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  • Writer's pictureMartin Vine

Side Kick-Ass!

Sidekicks. How many could you name off the top of your head? Could you get to ten? I asked myself that very question, no googling allowed. Here’s what I dredged from memory, in no particular order:

  • Robin (Batman & Robin)

  • Xander Harris (Buffy The Vampire Slayer)

  • Chewbacca (Star Wars saga)

  • Hit-Girl (Kick-Ass)

  • Sid the Sloth (Ice Age)

  • Tasslehoff Burrfoot (The Dragonlance Chronicles)

  • Jimmy Olsen (Superman movies)

  • Tonto (The Lone Ranger)

  • Gabrielle (Xena Warrior Princess)

  • Jonah Hill (basically every movies he’s ever been in)

I know I’ve missed some obvious ones. I know it’s not exactly an epic selection, nor a particularly inspiring one (apologies to Jonah Hill fans). With a little more time, I could easily have doubled the list, but this isn’t a numbers game. This post is about looking at the role of the sidekick in storytelling, and my somewhat undercooked list gives us a starting point, a chance to analyse and and categorise.

Beginning with the most obvious:

1. The comic

Slotting nicely into this group would be Xander Harris, Sid the Sloth, Tasslehoff Burrfoot, and maybe Jonah Hill (although just as likely to be playing the straight guy – eg, Get Him to the Greek). Character-wise, they’re all comics at heart, But it would be selling our plucky schucksters short to say they are inserted into the plot merely for laughs.

Xander Harris. Quietly contemplating his next one-liner.

I put Xander first for a reason: he breaks the mould and evolves. No question series creator Joss Whedon placed him into the Scoobies as the funny guy. He has all the killer lines; makes all the best references. Nicholas Brendon’s comic timing is flawless, but there’s something inescapably depressing about his character. Xander Harris is in love with the hero, a girl so far out of his league she might as well be from another dimension. It’s never gonna happen, so he compensates by mixing humour with an almost suicidal disregard for his own well-being.

How far does he push this reckless flirtation with the Reaper? Power through to the end of the third season and you’ll find out. Episode 13, Season 3 to be exact, The Zeppo is widely recognised as one of the top Buffy episode in any of those online click-bait lists you care to scroll through. The writers lay the foundation for Xander’s solo sidequest in the opening scene. The Scoobies are battling demon-of-the-week in its subterranean lair. It takes a combined effort of Buffy, Faith (Slayer #2), and Willow’s fledgling magic skills to bring down the monster. Only after the gang take stock do they realise that Xander missed the climactic ending, having been knocked out cold in an early round. Helping to remove him from the rubble, Giles explains that perhaps it’s best he stay to the rear in future battles.

A tough call, but it gets worse. In a following scene, a characteristically poisonous Cordelia clarifies Giles’s message:

Cordelia: It must be really hard when all your friends have, like, superpowers. Slayer, werewolf, witches, vampires, and you're, like, this little nothing. You must feel like Jimmy Olsen. Xander: I happen to be an integral part of that group. I happen to have a lot to offer. Cordelia: Oh, please. Xander: I do! Cordelia: Integral part of the group? Xander, you're the-the useless part of the group. You're the Zeppo. "Cool." Look it up. It's something that a sub-literate that's repeated twelfth grade three times has, and you don't.

It’s hard to watch. Surrounded by powerful women, the youngest, fittest male in the group is reduced to a rump role, completely ineffectual in fighting whatever big-bad pops out of the hellmouth to terrorise Sunnydale every week. It would defy believability to assume Xander’s character would be content to stay in his emasculated lane. And fans of the series will understand that Joss Whedon knows a thing or two about character.

If you want the breakdown, watch the full episode. Or read the synopsis. The details aren’t important. What’s important is how Joss evolves his sidekick, taking him on a dark, solo journey, at the end of which he can rely only upon but his own wits. After many stumbles, Xander finds his inner hero and taps it to save the day. None of his companions ever find out what he did, or how close he came to dying. Completely out of character for Xander to keep his mouth shut, but there you have it – a comic sidekick breaking the cliché.

2. The Loyalist

Let’s cherry pick from the list: Batman’s Robin, Han Solo’s Chewbacca, The Lone Ranger’s Tonto. Any of these champs would happily take a bullet (or laser blast) for their respective heroes. Ultimately, theirs is a support role – to provide companionship, keep the hero on track by reminding them how extraordinary and awesome they are. We may occasionally see glimpses of personality and individuality, but that’s not really what their on-screen time is about. Han Solo got his own Star Wars movie. Not sure if Disney would bank on a Chewbacca spin-off.

