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Sidekick Glass Ceiling

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"It has always been the province of children and fools to point out that the emperor has no clothes. But the emperor remains an emperor, and the fool remains a fool."
Morpheus, The Sandman (1989)

Hey, what's TV Guide saying this week? It claims the bumbling sidekick character is going to have a freak lab accident thwarting the local Mad Scientist. Now she's got superpowers just like the lead—maybe even more so!

But wait. You've seen this plot before. Any setting with superpowers not only loves to bandy them out randomly like it's going out of style, but also loves to take them away. Maybe With Great Power Comes Great Insanity, her powers come from either Toxic Phlebotinum or The Dark Side, or a power-draining Heroic Sacrifice is in the very near future; regardless of the explanation, Status Quo Is Effing God, Dammit, so the powers have to go by the end of the episode. They all have to hit it eventually: The Sidekick Glass Ceiling. Search your feelings: you know it to be true.

All the reasons why Status Quo Is God exists apply here, good and bad: to maintain the premise, a hero and leader needs to be better than the Sidekick, civilian Love Interests, and pretty much all the other good guys. The characters may complement each other with different specializations, but the hero, ultimately, has to be tops, or his title is void. Otherwise it'll have to be played for laughs, because the ensemble would be completely unbalanced; you'd end up with an incompetent hero and a bad ass sidekick (see Duckman and hyper-competent Cornfed, or Inspector Gadget and his niece Penny). Or worse, a Sidekick Ex Machina.

Especially egregious is when the sidekick gets some or all of the hero's powers. In these cases, there is absolutely no way that the sidekick will keep the powers; even if the hero has flat out said "I Just Want to Be Normal", and the powers are Blessed with Suck, the hero will nonetheless move heaven and Earth to get them back by episode's end. A few typical situations where the sidekick gets empowered can be:

When this trope is not in use:

In short, a sidekick can develop powers... just so long as they stay solidly behind the hero they kick beside.

However, there is hope for those sidekicks since once they are ready to strike out on their own, Sidekick Graduations Stick. Contrast Hypercompetent Sidekick and De-power.

The more general case, where it doesn't have to be a sidekick, is Superpowers For A Day. The specific case where a particular sidekick has this happen to them every other issue is Superpower Silly Putty. Compare Fixed Relative Strength. On the other side of the coin, Protagonist Power-Up Privileges is for when the power-ups are arbitrary given to main protagonist(s), rather than focusing on the side character's inability to keep up or maintain his new powers.


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     Anime and Manga 
  • Appropriately discussed in My Hero Academia where a lot of pro-heroes intern and later get hired at hero agencies as sidekicks but because they didn't go independent in time, they get stuck as sidekicks for good.

     Comic Books 
  • Superman. Jimmy Olsen + The Silver Age of Comic Books = Superdickery says it better.
  • The Spider-Man arc "Spider-Island" had the concept of the ENTIRE city of New York hitting the glass ceiling, with Mary Jane Watson in particular getting to play a large part in saving the day.
  • Shortly after being ousted from DC Comics, former co-publisher Dan DiDio cited this trope, more or less, why he hated Wally West and Dick Grayson, albeit in different ways. With Grayson, he believed that him and his generation of heroes were constantly pushing up to their mentors and balancing both the need for developing their characters without letting them surpass their mentors created Continuity Snarl. With Wally West, he just didn't believe that a Legacy Character and former sidekick could stand on their own as a character without being subservient to their predecessor, and thus he was an inferior character to his mentor and previous Flash, Barry Allen.
    • Ironically, Wally West was for a long time considered not just one of the best subversions of this trope, but probably the defining example of Sidekick Graduations Stick, as he not only enjoyed character arcs that focused on him earning the mantle and surpassing his predecessors in power and speed, but hefty Character Development completely unrelated to that, proving that he was not simply defined as 'Barry Allen's sidekick who grew up'.
    • Ultimately, many DC Fans saw Didio's attitude towards Grayson, Wally, and other Legacy Heroes as a sign that he was very out-of-touch with the comics and the fandom, and to this day remains a divisive figure in DC Comics history.


