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Like a Good Kick in the Side: Sidekicks and Superheroes – a Childish Combination?

Let’s be honest, a lot of the early superhero movie adaptations – from Richard Donner’s Superman to Tim Burton’s Batman – played fast and loose with the source material that they were drawn from. There wasn’t really the same sense of fidelity that one sense at work in modern comic adaptations, the sense that modern audiences are geeky enough to accept concepts like superhero nostalgia or deconstructions of comic book heroism without having to “sanitise” them for mass consumption. There’s a sense that there’s relatively little that can be deemed “too geeky” or “too corny” for a mainstream audience, at least not if done in the proper manner. However, there is one concept which still seems a little too “out there” for popular audiences: that of the kid sidekick. Captain America: The First Avenger cast its sidekick as 27-year-old Sebastian Stan, rather than the teenager of the comics. Why are we so embarrassed by this one element of superhero lore?

Compare and contrast...

Back in the thirties and forties, when these characters were originally imagined, sidekicks were a fairly common occurence. Hell, Robin was around by the time Batman got the first issue of his solo title. Captain America punched Hitler in the face with the assistance of his child sidekick, Bucky. Even a second-tier hero like Green Arrow had Speedy. It was just an audience role-fulfilment fantasy, the notion that the kids reading these stories could perhaps team up with their favourite heroes and have exotic adventures while foiling crimes. It was hokey and corny and a little camp, but it was all in good fun – this was back in the day when the medium didn’t take itself too seriously, and didn’t ask anyone else to take it particularly seriously.

Over time, of course, the winds changed. The idea of a child involved in Batman’s “war on crime” grew a lot less comfortable. I think a large portion of the unease with these children running around with middle-aged loner bachelors, as illustrated in the sensationalist piece of pop psychology trash Seduction of the Innocent – while a lot of us would joke about how unwholesome a wealthy socialite living alone in an isolated mansion with a young orphan and his butler might seem, the book made the accusation in an entirely serious manner.

The Camp Crusader...

Of course, comic book sidekicks still exist in books like Batman (with writer Grant Morrison giving us a ten-year-old Robin in the superb Batman & Robin), but – as a general rule – they are typically older. With a few exceptions, most sidekicks are in their late teens or early twenties, much like Chris O’Donnell as Dick Grayson in Batman Forever. They are young adults rather than kids. They’re more like adults who hang out together rather than “sidekicks”. Indeed, in films like Iron Man 2, the label is thrown around as a joke and an insult – it’s a subject of mockery.

I think a large element of this obvious unease is rooted in a changing world. In the forties, it would have been an aspiration for young men to go out and fight for their country – with many lying about their age to enlist. The notion that a young boy could make a valuable social contribution by fighting Nazis with Captain America or criminals with Batman was one that was probably appealing at the time. However, things have moved on. Most obviously, we don’t like our children to harbour dreams of combat – there are countless generations lost as child soldiers in wars overseas, a tragedy that weighs heavy on our mind.

A breakout hit(girl)...

As the superb Kick-Ass demonstrated with the character of Hit-Girl, a successful child sidekick is – for all intents and purposes – a child soldier. They are asked to risk their lives in hail of gunfire for a crusade that they aren’t necessarily able to understand. At the very least, their activities cost them their innocence, if not their lives. What would we think of Batman if we saw he was willing to send a twelve-year-old kid into a potentially lethal situation?

In fairness, the smarter stories and revisions have acknowledged this. As mentioned above, Mark Millar’s Kick-Ass tackles the subject head-on. In fact, Ed Brubaker’s run on Captain America, the comic book upon which The First Avenger will be based, offered his own revision to Bucky’s origin. He aged the kid up, and explained that his patriotic origin was a cover story – in fact, the kid was basically a cold-blooded assassin who split enemy throats with a sharp knife. It’s powerful stuff – and one which adds a layer of ambiguity to the whole proceeding, removing the overly wholesome sheen from events.

He's a machine (gunner)...

However, I can’t help but get the feeling that the sidekick is also simply too silly an idea. Of course, superhero movies have demonstrated that the audience will suspend their disbelief for flying or mystical cities or any number of other clichés associated with the genre – but there’s just something about a ridiculously combat-ready young kid which just strains the suspension of disbelief. A kid tagging along seems hard to believe, perhaps due to our changing social values – or perhaps because comics are more focused than ever on being seen as mature and sophisticated. I don’t know.

Still, I wouldn’t count on seeing too many teenage sidekicks played especially straight in the next few years. In the meantime, here is my favourite “be my sidekick” pitch ever recorded:

Would you like that? Would you like to ride with Batman?

2 Responses

  1. Aw come on, sidekicks are cool! If you do it like Kick Ass, it’s awesome ha. I actually thought War Machine in Iron Man 2 was cute too… :/

    • I think Hitgirl is the perfect deconstruction of a sidekick. I do think, though, there’s no way to play a kid sidekick straight these days – the only way to do it is over-the-top.

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