High School for Superheroes and Sidekicks

Curator's Note

The 2005 Disney film Sky High took the superhero and sidekick dichotomy and transformed it into a familiar high school romantic comedy. The son of two great superheroes, The Commander and Jetstream, Will Stronghold begins his first day of high school in a state of panic. Unbeknownst to his parents, he has no manifest superpower. His new school, Sky High, replicates the variety of teen cliques referenced in such films as Mean Girls, with bullies who wear black leather and who will eventually become super villains, a catty cheerleader able to replicate herself into an entire squad, and a misunderstood goth loner who balances the line between good and evil.

The crux of the film relies on Will’s lack of superpowers, a shameful fact that places him squarely in the loser sidekick group, with others whose powers are as useless as melting into goo or turning into a gerbil. Through the course of the film, Will finally develops both the ability to fly and super strength. He gains popularity and subsequently turns his back on his sidekick friends in favor of the devious but popular heroes. The story devolves into a moralistic tale in which the protagonist, who has become a hero, learns the importance of true friendship.

Though silly, this film highlights the traditional separation between sidekicks and superheroes. Both have powers (albeit some are more relevant than others; flying being more useful than glowing in the dark), but the superheroes are the ones who get to dictate their sidekick’s name and costume. They are easily cast aside, as in the case of Will’s teacher, Mr. Boy, who had served as his father’s sidekick until the superhero wife replaced him.

This film is successful and entertaining because it relies on the implicit audience understanding of sidekicks as being “lesser” than superheroes. Similar to how an audience is programmed to believe that Laney’s transformation from a four-eyed nerd to a high school beauty in She’s All That or Mia’s change from a four-eyed nerd to a high school princess in Princess Diaries is for the better, we as an audience are programmed to assume that invariably, sidekicks long to be superheroes.

Comments

Lisa Perks's picture

Eleanor—Your point about

Eleanor—Your point about power dynamics, as seen through naming and costuming, reminds me of a knight/squire relationship. The subordinate sidekick is an apprentice, not an equal, who is always desiring to improve himself. As The Incredibles suggests, perhaps the sidekick/hero relationship serves to pacify the sidekick with its deferred promise of power.

Eleanor Huntington's picture

Lisa, thanks for your

Lisa, thanks for your comment. Bringing the Incredibles into the conversation is important, especially since one of its major target demographics is the group of children just younger than that of Sky High. The promise of deferred power also plays into Sky High’s world. The sidekicks collectively prove their worth by successfully fighting off Royal Pain and so thereby gain social recognition as more than sidekicks. Their “value” must be recognized by the established heroes in order to the sidekicks to gain social worth.

Jeff Casey's picture

hierarchies and heroes

Lisa’s point is interesting when you consider the history of sidekick in American comic books was usually framed as an apprenticeship with the most famous sidekick being younger than they hero: Batman/Robin, Wonder Woman/Wonder Girl, Captain America/Bucky, etc. These cases promised upward mobility for the sidekick after a period of service. Sky High suggests something different in that the sidekick and superhero are contemporaries. It appears to imagine an inequitable meritocracy. There’s something terribly neo-liberal about this, no? A contrasting case worth looking at might be Vampire Academy, as the hero and the sidekick exist in inverted social hierarchies. The hero, Rose, is essentially an indentured servant/protector to the Lissa, who is vampire royalty. In that case, the social hierarchy subordinates Rose, while holding her up as the hero. Of course, the underdog hero is in many ways baked into American cinema.

Eleanor Huntington's picture

Thanks, I will definitely

Thanks, I will definitely look into Vampire Academy. Have you found any notable pair in which the sidekick is significantly older than the hero?

Jeff Casey's picture

older sidekick

The new CBS series Forever might be an example of that—though the temporal dynamics of a immortal person create a series of paradoxes in this regard. The line between mentor and sidekick becomes blurry in some examples: Abraham Whistler in Blade comes to mind, or Alfred and Batman… There must be some scientist sidekicks who would fit the bill but I’m blanking on those. In ensembles, there are often older subordinate figures who might qualify as sidekicks—Walter Brennan in Rio Bravo or Ron Glass in Firefly. (However, I would argue that a sidekick by definition can only be part of a duo.) Alan Hale, who played the sidekick in Dodge City (1939), has been referred to as an “avuncular sidekick.” Nigel Bruce certainly played an avuncular version of Dr. Watson opposite Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes, but the two men were roughly the same age.

Jeff Casey's picture

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