This weekend marks the return of Sherlock Holmes, who is a wise ass as portrayed in the recent movie series by Robert Downey Jr., but has been one of history's smartest characters since Arthur Conan Doyle created him in 1887. Sherlock Holmes isn't the kind of guy who's content to sit back knowing he has all the answers-- when he walks into a room, he takes control and shows off a little bit, fully aware he's the smartest guy there and making sure everybody else knows it too.
Sherlock Holmes may be the most famous example of a genius hero, but he's not the only character we love who is always the smartest guy in the room. Below are six of our favorite characters who are always a step ahead of everybody else, whether they're genetically blessed with intelligence, stuck with a bunch of people who don't know the rules, or maybe even gifted at talking out of their butts. They might not ever get the chance to match wits with Holmes, but we trust in their brilliance all the same.
Good Will Hunting
Sherlock Holmes is a demonstrative genius. He can’t wait until the moment when those around him finally figure out his intelligence. Will Hunting (Matt Damon) takes the opposite approach. He buries his brilliance beneath a tough-guy veneer, because he fears that embracing it will only distance himself from his beloved, blue-collar “Southie” crew. But a complicated math equation posted on a blackboard is too much for Hunting to ignore, and once the cat is let out of the bag regarding his book smarts, there’s no going back. In a way, Will Hunting personifies Matt Damon – an incredibly handsome and gifted actor who burst onto the scene as a writer (one with an Oscar, thank you very much). Damon always was going to be capable of bigger things, yet had to be coaxed out of that comfort zone and into the blinding spotlight of fame and celebrity. Deep down, I’m guessing Damon’s rarely been happier than when he and co-writer Ben Affleck were constructing memorable scenes like the “How do you like them apples?” comeback. But he and his character, Will Hunting, prove that once latent genius is recognized, containing it is virtually impossible.
The Shawshank Redemption
For much of the movie, Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) doesn't seem like the Smartest Guy in the Room at all. Andy isn't big enough or strong enough to defend himself from the brutal sexual assaults of Boggs and "the Sisters." As the movie says, Andy is faced with the choice to either get busy living, or get busy dying. So he begins using the only resource he has: his mind. He trades tax expertise for protection from the guards, for small comforts for himself and his friends, for an easier life. But when Warden Norton cruelly puts Andy in his place, it looks like Andy might finally yield to despair. And then he vanishes from his cell, the Warden tosses a pebble through an oversized girly poster, and the true extent of Andy's brilliance is revealed. Because sometimes it isn't enough to be smart; sometimes you have to be patient enough to play the long con. With patience and time, Andy not only stages an impossible escape and gets his revenge, he provides a friend with that most valuable commodity: hope.
Ace Ventura: Pet Detective
When talking about guys who are smarter than the room, you might not initially think a man who frequently speaks out of his butt would make the cut. Don't let Ace Ventura's antics throw you-- he is probably the best detective, human, pet or otherwise, n all of Miami. A modern day Sherlock Holmes, his methods and cases may seem unorthodox (because they are) but there is no question that the case of the missing Miami Dophins mascot (Snowflake) would not have been solved without the investigative genius of the Pet Dick. He not only bests all the other investigators ("Loooooosssers") at pretty much each and every crime scene ("Roger Podacter was... Murdered
") but he also wins every single battle of wits and words, successfully sparring with everyone from Detective Aguado
to his snooping landlord
. Finally, Ace is the only one able to find out the, uh, hidden connection between the Lieutenant and former Miami Dolphins kicker Ray Finkle ("laces out!"), which breaks the case wide open and leads to the rescue of Snowflake. Oh, and Dan Marino. "If I'm not back in five minutes... just wait longer." Genius.
“The police are always off track with this shit! If they'd watch Prom Night, they'd save time! There's a formula to it. A very simple formula! Everybody’s a suspect!” There for comic relief as much as he is to guide the viewers and the characters through the rules of horror, Randy Meeks doesn’t quite break the fourth wall in Scream
, but he does lean against it as he brings enough meta to the film to make it nearly as much a comedy as it is a horror movie. Serving as one of the potential victims, a suspected killer, and in parts, almost a voluntary narrator to Wes Craven’s 1996 horror film, Randy’s the one who’s not only immersed in the mess of killings, but also able to step back just enough to see it from the perspective of a scary movie, which as it happens, is how the killers modeled their crimes. Call it genius, or call it his way of dealing with actual murders by detaching himself through his love of movies. Either way, it works and it puts him a shade ahead of the curve as a possible target.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
When Lisbeth Salander walks into a room, she doesn't look anyone in the eye or even say hello. She sits down and gets down to business, spouting off everything she knows about the subject in question-- which is almost always more than anyone else could have imagined-- and only revealing her opinion in half-hidden smirks or glares. Blessed with a photographic memory and expert hacking skills, Salander wasn't born knowing everything but has no trouble finding it out, making her both a crack investigator and supremely confident in any context, even when she's getting mugged on the subway or scorned by the people who judge her for her punk clothing and jet black hair. As played by either Noomi Rapace in the Swedish films or Rooney Mara in this year's American version-- take your pick, they're both great-- Lisbeth Salander overcomes the challenge that most women in face in getting on a list like this by simply not giving a damn that no one thinks women can be powerful. She's mean, she's brilliant, and if you doubt her she'll only prove it stronger every single time.
The Usual Suspects
When U.S. Customs special agent Dave Kujan, played by Chazz Palminteri, first meets Verbal Kint, he doesn’t see a criminal mastermind. He only sees a talkative middle-aged man with a widow’s peak, cerebral palsy, and a bad limp. But at the end of The Usual Suspects
, it’s proven just how wrong Kujan is. Unlike many of the other characters on this list, Verbal doesn’t let the audience know just how smart he is until the final scenes and his engineering of the whole plot doesn’t become fully apparent until the viewer has watched Bryan Singer’s film twice. Everything, from Kobayashi to the ship at San Pedro harbor is part of a setup he had orchestrated from the beginning. Kint is so brilliant, in fact, that by the end of the movie we’re not even sure what details of his story are true or false, as he has culled names and information from his surroundings to fool the authorities. His ruse doesn’t have the greatest staying power, as Kujan discovers the truth soon after Kint has left his office, but it’s more than enough time to get away. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist. The truth is, though, that he does, and just when you think you have him, he’s gone.