Whether we’re willing to admit it to ourselves or not, Batman: The Animated Series is a kid’s show. That it aired in the afternoons after school (and likely on Saturday mornings at some point) meant that it was subject to the whims of Fox’s Standards and Practices department. We’ve seen in interviews and artbooks for the show over the years how S&P has shaped the show. Anytime the show is spelling out something that could be done more subtly, you can thank S&P. Sometimes, these changes made the show better – one shot in one of the Batman animated movies featured Joker killing a guy with a gun, but the push to get gun murder out of the story led to Joker gassing him and turning him into a mindless laughing fool. That’s more Joker-like. Other times, I think that frustration with S&P may have led directly to the creation of some of the show’s worse episodes, like the first of the two we’re looking at today: “The Under-Dwellers” and “P.O.V.”
I’m going to say it right out – this episode is a stinker. It’s definitely toward the bottom of the barrel, if it isn’t bonking its head already. Though that honor might belong to “I’ve Got Batman in my Basement.” We’ll see when we get there.
The Under-Dwellers is a combination of urban myths, PSAs, and the assumption that Art Deco Gotham’s underbelly must clearly be Dickensian in nature.
The episode starts with what can only be described as one of those G.I. Joe PSAs. Two kids are standing atop a moving train, and one reminds the other that the first one to jump is chicken. Of course, the nervous one jumps quickly. The other one gets his foot stuck in the cables atop the train car, requiring Batman to save him.
“The trouble with playing chicken is you’ll eventually get fried.”
“G. I. JOOOOOOE”
But those dopes aren’t the center of this show. No, it seems a man calling himself the Sewer King has been “taking in” children he deems unwanted, making them work in the dark and forbidding them from making even the slightest noise, even when that noise is in response to jamming oneself in the leg with a garden hoe. The Sewer King looks like a bad Captain Harlock cosplayer and runs his stinky kingdom like a Dickensian workhouse. The kids that aren’t toiling are out pickpocketing.
Batman grabs one of the kids, Frog, and takes him back to Wayne Manor where we get a round of wacky hijinks as Alfred attempts to tame this ill-adjusted young boy. Eventually,Frog finds his way into Bruce’s monument to colonialism, a room replete with African-style tribal shields and old-timey guns. The young man picks up a blunderbuss and waves it around just long enough to give Alfred a near heart attack before Batman snatches the firearm and reminds Frog that “Kids and guns don’t mix. Ever.”
This isn’t that far off.
“G. I. JOOOOOOE”
The adventure that follows has Batman sneaking into the Sewer King’s lair. He stops to capture some pics of the kids and says, “Evidence.” I feel like this has to be one of those S&P moments. The note was probably something like “Make it more obvious that he’s not just taking pictures of underground children for his personal photo album.”
Batman and the Sewer King battle, and here we see Batman take on a whole bunch of those full-size, cartoonishly-obedient alligators that live underneath every large city with temperate enough conditions that it snows at Christmas.
The last PSA moment comes when Batman has the Sewer King dead to rights and says “I don’t pass sentence – that’s for the courts.”
That’s a little closer to what we expect from Batman, but with all the other cheese in this episode, it’s hard not to look at it as more cheese. When Batman finally gets the kids out of the sewer, Frog finally speaks and drops this bombshell: “The light….” Uh oh – he can talk. I hope he doesn’t tell anyone about Batman’s opulent mansion and his butler named Alfred.
The whole episode feels painfully out of place both in the episodes we’ve covered here so far and in the overall tone of the series. There’s so much of it that feels so strange. The alligators are somehow more cartoonish than a literal clown. How was this dude collecting children unnoticed for so long with Batman patrolling the city? Long enough that kids lost their light acclimation and were conditioned not to speak. It’s one of those episodes that doesn’t hold up to even mild interrogation, and it’s such a disappointment to have it pop up in so early in the series – especially between two great episodes like “Pretty Poison” and…
Somehow, we made it out of the sewers in time to catch a great episode that references a great movie and fully introduces us to a main character. While the Sewer King managed to only show up in one issue of the Batman comics (and was promptly killed by Intergang), Renee Montoya was created for the Animated Series and has become a character all her own in the books.
The concept of P.O.V. is pretty simple: a sting operation on some mobsters goes sideways, and Internal Affairs is worried some of Gotham’s Finest are on the take.
What sets this episode apart from the ones we’ve watched so far is the emphasis on the cops and the different personalities of Gotham P.D. Batman is kind of a phantom until near the end of the episode. This episode is about Bullock and Montoya and it’s clearly setting up the two as being adversarial.
The title and format of the episode reference the Kurosawa classic film Rashomon, in which three different people all tell different, flawed versions of a story, only for the truth to be revealed by a fourth, uninvolved witness. P.O.V. takes a slightly different tack on that, though. It would be obvious to have the three cops tell their story and then have Batman reveal the truth somehow, but instead, the episode immediately sets Montoya up as the competent, no-bull cop she continues to play throughout the series.
We go through the three stories, and the rookie Wilkes clearly thinks Batman is a wizard, while Bullock sees Batman as a patsy upon which to pin his own failures resulting from his ego. In the end, Montoya is proven the reliable witness – and most competent cop – when she figures out the remaining questions of the case on her own, joins Batman fighting the gang, and proves her and the other two cops to be innocent.
This episode one-ups the previous one in just about every way. Where the Under-Dwellers was a cartoonish mess, P.O.V. is a hard-boiled cop story. It brings complexity into the world of Batman. The same way that Rashomon was meant to show that parties with something to lose can bend the truth, P.O.V. shows us three very different points of view – jaded corruption, genuine truthfulness, and naive inexperience – and how each of those can tell a different story of how something went down.
And where the previous episode was a bit of a visual mess, this one shows off the best Batman has to offer. The episode alternates between dark blue and vibrant orange as the story goes back and forth between the interrogation and the stories of the blazing inferno. The interrogation scenes make use of what little space they have by filling it with the IA investigator’s over-the-top interrogation style.
I love how bright the fire is throughout the episode and how often the animators played with the contrast between the two. An episode with so little Batman is tough to call crucial Batman viewing, but between the great art and the introduction of one of the show’s more popular characters, it’s worth going back to for another look.
You can skip the stinker that comes before it, though.
If you need more BTAS commentary now, we have every episode of the series ranked from the worst to the best!
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