This article was originally published in October 2009.
For those of you living under a rock, Zombieland opened last weekend and went quickly to number one (and we, of course, reviewed it here.) One of the clever moves of the film is that it takes your traditional Hero — muscular, confident, aggressive — and your standard Sidekick — smart but cowardly, neurotic — and flips them, so that we see the film through the eyes of the sidekick, played with hilarious gusto by Jesse Eisenberg.
Although the characters in the film aren’t aware of this switch, and continue on in their respective paths, we in the audience are clued in to the fact that this won’t be your traditional action/horror film. In fact, Eisenberg’s character, Columbus, in a moment of meta-consciousness, even refers to himself as “sort of a Sancho Panza-type.”
Sancho Panza was, of course, the prototypical sidekick, who traveled around at the side of Don Quixote in Miguel de Cervantes’ historic novel of the same name. Unlike the slender, intelligent Columbus, however, Sancho was overweight and dim, riding atop a donkey, yet lovable for his unshakable loyalty to his master, Quixote.
It is this loyalty that allows for Quixote to continue on in his quests, whether he’s aware of it or not, and like a truly great sidekick, Sancho never asks for affirmation. He simply is there for the hero, even though in this case, the hero is a delusional old man (which, perhaps, proves Sancho’s worth all the more.)
But while the sidekick has his or her place in a story, longer tales often develop the sidekick to the point where they’re on the same level as the hero, which is always satisfying for a reader or viewer. After all, haven’t we all, at some points in out lives, felt a lot more like Robin than Batman? So it’s small wonder we take comfort in the fact that Robin, the epitome of a sidekick, grew up and became Nightwing, a hero in his own right, on par with Batman.
In fantasy literature, perhaps one of the greatest examples of a sidekick rising up to the level of hero is Samwise Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings. Like Sancho, Sam is neither slim nor very smart, and for most of the story, Sam exists to cook food for Frodo and keep up his spirits, all the while contentedly walking behind his master on their epic quest.
But when Frodo is attacked and Sam believes he is dead, a change occurs in him, something visceral, something which can never be undone. He realizes that the fate of the Ring and indeed, the world, now rests solely on his humble shoulders, and so he stands up, picks up his master’s sword, and carries on.
Frodo didn’t die, of course, and the two hobbits are reunited, but things will never go back to the way they were before. By the end of their journey, Frodo has come to respect Sam as an equal, and when death again seems imminent, utters to Sam the famous words, “I’m glad to be with you, Samwise Gamgee, here at the end of all things.”
In the wake of Sam, it seems that the sidekick-turned-hero angle is all the rage. The most obvious example that springs to mind from contemporary is, of course, Gabrielle, the Battling Bard, whose popularity threatens to outshine that of the hero, Xena. Throughout the six seasons of Xena: Warrior Princess, we see as Gabrielle grows and changes from a feisty but physically weak farm girl into an accomplished warrior, inheriting Xena’s place after her death.
On Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Willow Rosenburg, who was naught but a vastly intelligent nerd, became aware of the existence of the supernatural when Buffy Summers came to town, and that indirectly resulted in her learning witchcraft to the point where she became the “most powerful witch in the western hemisphere.”
But as for my favorite sidekick? That would have to go to Ron Weasley, the bumbling poor kid who was just another Weasley sibling until he met up with Harry Potter in their first year at Hogwarts.
Come on, just look at that picture! If you didn’t say “Awww…” you’re made of stone.
Ron comes into Hogwarts the way many of us do any other school, frightened and overwhelmed, feeling very small and very alone. But by befriending Harry Potter, he assured his name would go down in the history books. Had it not been for Harry and all of the danger that followed him like a dark storm cloud, Ron might never have been tested as thoroughly as he was, thus never knowing his true potential.
While real life is never as cut-and-dry as fiction, sidekicks and heroes do exist, just as villains and henchmen do. But as fiction is realizing, those roles are never binding, and we can easily go from being a lowly servant one moment to the savior of the world the next.