Credit: New Line Cinema
Everybody loves Batman, but you’ll have to look far and wide to find a hardcore Robin fan. It’s understandable. Batman is dark and brooding, swooping in from the darkness on wings black as night to mete out vigilante justice with his fists. Robin, on the other hand, is teenager wearing red and green spandex with a black pair of briefs. Batman’s the triple bacon cheeseburger we paid for. Robin’s the garden salad that came with it. And yet, can we really subtract Robin from the mythos? As much as we love Batman the lone wolf vigilante, a man in a rubber bat suit becomes silly very fast when we don’t have other characters around to assure the audience he’s serious business.
Enter the sidekick, simultaneously one of the most reviled and ubiquitous literary tools. Robin is only the most famous example. Sidekicks have appeared from antiquity to modern times, from Don Quixote‘s Sancho Panza to The Lone Ranger‘s Tonto. Like it or not, sidekicks are here to stay.
Credit: 20th Century Fox
As Robin so deftly illustrates, the first of the sidekick’s functions is as cheerleader, a deliverer of exposition who can build up the hero into something more than human. “Gee, Batman!” blurts Robin after a dustup with the Joker, “You sure showed that clown who’s boss!” This is only the most basic of the sidekick’s duties to the story.
Some authors take the sidekick’s first function to its logical conclusion: the sidekick as raconteur. This removes the sidekick’s tertiary nature and makes him as essential to the plot as the main hero, if not more so. The most famous example comes from the quintessential literary sidekick, Arthur Conan Doyle’s John Watson. For many Doyle fans, Watson’s the star of the show. We all love to watch Sherlock swan about each scene making extraordinary deductions from the smallest of observations, and yet we are not as brilliant as Holmes. We must watch him through Watson’s untrained eyes to understand what’s occurring. Various incarnations of the crime solving duo have played with the formula; Watson has at various times been portrayed as ineffectual comic relief to competent military-trained brawn to complement Holmes’ exceptional brains. Even in the canon of the stories, Doyle makes it clear Watson and Holmes are inseparable, that without Watson’s humanity to anchor him, Holmes would perhaps turn to crime or suicide to escape the boredom and loneliness. Sherlock is the anomaly; Watson is the human lens through which we can view him.
Rhino – Bolt’s Sidekick. Credit: Walt Disney Pictures.
This brings us to the sidekick’s most valuable usage, the human element. The hero is our aspiration figure, and the sidekick is our audience avatar, always two steps behind the protagonist but eager to catch up. If the hero is unfathomable, brooding, and facing impossible odds, the sidekick is grounded, lively, and willing to shoulder some of the burden. Samwise Gamgee from Lord of the Rings epitomizes this form of the sidekick. Frodo carries an unfathomable burden in the One Ring, facing dangers on the road as well as coping with his own temptation with its power. His trials are pure mythology. Sam, on the other hand, wants to get back to his garden and the pretty girl he was too scared to ask to dance. And somehow, over the course of the series, something amazing happens. Sam’s need to return to his garden proves greater than Frodo’s need to rid the world from evil. When Frodo collapses gasping on the side of Mount Doom within sight of their objective but unable to continue, it is Sam who carries him up the hill. Victory comes from the least likely character; not the noble-blooded Aragorn or magic Gandalf or even Frodo. It’s fat, ineffectual Sam who rises to the challenge. This transformation is one of Tolkien’s most important literary achievements, and it would not have occurred without the sidekick form.
So when Robin gets captured by the Penguin for the billionth time, don’t roll your eyes. Just try to remember, the sidekick is a literary Swiss Army knife, capable of serving a variety of functions when put in the hands of a skilled author. If the hero is who we want to be, the sidekick is who we are.
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