Last week we celebrated Despicable Me by building a rogues gallery of our favorite supervillains. Now, in honor of Disney’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, we examine that special little creature, the Sidekick. They may be good, they may be bad, but without them nearby, many of our greatest characters would simply be incomplete. Read along with me (Dan Fields), Julia Rhodes, and William Bibbiani as we sort through henchmen, minions, cohorts, comrades and lackeys of note. All you aspiring heroes and villains should know what to look for in a candidate.
Max (Peter Falk) in The Great Race (1965, dir. Blake Edwards)
Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon followed up the wild antics of Some Like It Hot with this madcap epic about warring daredevils in a race around the world. Jack Lemmon is in rare form here, hamming it up as the quintessential black-clad bad guy Professor Fate, whose sole ambition is to outdo and destroy the fame of his dashing rival, the Great Leslie (Curtis).
Right at the professor’s side is his manservant Max (Falk), who handles the dirty work while the professor struts about ranting and cackling. He may be a double-crossing rat, but Max remains a picture of loyalty to his scheming boss. Falk’s comic timing elevates the second banana role into a two-hour, two-man vaudeville extravaganza. He matches the Professor swindle for swindle, pie for pie, blunder for destructive blunder. Together he and the Professor devise tricks and contraptions to cheat, cross and sabotage their way across the finish line.
No matter how harebrained and dangerous their plans get, from giant crossbows to leaky submarines to car-mounted cannonades, Max is always there to push the button!
Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) in the Star Wars Trilogy
He’s a giant shaggy beast. He roars. He wears bandoliers. He can fly spaceships and rip people limb from limb. What outlaw wouldn’t want Chewbacca for a co-pilot? In this case the fortunate captain to is Han Solo, and boy do these two get into some trouble.
Unlike a lot of hulking brutes, Chewbacca has plenty of brains to back up his brawn. It allows Han to live a little more on the edge, relying on instinct and his quick trigger finger, confident that no matter how badly he breaks his ship, Chewie will be able to fix it. He also hasn’t got a dangerous temper, which would make someone of his size a liability. In the game of life we only get a few good friends, so if you can manage it, make friends with a Wookiee. And always let him win.
Cornfed Pig (Gregg Berger) in Duckman: Private Dick/Family Man (1994-1997)
A nostalgic few will recall Duckman, a short-lived but very funny animated show for immature grown-ups. Jason Alexander (mid-Seinfeld) plays the eponymous duck – a lazy, self-absorbed, sex-obsessed private eye desperately trying to make ends meet for his family… and score some sugar on the side. His career and very survival often depend on the cool head and common sense of his partner Cornfed Pig (veteran voice actor Gregg Berger).
“Corny” speaks in hard-boiled deadpan, like Jack Webb on a very special Dragnet… written by Frank Zappa. Eccentric he may be, but his soft-spoken courtesy and host of bizarre talents consistenty win him love, respect, and babes. Duckman resents him like crazy, but Corny keeps the business going, and about once an episode saves Duckman’s life.
Patsy Stone (Joanna Lumley) in Absolutely Fabulous (1992-2004)
Once upon a time, a stately, graceful, beautiful British actress transformed herself into a drunken, sex-crazed fashion monster for a little show on the BBC… and she entered the halls of comedy history. It is hard to picture Joanna Lumley without envisioning the staggering, swearing, lovably hateful Patsy, comrade in crime of haute couture burnout and reluctant mother Edina Monsoon (Jennifer Saunders). Carousing about London, living beyond their means and acting well below their ages, they shatter the peace and sensibility of the few people who can stand to be around them, particularly Edina’s bookish daughter.
And yet it’s all so funny. Their devotion to one another is reason enough to root for their bad behavior. And Patsy is the bad influence that all of us would love to listen to, someone who loves us at our very worst. Any time that Edina teeters on the brink of a reality check, and her mind is nearly ready to admit an unselfish thought, Patsy appears, urging her to forget about it and spoil herself all over again. One could not be without the other, and the sisterly glee they share in their destructive adventures is what keeps them going.
Lock, Shock, and Barrel in The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993, dir. Henry Selick)
Henry Selick’s The Nightmare Before Christmas is one of the best animated movies ever made. Period. The film was heavily influenced by producer Tim Burton (and his signature style), features ridiculously catchy music and lyrics by Danny Elfman, and is chock full of imagery that’s alternately spooky and sweet. The movie captures children’s fevered anticipation of Christmas and their terror of the omnipresent Bogeyman.
