Batman: The Animated Series – The Underdwellers

The Underdwellers

 

I don’t pass sentence. That’s for the courts. But this time…this time…I am sorely tempted to do the job myself.

Air Date: 21/10/92

Director: Frank Paur

Writer: Tom Ruegger, Jules Dennis (Teleplay), Richard Mueller (Teleplay)

Themes: Child Abuse, Endangerment, Darkness, Slavery

Villain: The Sewer King

Synopsis: A bedraggled youngster stealing on the streets leads Batman into the depths of Gotham, seeking the monster using a group of unwanted children as his criminal army.

Review:

Now this is a bit of a unique episode alright, in production terms the first time that the B:TAS creators decided to attempt to use an original villain. It’s a story with wildly contrasting tones throughout its running time, and an enemy that allows Batman to show off his angry side.

We open with a really odd scene, as Batman rescues two teens playing chicken onboard a train. As surreal and out of place as something like that might seem in the world of Gotham City, I actually kinda liked it. It showcased Batman as more than just a vigilante hunting down the more notable whackjobs – he’s a guy who is constantly on patrol looking for the people in trouble, even if it is just from their own stupidity. I suppose this opening scene also sets up what will be the main plot point with Batman, which is his protective streak when it comes to youth in danger.

This is an episode that veers hazily from comedy to serious drama. You have the rescue during a game of chicken, moving directly into your stereotypical socialite lady screeching about her jewels, then the cops blundering around and it all seems very cheesy. You half suspect something akin to the god awful Christmas special is coming, perhaps with Batman trying to turn a shop lifting kid onto the straight and narrow.

Of course it all takes a drastically sombre turn a few minutes in, as the comedy is temporarily abandoned in favour of showing us a group of children enslaved in the sewers of Gotham. We’re hitting hardcore territory here – for all of the ridiculous parts of the episode that are to follow, it’s hard to get away from the central point, that is, the forced servitude that young children are going through in absolutely horrific conditions, along with physical and emotional torture. These are innocent children living in a totally miserable existence, burned by the sun, with some excellent animation really capturing the despair evident. This did a great job of sucking me in to the peril of the episode.

The Sewer King is certainly a unique villain, half Captain Hook, half Fagan from Oliver Twist, 100% man, bad and dangerous to know. We will get no firm back-story, no expositions on aims and motivations, just a crazy man who could just be a very persuasive hobo, masquerading as a lord of the dank.

For all that, I still kind of like the Sewer King as a villain. He’s manic, he’s clearly crazy and there are weak plot elements all around him, but he’s still someone who gets Batman frowning, which not even the Joker seems capable of doing. In terms of being a bad guy the audience hates, he’s easily the most successful of all the villains we have seen thus far, by simple virtue of what he’s doing to children. The Sewer King is your child catcher/pied piper archetype, the creepy old man who steals children away, a very old fictional trope that everyone is familiar with. I think that trope is done effectively here, though from what I have read I seem to be in a minority on that score.

Michael Pataki, doing the voice work, adds a bit of life to the character, imbuing him with that completely irrational sense of self-justification, of genuine megalomania not too far from a Hitler-type vibe as the Sewer King rants and rails at the apparent betrayal of those who are supposed to owe everything to him. It’s good that Pataki does such a fine job or else the character could fall apart completely.

Bouncing ideas off of Alfred leads Batman to get involved. Having witnessed a “leprechaun” stealing jewels and departing into the undergrowth of Gotham, he goes in pursuit, in a short montage of shots. This is the detective side of Batman in a way we haven’t seen before – seeking out and following the trail of breadcrumbs. There is sense in this sequence of simple idle curiosity from Batman, with none of the anger or genuine concern that will come later. This is the detective calm, cool and collected, jumping into save the young boys life when he gets into trouble – with another train no less, a recurring motif.

This leads to the other half of the comedy element, as the young boy – known only as “Frog” – has to be looked after by Alfred while Batman does some unseen detective work. These bits are pure farce and they don’t work especially well, largely because they make no sense in the context of the show (see below). By now we’ve already entered into the grim seriousness of the Sewer King’s nightmarish underworld, so Alfred having to deal with a rowdy kid is an odd cutaway. Perhaps these bits are only included so we could get a scene where Batman warns the kid of guns, but that makes little sense in context either (again, see below).

I mean, Batman’s aversion to firearms is a classic staple of the character, to I suppose it is good to get that kind of thing onscreen and on the B:TAS record. In this episode, it also goes to show why Batman isn’t going to be hunting down the bad guy and killing him, even if he might actually want to. But that whole scene just seemed very forced and out there, largely because Bruce Wayne is one of the last people you would expect to have gun collection in his house. In the Batcave maybe, for research, but in Wayne Manor?

We move rapidly onto the closing act, as Batman is led right into the heart of the Sewer King’s realm, coming face to face with the horrible situation being perpetrated there. Wayne is rightfully disgusted and his anger – and the general tension – rises bit by bit as the rest of the episode goes along.

