There was that moment in 2008’s Iron Man, when Rhodey (Terrence Howard) eyeballs one of Tony Stark’s suits and says, “Next time.” Hardcore comic fans went nuts, because we knew that meant Rhodey would most likely return in a sequel, armored up as War Machine. Of course, Howard was replaced by Don Cheadle—no complaints on my part—and he did, in fact, suit up as War Machine in Iron Man 2. Cheadle donned a different suit in Iron Man 3, much to the surprise of some comic fans, and became Iron Patriot. It is difficult to convey the level of excitement I had—first, when Howard hinted at the promise of becoming a costumed superhero, and then when Cheadle made good on that promise. The only problem—at least for me—was that Cheadle never really got to be a superhero. Instead, he got to be a sidekick.
You would think that I’d have tempered my excitement when it was announced that Anthony Mackie would appear in Captain America: The Winter Soldier as Sam Wilson/Falcon, and to be honest, I did. And then the first images of Mackie in his exo-skeleton flying rig emerged. Then came the trailers. And though I did my best not to, I went nuts. Not just because the second Captain America looked to be better than the first—which it did—but because we were getting a black superhero. To be clear, by “we” I mean all of us folks that have been clamoring for a black superhero on screen for years, if not decades. And to be even more clear, The Meteor Man doesn’t count. Neither does Blankman, Steel, or Hancock. What “we” wanted was a superhero of color on par with Iron Man or Captain America, or any of the other heroes that have been leaping on to the big screen now for more than a decade. Foolishly, after the undeniable disappointment of War Machine/Iron Patriot, some of us thought our wish had finally come true. We thought our moment had finally come with Captain America: The Winter Soldier—that Falcon would give us what we so desperately wanted. Instead, we got another sidekick.
Please, do not misunderstand me—I really liked Captain America: The Winter Soldier. For me, it is ranks up there with Iron Man and The Avengers as the best of the Marvel movies to date. But as entertaining as the film may be, and as fun as Anthony Mackie is as Sam Wilson, we all need to be honest and face the very real truth of the matter—Falcon is in every way shape and form, nothing more than a sidekick. For as cool as his character is, for as much asskicking that he does, or as much of a story arc as he has (and he does have an arc), Falcon is there to help Captain America. In between flying around and putting foot to ass, all he really does is ask, “Whatcha want me to do, Cap?” Sometimes, he becomes a bit less reactive and demonstrates his proactive wherewithal by say, “I’m here to help, Cap, do whatever you need me to do.”
Now, in a lesser film, Captain America might tell Falcon, “Go get my shield shined,” but thankfully, he essentially tells the newly discovered hero, “Go distract the bad guys by doing some cool stuff, and I’ll save the day.” That is, after all, what all the great sidekicks do. And in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Falcon is a badass sidekick of the highest order. He does distract the bad guys long enough for Captain America to save the day.
In all fairness, expectations for Falcon on film never should have been high. As a character with more than forty years of comic history, Sam Wilson has never had a definitive story to call his own. Even when he co-headlined with Cap in Captain America and the Falcon during the 1970s, his most memorable storyline was the one where it was revealed that he was the creation of the Red Skull. Trust me when I say that Falcon is one of the most poorly developed heroes in the Marvel universe, and that is because he is nothing more than a sidekick, and even when the occasional writer tries to make him something more—a hero that can stand on his own—it always falls flat. He was created as little more than a token ethnic character, and since his first appearance in 1969, he has never been more than that. This should come as no surprise, but the fact that this is such a poorly developed character, and that no writer in the history of Marvel has ever managed to do anything truly remarkable with him points to some very sad truths about race and comics, as well as the sad state of affairs of the sidekick.
The sidekick doesn’t have the best history in comics and pulp entertainment. Early sidekicks were often children and teenagers, brought in to give younger audiences characters to relate to, as well as create a greater sense of responsibility for the hero. What better way to make Batman seem more heroic than to give him a youthful ward that he must rescue from time to time? The sidekick serves another purpose, however, in that he (or she) can also bring a sense of diversity and inclusion to the otherwise hegemonic world of white male heroes. The Lone Ranger had Tonto. The Green Hornet had Kato. Mandrake the Magician had Lothar. These pseudo-ethnic characters—often tightly wrapped in the most blatant of stereotypes—served as some semblance of diversity in the world of masked heroes and crime fighters. The problem, of course, is that Tonto and Kato and Lothar were all servants to their white employers/masters (who happen to be white men), and whatever diversity may have been created with the inclusion of these characters it has always been part of the dominant racial ideology. Loosely translated, that means diversity only exists within a framework of subservience.
It is telling that as a kid growing up, I liked Tonto more than I liked the Lone Ranger. I loved Kato, but had no use for the Green Hornet. And even though issue after issue of Captain America and the Falcon never gave me the Falcon story I wanted, I loved the character, and hoped that some day, some way, he’d be given his chance. To this day, I still have a box full of comics starring and co-starring the Falcon, and every now and then I go back and read these comics, hoping that somehow, magically, this time ’round they won’t be as disappointing as they always are—as they always will be. Unfortunately, Falcon has always suffered from a blatant case of sidekick-ism.
Sidekick-ism doesn’t allow for characters like Falcon to get their chance. Even in more contemporary works that have sought to update Tonto and Kato, both still are what they are, and nothing short of a truly revolutionary creator getting their hands on them, and given some creative freedom, will ever change that. I would love to see a Falcon movie, or read a great Falcon comic book, but that will probably never happen. As he exists in film and comics, Falcon—along with all the other sidekicks—doesn’t have what it takes to be interesting enough to carry a compelling story on their own. The reason for this is simple—these characters do not exist as fully formed heroes, but as means to the ends of the real heroes of the story. Tonto is there to make sure the Lone Ranger saves the day. Same with Falcon.
Call me a fool, but as a fan, I will continue to love the marginalized sidekicks that populate the worlds of my entertainment. These characters who are given a few brief moments to shine, before the hero steals the spotlight, are the characters that I and so many others have related to for decades. No matter how much I complain about him, I have a special place in my heart for Falcon/Sam Wilson. There is within him, the potential for so much greatness—a hero waiting to be set free. And to be very clear, he could be the hero of the story—the one who saves the day and gets the girl—if those that guide his destiny could just see beyond the color of his skin. That is why myself and so many of my friends growing up loved Falcon and Tonto and Kato and other sidekicks so much more than the heroes they served—we recognized ourselves within these marginalized characters whose heroism could only be measured against the greater accomplishments of the ruling class and its heroes. And we knew that there was more to them than the stories being told, because the same was true for us.