Or perhaps they don't, anymore, and perhaps 37-year-old Cumberbatch is the physical manifestation of a paradigm shift in a culture that seeks out slender, sensitive Edward Cullen over sweaty Magic Mike and prefers Sherlock Holmes to Superman. Perhaps this is why Cumberbatch is everywhere. This week, he’s in the news because he’s voicing a “super-duper smooth wolf” in DreamWorks’ upcoming Penguins of Madagascar. He's also playing Hamlet at the London Barbican. He's playing Richard III, possibly opposite Judi Dench. He's reading radio news scripts from D-Day on BBC Radio Four (in what seems to be a craven but successful attempt to get millennials interested in history) He's photo-bombing U2 at the Oscars. He's reading letters written by Kurt Vonnegut and Iggy Pop at the literary Hay Festival. He's one of Time's 100 Most Influential People in the World. He's officiating at same-sex weddings. He's crowd-funding short films made by a production company he set up, SunnyMarch Ltd. He's starring as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game. He's replacing Brad Pitt in The Lost City of Z. He's replacing Guy Pearce as Whitey Bulger’s brother in Black Mass. He's on BuzzFeed surrounded by photoshopped pictures of kittens. And, yes, he's also doing a fourth season of Sherlock, the cult British series that made detached sociopaths dreamy and Cumberbatch a household name.
It's not beyond the realm of possibility to conclude that 37-year-old Cumberbatch is the biggest star in the world right now, riding an improbably perfect storm of talent, timing, sensitivity, virality, and our postmodern rejection of conformist standards of beauty—at least insofar as they relate to men. With actresses, we seem to crave homogeneity (as a fun experiment, look at a lineup featuring Kate Mara, Ashley Greene, Anna Kendrick, and Isla Fisher and see if you can say with absolute certainty which one is which). With actors, it's more complicated. There are the schlubby, paunchy Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill types, sure, but there's also brooding John Hawkes and goofy Michael Sheen and the quirkily off-kilter former ballerina Ansel Elgort.
Aesthetically, Cumberbatch's appeal is almost impossible to define. He has naturally auburn hair, which he dyes for different roles, but which brings to mind Byronic literary heroes as diverse as Mr. Darcy and Christian Grey. His haughty pallor bears comparison with the vampiric charms of Robert Pattinson in Twilight, and with the young Mark Twain. His features are aristocratic in a way that used to suggest inbreeding among the upper classes—his mouth is only vaguely defined, and his jaw is slender rather than square—while his eyes are situated disproportionately far away from each other, tilting back towards his temples in a manner that makes his angular cheekbones more apparent. Physically, he's most frequently compared to an otter. In previous roles, he sported a ginger mustache while playing a rapist in Atonement, and he suffered through a hideous makeover to play the infinitely gruesome Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate (not even Cumberbatch’s charms could make that movie a success).