Apart from Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who’s in his own class, the Marvel Cinematic Universe and its associated TV series have managed to eek out only a few truly memorable villains.:Jessica Jones‘ Kilgrave (David Tennant) and Spider-Man: Homecoming‘s Vulture (Michael Keaton) and, maybe, Captain America: The First Avenger‘s Red Skull. Yet even as the Vulture suggests Marvel might have started to find ways to solve its villain problem, it also addresses another absence that critics, fans and lay viewers alike haven’t discussed nearly as much: Where are all the sidekicks?
These chief supporting characters have long been a part of comic book history — perhaps most famously in the form of Dick Grayson’s “Robin the Boy Wonder,” whom Detective Comics introduced in 1940. Intended to attract younger readers, Robin’s popularity inspired many copycats, including James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes, introduced in 1941’s Captain America Comics #1. “But wait a minute,” you’re probably thinking. “Bucky exists in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. His alter ego even adorns the subtitle of one of the franchise’s most popular entries!”
Sure enough, Sebastian Stan plays Bucky in all three Captain America films, and his transformation into one of HYRDRA’s top assassins in The Winter Soldier remains atop many best-of lists three years after its release. However, Stan’s Bucky is a lifelong friend and contemporary of Steve Rogers, whereas the initial 1941 incarnation was — like DC’s Robin — a younger counterpart to an older, mentor-like hero. Ultimately, their complicated relationship, and Bucky’s own development of superpowers, makes Bucky something other than a sidekick. This is also true of the Iron Man trilogy’s James Rhodes (Terrence Howard/Don Cheadle), the U.S. Air Force pilot turned War Machine/Iron Patriot, who by the time of the Shane Black-directed Iron Man 3 has become more like the other half of a buddy cop duo.
Enter Ned Leeds, the scene-stealing character played by Jacob Batalon in Spider-Man: Homecoming. Named for the Edward Leeds who once donned the criminal identity of the Hobgoblin in the original Spider-Man comics, Batalon’s Ned noticeably shares more in common with Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli’s Ganke Lee, best friend of Ultimate Comics Spider-Man‘s Miles Morales. For starters, Batalon’s look as Ned is the spitting image of Pichelli’s design for Ganke. Most important, however, is the fact Ned discovers Peter Parker’s (Tom Holland) true identity as the “Spider-Man from YouTube” quite early in the film. Ganke also found out about Miles’ alter ego at the beginning of his newfound superhero career.
On the one hand, that Homecoming‘s Ned is based on Ganke simply proves director Jon Watts and the other writers were well aware of the Spider-Man comics’ rich, varied history. After all, while producer Kevin Feige repeatedly emphasized its association with teenage angst films of John Hughes (or direct descendants, like Can’t Hardly Wait), he and others have also touted Homecoming‘s emphasis on diversity. (The general whiteness of Sam Raimi and Marc Webb’s Spider-Man movies cannot be denied.) So of course the writing team would want to mine the Morales comics for relevant material. On the other hand, as many fans pointed out when the first trailer dropped in December, adapting aspects of a mixed-race superhero’s story to enhance his white predecessor’s origins is problematic.
But while such criticisms warrant discussion, the inclusion of the character (and Batalon’s excellent performance) is too good to be overshadowed by any debate. Not only does Parker’s high school buddy dominate nearly every scene he’s in, but he also finally provides the Marvel Cinematic Universe with its first, genuine sidekick, even if they’re more or less the same age. The writers even playfully poke fun at themselves when, after Ned asks Peter if he can be his “guy in the chair,” the former gets to place precisely this role in Homecoming‘s climactic battles.
Ned surrounds himself with “computers and stuff” in the school library and, with the help of a painfully slow swivel chair, switches between different monitors. One offers instructions for how to operate Flash Thompson’s sports car, which Peter steals in order to reach the Vulture as fast as possible, while another operates as a communications interface with an annoyed Happy Hogan. Ned even gets to save Peter from certain death in a previous scene that, per the screening this writer witnessed, proved to be one of the movie’s most crowd-pleasing sequences. Yet like the best comic book sidekicks, he also challenges the hero, reminding him that he is just a kid when the latter pitches an angst-ridden fit about his perceived mistreatment at the iron-clad hands of Tony Stark. It’s what makes the “support” of Batalon’s supporting character all the more powerful, and will hopefully return in force when he joins Holland and their co-stars in the already announced sequel.