Spencer’s Soapbox: What Do We Do with Superhero Sidekicks Now?

Shared Universe Continuities Isn’t the Mark of Success

(Author’s note: Spencer’s Soapbox is a weekly column here on SHH where yours truly tries to spur a conversation on specific topics. Dive in to the latest installment below and check out the previous ones by clicking here.)

Superhero sidekicks first became popular in the world of comics because publishers felt that kids needed an in to the story. They assumed a 10-year old couldn’t identify with a millionaire playboy, so they threw a little kid in there to give them an anchor. The role of the sidekick has evolved over the years certainly, just look at the narrative arc of Dick Grayson. From kid sidekick to teen hero to young adult loner that rejects his kid past all the way back to replacement of his mentor. All that to say, the idea of a sidekick has changed tremendously over the years and as superhero storytelling continues to transcend different forms of media, what do we do with them?

It’s interesting to track the way that sidekicks are seen and even written in comics, because at a certain point they stop being an addition to the primary hero’s story. Batman and Robin might still be called “Dynamic Duo,” but for decades the stories were still Batman, oh and also Robin is here too. Now their relationship has changed, Batman and Robin are a team. No longer is it a hero and his protege but two team members fighting side by side. Robin is no longer just Batman’s ward, he’s a character with thoughts, feelings, and an arc that makes him (at times) even more interesting than the dark knight himself.

Where does this leave us presently? On the comic book side of things, sidekicks are almost totally gone from the Big Two. The characters have adapted to the times and even progressed in their own journeys that they don’t need the identifier of being subservient to another. Dick Grayson is a globe hopping superspy, Batgirl is protecting her own neighborhood of Gotham City, Bucky Barnes is the Winter Soldier, and Jubilee is a mom! The team dynamic has been directly translated to television and film as well as Red Arrow is an integral member of Team Arrow on “Arrow,” Dick Grayson will be the focus of the series “Titans” on TNT, and The Winter Soldier was featured in the title of a hit movie.

Marvel Studios clearly doesn’t even acknowledge the idea of a sidekick in their films. Bucky is an integral piece of the larger puzzle, James Rhodes became his own machine in Iron Man 3, and the Howling Commandos continued to operate without Captain America. The closest things that Marvel has to sidekicks in their movies is The Falcon in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Loki in the “Thor” movies; however, neither are functioning as a lesser version of the title character. What makes them not sidekicks is their full arc, and that they’re not defined by being support for the main character and the plot. Sam Wilson in “Winter Soldier” is a character with flaws, ambitions, charm, humor, and incredible action set pieces that do not depend on Captain America for execution, and I shouldn’t even have to lay out why Loki is great.

What about DC Entertainment though? As outlined above, many of their sidekick characters are already appearing on television. Does this mean that we won’t see any on the big screen? Rumors have persisted that Nightwing and/or Robin will be in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Should these prove to be true, what role do they have in the movie? Will the characters be wholly defined by being inferior to Batman or will they function as an individual that adds a layer to Batman? DC Comics have a long history of sidekick characters, far more so than Marvel, and with their full schedule in view, it doesn’t seem like these characters are on the docket. We can’t complain too much though since we’ll be seeing many of them on TV, but it’d be nice to see Batgirl or Nightwing fighting alongside Batman.

Sidekicks are clearly an outdated concept for what superheroes have become, or are they? Do kids still need an inlet into fiction? A character that they can see themselves being in the story? My gut tells me No. Any kid can see Iron Man and think about what they would do in a high powered suit of armor. When you show a kid Batman and Robin, they might recognize that Robin is their age, but they still want to be Batman if given the choice. Back to the original question, what do we do with the sidekick characters? Don’t treat them like they belong in the “B-story,” show them as their own fully realized people. Give them a reason to live and do what they do beyond simply “It’s what this A-List hero told me to.” The good news is it’s already being done. Sidekicks are still around, but now they’re just as interesting and spotlight-worthy as the heroes. So start putting them in more of the movies.