Loyalty is an admirable quality, but it doesn't guarantee chemistry. And it's chemistry that makes the difference between good and great. Think of some of the classic comedy match-ups: Cheers, Moonlighting, Roseanne, Friends, and all the way through to the modern era of The Office, Modern Family and Big Bang Theory. Their popularity rides on the back of the chemistry between the stars.

But what happens when they get it wrong?

Back in 2006, a series called Heroes came out. Everyone was raving about it; it was supposed to be the greatest thing on TV at the time (for those who had already lost the Lost plot). And it should have been a winner, particularly to fans of supernatural/comic-book fiction like me.

I thought it was terrible.

And I wasn’t shy about sharing my opinion. It was not that I was being deliberately contrarian – something just did not click. With so much buzz about the series, I had to understand why. It soon became obvious: the main characters were all isolated from each other.

I understand the reasons. Given how the plot was mapped out – heroes randomly appearing across the globe – there was no alternative. That was the story, and no question it had glimpses of brilliance. But it was missing the wonderful dynamic of the characters playing off one another.

Heroes series promo image
Heroes: missed an essential ingredient, but it did give us Zachary Quinto.

The concept takes me back to Buffy. It was the character chemistry that made the series such a joy to watch: Xander sparring with Cordelia, and later Anya – a retired vengeance demon, hilariously ill-equipped for human interaction; Giles’s stiff-upper-lip Britishness playing off against Buffy’s inherent American teenager rebelliousness; a reformed Spike putting the boot into anyone who falls into his insult zone. Joss takes the character melee to its extreme in Season 6, Episode 8 Tabula Rasa (which would definitely make my Top-10 list).

Heroes had none of this. And acknowledging the reasons was never enough for me to bridge the gap and embrace the series. Lesson learned – chemistry is important, character is important, and few are strong enough to fly solo (no pun intended).

Xena: Warrior Princess and Gabrielle
And to think, she could've ended up with Joxer. Dodged a bullet, Xena.

3. The Besotted

Because in some relationships, loyalty just ain’t enough. The obvious picks for this category are Buffy’s Xander Harris and Xena’s Gabrielle (didn’t we all want that to happen). Romantic intent extends the believability of what our sidekicks are willing to endure in service to the hero.

Xander Harris’s obsession with Buffy Summers endured long past the point at which he realised he had no chance. The stone cold truth of it did as much to deflect his love as his dysfunctional relationships with Cordelia and (later) Anya. Xander grudgingly accepted that like all other beta males chasing alpha females, there are rules.

Rules, you ask? In the 2010 rom-com She’s Out of My League, T.J. Miller’s character Stainer (yes, really) explains them in intimate detail:

Stainer: I love Kirky, but let's face it, the guy's a five. Devon: Stainer, that's just a dirty pool. He's at least a six. Stainer: A six? Alright you go ahead and pump rainbows into his asshole. I'm just being honest. Jack: Come on, cut him some slack. Look. Half a point because he's a nice guy. Right? And he's funny, so that's half a point each. That brings him to six. Devon's right. Stainer: But he drives a shitbox, deduct a point. Take a point off. Kirk: Wait, what's wrong with my Neon? Stainer: Oh, I don't know. Except the people who make that car don't even like it. So, we're back to a five. Jack: Five. Stainer: Meanwhile, this Molly, is a hard ten. And that five point disparity, that's a chasm. Chasm? Chasm. You can't jump more than two points.

The movie tries to teach us that the rule can be broken, that Kirk (Jay Baruchel) can jump more than two points and end up with “hard-ten” Molly (Alice Eve). Go ahead and click the links, tell me that could happen without universe-shaking consequences. Let's be honest – like a whole lot of other Hollywood tropes, it’s a tall, cold glass of undiluted nonsense. Ask Xander, who spent seven long seasons in the friend zone.

4. The Foil

The distinguishing attribute of the foil is, to quote Unbreakable’s villainous Elijah Price, “He's the exact opposite of the hero.” Let’s cherry pick our foils from the list: Hit-Girl and Sid the Sloth (in a manner). That’s all I got, but it is the former who is of greater interest to this post.

