When talking about Batman in film, it seems to be a widely held belief that he is a drag on the Dark Knight and that teen sidekicks as a whole have no place in superhero films. John Campea, of AMC Movie Talk, even went on a huge rant on the subject in one episode of his online show when it was rumored that Nightwing may be included in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale both stated matter-of-factly that Robin had no place in their Dark Knight Trilogy (and they mostly stayed true to this). The teen sidekick seems to be a plot device of a bygone era that has very little place in the current state of darker and more realistic superhero movies and if you endeavor to argue against this point, most people will point to Batman and Robin as a way of proving you wrong. But how true is this assertion really?
I am personally a huge fan of Robin as a character. I grew up in the 80s and reruns of the Adam West Batman were everywhere and was my first exposure to the character. Before 1989, there was no Batman without Robin and as I first started collecting comic books at the age of 12, I wasn't really a fan of Batman comics without Robin. Batman solo stories have sense grown on me, and some of the best Batman stories have no Robin in them, but there is still a soft spot in my heart for Robin and Batman and Robin is my favorite current Batman title. So my bias on the subject is out there, in the interest of full disclosure, but I am going to attempt to step outside of my own bias and write this article from a neutral perspective.
While Robin has really yet to be done properly in film (Batman Forever did a really good job but unfortunately Robin didn't really suit up until the climax and spent most of that captured by Two-Face and the Riddler), we have had two recent examples of the teen sidekick being done right, and working quite well in the movies. The first example was Bucky in Captain America: The First Avenger. Granted, Bucky wasn't a teenager, he was a soldier (and a Sergeant at that) he did serve the same purpose as Cap's sidekick. It was more than a nod to the comics, or even a set-up for the The Winter Soldier as the sequel, it was a good attempt at doing a teen sidekick on film. And as a test case, it worked. It showed that you could take the spirit of the character and change it to fit the story you're telling and the world you've built for your film. The First Avenger did somewhat do the same thing to Bucky that Batman Forever did to Robin, but it was still a good proof that you could do it. The First Avenger also did a great job at protecting the integrity of Bucky's costume from the comics while still adapting it to the WWII world of the film. Then we also have the character of Arsenal on Arrow.
Roy Harper was introduced near the end of the first season of Arrow but it took him until season 3 to actually attain sidekick status, and it was well worth the wait. Arsenal again isn't really a teenager, but that's ok. Batman or Green Arrow or whoever doesn't have to be out gallivanting around town with a 12 year old kid in tow. Age them up to their late teens or early 20s. That's ok. I'm about to be 35 years old and as far as i'm concerned if you're 21, you're still a teenager. I like Arsenal. He adds a great dynamic to the show in the field, and he hasn't done anything to tone down the Arrow character nor as he served to make the show any less dark or realistic. It also helps that Coulton Haynes is just a really good actor who really owns the part. Again, Arrow's costumer did a great job of staying true to the look of Arsenal from the comics while adapting it to fit in with the world they have created in the first two seasons, and on some levels Roy has an even cooler costume than Oliver's. Best of all, they treat him like a partner and a full member of Team Arrow and not just as a teen sidekick. They respect the character, as did Captain America: The First Avenger with Bucky.
Yes, it is absolutely possible to make the teen sidekick ridiculous. It is very easy to do that, as a matter of fact. To make a teen sidekick really work, you need to work at it. You need an actor who understands the character and you need writers and directors that have a respect for both the character and the concept as a whole. I feel like Robin could have really been done right in the Dark Knight Trilogy, with just a little respect for the character. In fact, they really did do the "character" justice while at the same time completely writing him off and kicking fans of the character in the teeth. With the John Blake character, Christopher Nolan basically said, "I could do this character right, but I don't like him so slag off," and I really think that rubbed Robin fans the wrong way, and that stupid throwaway line about his name at the end was just kind of pouring salt in the wounds.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, admittedly, is a little old to be Robin, but they could have made it work. He really doesn't look terrible in the photoshopped image above. If they had introduced the John Blake character in The Dark Knight and set up that he used to be an orphan before becoming a police officer, and they called him Dick Grayson or Jason Todd instead of John Blake, and basically established the character in that movie, it would have been very easy for to put him in a variation of the Robin costume to help out Batman in The Dark Knight Rises. I'm not going to really dwell on specifics, because it would probably involve some major changes to The Dark Knight, but it really wouldn't have changed much of the dynamic of the third film at all. You just would have seen the character in costume helping out the kids instead of just regular clothes. And if they had used Dick Grayson, it could also have served as a good nod to the comics, as Nightwing was a police officer at one point. While it is very easy to screw it up, and the concept can be laughable and silly if done poorly, Bucky and Arsenal have proven that it can be done and taken quite seriously, and I am still holding out hope to see Robin done properly in a Batman movie (which will NOT be if they really are going to use Carrie Kelley in the reboot, as has been rumored).