Whatever happened to kid sidekicks?

Feature James Aquilone 30 May 2012 - 06:23

Robin, Bucky, Aqualad... There are more superheroes on the big screen than ever at the moment, but why have their kid sidekicks not made an appearance?

Boys in tights. Or bare-legged. Usually orphans. But always loyal and obedient to their adult mentors. Robin the Boy Wonder. Bucky. Speedy. Kid Flash. Aqualad. These were the kid sidekicks of comics’ early years. Immensely popular back in the day, these characters have since been banished to comic-book oblivion, retconned, killed off, resurrected and transformed. And when it comes to the movies, it’s as if they never existed at all.

This summer you’ll see more superheroes than ever in theatres - everyone from Captain America and The Hulk to Batman and Spider-Man. But you won’t see any kid sidekicks; no pre-pubescent boys fighting alongside grown men in masks. Hollywood has always shied away from the superhero’s young companion. And for good reason. They were often lame, inappropriate, and raised a slew of troubling questions about their mentors’ sexuality.

A Brief History of Sidekicks

Sidekicks didn’t always have a bad name, though. The four-thousand-year-old Epic of Gilgamesh features perhaps the first fictional sidekick in Enkidu and ever since there have brilliant examples of the character type. Sancho Panza, Dr. Watson, Samwise Gamgee, Chewbacca, Porky Pig. Sidekicks serve a variety of functions: comic relief, straight man, confidant or partner. Their main role in comics was to provide young readers with characters they could identify with. Which is why we get a Boy Wonder instead of a Man Wonder.

The first kid sidekick in comics was Robin, who made his debut in 1940, only about a year after Batman was introduced. Bob Kane saw Batman as a caped Sherlock Holmes, so he gave him a Watson - an eight-year-old acrobatic Watson with bare legs. Bob Kane must have had a wicked sense of humour. Nonetheless, Robin was an instant hit: Sales nearly doubled and kid sidekicks proliferated. It was great for business and nerd fantasy. At least for a little while.

Enter Fredric Wertham

Superheroes’ true arch-enemy was Fredric Wertham, whose “Seduction of the Innocent” was like kryptonite to the comic-book industry - weakening and nearly destroying the four-colour tales. Through his book, published in 1954, Wertham argued that comics were turning kids into perverted juvenile delinquents. He attacked EC Comics for its ghoulish horror magazines and Wonder Woman for her bondage scenarios. But he was particularly damning when it came to sidekicks. Wertham claimed that Batman and Robin stories had a strong homosexual subtext (and he had an abundance of convincing evidence). He warned that the Caped Crusader adventures “may stimulate children to homosexual fantasies” and described the Dynamic Duo’s home life as a “wish dream of two homosexuals living together.” He also pointed out that Robin is a “handsome [young] boy, usually shown in his uniform with bare legs. He is buoyant with energy and devoted to nothing on Earth or in interplanetary space as much as to Bruce Wayne. He often stands with his legs spread, the genital region discreetly evident.” Sounds like Wertham was a fan.

Interestingly, Wertham was only concerned with the homoerotic implications between Batman and Robin and not the fact that Robin was a minor and any sexual relationship between the two would constitute child molestation. Regardless, most likely in reaction to Wertham and the Comics Code Authority, the popularity of the kid sidekick plummeted.

But probably more devastating to the sidekick than Wertham was Stan Lee. During Marvel’s creative explosion of the early ’60s, Lee rendered them obsolete. Never a fan of the young sidekick, he got around the relatability problem by creating kid superheroes, like Spider-Man, the second Human Torch and the X-Men. Things weren’t looking good for the kid companion - and Chris O’Donnell wasn’t even born yet.

Rubber Nipples, Codpieces & Clooney. Oh, my!

It would take decades before a kid sidekick would make it into a major motion picture - and the results were disastrous.

Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin (1997) featured Chris O’Donnell as the Boy Wonder. Robin, however, wasn’t much of a boy - O’Donnell was 25 in Batman Forever (about six years younger than Christian Bale when he took over as the Dark Knight). Thankfully O’Donnell’s legs were covered. Unthankfully he wore rubber nipples and a ginormous codpiece. Director Joel Schumacher, who took over the Batman franchise from Tim Burton, returned the Caped Crusader to the campiness of the ’60s TV version and turned up the homoeroticism to max. Fredric Wertham must have been rolling over in his grave. A number of critics, such as James Berardinelli, questioned the “random amount of rubber nipples and camera angle close-ups of the Dynamic Duo's butts and Bat-crotches.” Years later even O’Donnell admitted that “it wasn’t so much the nipples that bothered me, it was the codpiece…. I didn't think twice about the controversy, but going back and looking and seeing some of the pictures, it was very unusual.”

George Clooney has been more blunt about the homoeroticism in Batman & Robin. A few years back he said he played the Dark Knight as gay. “I was in a rubber suit and I had rubber nipples. I could have played Batman straight, but I made him gay.” Clooney also once joked that “Joel Schumacher told me we never made another Batman film because Batman was gay.”

