A little movie opened this weekend that you might have heard of called Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Among other things the film marks the cinematic resurrection of Captain America’s sidekick, Bucky Barnes. Now I use the word ‘sidekick’ because that has traditionally been Bucky’s role in the comic book universe but the Cap movies make a point of never calling him this, he’s always “Sergeant Barnes” or “Cap’s best friend”. Simply put, in the Marvel cinematic universe Bucky is not a sidekick and for good reason, because sidekicks are dead and the comic book industry seems intent to keep it that way.
First of all let me explain my definition of a sidekick, which is a young hero who is mentored and trained by an older hero, working with them as a team to fight crime and/or evil. Now, by this definition the most famous sidekicks of all time don’t currently exist in either the Marvel or DC universes.
Bucky Barnes was certainly once the epitome of sidekicks but he came back to life as the Winter Soldier, an adult, trained assassin and now hero in his own right. DC’s always got Robin but let’s go through that exhaustive list: similar to Bucky, Jason Todd came back to life as a badass adult only to pick up a gun and go out on his own. Dick Grayson has been a solo crime-fighter for decades as Nightwing and even Tim Drake is going by Red Robin these days, hardly ever showing up in the bat-titles. And the only character who was actually using the name Robin was Damian, who’s just flat out dead.
And those are just the famous sidekick mantles. Delve a little deeper and we find that almost every sidekick in the big two has been cleared off the map. This past year, Young Avengers and Teen Titans were both cancelled within a month of each other, effectively shelving 90% of the young hero population of both universes with only Superboy surviving to have his own title. Kate Bishop is currently the closest thing to an active sidekick in either universe, but even her role in the Hawkeye title tends to be more friend and partner than sidekick, with her rescuing and mentoring Clint more often than he does for her.
This trend seems to be extending into the animated universes as well. Young Justice was a team made up of sidekicks who then all aged five years in the second season, upgrading almost every cast member out of their sidekick role and into an established hero.
Similarly, the Ultimate Spider-Man cartoon show involves Spidey working with a team of “young heroes” that consist of Iron Fist, Power Man, Nova and White Tiger, most of whom are adults in Marvel continuity, with none of them being sidekicks in any incarnation.
It’s almost like Scarlet Witch floated through Marvel and DC one day and decided there were too many young people around.
If I had to take a guess, I’d say the last true sidekick we’ll see in comics died with Damian. When I think back to his death it’s hard not to recall the people posting articles and comments along the lines of “I can’t believe DC would brutally kill a kid like that.” But we really have to think, shouldn’t we be more upset that Batman would endanger a kid like that?
Times have changed and so have comic books. Sidekicks like Robin, Bucky, Wonder Girl and Kid Flash all came about during the Silver Age when fighting villains was campy and over the top. The pages of comics were all bright colors and light-hearted banter without a suggestion of death or real danger. In the darker, more violent world of today’s comics set in more realistic scenarios, it’s hard to come off as a hero when you knowingly bring a child into danger with you and tell them to watch your back. Whether they have superpowers or not, if you’re an adult telling a kid who isn’t old enough to join the army, or the police force, or even own a gun, that you want them to risk their life and fight crime with you, it’s hard not to come off as the bad guy. In fact we have a term for this: it’s called Child Soldiers, and it’s pretty frowned upon these days. Villains who try to use children as part of their crimes are always seen as the worst kind of bad guy, so why should it okay when a hero does the same?
It seems clear that the day of the sidekick is over which has led to a lot of re-imagining of some beloved characters. Young heroes who would have once been deemed sidekicks have two options in today’s comic book world: they can be aged until they’re old enough to be heroes of their own standing, or they can be young heroes fighting on their own with no mentors. The former has been the fate of iconic sidekicks like Bucky and Jason, but the latter option is the format we’re likely to see most young heroes conforming to from this point on, which is a slippery slope as it removes responsibility from an adult established hero but also makes it hard for that new young character to build traction without being connected to a well known figure. The Ms. Marvel title has found a way around this so far with Kamala Khan being a huge fan of Captain Marvel but not being technically affiliated with her in anyway. Other heroes like Nova that have their own books have been given legacy powers but no mentor. The trend of sidekick type characters fighting crime on their own is so prominent that we may need a new word to describe young heroes since almost none of them fit the sidekick definition anymore. Maybe we can call them Spideys in honor of the first kid superhero who struck out all on his own. If I recall correctly, he managed to do pretty well for himself.