The Bogeyman, in this case, is Oogie Boogie. His henchmen in Halloween Town are Lock, Shock, and Barrel, three small children in Halloween masks whose faces beneath are identical to their creepster masks. When Halloween Town’s unhappy hero Jack Skellington decides to kidnap Santa Claus so Jack can be the bringer of gifts and Christmas cheer, he unwittingly gives the detail to Lock, Shock and Barrel, whose loyalty lies with Oogie Boogie. “We’re his little henchmen and we take our job with pride/ We do our best to please him and stay on his good side!” sings the trio. They climb in their walking claw-footed bathtub and off to Christmas Town to steal away Father Christmas himself.
This happens, and it’s incredible:
Lock, Shock, and Barrel are lovable in their naivety, a little creepy in their imagined cruelty, cute when they fight amongst themselves, and hey, they call themselves henchmen. How could they not be first on this list?
Dr. John Watson (Jude Law) in Sherlock Holmes (2009, dir. Guy Ritchie)
The phrase “Elementary, my dear Watson” has become so ubiquitous, even here in America, that people assume the great detective Sherlock Holmes was far more intelligent and gifted than his sidekick, Dr. Watson. Arthur Conan Doyle’s series of novels portray the duo of Holmes and Watson as pipe-smoking, perceptive, and quite stodgy. Last year’s reboot of the series, Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, puts some bromance into the relationship between Sherlock (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Watson (Jude Law).
Holmes, as played by Downey, Jr., is a slightly nutty professor type who fears losing his best comrade so much that he tries to sabotage Watson’s marriage. Watson, for his bit, continues (somewhat grudgingly) to work with the detective, to save him when he needs saved, and to throw a few punches whenever needed. The duo are quite obviously affectionately annoyed with each other most of the time, and Watson is no slouch when it comes to the detective work. Since Holmes is, of course, the protagonist and title character, Watson remains his sidekick. In Ritchie’s movie, though, the character is easily as important as the man in the deerstalker hat. Any sidekick who’s truly worth his salt loves, hates, and above all, supports the lead. Watson does all of these with aplomb.
Ruby Rhod (Chris Tucker) in The Fifth Element (1997, dir. Luc Besson)
The Fifth Element’s Ruby Rhod is quite possibly one of the most annoying human beings in the galaxy. Either you find him endearing while covering your ears, or he makes you feel stabby. There doesn’t seem to be a middle ground here.
In a distant future, down-and-out cabbie Corbin Dallas (Bruce Willis) is suddenly tasked with saving the world. Oh, damn. Luckily, Corbin encounters beautiful and strange creature LeeLoo (Milla Jovovich) and learns more about the universe and his own fate than he ever thought possible. Of course, as Bruce Willis always does, he manages to get the girl and save the world.
DJ Ruby Rhod is a shrill, leopard-print clad, phallic hair-styled, fast-talking weirdo. Also (inexplicably) a ladies’ man. When Ruby gets wrapped up in the scheme to save the world, he mostly shrieks in decidedly womanly fashion, mincing through his scenes. Besson’s movies often feature bizarre and frenetic editing and characters who have no real purpose other than to make the audience go “WTF just hit me?!” and Rhod is that character.
He may be obnoxious and slightly inept, but he’s certainly memorable—and for some of us, he’s like that lady at the next table with the horsey laugh; you can’t help being annoyed, but you certainly can’t help laughing with her, either.
Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotten) in Citizen Kane (dir. Orson Welles, 1941)
There’s a moment I like early in Citizen Kane in which Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) and Jedediah Leland (Cotton, always underrated as a performer) enter their newspaper for the first time, and there’s a column in their path. Kane walks on one side of the column and Leland is about to walk on the other, but then rethinks this decision and walks back around to take the exact same path as his friend. Here is a man who at least subconsciously knows he’s in his best friend’s shadow, but then Kane towers so high above everyone else in the world that his shadow would be hard to avoid whoever you are.
Maybe Leland is my favorite sidekick because he’s also a critic, and that’s not a superficial observation either. Though Kane’s best friend, Leland’s flashbacks reveal that he was never allowed into the mysterious protagonist’s world, instead acting as an observer, outside but very close by. He holds Kane up to his vaunted principles, even after they are abandoned completely, but the tragedy is that one gets the impression that Leland held Kane up to a higher standard than could possibly be met. When Leland writes a negative review of Kane’s wife’s stage performance, he smiles to himself when he thinks that Kane will rewrite the review in favor of the woman he loves. It’s only when he learns that Kane is finishing his vitriolic tyrade that he looks disappointed. Kane would justify the decision to himself by claiming that he’s sticking to his Declaration of Principles, but Leland knows better. Kane is abandoning those principles by saying exactly what he thinks of his wife’s performance in complete anonymity, and smugly telling Leland – a man who thought Kane could truly be the upstanding icon he tried so desperately to be – the exact opposite.
