Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Batman: The Animated Series Re-Watch: Episode Six: The Underdwellers

Plot: following reports of a purse-snatching leprechaun, Batman discovers the Sewer King and his gang of orphan thieves.

The Sewer King is Batman the Animated Series first attempt at an original villain, or as original as a Fagen-homage can get. There are elements here that make him interesting, mostly his use and abuse of children, which obviously touches a nerve with Batman. And his choice of henchmen allow us to see Batman wrestle and hogtie an alligator, so there is that. However, beyond that, he's not that interesting, and he could and maybe should have been replaced with one of Batman's other sewer dwelling foes, Killer Croc, the Penguin, or even the Ratcatcher.

Really, this episode is about Batman's relationship with children, specifically orphans. As with Nothing to Fear, The Underdwellers assumes you already know that Batman is himself an orphan, and identifies with the Sewer King's victims (there's a sideways allusion when Batman yells "children and guns do not mix. Ever!" It's such an obvious point that it hides the fact that Batman is referring to a specific event).

It's telling that he threatens to let the Sewer King die, which he did not do with the Joker, Scarecrow, or Poison Ivy, even though they had attempted murder. Clearly, Batman sees child abuse as something worse than murder. His tossed off, "a gruesome end for a gruesome man," when he thinks the Sewer King has been eaten by his own alligators recalls Detective Comics #27, his first appearance, where he responds to knocking a criminal into a vat of corrosive chemicals as "a fitting end for his kind."

We also see children's reaction to Batman: they think he's cool, obviously. Frog may run from Batman at first, but he learns to trust him, first when Batman saves his life, again when he sees a trash bin transform into the Batmobile, and again when Batman says he needs Frog's help. (Props to the animation and music departments. Since the Underdwellers don't talk, their acting is done through facial expression and music cues, and done quite well.)

But Batman does more than protect and comfort children, he also inspires them. The key scene, really, is when the Sewer King threatens to feed one of his own children to the alligators is Batman does not back off, Frog swings down on a rope in a Batmanly manor and saves the kid himself, earning the world's greatest honor, the Bat-thumbs up!

There's also the charming middle section where Alfred must bathe, feed, and put Frog to bed ("not necessarily in that order"). Again, Frog's expression as he gleefully steals all the silverware and rides a serving dish down the stairs play fantastically against Alfred's pained expression and exasperated delivery. The only note that rings false is Alfred's line about not knowing what to do with children. This is odd because it's already been established that Alfred raised Bruce when Bruce's parents died, and helped raise Dick Grayson when Bruce adopted him.

If anything, that's what's missing from the episode. We see Batman the son, identifying with Frog and sympathizing with the other orphans. But where's Batman the father? Robin isn't mentioned at all, but Robin is evidence that Batman has a habit of taking in orphans and turning them into superheroes (by this time in the comics, he would have done it three times already, and will do it again later in the Animated Series). From the way Frog swings on a rope, it wouldn't have surprised me if they made him the next Robin, or if his real name were Jason Todd.

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