  • Featured in Harry Potter a few times:
    • Ron Weasley faces angst for the fact that no matter what he does he's never going to be the special Weasley in his Badass Family where his elder brothers and kid sister have something special and unique about them, while he's The Everyman. Then he comes to Hogwarts and he's friends with the smartest witch in Hogwarts and The Chosen One and it increases his insecurity even more. Even the few times he enjoys triumphs such as being on the winning team of the Quidditch cup twice, his best friends don't show up to see it the first time, and the second time, it gets distracted by other events.
    • Peter Pettigrew is a darker take on this. He was a tagalong of the Marauders, the group of friends that included Harry's dad, and he was The Ditz in a generation of geniuses and overachievers, which finally makes him so embittered that he betrays them to Voldemort. The ironic part is that after helping Voldemort, once in the past and again in the present, like finding him and restoring him, he's once again downgraded to a menial servant, since his dark master has nothing but contempt for him.

     Live Action TV 
  • Lois & Clark had Clark drained of his powers by bad guys, who also accidentally gave Lois all his powers for the episode. She even got a costume—with an actual mask; take notes, Clark— and fights crime as Ultrawoman. There were several other instances of power transfer in the show.
  • On Big Wolf on Campus, Tommy's Non-Action Guy sidekick Merton is totally delighted when Tommy accidentally turns him into a werewolf (and Tommy doesn't mind having someone to wolf out with, either). But sadly, becoming a werewolf makes you evil (Tommy is the notable and unexplained exception), so of course Tommy has to cure him of it.
  • Smallville has often given Lana, Lex, Lois and Pete (damn, ruined the alliteration) super powers, but they're always gone by the end of the episode. Chloe is the only exception, and even then, her costly power isn't going to get much use. Lex still technically has a meteor-freak super-strong immune system, which gave him decidedly temporary Healing Factor when combined with something else.
  • Doctor Who:
    • In the season 4 finale "Journey's End," this happens to Donna; she gets the Doctor's intelligence as part of a freak regeneration accident, but of course, this is a life-threatening talent that must be cured, in as tear-jerking a way as possible.
    • Rusty likes this trope. It happened back in "The Parting of the Ways" as well, to likewise save the day all Deus ex Machina-like.
  • Heroes inverts this majorly by the end of Volume 3. Ando gets an ability, and Hiro is Brought Down to Normal. Halfway through the next volume, and still no signs of his sidekick Ando hitting the glass ceiling anytime soon.
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer:
    • Averted starting in season five as sidekick Willow is quite capable of upstaging Buffy in terms of power. However Willow's magic ends up harming her and others almost as much as saving people and her powers are more of a liability than an asset during most of seasons six and seven. This conveniently keeps her in the sidekick role until the series ends.
    • Xander is a straighter example, since for awhile he had military knowledge lasting from Becoming the Costume in a Halloween Episode. Such knowledge faded after awhile, to leave him the same Badass Normal team member he always was.

     Tabletop RPG 
  • The Leadership feat in Dungeons & Dragons allows a player to get a number of followers, as well as a Cohort. The Cohort's maximum level is two levels below the player's. (So, 4th level for a 6th level Character, 5th for a 7th, etc.)
    • Although with a different sort of glass ceiling than the standard example of the trope: the Cohort can not become as strong as the player character, but she does keep what powers she gains; they just happen to be two levels below the player's.
    • And thanks to Linear Warriors, Quadratic Wizards, the cohort can be much more powerful than the player character. Still lower level, though.
    • 5th Edition has optional sidekick rules in the form of three character classes that are much weaker than player character classes called the Expert, Spellcaster, and Warrior.
  • Kind of inverted in Big Eyes, Small Mouth third edition. Though no sane GM would let you do it, a single follower basically has 10 character points for every character point you put in them, plus a starting bonus of 100. Multiple followers have a lower ratio, making it a bit harder to have an army of overpowered followers, but looking strictly at points, if you put half your points into a single follower, they'd be ten times as strong as you, and five times stronger than a character that didn't abuse this.
    • There's something similar in Mutants & Masterminds, where you can spend Points to receive either a Minion or a Sidekick. Minions receive 15 Power Points per point you spend on them and are limited to the same Power Level of their Hero, meaning that by spending 10 points a PL 10 character (which is an average starting character with 150 PP) a Hero can have a Minion with the same 150 PP they started with. This is played straight with Sidekicks, who are a bit more flexible with what they can do than Minions and are a lot tougher, but only get 5 PP per point the Hero spends on them. Sidekicks are required to be less powerful than their Hero, which means that a PL 10 Hero can spend up to 29 PP on a Sidekick with a maximum of 145 PP. In both cases a maximum level Minion or Sidekick will be more powerful than their Hero because they didn't have to spend any PP on a Minion/Sidekick, giving them an edge.

