Batman: The Animated Series “The Underdwellers”

01Jan11

This is our first Animated Series episode without an established Batman villain; despite my cracks about him, I can’t deny that Man Bat is a part of Batman’s known Rogues gallery. Some of these episodes are among the strongest of the series. That’s not the case here, though there’s an interesting plot-in theory, anyway.

There’s a strong thread of concern about children in this episode, and it starts with the opening, where Batman saves two teenagers stupid enough to be playing chicken on a train. From the beginning, there’s an odd, schizoid issue with the animation-in single frames it’s easily the most detailed of the show so far, but with odd pauses and motions that rob it of its potential impact. That’s a problem that’s going to continue for the whole running time.

We cut from the stupid teenagers to an upscale area of Gotham, where an obviously stereotypical older woman has her purse stolen by a young kid. Said child is dressed in a green, hooded cape with sunglasses, making it seem that we’re watching a larcenous hobbit at work. Batman just happens to hear her describing this to a police officer and gives chase, in an odd scene where he runs atop several cars to reach the alley in question. Then a police car drives down the alley after him, almost hits Batman…and he manages to do a standing jump to the top of a building to avoid it.

I’ve mentioned the animation issues with this episode, but I think this scene is a demonstration that either the director had some odd ideas for how to frame the action, or there was some very poor communication with the animators on what the storyboards were meant to show. I suspect the former more than the latter, simply because the idea of a police officer responding to a woman yelling about her stolen purse, in seconds, is too silly to let go…but at the same time, Batman making a vertical leap that’s counted in stories is not only completely at odds with his normal abilities in other episodes, but in this one as well.

Almost as an apology for the awkwardness of the opening, we then get a nice scene of Alfred and Batman in the Batcave, where we are clearly shown that he doesn’t always have to wear the suit while he’s down there (making the costume changing in “Pretty Poison” even more bizarre). While we’ve already seen Robin in the series, Alfred was far more prevalent as a foil to Batman in the early episodes. He does a wonderful job here, suggesting some golf or a trip to the Bahamas so Bruce can relax-to which he gets the response of “boring” and “hot and boring.” After identifying the theft as happening in the theatre district (which is somehow right next to the Gotham docks-a rather odd choice for a theatre location), Batman decides to stake out the area.

We then go to the district and underground it, until we come upon a whole society of children, tilling underground gardens and dumping stolen goods in front of a chosen collector. A bell rings, and they gather before the villain of the episode, basically ripped out of the cheapest Dickensian pastiche you could find. He’s basically Fagin with slightly more technology and less subtlety. But he’s not of a Jewish stereotype, at least, so that’s a nice change!

The music does a lot of heavy lifting here, selling the atmosphere of oppression and dread without overdoing it, and making it easy to overlook all sorts of problems with the way things are set up-for example, where all these children came from and why they’re trying to grow plants without sunlight. And there’s an understated darkness to the idea that Gotham has so many problems that a society of abandoned/stolen/forgotten children could live in the sewers, completely unnoticed.

After the Sewer King berates his subjects about never speaking and stealing things for him, Batman intercepts one of them and takes him home for…some reason. It’s really just an excuse to set up Alfred and the boy doing physical comedy. It’s not bad physical comedy, really…it at least doesn’t use any “funny” music cues. But it still gets old pretty quickly, and only Efrem Zimbalist’s understated delivery makes it as tolerable as it is. Batman intervenes after a while to ask the kid to show him where he came from…and when he sees the groups of children, he immediately starts taking pictures, as proof of what he’s found. It’s a moment that really underscores the adult nature of the concept.

Then Batman goes to confront the Sewer King for a good round of punching. But not before he beats one crocodile with a bell on a rope, wrestles another, and snaps a third one’s jaw. Why does the Sewer King have crocodiles that obey him? Because it’s the sewers, of course. That and the children aren’t particularly motivated to act as his henchmen in fighting Batman.

I don’t want to say the episode falls apart here, but this is where the demands of the medium-a villain to confront, Batman beating them, a definite ending-conflict with the plot that’s been built up. We do get an ending where we see the police and child services coming in to help the children out of the sewers, and presumably trying to adjust them to regular society. But it’s after the villain taunts Batman about being eaten by the crocodiles, then is threatened by Batman talking about how he’s sorely tempted to pass judgement himself. There’s no closing moral, at least, and there is some skill in the execution. But it’s still an episode at odds with itself, not able to find a balance between the serious story it wants to tell and the simple moral strictures it has to work under. Fortunately, the Sewer King is not one of the recurring characters that the Animated Series will introduce, which is good. It’s already a stretch to believe that this person could be operating under Batman’s nose for presumably some time-having him come back and repeat his gimmick would push the concept past “unusual” to “exasperating.”

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