The news that The First Avenger: Captain America had chosen to follow the holy mythology and give Cap a sidekick upset a few people. Screams of Batman, Robin, Chris O'Donnell and Joel Schumacher were subdued, but they were there. I was all set to write about the perils and potential of having a sidekick in movies, but I decided you all might be sick of hearing strictly from me. Plus, the topic of sidekicks seems to beg for ... well, a sidekick. Since I don't have one that can talk, I fired off a quick plea to my friend Justin Gray. The co-writer of DC's Jonah Hex and Power Girl, IDW's The Last Resort, and Image's Random Acts of Violence (hits stores on April 28th!), he is the comic and movie guy I like to bug on a daily basis, and he lets me. He agreed to be the Col. Mortimer to my Manco, put up with my silly early morning questions, and share his thoughts on what makes a sidekick good, bad, and problematic.
I hope you enjoy. If you do, go buy all his and Jimmy Palmiotti's books as payment. Every moment I keep him away from his desk is another that he can't script. So thank him in the comments.
Elisabeth: Hearing Captain America's movie was going to include Bucky immediately provoked a lot of complaints and comparisons to Robin. People fear sidekicks and yet they're an integral part of the hero's arsenal. Why is that, my dear Mr. Gray?
Justin: Back when the majority of the comic book reading audience was made up of children, sidekicks were created to help foster a connection between the reader and the material. Kids were to imagine that they could go along with their heroes on adventures and that they were integral to the hero's success. It didn't take long for the innocence of the teen sidekick to be twisted by "concerned" members of society into something perverse.
Elisabeth: It's funny, people don't worry about Kitty Pryde hanging out with Wolverine as much as they do Batman and Robin. I've noticed that trend quite often -- I recently had a few conversations that suggested it's ok for a middle-aged guy to hang around with an underage girl over being gay. Yet [that implication] never encourages them to take Robin out of the "adult" Batman books. The idea is that a sidekick is now integral to keeping the hero human ... moreso than a love interest, apparently.
Justin: The culture in this country and the world outside of comics tradition frowns on the idea of placing a child in physical danger let alone sending them out in the middle of the night with a guy wearing a leather mask and cape.
Elisabeth: I can't say that was my fantasy as a child. It is NOW but you know, I kind of dig guys in leather pants and late night living.
Justin: There you go! I think Bucky was both the "reader" and a way to continue the propaganda of fighting Hitler - even kids can get in on the act! Plus Captain America is a very different kind of character from Batman. I suppose the closest film comparison in recent memory where a sidekick was intended to humanize and yet still pushed a bizarre and inappropriate "relationship" was Leon. You remember the whole antagonist plot of The Incredibles was revenge for an outdated idea. Mr. Incredible found Incrediboy annoying. He felt there was no place for a kid in that world.
Elisabeth: At least Bucky is based in a historical reality -- VERY young men went away to war. Not necessarily WW2, although some did get away with fudging their ages...but Bucky is a really somber reminder of the price of war and who fights in it. It isn't Captain America in real life. I think that can work.
Justin: I think the wonderful thing about having these films brought to life is the unexpected surprises that can occur. There was some groaning about the director choice for Iron Man. There is a certain section of the fanbase that just worries about everything - especially any deviation from the printed mythology. For all we know Bucky is built exclusively as a flashback. Given that the mythology of Captain America is that he was frozen for decades, Bucky could be portrayed as an old man -- representing a different time.
Elisabeth: That would be awesome. Such a bitter role reversal too -- Cap comes back to life as fresh as the springtime, and Bucky is now too old for heroics.
Justin: That angle has been used in the comics and it can work very well in a film version -- it allows use of the costume in context and it allows a new and more modern looking Cap to rise on screen.
Elisabeth: They should make Bucky a POW. Instead of the old thawed routine, they should actually have him a POW of the Japanese, abandoned by his "friend" whereas Cap has lived with the guilt of believing he was dead. That's Band of Brothers stuff.
Justin: They could even make Bucky a kind of John McCain amalgam or the antagonist. There's so much you can do based on these characters.But for some reason a core group of fans immediately think Chris O'Donnell and Clooney nipples ... That's the beauty of the characters Marvel brings to the screen, they're not as rigid in developing or re-inventing the mythology for a modern audience.
Elisabeth: Yes, people have forgotten good sidekick stories -- even Bucky has been a good story in comics, many writers handled Robin well, but Schumacher undid decades of that with two films. It's incredible. Frank Miller's female Robin was a revelation, the way Jeph Loeb handled him in Dark Victory was very sweet. But the moment you suggest that, holy s****! It's "I don't want nipples on a Batsuit." Well, it doesn't HAVE to be that way. I'm pretty sure that was a Joel Schumacher thing, not a sidekick thing. It's odd how film can define something like that -- yet as you point out, people hold the comic mythology as sacred, so I'm actually very perplexed as to why there's not more call to see Robin done right ... No one says "I don't want Catwoman because of Halle Berry!" It's very nonsensical.
Justin: The general public could give a sh** about the core mythology, they just want to be entertained. Most of them have only a vague understanding of the characters - usually based on old TV and cartoon shows. The non-comic audience hasn't been reading four decades of stories.