     Web Comics 
  • Robin and Ming from The Wotch. Robin most shows this in a dream. Ming has power jealousy in season 3, because lots of her friends have powers and she's ordinary. She doesn't get powers, but she does get a magical slime woman friend/familiar. Robin attempts to counter this by learning Martial Arts. It's helped a little.
  • The whole point of Sidekick Girl, who's stuck with a superheroine who is The Ditz. As the story went on (And Illumina (the former Ditz) having Took a Level in Badass), the story became Val being stuck thanks to the Hero Agency's archaic standards on how full hero should look and well as perform.

     Western Animation 
  • The male best friend of the Token Trio on Danny Phantom went through this, rapidly Jumping Off the Slippery Slope, thanks to a recurring Be Careful What You Wish For wish-granting ghost, Desiree.
  • The Teen Titans episode "The Beast Within" lets Plucky Comic Relief Animorphism-powered Beast Boy get more Beast and less Boy. Even while it lasts, his suggestions that his name be changed to Beast Man fall on deaf ears.
    Raven: We're having a moment here, don't ruin it.
    Beast Boy: ... Beast Dude?
  • Gwen of Ben 10 gets a magic charm in an early episode and even gets a whole set of charms at the end, only to destroy them all in service of a Broken Aesop. After hitting the Glass Ceiling a few more times she ultimately breaks through and discovers innate magical powers (but she's still a sidekick).
    • Some years into the future she'll develop into a full fledged magician, in addition to having restored the charms.
  • This shows up in the group dynamic of Justice League.
    • In the Unlimited phase, the newer superheroes (especially The Question) think that the Original Seven enforce Tall Poppy Syndrome and keep secrets from the rest of the group, as well as create a sense, unintentionally, that the latter are there at their pleasure rather than true co-partners. Green Arrow who Batman kept along to serve as the group's conscience reverses this when he calls Superman and the team for trying to dissolve the League, insisting that if the Original Seven want to step down and retire, they've certainly earned it, but the League will continue with or without them, more or less forcing them to stay.
    • Elongated Man gets livid at more or less being considered one of "two stretchy guys" by Green Lantern during the Battle against Mordu, while Booster Gold in an effort to prove himself to the rest of the League gets irritated at handling crowd control though he does realize that true heroism sometimes comes from being part of The Greatest Story Never Told.
    • The Flash, being the Kid Hero of the original group, still whines about not being taken seriously despite the fact that he's a founding member with a seat in the conference table (and he has plans on putting his logo on it). This disappears when he plays a decisive role in ending Brainthor after which the rest of the League start treating him with respect, with Batman agreeing to attend a Flash museum event.
  • On Static Shock, in an early season Richie gets telekinetic abilities from power-granting Bang Baby Ragtag, resulting in him taking up the moniker "Push" and becoming a competing superhero (Virgil and Richie were not getting along too well at the time). Unfortunately, Ragtag's price is too high and Static has to help Push take him and his gang of Super Mooks (including "Run" and "Jump") down, resulting in the loss of Richie's powers. In a later season, however, it turns out that Richie's early exposure to Virgil after he was exposed to the Big Bang mutagen has resulted in the latent power of superintelligence. He designs some gadgets and becomes "Gear" just in time to stop the bad guys from figuring out Static's secret identity (ironically discovered because of Static/Virgil's friendship with him in and out of costume). Gear, unlike Push, would continue on as Static's partner.
  • During one episode of Kim Possible the sidekick Ron Stoppable got this incredible Mystical Monkey Power Kung Fu that made him kick ass while having a badass Battle Aura. Yet he forgot about the power before the next episode, so he could stay as the bumbling. It was even lampshaded when some mooks wondered if he isn't supposed to have this Mystical Monkey Power Kung Fu. Except for in The First Movie and The Grand Finale, where he proved to be more of a hero than Kim Possible...
  • Mira Nova in Buzz Lightyear of Star Command gained awesome powers in the Very Special Episode "Super Nova". The power-up turned out to be a G-Rated Drug and by the end of the episode she overcame her addiction through The Power of Friendship.
  • In the Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog episode "Full Tilt Tails", Robotnik decides to make his Super Special Sonic Search & Smash Squad faster via a new super weapon that took years to make- Speedamint gum. It works wonders and during a test drive, Grounder does a full lap of Mobius in record time, but crashes and loses the gum. Tails comes along and steps in it, making him faster than Sonic. He gets so excited about it that he almost gets run over by a train, ruins a parachute free fall event and almost gets beaten up by a biker. At the end of the episode, he loses the gum and learns a lesson about not being ready for what he wants the most.
  • Defied in Young Justice where the entire plot is sparked when a bunch of side-kicks decide they're tired of hitting the ceiling and want to become real heroes.