I suppose it does get somewhat ruined by the ridiculous sight of Batman fighting alligators, the kind of madcap idea that someone with very little time in the writers room must have come up when presented with a bad guy who lived in a sewer. There is no real tension in these fight scenes, even if the reptiles are deadly predators. Batman fighting them seems more like a circus act than anything else, and it becomes truly distracting when the caped crusader appears to actually kill one (see below). At least it is a unique action scene, and makes more sense than Batman fighting giant nutcracker robots or vagina plants.

So we get to the final fight with the Sewer King himself, who falls to an apparent grisly fate after his swinging about with Batman. That had my eyebrow raised sky high when Batman was eulogising over the villain being torn up by alligators, but I shouldn’t have been too surprised – this episode might have been dark but it was never going to be that dark, though the Sewer King’s escape simply raises more questions about his “pretties”. I’ll admit that it is kind of covered by the annoyingly arrogant tone and swagger as the bad guy laughs at Batman and flees, apparently scot free. If “The Underdwellers” has its faults, one thing it does very well is make the audience hate the bad guy.

Thing is, I half expected the episode to end there, with the Sewer King free to return one day but with his current plot foiled by Batman. But no, not this time. Whether it was because the writers couldn’t  leave the suddenly intense rivalry between the two so unresolved or weren’t interested in seeing the Sewer King return, the plot see’s Batman successfully pursue the Sewer King, almost letting him die at the hands of yet another train. But he relents and decides that the Sewer King will face authority’s justice. Batman might be a vigilante, but he has a code – a code that might see the likes of the Joker and others cause far more problems than they should have been allowed get away with, but a code that gives Batman an extra aura or responsibility, of civil justice and accountability. Batman is not the Punisher. Crime might be the focus of his crusade, but punishment is beyond his remit. His final words to the Sewer King are a verbally violent re-affirmation of that fact. We are left with no allusions that the Sewer King can consider himself lucky.

So, it’s a happy ending, as the beleaguered children are allowed to step back into the light and justice prevails. “The Underdwellers” thus has a sense of finality, in that the main villain is gone for good and his victims get to go back to relatively normal lives, all thanks to the unthanked Batman.

Tidbits/Quotes:

-Damn, the VA for the guy playing chicken on the train is just awful.

-After rescuing the two kids on the train, Batman towers above them. He’s almost twice their size. They appeared to be teens, so either Batman’s super tall, the punks are really short, or the animators made a mistake.

-Yeah, I do love the 1920’s/30’s theme of the B:TAS, like the criss-crossing lights and the old-timey cars.

-Some great interplay between Wayne and Alfred in the Batcave. “Some golf?” “Sounds boring” “In the Bahamas?” “Hot and boring”.

-The miserable lives of the children in the sewer is starkly illustrated in an extended scene showcasing just what the bad guy has them doing. It was really effective at building the horror.

-The animation model of the Sewer King matches his insane personality, a homeless man acting as if he is a monarch.

-I suppose they must resemble mini-Green Goblin’s, but I think the general model for the children is meant to invoke images of Robin, or even Batman himself, especially with the cape. Lampshaded very effectively late on  as Frog swings on a rope.

-Speaking of which, it might have been a cool idea to have Robin involved here in some capacity, as someone who can better relate to the kids in the sewer due to his age.

-A tiny cast for this one, just four people credited.

-So yeah, alligators. They match the sewer surroundings I suppose, but they are a very strange insert, especially seeing as how the Sewer King controls them.

-And then Batman kills one. At least that’s how it appears, it happens very fast. Snapping the jaw in that manner is a pretty brutal thing to do, and the animal instantly slumps unmoving. Very surprising to see in this show.

-Batman and the kid sharing a thumbs up is charming enough for the episode that it is, but very, very hooky.

-I do think Conroy struggles a bit throughout this episode in showing Batman as genuinely angry about what he sees. His final dressing down of the Sewer King is a lot better than the rest of the episode though.

-Yes, some bad animation in this episode. The train at the start looks out of place and blocky. Batman hits the same buttons on the computer over and over. The female cop appears to be walking around with her eyes closed while searching for Batman. The kids march into a wall of red when going to meet their “King” that looks really strange. Oh, and Batman has a super creepy smile when watching Alfred and Frog.

-And some inconsistencies too. Why does Bruce Wayne use the Batman voice while alone in the cave with Alfred? Where did the Sewer King find all these kids and why is there no outcry over their disappearance? Alfred claims he doesn’t know anything about raising kids? Why does Bruce Wayne have any guns in his house, let alone a collection? And where the hell did those alligators come from?

Overall, an enjoyable enough episode with a serious dark side, though the more farcical element could turn off others.

To see the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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4 Responses to Batman: The Animated Series – The Underdwellers

  1. Pingback: Batman: The Animated Series – Index | Never Felt Better

  2. Galdrack says:

    You misspelled Due as die in the note at the end about Robin.
    Also I’d assume the gun collection belonged to his parents and hence he’d want to leave it there.

  3. Pingback: Batman: The Animated Series – The Forgotten | Never Felt Better

  4. Pingback: Batman: The Animated Series – Be A Clown | Never Felt Better

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