’t given the necessary information to be able to solve the mysteries along with Sherlock—he’s that kind of movie genius who makes tremendous leaps of logic simply because the script calls for him to do so—there’s much to be said for a movie hero whose superpower is a great sense of observation. recommended