     Real Life 
  • There are people who claim that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is an example.
  • Categories like First World, Second World, Third World are Cold War holdovers (First being Capitalist nations and "the West", Second being Communist nations, and Third being the rest), as well as the more recent usage, where nations are Developed, Developing and Underdeveloped or undeveloped, are real-world tags for "global leaders" and "global markets" with the former being the heroes and protagonists (i.e. members of G8) and the rest being their sidekicks, client and dependencies. A nation going from Third World to First World, in a gradual short-time window remains a theoretical concept, and in most cases, poor nations despite relatively significant advances, will still struggle to match the "West":
    • People note that even after decolonization and independence, the former colonial and imperialist nations still remain Number 1 in Global Development Index and possess most of the wealth and political power, while the former colonial nations are doing their best to catch up and in a lot of cases Can't Catch Up, especially if they are one of the artificial nation states created by imperialist era geography, where the weak nation-state and society creates a situation far different from the classic era of European development.
    • Communism appealed to many nations in the Third World precisely because it offered a way for modernizing and catching up the West. In actual practice it made a good chunk of the "Second World" client states to the USSR, with the latter spending more on military and subsidized socialist support for its "comrade" nations than on its own people and when the entire project collapsed in the '90s, many of these nations saw part of their progress halted and/or reversed, with the new Washington Consensus of Neoliberalism more or less opening global markets and creating an international global middle-class and creating a huge Brain Drain in the process.
    • Many have accused the United Nations to enforce this role. Of the permanent five members of the UN Security Council (the ones who have a veto), only China counts as a non-European nation, with three being European (Russia, England, France), and the other being USA, meaning that the key political and economic powers for concerted global power in the world's deliberative body remains in the hand of the white colonial nations in general, and Europe in particular. Calls for greater representation (like say South American and African nation, and at least two more Asian nations) go nowhere. As Fela Kuti pointed out in his song "Beasts of No Nation":
    No be there dem dey oh United Nations]
    Dis "united" United Nations
    One veto vote is equal to 92 [...]
    Fela Kuti, Beasts of No Nation
  • Women's liberation and feminist movements keep struggling with this concept. Despite huge advances for women's rights in The 20th Century, women still face social and professional stigma at work and home, still struggle with gender issues and norms, and likewise are subject to other gendered forms of violence. Economies, governments and societies still assume male interests and male consumers represent the normal despite the fact that in developed nations, the sex ratio is greater women than men.
    • The big issue for women is "the wage gap" where women in a variety of professions are paid less, and expected to work for a lower salary, than male counterparts. Gaining parity in wages is one of the big priorities of "third-wave" feminism.
    • It's been noted in the movie industry, for a very long time, (not only in America but across the world) that actresses in general tend to have shorter careers as leads than male actors, have fewer options of roles (usually the Love Interest, the Femme Fatale, The Vamp, or The Ingenue), and their availability and options for roles greatly depends on their looks and ability to maintain them.
    • It's even worse in Bollywood where the conservative nature of Indian society generally frowns upon married women continuing to act in romantic roles, and as such there's an unofficial code that an actress' career ends when they get married, which really puts the constant and endless divorce scandals in Hollywood and the ability of actresses to still find work after that in a new context doesn't it?
  • Racial equality movements have most of the same obstacles that gender equality movements deal with. While there is even less likely to be any kind of legal distinction between races than between genders, minorities are still often treated as "sidekicks" to their white counterparts in media.