Batman & Robin underperformed at the box office and is the lowest rating film in the franchise, earning a dismal 13% rating at Rotten Tomatoes. After the movie’s release, O’Donnell’s rising career stalled and a proposed fifth Batman movie was cancelled. As Clooney put it, “I think we might have killed the franchise.” We know that wasn’t true. (Thank you, Christopher Nolan.) But they may have killed Robin’s chances at returning to another live-action movie.

(Of note, the two Batman movie serials of the 40s both feature Robin.)

Sidekicks Are Lame

But don’t go blaming homoeroticism or implied paedophilia for keeping young sidekicks out of the movies. There are a number of problems with the character type; the biggest one being that they're lame.

Lists of lame sidekicks are numerous and one particular water-frolicking lad lands on most of them. Aqualad’s lameness was inevitable since he’s the young companion of a pretty lame superhero. He also talks to fish, rides dolphins, gets into questionable positions with walruses and has smoother legs than the Boy Wonder. ’Nuff said.

Then there’s Lucas “Snapper” Carr, the mascot of the Justice League in the ’60s. Perhaps the most annoying sidekick ever, “Snapper” got his name because he liked to snap his fingers. Apparently everyone needs a gimmick. (The JLA was a magnet for lame sidekicks; for example, Wendy and Marvin and Zan and Jayna.)

Or consider Etta Candy. Her superpower was an eating disorder. After fattening up on sweets, Etta goes on numerous adventures with Wonder Woman. At one point the rotund sidekick storms a Nazi concentration camp using a box of candy for a weapon. Etta, who was introduced in the ’40s, was known for her love of sweets and the catchphrase “Woo! Woo!”

Sidekicks Are Illogical

The sidekick problems don’t end with lameness. The biggest question hanging over their heads: Why the hell would a superhero allow a kid to endanger himself by fighting alongside him?

Captain America’s little buddy Bucky (introduced in 1941) must have broken at least one child labour law by entering the battlefields of World War II. After walking in on Steve Rogers while changing into his uniform, James Barnes discovers his pal is really Captain America. He insists on helping him fight the Nazis, undergoes extensive training and is assigned to be Cap’s partner. The justification? The military believed a 15-year-old in the trenches would rally the youth of America. In saner times, his death was used to explain why the Marvel Universe has few kid sidekicks, since no responsible hero would want to risk a minor’s life in a similar way.

Bucky did make it into the movies, in 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger. But like Chris O’Donnell’s Robin, he was made age appropriate. Played by Sebastian Stan, Barnes was Cap’s best buddy and the same age as the hero.

Sidekicks in Future Movies

With the recent success and proliferation of superhero movies, there’s no doubt sidekicks will eventually take on bigger roles and even headline their own films. But it most likely won’t be in their original forms.

Over the years sidekicks have been allowed to grow up, evolve and become full-fledged superheroes. As you probably know, there have been two dozen-odd Robins, with the original, Dick Grayson, going from kid sidekick to adult hero Nightwing. There have been rumors of a Nightwing movie for some time. Back in 2007 a Nightwing / Teen Titans flick was reportedly green-lit at Warner Brothers. Plans for the movie seem to have stalled, though. IMDb lists it as “in development.”

It took a few decades but Bucky was finally resurrected, and in 2005 he became the badass Winter Soldier. Captain America director Joe Johnston has expressed interest in doing a Bucky/Winter Soldier movie with Sebastian Stan. While no official word has been given, Johnston has said the film most likely won’t happen until after Captain America 2.

Final Thoughts

Sidekicks have never gotten much respect, but they have come in quite handy. You need a character that kids could identify with? Say hello to Robin. You need an emotional death? Say goodbye to Bucky and Jason Todd. You need to send a serious message about drug addiction? Give Speedy a needle and some heroin. Handy, expendable, questionable, controversial, sidekicks have added much to comic’s lore. And though they may never be faithfully represented in the movies, they will live on in the comics. Because nothing and no one ever stays dead in the comics. Not even Bucky.

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Two word explanation for the non-use of "kid" sidekicks - Scrappy. Doo.

Good article!

It's not just a trend in the movies though, I think Damien is the only kid sidekick left in the comics, but he's Bruce's son so no homoeroticism there thank god! So I wouldn't be too inclined to blame Batman and Robin. Having said that Robin was pretty much a butchered fusion of Nightwing and Robin anyway (not in a good way :S)

I'm inclined to blame Stan Lee, and specifically spiderman, most kids into comics read spiderman. I'd even wager that this fact partly fuelled the decision to make him a kid again in Ultimate.

Mainly though I'd say it's the fact that kids don't read comics so much so that type of character isn't needed.

That's a good argument as to why kid sidekicks probably won't make it into movies, but at some point someone will tackle it in as serious a way as possible just because Hollywood are always looking for new angles.

I have to say that Robin seems to be the most inevitable sidekick to make it but I would place him around 16.  The reason being he is the most iconic of sidekicks and there are so many stories with Batman that don't work without him and the extended bat-family.

If you can have Smallville run for 10 years telling the adventures of a young superman I don't see why Dick Grayson can't be given the same respect.

