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Sidekicks Rule!

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Monday, Nov 8, 2010
Ten examples of cinematic 'second bananas', the glue that holds most superhero/genre efforts together.

They are typically the main characters conscience, their jokey, jaded Jiminy Cricket in situations where sane behavior and common sense seems strangely absent. They are straight man (or woman) and punchline, plot device and narrative complication. They are almost always friends, sometimes lovers (or loyal exs) and usually indebted to the lead in illogical, poignant ways. Then there are those who merely provide the counterpoint to the plot, who play associate because few others can or will fill the void. They can even be adversarial, pretending to be affable before lashing out - and they can even be secretly evil. This is the world of the sidekick, the psycho-social-psychological reflection of our protagonist and his or her purpose. Whether they are audience friendly or pure crowd-pleaser, enjoyable or unexpectedly bad, the cinematic associate plays an important role, balancing the needs of his or her onscreen pals with the desires of the often clueless viewer.


Take the recent (and quite brilliant) Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (new on DVD and Blu-ray from Universal). Our hero (Michael Cera), a hapless bass player in a nowhere Toronto Band named ‘Sex Bob-Omb’, meets the girl of his dreams in one Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Windstead). Hip, sassy, and quite mysterious, Scott will do anything to be with her, including battling her seven evil ex-lovers, video game style. In the hands of English maverick Edgar Wright (Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead), this masterpiece of inventive moviemaking uses the Bryan Lee O’Malley graphic novels as a visual jumping off point, paying homage to geek gamer culture without going totally overboard into emotionless excess.
  
This is true, in part, because of the inclusion of two important sidekick characters - Scott’s snarky gay roommate and best friend Wallace Wells (Kieran Culkin) and band drummer and former high school flame Kim Pine (Alison Pill). Together, these two keep the often unhinged Scott from falling into his own flawed reality traps. Instead, they wisely break ranks to provide perspective, criticism, and in small, discernible ways, support.  While Scott’s sour sister is always happy to scold his stupidity and his bandmate’s ex-girlfriend Julie Powers loves laying into the “loser”, it’s Wallace and Kim that truly play the sidekick role to perfection. In fact, looking over the long list of motion picture partners, we discover some well known icons, unsung heroes, and downright weird couplings. Still, the result is always the same - a little insight into the hero and a few laughs (or screams) along the way, beginning with a cat loving demon’s best fishman friend:


Abe Sapian (Hellboy/ Hellboy II: The Golden Army)


Though we don’t learn much of his Victorian era/Oannes Society occult backstory in the two films by horror/fantasy maestro Guillermo Del Toro, the erudite merman with a penchant for protocol is clearly both aid and anchor for his soulful Satanic cohort. While they both work together for the government’s Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, Sapien is seen as the more sensible response to Hellboy’s brute force bumbling. As with most professional partnerships, they are a veritable yin and yang.


Charlie Meadows - aka Karl “Madman” Mundt (Barton Fink)


As a writer, Barton Fink likes the think of himself as the voice of the people - the real people. Yet, when he runs into an example of same in the dingy LA hotel where he’s holed up scripting a wrestling b-picture, he slowly comes unglued. That’s because Charlie challenges his belief in what reality really is. Not only that, he provides a large, sweaty, uncomfortable illustration of the nobility (or lack thereof), in the subjects he supposedly embraces. 


Rawhide, Reno, Perfect Tommy, New Jersey, and Pinky Caruthers - The Hong Kong Cavaliers (The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dinemsion)


Every superhero physicist neurosurgeon comic book hero rock star needs a band of brothers to support him, and in the case of this motley (and very musical) crew, Buckaroo has a perfect set of foils. The Cavaliers (along with the laymen collection known as the Blue Blazer Irregulars) serve as baffle to their leader’s often ludicrous ideas. They are also his bodyguards when the clamor of the outside world gets too loud. With their fashion flair and defensive posture, a renaissance man couldn’t ask for anything more.


Samwise Gamgee (The Lord of the Rings Trilogy)


Loyalty is a major asset in a sidekick. The altruistic desire to give one’s own self over to danger or threat in place of your friend is perhaps the category’s most magical aspect - and no companion was more committed than this fat little hobbit. While Frodo carried the burden of the Fellowship on his small furry feet, Samwise played protector, motivator, and in crucial moments, sacrificial lamb. Right up to the end, he is there to do whatever he can. Commitment was never so majestic.


Hit-Girl (Kick-Ass)


While some may argue with her status as a sidekick (after all, she seems like more of a life saving hero than a helper), this bad guy killing grade schooler certainly argues for her viability as part of this comic book adaptation’s aggression. Aiding first her loving father, then the title vigilante, her curse word laden come ons often hide an unsettling truth. As a little girl, she’s been brainwashed to devalue life - and she likes it. A lot. 


Bub (Day of the Dead)


As the prize “possession” and potential teaching aid of research scientist Dr. Matthew “Frankenstein” Logan, this ‘civilized’ zombie, trained to be docile and domesticated and mesmerized by such everyday objects as a walkman and a telephone, is supposed to be the future in a post-apocalyptic world overrun with the undead. Instead, Bub plays it close to the decaying chest, listening to his master and biding his time until, unleashed, he repays man’s arrogance for trying to play God.


Alfred (Batman Begins/The Dark Knight)


You can have your Robins, your Commissioner Gordons and - in the current post-modern comic and Christopher Nolan incarnation - your Lucius Foxs, but the true blue sidekick to the complicated caped crusader remains his faithful servant and invaluable valet. While the others are there to help in the crime fighting, Alfred is there to pick up the pieces, to put together the clues, and in many situations, remind Gotham’s champion of just how human he still is - if at all.


Bela Lugosi (Ed Wood)


While he was never going to win an Oscar for his atrocious hackwork efforts, there’s still a special place in fictional biopic heaven for Wood’s last act friendship with the famed fading Golden Age genre icon. Even if Tim Burton’s love letter to crap is totally untrue, the relationship between this Wood and this version of the artist formerly known as Dracula remains very special indeed.  In some ways, it’s hard to pinpoint who was helping who - both benefit so greatly.


Chewbacca (The Star Wars Trilogy)


As Han Solo’s right hand carpet, this massive fuzzball sits at the center of one of the greatest space battles of this or any other far, far away galaxy. He’s muscle when he needs to be, mascot when the circumstances dictate. He’s co-pilot and navigator, wingman/beast and strategic power point. In the prequels, we learn how crucial the Wookies were to the Clone Wars. But in the triptych follow-up, Chewie’s presence plays a vital role in bringing the Empire down once and for all.


Steve the Monkey (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs)


Though his digitized vocabulary is limited to a few choice words, this sentient simian sidekick helps the hopeless wannabe inventor Flint Lockwood keep his often daffy designs in order - and the main priority apparently is “Gummi Bears”. This eager evolutionary marvel clearly wants his moronic master to succeed, if only to keep his cage lined with a lifetime supply of sweet, gelatinous candies. Even in the face of imminent danger, Steve sunny smile and simpleton needs provided the proper perspective.


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