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1. Tonto, the Lone Ranger movies
The Lone Ranger's faithful Indian companion debuted in the 1930s, an age not known for its enlightened attitudes toward minorities. And writers like Sherman Alexie have pointed out Tonto's more problematic aspects, like his stereotypical broken English. But from the beginning, Tonto was depicted as a heroic figure in his own right, and not so much the Lone Ranger's assistant as his friend. Tonto was saddled with pidgin dialogue, but he wasn't dumb, and could track bandits and right wrongs with a skill equal to the masked man's. Also worth noting: The similar character dynamic in the Lone Ranger spin-off The Green Hornet, between the Hornet and his Asian sidekick Kato, led to Bruce Lee's American breakthrough role on the short-lived 1966 TV series. And few people, sidekicks or not, are cooler than Bruce Lee.
2. Hobbes, Calvin & Hobbes
Yes, 6-year-old Calvin had the better imagination, and his best friend Hobbes, the stuffed tiger who was only alive when nobody else was looking, didn't have the drive or the creative chaos to sustain a strip by himself. But he was the one with the brains, the experience, the knowledge, the conscience, and the ability to foresee the outcome of the wacky stunts they planned. And yet he still generally went along with them anyway, trusting that the fun would outweigh the pain. How cool is that? Besides, as he would no doubt be the first to explain, tigers are just plain cooler than people.
3. R2D2, Star Wars
He's shaped like a trash can on wheels and communicates entirely in digital bloops and squeals, yet the little astromech droid R2D2 is in many ways the heart and soul of the Star Wars movies. Robot or not, he's one of its most human characters, and he expresses a greater range of emotion than some of the flesh-and-blood actors. Though small and fragile, Artoo is also plucky, resourceful, and reliable enough to earn the trust of the Jedis and pilots who outrank him. Indeed, the first third of A New Hope hinges on Artoo's top-secret mission to deliver the Death Star plans to the Rebellion. True, his underdog heroics in the original trilogy were ballooned into cartoonish super-competence in the prequels. But it's a testament to the character that his slide into late-period Lucasian mediocrity wasn't as sharp a decline as that of the newly petulant Darth Vader. When even the new Star Wars movies can't make a character completely uncool, that's a sign of endurance.
4. Willow, Buffy The Vampire Slayer
Either one of the two charter members of "The Scooby Gang"—Alyson Hannigan's Willow or Nicholas Brendon's Xander—made for better company than Buffy herself. Part of the reason is the hero's burden: While Buffy always had to grapple with the cosmic responsibility of keeping the Hellmouth under wraps, the sidekicks were freed up to joke around, develop their loveable idiosyncrasies, and go on little side adventures. But Willow was truly special, an adorable bookworm who brightened Sunnydale's perpetual darkness with sparkling wit and optimism while still breaking viewers' hearts on a semi-regular basis. Willow's sheepishness, brought out by Hannigan's halting rhythms of speech, also masked surprising courage and even a little brassiness on occasion, like when she discovered her leather-clad, badass doppelgänger in Season Three. It should also be said that her sexual reawakening never seemed forced, but more of a natural outgrowth of her curiosity and her deep connection to other people. Even when her Wiccan experiments got the best of her, the forces of evil ultimately couldn't smother her irrepressible Willowness.
5. Samwise Gamgee, The Lord Of The Rings
Here's the hero complex again. Frodo was brave and true and kinda bland, honestly. Especially in Peter Jackson's films, in which his primary purpose was to have the biggest, saddest, most soulful, most suffering eyes in the film. Meanwhile, his buddy Sam made the exact same exhausting cross-Middle-Earth trip on less food and water, with less complaint, and with nothing in mind but love and loyalty. And he managed to not get his lame hobbit ass captured by orcs. Clearly, he wins.
6. Nobody, Dead Man
Johnny Depp is one of cinema's most reliably eccentric actors, but in Jim Jarmusch's 1995 existential Western, he played it pretty straight as lead character William Blake, a meek accountant who gets in way over his head when he travels to a lawless mining town for a job that doesn't actually exist, kills a man in self-defense, and ends up on the run from a bounty hunter, while slowly dying of a bullet wound. Instead, the movie really belongs to Gary Farmer's terrific performance as Nobody, the eccentric Indian who takes Depp under his wing and serves as his guide from the mining town to the coast, and from this world to the great beyond. Nobody approaches the world in an easygoing combination of lyrical mysticism and touching naïveté, believing Depp's character to be the English poet of the same name, and wondering why he doesn't remember having written any of his poems. In a movie that's essentially a long, slow, murky meditation on the inexorability of death, Nobody brings in a spark of life. It's hard to imagine the film being even half as watchable without him.
7. Arthur, The Tick
Sure, The Tick is stronger, sillier, and more quotable. That's why he's the hero. But in all iterations—Ben Edlund's original comic, the animated Saturday-morning spin-off, and the live-action version—Arthur is the soul of the show. Pudgy, meek, awkward, and in fact a bit cowardly, Arthur is the one who's not only smart enough to know that he's living out a dream by becoming a superhero, but also that he has to make a conscious effort to fulfill that dream every day by overcoming his weaknesses. He's also the one with all the backstory and all the personality. He isn't cooler in a fight than The Tick is, but he's always more nuanced and more interesting.
8. Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride
One quote that stands out among the many memorable lines in The Princess Bride: Inigo Montoya's much-practiced declaration of revenge to the six-fingered man. "Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die!" What does it matter that his story is just a sidelight to that of the dashing pirate Westley, who accomplishes great feats of daring to rescue his one true love from the evil prince? Inigo's quest for vengeance is by far the most compelling subplot in the story, and especially so in William Goldman's novel, because Goldman so succinctly captures the boundless grief that drives the Spaniard to train obsessively for 20 years in hopes of becoming good enough to beat the deadliest swordsman in the known world. It helps, too, that Inigo also doubles as comic relief, along with his rhyme-trading friend, the affable giant Fezzik.
9. Dr. Pretorius, Bride Of Frankenstein
It's so hard to find good help these days, as Dr. Henry Frankenstein found out. In the original movie, his lab assistant steals the wrong brain. In the sequel, Bride Of Frankenstein, his old teacher shows up and nearly steals the entire film. Though Henry is nominally the lead scientist in their partnership, Dr. Septimus Pretorius wins hands down in the "mad scientist" department, swanning through the movie with such gleefully macabre abandon that he makes the wet-blanket Henry instantly forgettable. Where Frankenstein is plagued by his wishy-washy conscience, Pretorius revels in his blackmails and grave robberies, and even goes tomb-looting with a sense of style, sticking around after the corpse is dragged away, and having a light supper and a smoke inside a mausoleum.
10. Rocky, Rocky & Bullwinkle & Friends
The Rocky and Bullwinkle series went through so many name changes (The Bullwinkle Show, Rocky And His Friends, Adventures Of Bullwinkle And Rocky) that it's a little hard to tell who the sidekick was, but Rocky was more likely to provide the straight lines and to stand by while Bullwinkle wandered off and got into trouble. Also, Bullwinkle was taller, and how many other sidekicks get to be significantly bigger than their heroes? Anyway, assuming Rocky was the sidekick, he was still the smart one, the talented one, and the one who generally saved the day.
11. Marvin, The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy
Douglas Adams' science-fiction satire contains no shortage of characters who'd be fun to get drunk with. And even terminally bewildered protagonist Arthur Dent seems like a nice enough guy. But no character captured the hearts of Adams' fans as much as the gloomy Marvin, the Paranoid Android. Though Marvin's constant melancholy was a source of irritation to his shipmates on the Heart Of Gold, it was easy to sympathize with the slump-shouldered robot. Marvin may have exaggerated and obsessed over his many burdens—pain in all the diodes on his left side, or being forced to park cars for millions of years while his friends went to a fancy restaurant. But in Douglas Adams' mixed-up and often terrifyingly random universe, Marvin's weary resignation was one of the only sane responses to life. Besides, Marvin was more than a piece of miserable machinery, he was also the series' stoic hero figure—often the only character smart enough to know what was actually going on, he repeatedly saved the lives of his (usually ungrateful) friends at great peril to himself. Whether it meant facing down an intelligent battle tank unarmed or staying behind on a doomed starship while the others teleported to safety, Marvin was always willing (though never eager) to put himself in harm's way. Perhaps Marvin's popularity also owed something to Adams' own identification with the character—though it was inspired by a fellow writer named Andrew Marshall, Marvin's disconsolate pessimism also came from Adams' own bouts with depression.
12. Raymond "Mouse" Alexander, the "Easy" Rawlins series
Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins, the hero of Walter Mosley's detective series, is one of the most well-rounded protagonists in the mystery genre, growing and revealing new aspects of his character over the course of eight novels and assorted short stories. A black man in mid-century Los Angeles whose crime-solving job is just one way up the economic ladder, Easy is at times a drunk, a devoted father, a socially conscious fighter for justice, and a miser secretive to the point of paranoia. But every time his friend Mouse Alexander enters the story, all eyes go to the sidekick. Mouse is Easy's loyal, lifelong friend, and the guy Easy goes to for muscle. But he's also amoral and violent to the point of being a psychopath, and so unpredictably and implacably dangerous that even his friends fear him. He's almost a force of nature, and he shrugs off criticism of his temper with lines like "If you didn't want me to kill him, why did you leave me alone with him?" And like Sherlock Holmes, Mouse is one of those literary characters who can even survive the author's attempt to kill him off; he proved too important to the series to stay dead after being shot in A Little Yellow Dog. Don Cheadle captured Mouse to perfection in the 1995 movie version of Devil In A Blue Dress.
13. Sideshow Bob, The Simpsons
He's smarter than his old employer, Krusty The Klown. He's more sophisticated, more refined, more ambitious, and generally less pathetically dragged down by greed and mind-altering chemicals. If only he didn't have that damn fixation on Bart, he could rule the world while Krusty was still out negotiating a contract to put his face on yet another shoddy product. He's the ultimate in sidekicks who are cooler than the heroes they go with. Problem is, he knows it, and he's out to take the hero slot himself.