Elisabeth: Which can help as much as it can hurt -- if Chris Nolan announced tomorrow he was making Batman and Robin, I imagine mainstream audiences would still imagine little Burt Ward and be disgusted. But it's also pretty freeing in twisting more obscure mythology -- tidying up the weird, awful ends of retcons. Thank goodness.
Justin: Yes, there is such a rich history to all these characters and it comes down to how they are handled. You can cling to the chronological history or you can twist it into moe modern ideals that appeal to a 21st century audience. A lot of comics seem to represent a point in time or a lost innocence for fans. I can't tell you how many times I've heard "I read comics for escapism" rather than incorporating reality. Comics handled things in the metaphorical and symbolic.
Elisabeth: You've already said how you'd handle Bucky which I think is the best I've heard, so this is may be redundant, but how would you handle a sidekick like that if you were handed a book or movie script like Wolverine: First Class, Bucky, or Batman and Robin? How do you get away from the kiddie fantasy angle, and not be cute? People seem to immediately think it will be hijinks like "Bucky is into the hip new music, and Cap is not. Uh oh!" When I think of sidekicks, I usually think of the darker angle like Miller took in The Dark Knight Returns -- the kid who has nowhere to go, who throws their lot in with an alternate parent, and is willing to die for someone. They're every bit the hero as their "boss" is. I'm always disappointed when people see it as something corny and laughable.
Justin: I think Grant Morrison hit on an interesting dynamic with Damian and Frank Miller with his All Star Robin where the sidekick is angrier and potentially more dangerous and psychotic than the hero. You have a situation where the adult has to constantly reign in the impulsive child. You take the idea of "kids today" more violent, less respect for authority etc and you have no place for the old school nurturing surrogate parent taking a kid on crazy adventures.
Elisabeth: Yes, you'd have a sidekick bristling over a no-kill rule for sure...and really, you possibly should have someone asking Batman why the hell he doesn't kill the Joker and save a lot of lives.
Justin: And if something terrible were to happen to the kid, what would the hero's reaction be? Would he or she, as the adult responsible for the harm or death of a child, hang it up? Would it twist them inside out enough to become a villain? I always wondered if that might happen to batman - in essence he becomes the catalyst for his own tragedy.
Elisabeth: Exactly. I think Loeb's Batman: Dark Victory played with that a little bit, though not explicitly -- Batman clinging to Robin as his last connection with something human and innocent, and yet possibly warping him into his own image. How can you put that kind of burden on a child? Kick-Ass toys with that, but doesn't (from what I know) go into the specifics too much which I find to be a missed chance.
Justin: Kick-Ass is going to be interesting in the reaction by the public to Hit Girl. I think some people are going to go apesh**. With Wolverine it seems out of character to have him playing nanny. I realize it worked in the film, but to me he's the kind of character that would hate having kids around. He's a drinking, swearing, killing, hairy little sex machine. Not exactly a kid friendly environment.
Elisabeth: Well, within the books I liked his relationship with Kitty -- he has trust issues, and young girls are the one thing that can't really betray him in any way. And I loved his ruthlessness in Kitty Pryde and Wolverine. He's the teacher who will let a proto X-Man die in the snow. He has that alpha male mentality which is kind of necessary if you're talking about training some young suburbanite to be a superhero. It's gotten a bit cute at times -- the Jubilee relationship was atrocious -- but initially it was "I'll let you die before I pick you up, girlie."
Justin: Yes and Kitty is still a teenage girl with a very "adult" male, which has the same kind of morality as Leon.
Elisabeth: Yes. And the 1990s definitely got weird that way -- Jubilee peeking in his windows to see if he was sleeping with Mystique. It had this underlying sexual awakening angle that was just gross. Kitty Pryde was just his ninja to be. Then again, I could actually get into a comic where Wolverine becomes uncomfortably aware of one of them as a grown woman.
Justin: You have to remember the social concept of "childhood" is still relatively new. Roughly four or five hundred years. And in some countries there still is no concept, places in Africa where children are handed guns and sent out to die. The idea of child brides still exists in some places. But here in the USA things are a bit different.
We both had to go our separate ways before I could form another coherent thought, but thankfully Gray is smarter than I am and provided you with plenty of insight. There is something telling about the way we can turn child warriors into colorfully suited entertainment, and no movie has tackled the implications of that. Kick-Ass might, but for all its gleefully sold realism (Kick-Ass' bloody mug is a main selling point) I'm not convinced it does tackle that as much as it could. But I wouldn't expect a movie called Kick-Ass to go into any social examination, anyway.
But perhaps Captain America will. This is World War 2, a war that left a terrible impact on an entire generation of men, and it's an awful and defining moment for the Captain when he loses his young friend. It's his fault. And it ricochets throughout the Marvel Universe. This could be a chance for a comic movie to feature a symbolic sidekick. Bucky can remind moviegoers that being a sidekick isn't defined by cute Short Round antics, but about and hero worship carried to a bitter end. It's a relationship that can be about so much more than marketing, spin-offs, and sequels. Let's see some movies do right by the sidekick -- and his heroic partner.