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.
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.
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.
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