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.
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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