In the end, Leland ends up just as alone as Kane, but a little happier. His life was defined by the greatness of another man, but that greatness was Leland’s to judge. As a critic, he was harsh, but that was his value, both as a friend and as an element of the plot. On an amusing sidenote, The White Stripes song “Union Forever,” about Citizen Kane, came on randomly (a 1 in 4,164 chance) while writing this very article, so I guess this must be a very good choice indeed for Best Sidekick.
Harley Quinn (Arleen Sorkin) in “Batman: The Animated Series,” “The New Batman Adventures,” Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, “Superman: The Animated Series,” Batman Beyond: The Return of the Joker, “Justice League,” Batman: Arkham Asylum (created by Paul Dini & Bruce Timm, 1992-2009)
When Bruce Timm, Paul Dini and a host of other super-talented individuals crafted “Batman: The Animated Series” for release in 1992 they had the finest Rogues Gallery in comics to draw from (The Flash’s probably runs a close second, Spider-Man’s can probably swing third place, puns intended). But since most of Batman’s villains are normal dudes with extreme fetishes, The Dark Knight spent most of his time actually fighting their henchmen… and good henchmen are hard to find. So Bruce Timm and Paul Dini created Harley Quinn, an acrobatic ditz with a celebrity crush on The Joker. But as Dini’s origin episode “Mad Love” (based on his own comic book with Bruce Timm) proved, she was much, much more than that.
Harley Quinn was born Harleen Francis Quinzel to parents who clearly expected her to become a supervillain at some point (for other examples, see the similarly crazy-named Hugo Strange, T.O. Morrow and Victor Von Doom). Despite her shrill accent and exceptional athleticism, Quinzel was actually an accredited psychologist who fell in love with one of her patients: The Joker. Though capable enough as an individual, her relationship with The Joker rapidly evolved into one of a love-starved submissive, and although she had her fair share of Girl’s Night Outs with Poison Ivy, Harley wouldn’t want to live any other way. It’s easy to pity Harley Quinn. Unlike many of Batman’s villains, her psychosis only makes her a threat when she associates with stronger personalities. In fact, on at least one occasion she ended up playing Batman’s sidekick when The Joker wasn’t around. Not that she’d forgotten about him. In fact, she took some time off from supporting The Dark Knight to sing this little ditty about her relationship with The Clown Prince of Crime:
The process of finding henchmen in Gotham City always fascinated me, since practically every supervillain in town ends up with the same musclebound goombahs left over from the Carmine Falcone regime. Reasonably capable thugs, perhaps, but mismatched with their masters. Harley Quinn represents the kind of people who would actually be attracted to flamboyant psychopaths. Harley Quinn isn’t just a henchman, she’s a groupie, and for once we totally understand why someone would let a supervillain order them around. It’s because the sex is probably amazing.
Stringer Bell (Idris Elba) in “The Wire” (created by David Simon, 2002-2004)
In the first season of David Simon’s brilliant series of “The Wire,” Stringer Bell was second in command of Avon Barksdale’s drug empire, and a finer minion has never been found. Whereas Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris) commanded his army, Stringer Bell was responsible for micromanaging the infrastructure, and he was spectacularly good at his job. Organized, calm, collected, and never caught, this contemporary Meyer Lansky was smart enough to take night school classes in economics in an effort to improve street level drug trafficking and manage Barksdale’s many legitimate business fronts.
But what kept Stringer Bell from being Avon’s equal was, ironically, his very ambition. Too smart for street crime but not smart enough for legitimate business, his many attempts to step out of Barksdale’s shadow were met with a string, if you will, of marked failures. And his attempts to be a hardass were even more ill-advised, allowing his lust for a taken woman to get the better of his otherwise unerring judgment. Stringer Bell was the perfect minion, but too smart for his own good. Watching him regurgitate his teacher’s lectures verbatim to his hood rats was a sign of good research, not intelligence, and his attempts to prove himself via book smarts as opposed to criminal politicking caused him to meet with a very unpleasant end. Of course, actor Idris Elba has fared far better, and his iconic portrayal of Stringer Bell has led to a lucrative film career in such films as Prom Night, Obsessed and the upcoming Thor (one of which might actually be pretty good, not that the other two were Elba’s fault).