I still think Joseph Gordon-Levitt is Robin in the Dark Knight Rises. We'll see.

Why is Aquaman regarded as such a lame character?

Good article, covered all the basis as to why sidekicks are pretty terrible comic characters, though I'm surprised Alan Moore's Top 10 wasn't mentioned.

Spoiler alert for those that haven't read it: Moore quite excellently unpicks the subtext of child molestation with the exposure of the world's supposedly greatest heroes, the Seven Sentinels (including thinly veiled Superman and Batman parodies, Atoman and The Hound) running a paedophile ring using their sidekicks as sex slaves. 

Concious (perhaps overly so - if so, apologies) that some comments on this article seem to be conflating homoeroticism and child molestation as equally bad, it is worth noting Top 10 also beautifully illustrates the tenderness of loving gay relationship between main character Steve Traynor and his slightly senior lover Wulf. I also highly recommend the back story to this romance in the prequel Top Ten: The Forty-Niners.

It kind of looks that way in the trailers, but could they really keep such a big thing a secret?

I totally agree with the change in the comic demographic. 30 years ago when I started reading comics, only people my age were reading them, my parents wouldn't have even picked them up to look.. Now when I go into a comic shop anywhere, its actually a rare thing to find young kids buying the latest issues. 1, they have so many other things to spend their money on now and - 2, they just download them from the internet for free every week (so they don't register in advertising demographics either).

"Morning, and it begins like any other routine morning." with Bruce and Dick waking up in the same bed!  Gosh, Golly, Gee-Whizz !

Because he was written badly for his first twenty-five or so years in comics and on the Super Friends cartoon. There have been several good runs for the character starting in the late '60s, with the Peter David and current Geoff Johns runs being especially well done.

Not sure about kid sidekicks, but definately want to see Krypto in the new Superman movie. He's a good dog... now :)

Why would superpowered kids want to be sidekicks when they could fight alone, or make there own team like Young Justice?

all the other wierdness aside, an eight year old isnt the first thing that comes to my mind when i think of back-up in a fight.  and as we saw in kick-ass, it was pretty disturbing to watch a grown man beat the crap out of a little girl.

Bale said he'd never play Batman as long as Robin was in the movie. JGL won't be Robin.

I honestly would have thought the next logical step for Marvel to make would have been for Cap 2 to be the Winter Soldier storyline.

I'm am so down with a Winter Soldier film.

Kid sidekicks ought to be outlawed in every medium!
Wesley Crusher practically ruined ST:TNG and do I need to mention Li'l Anakin in Phantom Menace...? >_<

Actually,there is a cinematic exception to the no kid sidekicks in superheroes movies which definitively proves that it's not impossible for the concept to work in films.I'd say Hit Girl was probably the most popular feature of Kick Ass and  is one of the stand out characters of recent superhero movies.

granted sidekicks are very kitsch, but well written can really add to the story; especially in a dark story, dark knight returns/the crow are very good examples

Two dozen odd Robins, huh? Where the hell do you get your information? There have been 5, 6 if you count the future version of Robin, Carrie (from the Dark Knight Returns).

You either have no idea of the Batman universe or you failed to google "Robin" and look at the wikipedia page.

We'll always have Hit Girl.

Was she a sidekick? Can you have a sidekick who is more competent than the hero?

Yeah, I didn't see Hit Girl as a sidekick. If anything Big Daddy was her sidekick.

Now, see?  THIS is why I'm in fear for the future of our educational system.

T.O.G.:  James Aquilone is what's known as a "writer".  These "writers" use "techniques" when writing.  The "technique" you are referring to is known as "hyperbole".

"Hyperbole" is the use of exaggeration as a rhetorical device or figure of speech. It may be used to evoke strong feelings or to create a strong impression, but is not meant to be taken literally.

Hyperboles are exaggerations to create emphasis or effect, and are frequently encountered in casual speech.  An example of hyperbole is: "The bag weighed a ton."   Hyperbole helps to make the point that the bag was very heavy, although it is not probable that it would actually weigh a ton.  The same is true regarding "there have been two dozen-odd Robins", when there have been only 6 (not counting those in Elseworld, Hypertime, etc. stories).

I'd tell you to research more, but those dictionaries weigh a ton...

Kato was more competent than Green Hornet. 

The mini-sidekick lost credibility in the late 70s/early 80s with the likes of:

Scrappy Doo, Orko, T-Bob, Snarf/Wily Kit/Wily Kat, Short-Round, Uni, 7-Zark-7, Bat-mite, Baby Plas, H.E.R.B.I.E, No-No, Godzuki et al

Kick Ass may not be as competent as Hit Girl but he does save her life at the climax of the film and she wouldn't have nailed her fathers murderers at the end of the film without Dave so i did see her as a sidekick.She's a sidekick twice in the movie,with her mentor,Big Daddy and with Kick Ass at the end of the movie so she proves that you can have sidekicks in comics and films who are more effective than heroes. I Think Sky High pushed that too.

I think I prefer Bucky Barnes as someone older. I really liked what Sabastian Stan did with the character, and I'm waiting to see what he will do as the Winter Soldier.

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