Holy relationship crisis! Batman, is Robin your sidekick or your partner? Think you can get away with calling him just a chum? Empty words for a guy who’s always had your back. Heroes fighting for justice and peace should defend a new cause: equal rights for so-called sidekicks.
As Batman looms over the National Museum of Play’s American Comic Book Heroes exhibit here at The Strong, I can’t help but think of poor Robin—surely you’ve noticed that he wears no pants? To the uninitiated, sidekicks are inferior to their companions: limited powers, less intelligent, more awkward-looking. Pinky’s a half-wit compared to Brain. Ditto for pudgy Stimpy to his neurotic but very capable little pal, Ren. Does Tails ever function as more than the hedgehog’s shadow in Sonic 2?
But that’s just not fair. Sidekicks are more than comic relief hanging around to make the hero look more impressive. They offer skills and personality traits their companions can’t muster. Pinky may be scatter-brained, but his genetic alterations grant him supernatural abilities and a unique worldview. Stimpy’s joyful innocence counters Ren’s negativity. And Tails . . . well, Tails comes into his own later in the Sonic series.
Robin is also much more than a sidekick. He warns Batman of danger (“They’re getting away!”), which doubles as expository dialogue for the viewers’ benefit. He runs interference with the henchmen while Batman battles the villain (whose ego demands that he vanquish the Caped Crusader specifically; otherwise, surely Robin would take a crack at him too). He shares responsibility for driving the Batmobile, a sure sign of mutual respect. The two are inseparable to the point of finishing each other’s sentences. As far as power couples are concerned, you won’t find many more equitable than this one. So what if Robin doesn’t have his own distress signal? If folks regarded him as Batman’s equal, perhaps they’d feel more confident calling him for help or at least thanking him for his service. I propose we deem Batman and Robin “partners in crime-fighting,” effective immediately.
More heroes should consider adopting a new outlook on the supposedly secondary characters who get them through each day. Abu is Aladdin’s subordinate merely by virtue of evolution, but could the street-rat have squeaked by without his pet monkey’s aptitude for thievery or the Genie’s ability to grant wishes? Inspector Gadget has it made—go-go-gadget anything, right? Yet time and again the sorry sleuth finds himself in peril, and who rescues him without embarrassing him? His little laptop-laden niece, Penny, and her dog, Brain. Why aren’t they represented in the show’s title, as befits accepted partnerships such as the Ghostbusters, Justice League, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? These characters’ individual identities are secondary to the team. When you need them, they’re all on duty, and thank goodness for that, because they are most effective when their powers combine, as Captain Planet puts it (see also: Care Bear Stare).
Differentiating a sidekick from a partner is a matter of mutual regard as well as public perception. Which other fictional friendships need rebalancing? Mario and Luigi? Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson? Roy Rogers and Gabby Hayes? Do your part to raise awareness of Dynamic Duo Disorder: the power is yours.