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Ever since Batman ditched Robin for the Dark Knight trilogy, sidekicks have gone out of style, both for heroes and the villains they fight. Loki relied on a bunch of anonymous Ch'tauri (and a few hypnotized victims) to accomplish destruction in The Avengers. Captain America only fought alongside his buddy Bucky Barnes for one battle before--spoiler!-- Bucky bit the dust (though he's poised for a return). Both Bane and The Joker took over Gotham on their own, aided by a bunch of henchmen, and though Thor had his Warriors Three on hand, they only really came into play near the very end.
Which is why Man of Steel, for all its hyper-modern style and darkness, makes for a fantastic throwback. While we were all focused on Michael Shannon's performance as the terrifying General Zod, little-known German actress Antje Traue stepped into the role of his sidekick Faora and lifted the entire movie by the scruff of its neck. To call Faora a sidekick is to diminish her a little-- she's terrifying, relentless presence all her own-- but it's the sidekick-ness of the part that makes her so great. While Zod is stuck shouting commands like "Prepare the world engine!" and "Prepare the genesis chamber!" Faora is brooding in the background, ready to strike. While Zod is driven by a powerful urge to rebuild Krypton, Faora is just in it for the vengeance-- or at least, we assume so. In classic sidekick fashion, she doesn't do much of the talking.
Faora isn't the only villainous female assistant of recent superhero vintage, but she's by far the most effective. Remember January Jones as Emma Frost in X-Men: First Class? Yeah, it took me a minute too. Emma Frost's purpose is essentially identical to Faora's, a right-hand-woman to the bad guy who can be sent out to do his bidding, provide a sounding board for big chunks of plot exposition, and handle attacking one foe while the main guy focuses on another. But Emma Frost and Sebastian Shaw were a matched set, dolled up in mod 60s outfits and talking about their plans for takeover; Frost may have been more of a sex object for the male viewers, sure, but the tone of the film remained effectively the same whether we were with her or Shaw.
In Man of Steel, on the other hand, Faora makes for a crucial contrast to General Zod, whose passions and ambition drive the entire plot. She's no soulless Terminator-- her emotional reaction to seeing Krypton destroyed is a remarkable moment early in the film-- but she's a ruthlessly effective warrior, more so even than Zod, who's so single-mindedly focused on getting Kal-El that he stumbles into a few mistakes. When Zod fights or threatens, it has to Mean Something-- he is, after all, one of the most iconic villains in Superman's history, and Shannon's performance helps guarantee that Zod sucks up all the air in any room. But when Faora takes over, shooting menacing glances at Lois Lane or moving like a ninja against hapless armed humans, she just gets to be plain evil. The closest this movie comes to having quips is in a pair of moments involving Faora, a villain whose badness is so simple that the film can afford some levity at her expense.
I'm grateful for the spate of complicated superhero villains we have these days, from the wonderfully broken Loki to the overwhelmed The Lizard of The Amazing Spider-Man to even good old muffled Bane, whose motivations made no sense at all until you saw that tear slip out from behind his mask. But Faora reminds us that a complicated villain sometimes needs a no-holds-barred nasty sidekick, someone who can glower and get the upper hand and earn hisses from the audience without saying anything at all. Sidekicks may still be out of style when it comes to the heroes… but maybe it's time for the bad guys to have some company.