Story by Tom Ruegger
Teleplay by Jules Dennis & Richard Mueller
Directed by Frank Paur
The sixth episode of Batman: The Animated Series features a remarkably poignant story and pits The Dark Knight against a particularly “gruesome man” – The Sewer King. The villain, running a child slavery ring in the sewers, marks his first appearance in this episode and has gone on to appear in only one DC Comic book. It’s interesting to note that he never went on to appear in additional DC Comics stories (he’s killed in 52 issue 25), especially considering his depraved nature. The Sewer King is a particular kind of evil that would make for a great adversary to Batman; perhaps maybe he’s too much of an evil character thus enforcing the Batman to deal with him and ensure he never were to hurt again. Something worth thinking about when watching “The Underdwellers.” I must say that the story and teleplay handles the subject matter and reaction to child slavery in an incredible way. It’s hard to finish this episode and not love Batman.
“The Underdwellers” opens to two young boys playing on top of a moving train. One of the boys calls the other a “chicken” for jumping off in fear, but soon realizes his foot is stuck as the train approaches a tunnel. Batman swoops in, saves the child, and leaps off right before they would be killed. On the ground and off to safety, Batman warns the children of the dangers of what they were doing; something to the effect that if you play chicken, someone is bound to get “fried.” He disappears into the night and it’s a perfect setup for establishing a particularly overlooked aspect of Batman. Most forget that Batman is very much a street level hero. While he is a founding member of the Justice League and friends with Superman (none of this has happened yet in the series), he isn’t always thwarting the plans of the Joker or Poison Ivy. Many times Batman patrols the streets from up high as “a silent protector, a watchful guardian, a Dark Knight.” The last episode to really offer this presentation was “Christmas with the Joker” when Batman and Robin do one last patrol of Gotham before calling it a night. I very much like this aspect of him and it’s reminiscent of Marvel’s Daredevil, who in many ways, is very much like DC Comics’ Batman.
While Batman watches over Gotham, a woman has her purse snapped from what she calls “a leprechaun.” It turns out to just be a young child who heads into the sewers. For the next significant part of “The Underdwellers”, the episode becomes primarily reliant on the musical score by Shirley Walker and the great animation by Bruce Timm and Eric Rodomski. We even have a small scene featuring Alfred listening to Brahm. Ironically, The Dark Knight Trilogy, Man of Steel, and co-composer of the upcoming Batman v. Superman, Hans Zimmer, has admitted to being inspired by Brahm. (His score for Interstellar is very much inspired by the German composer.) We see the young child navigate the sewers until we get to see this network of silent children at work. It’s a horrifying portrait and to make the situation even scarier, we are introduced to the villain – The Sewer King. Voiced by the late Michael Pataki, the villain has a sinister and cruel presence. His pirate like garb and harsh demeanor frightens the slave children and he punishes one particular child for speaking by placing him in locked room with lights. It’s particularly cruel as the children all live underground and have yet to see the light.
Through detective work, Batman locates the hidden entrance for the sewer after following the “leprechaun.” Through various gadgets, he makes his way past a hidden sign that reads “Beware The Sewer King.” He finds the particular boy and rescues him. They make their way to the Batmobile and Batman has Alfred take care of the boy. While Batman continues his work, we get a comical and cute scene featuring Alfred taking care of the underdweller. The playful tone then switches to a more ominous one as the child, later on, makes his way to Bruce’s armory and pulls out a gun to play with. Alfred is startled and Bruce as Batman quickly shows up. He grabs the gun and sternly warns “children and guns do not mix.” It’s a rare moment that stands out as we rarely see Batman upset or angered, at least not in the sense that we see him depicted here. The scene works so well because we connect with Bruce’s disdain and hatred of firearms. After all, he witnessed his parents murder at the hands of a man wielding a gun. It’s a rational fear and object that he would hate; clearly represented here, we get an unforgettable characterization of Bruce/Batman.
Batman returns to the sewers with the boy, and they set out to save the children. He’s soon stopped as he fights with alligators that the Sewer King unleashes on him. They fight and the young boy swings in and helps save the other boys, along with Batman. It’s very cute when we see him give Batman a quick thumps up and Batman returns the gesture. This is the Batman that I love and the kind of hero he is in saving the children places him at the very top. He nearly is killed when fighting the Sewer King, but he’s resilient and refuses to give up. The Sewer King falls to what looks like his death and Batman says “a gruesome fate for a gruesome man.” We see the Sewer King fall into a pit of alligators; it looks as if he was eaten.
However, the Sewer King is not killed and Batman soon is chasing him through the subway tunnels. During the chase, the Sewer King falls on the tracks, but Batman rescues him. The King, clearly perplexed, asks why he saved him and Batman tells him that he was “sorely tempted” to let him die. The children are then rescued from the slave operation by the G.C.P.D. and we see Batman confidently watching from the shadows.
“The Underdwellers” happens to be one of my favorite episodes of Batman: The Animated Series. While when I originally viewed it years ago (2004), I didn’t enjoy as much as it didn’t feature a major Batman rogue. In the years since that viewing, the fifth episode has very much grown on me. It’s the perfect representation of the series that Bruce Timm and Eric Rodomski created. It’s not just a cartoon or an animated series; Batman is moving art. High art. The handling of the story, especially with the child slavery aspect, is gut-wrenching and disturbing. The Sewer King does not have any redeeming qualities and is evil with no room for debate. The complexity of how Batman deals with him, especially his consideration of letting him die is remarkable. The “sorely tempted” line will always stand out in my mind and I’m positive it will in yours, as well.
“The Underdwellers” gets five stars and is a highlight of the first season. And, as always, stay tuned for more Batman: The Animated Series.