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Why Are Superhero Movies Leaving Out the Sidekicks?

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Apr 04, 2014 | 1:41pm EDT

Anthony Mackie, Chris Evans, Captain America: The Winter SoldierWalt Disney Co via Everett Collection

With the recent influx of major superhero franchises, whether they’ve just been hitting theaters for the first time or have been rebooted several times over, one key aspect of the archetypal superhero experience has largely been missing: sidekicks. Although a superhero has long been considered incomplete without a wise-cracking boy wonder by his side, the recent Hero Renaissance has all but left lackeys behind altogether.

Take, for example, Batman and Robin, possibly the most iconic superhero/sidekick pairing of all time. Despite being a major part of the comics for over 50 years, Robin has only appeared in three live-action films, the most recent of which was 1997’s Batman and Robin. Although Joseph Gordon-Levitt's John Blake character in The Dark Knight Rises was revealed, in the film's final moments, to be a nod to Robin, this was hardly a bona fide appearance for the character.

Then there’s Bucky Barnes, Captain America’s loyal sidekick, who didn’t get much to do in Captain America: The First Avenger before he disappeared and resurfaced as the Winter Soldier. This time around, Cap’s partners-in-crime are Black Widow and Falcon, both of whom are heroes in their own right.

Batgirl, meanwhile, has only made it into one live-action film – again, Batman and Robin – despite being a major character with her own long-standing comic tradition. Jubilee is often a sidekick to Wolverine in the X-Men comics, but she has never received more than a cameo appearance in any of the films, and none of that screen time would give new audiences the impression that the two characters had any sort of relationship. Both Batgirl and Jubilee have strong fan bases who would likely love to see their favorite characters make it to the big screen. Yet despite having interesting and important storylines in the books, they can’t seem to cross over.

Why, if these characters are so important and popular, are the sidekicks getting cut out of these films? Well, for a start, sidekicks are often portrayed as ridiculous characters, designed for comic relief and to occasionally bail the hero our of whatever trouble he’s gotten into. Although the books give them interesting, compelling backstories and plots that help turn them into a three-dimensional character, their appearances in live-action works haven’t been as layered. It's hard to take Robin seriously as a character when the prevailing image of him featured goofy tights and and eager-to-please attitude. With the trend of superhero films leaning towards the gritty these past few years, there’s no longer a place for the goofy sidekick.

Iron ManWalt Disney Co via Everett Collection

Warning: The following contains spoilers regarding the identity of the Winter Soldier in the upcoming Captain America film. 

Even if the film isn’t aiming for dark realism, it’s hard to translate many sidekick characteristics without the coming across as grating or annoying. When Iron Man 3 added Harley to the film, many audiences were divided over the character. Some found him to be annoying and unnecessary, whereas others thought he added a much-needed venue to explore different elements of Tony Stark’s personality. Comic book sidekicks can suffer from this as well, which likely makes filmmakers reluctant to put them in the movies.. For every X-Men fan who loves Jubilee, there’s one who finds her mall-girl persona insufferable.

Instead, the sidekicks are replaced by other heroes. When Wolverine isn’t being a “lone wolf,” he’s surrounded by major X-Men characters; whoever is closest to him in that film depends on what story the filmmakers are trying to tell. Nolan’s Batman got backup form Catwoman in the most recent film, and even though Falcon’s role in The Winter Soldier fits the idea of what a sidekick would be, the character will likely play a major role in upcoming films. If the Marvel Cinematic Universe decides to stick with the comic book plots, he will become a full-fledged member of the Avengers, and so even now he is treated like a full-fledged hero. If the Winter Soldier ever returns to his old identity as Bucky Barnes, it’s likely that instead of falling back into his old sidekick role, he will be given a larger, more vital part, especially if rumors about Sebastian Stan taking over as Captain America are true.

It’s easier to have your hero supported by other heroes because they have backstories and layers of their own, which usually makes for a better character onscreen, and therefore, a better film. There’s more to work with and more to explore, which allows filmmakers more freedom with the kind of stories that they want to tell. Plus, with regular heroes, audiences don’t have to sit through the annoying puppy-dog stage that all sidekicks seem to go through. Instead, all of the characters are on equal footing, all of them are interesting to watch, and all of them are just as capable of taking down the villain. Besides, more heroes makes for more films, and it's easier to launch a new franchise when you already know how audiences are going to respond to a major character. 

However, it is possible to put a sidekick onscreen and not have the film devolve into pure camp. The Iron Man films have allowed Rhodey to be both a traditional sidekick to Tony Stark as well as a funny, interesting, fan favorite. Part of this is due to the fact that the films tend to lean more heavily towards comedy than the rest of the universe, which allows them to explore the idea of a goofy, ridiculous sidekick. When Rhodey cracks jokes, it works because Tony is doing the exact same thing, so there’s no tonal dissonance. But Rhodey also takes part in some of the films’ more serious elements as well. When the films delve more deeply into what’s going on in Tony’s head, his friendship with Rhodey is given a greater weight, and that friendship gives the audience a better insight into Tony as a character. And, of course, he’s around for the major battle sequences, where he does just as much fighting and is just as vital to the villain’s defeat, even though it’s clear that Tony is the one in command.

Though Rhodey has proven that the new generation of superhero films can find room in their lineup for an old-fashioned sidekick, it still doesn't seem likely that other franchises are will be bringing the sidekick back to theaters. For one, the serious, gritty superhero film doesn't seem to be going away anytime soon, with The Winter Soldier exploring the political thriller genre and Batman Vs. Superman planning to bring back the dark, jaded hero. Those films just don't allow for a wise-cracking, tights-wearing sidekick. Even if they did, it's still more likely that a hero who could play a major role in future films will play that part instead. As the superhero universes continue to expand and intercept, sidekicks will continue to be lost in the shuffle, since big-names heroes are always a bigger audience draw than a sidekick, no matter how well-loved they are by fans. 

Which means that in the end, the best way for a sidekick to make it to the big screen is for them to embrace their own heroic destiny, and anchor a franchise of their own. After all, Bucky Barnes didn't become a major character in the Marvel Universe until he was brainwashed and turned into a vigilante, and and knowing that Falcon will eventually join the Avengers makes up for the little he gets to do in The Winter Soldier. If studios are afraid of bringing sidekicks, in all of their dumb, tights-clad glory to the big screen, then it might make more sense for them to skip past the awkward stages and bring their own heroic adventures to life. Because in the end, wouldn't we all prefer to watch a Nightwing movie than to sit through Robin tagging along on whatever Batman's doing? 

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