Why? Because she’s a sidekick who doesn’t identify as a sidekick.

For the benefit of those who missed it, in the 2006 action/black comedy Kick-Ass, a pint-sized Chloë Grace Moretz plays the character Hit-Girl. In her opening vigilante action sequence, she tears apart a squat of gangsters in jaw-droppingly violent style. It’s a great, stabby, limb-chopping, blood-gushing montage overlayed with a high-energy rock soundtrack. Did I mention she saved the hero’s life?

Hit-Girl. Categorically kicks ass.

A wind-up kill toy with cherubic looks and a butter-wouldn’t-melt smile, Hit-Girl is not technically a sidekick to Kick-Ass, but to her father Big Daddy (played by the hilariously deadpan Nicolas Cage), who trained her from infancy to be a front-line soldier in his revenge quest against the mob boss who destroyed his life. Hit-Girl is everything Kick-Ass is not: competent, trained, ruthless and deadly effective. But as the movie barrels towards an epic showdown with Frank D’Amico, they end up working together as a team. The grit, tenacity, and never-say-die courage of the sidekick end up inspiring our hero to greater things. By the time the credits roll, Hit-Girl is still the foil, but less so than her introduction would suggest.

Which brings us to The Waking World trilogy. The idea of sidekick as a foil is the perfect way to describe Dobbin Butterfeld. Or perhaps not. In context, Hopskotch’s brash, bolshie, bossy, bestie would be more accurately described as the doesn’t-know-he’s-the-sidekick sidekick. I’m sure Hit-Girl would sympathise.

The hierarchy between our two leads is established in the dawn hours of the opening act. Dobbin’s inflated sense of self-importance, coupled with his inherently control-freak nature is broadcast loudly and unambiguously in Chapter 3 – Shallowfrond’s Gift:

Halfway to the Whirlpool, it was Dobbin who broke the silence. “I know what you’re thinking!”
Hopskotch had no time to gather his thoughts before they scattered like naughty schoolchildren. It would be interesting to hear what Dobbin knew he was thinking, for he had momentarily forgotten.
“What exactly would that be?” he sighed, stepping over a root tangle.
“We are not going to Saddleslip Gorge!”

It is the first time Dobbin stamps his authority, immediately followed by the first time Hopskotch challenges it. You know Dobbin is not going to back down. You get the feeling Hopskotch is not going to give up. But what kind of best friends would they be if they weren’t relentlessly at each other over just about everything.

I’m not going to mention names, but Dobbin is based on a real-life human. And it takes a special chill level to get along with that personality type. That’s not to say Hopskotch is a pushover. His opinions are no less ingrained than his domineering teammate, but he is more subtle and accommodating. Suffice it to say the characters are different. They had to be for believability, and so the author could capture that dynamic of contrasting personalities playing off one another. The give-and -take sets them on path of development as the story progresses. They snip at each other, they spar, they clash, they yell and scream. You begin to believe they really are inseparable. Until a burning bridge comes between them.

For multiple reasons, it was necessary to separate the inseparable duo. The absence opened both their minds, introduced new foils and heroes for them to lean on and learn from. A moment of reflection from the reunion in Book III, Chapter 28 sets the tone:

“It’s taken something from me – something I never even knew was there. And now I feel…just kinda empty. And I’m tired, Dob, crazy tired. Part o’ me just wants to curl up and sleep.”
“We’ll sleep when we’re done.” Dobbin flicked the branch away. From his pocket, he extracted a strip of cloth. “Small consolation, I know, but you earned it.”
Hopskotch wiped the moisture from his cheeks with the back of his hand, patted his palm dry, before accepting it. He turned the navy-blue cloth over, then back again to admire the inlay. It was gold thread, following the outline of the cicada shape.
“You got one, too?”
“Ayup, and Barts.”
Hopskotch was surprised to hear it, even more so to hear the pride in Dobbin’s voice. “Wish I coulda been there.”

Note the contrasting tone between the Book I and Book III conversations. Our heroes are now united in a way only made possible by long separation, with a whole new level of maturity and mutual respect layered in in preparation for the final showdown with the big-bad. Hopskotch and Dobbin, a sidekick – foil, loyalist and sometime comic – who has broken the mould, kicked it to the kerb and stamped it into the cold earth.

Just don’t tell him it’s not his name on the cover.

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