“I’ve Got Batman In My Basement” (season 1, episode 13)
After a streak of complex, emotionally intense episodes, Batman: The Animated Series becomes the exact kind of show the creators tried to avoid, as writers Sam Graham and Chris Hubbell turn in the first complete turd of the series: “I’ve Got Batman In My Basement.” Ignoring some of the essential tenets of the series—avoid camp at all costs, create darker interpretations of the villains, keep the focus on Batman—Graham and Hubbell craft a story that is as juvenile as it is implausible. In the first appearance of the Penguin, poor Oswald Cobblepot is characterized as an utterly incompetent jewel thief with an avian fixation and not much else. The better episodes of this series humanize the villain in some way or at least give a modicum of a motive for their behavior, but Penguin's episode has neither; he occupies a role that could be filled by any villain with a gimmick-weapon and a hyper-intelligent animal sidekick.
I’d like to think Penguin’s pet vulture/henchman Scrap is a shout out to the Mad Scientist’s crow in the first Fleischer Superman short, but the laziness of this script suggests that it’s more of a happy coincidence. Actually, an unhappy coincidence, because watching Batman wrestle a vulture is one of the stupidest moments of this series. It’s a bird, Batman. You fight serial killers and ninjas on a daily basis. This really shouldn’t be that difficult. B:TAS has a few recurring animal sidekicks—Catwoman’s kitty Isis, Joker’s pet hyenas Bud and Lou—but Scrap thankfully makes only one appearance as the rest of the series tries to recover Penguin’s character from his abysmal introduction. One of the many problems with Penguin’s characterization is that it is centered on a gimmick rather than any kind of emotional motivation. With a lair in a birdseed factory (Gotham has a factory for everything, doesn’t it?), an assortment of poultry-related puns, and a Faberge egg bounty, Penguin has the bird thing down, but beyond that, he’s an empty shell of a character.
The episode begins with two of Penguin’s henchmen stealing the Vonalster Fabergé egg, and as Batman interrupts their escape, Scrap comes to their rescue. Distracting Batman long enough for the men to get away with the egg, the bat/bird fight is pathetic, and it’s only the beginning of the stupidity. Enter Sherman, a wannabe child detective, and Roberta, the wise-cracking Robin to his Batman. While being bullied by his neighbors, Sherman sees Scrap with his binoculars and, deducing that “a vulture in Gotham City is a mystery worth checking out,” rallies with Roberta to follow the bird back to Penguin’s hideout. They sneak into the condemned factory and spy from the cat walks, apparently requiring Sherman to pour birdseed at the same time for some inexplicable reason, when Penguin finally appears.
From the first moment he opens his mouth, Cobblepot is a joke, letting out a hilariously campy squawk to call his pet to him. As Penguin dotes over his bejeweled prize, Batman appears to take back the egg and save Sherman and Roberta, who have foolishly started a conveyor belt prepared to grind them to death. After rescuing the kids, Batman is hit with knockout gas from the Penguin’s umbrella, and he collapses in the Batmobile before he is able to get away with the egg. We’ve seen Batman survive exposure to gas for longer periods of time in earlier episodes, but the writers ignore that tidbit because it isn’t convenient to their horrible plot. Sherman rushes to help Batman, with Roberta reluctantly obeying his commands, and once they get into the Batmobile, the episode officially switches into full-on kiddie show mode, as our hero is relegated to supporting status by the children, who are as incompetent as they are irritating.
More than anything, “I’ve Got Batman In My Basement” is just plain stupid, and the kids are forced to act idiotically in order to make the plot marginally believable. After escaping in the Batmobile, Sherman takes Batman to his house, keeping him in his basement. When Batman momentarily regains consciousness, he only has the strength to utter two words: “capsule” and “visor.” Sherman and Roberta missed that day of vocab, though, because they’re struck dumb. The boy who could tell that Scrap was a South American vulture by its wingspan and the size of its head can’t figure out what capsule and visor means? Some shitty detective work right here, folks. It’s not until the bullies from earlier begin playing around in the Batmobile that Sherman finds the antitoxin capsules in the visor. That extra delay allows Batman to stay weakened for longer and lets the kids continue in the spotlight, as they guard Sherman’s home from an intruding Penguin. What follows is the B:TAS version of Home Alone, with the kids using various objects from Batman’s tool belt to stall Penguin and his men until our hero is back to his old fighting self. While watching kids protect Batman by using all his cool gadgets and driving the Batmobile around is standard wish-fulfillment for any child watching the series, it doesn’t make for riveting television, especially when the quality of the writing and animation is so poor.
The most popular rogues represent larger themes, and their conflicts with Batman reveal our hero’s opinions on particular ideas, creating a deeper relationship between Batman and his villains than most heroes. Joker represents complete insanity, Two-Face the duality of the human psyche, Catwoman romance, Clayface vanity, and so on. It’s unfortunate that it takes so long for the writers to find a theme for Penguin, but Cobblepot’s potential is explored later in “Birds Of A Feather,” tapping into his personal insecurities. When he puts on the guise of a “legitimate” businessman as owner of The Iceberg Lounge further down the line, he finally becomes a Penguin that should be familiar to Batman fans. Until then, we’re stuck with a buffoon that inserts scrambled egg jokes in Shakespeare sonnets.
Penguin’s backstory from Batman Returns is rife with dramatic potential, but the parallels between Penguin and Batman go unexplored in B:TAS. Cobblepot, born into wealth but abandoned by his parents because of his physical deformities, puts on the appearance of a gentleman, but his mind is as warped as his body, preventing him from ever entering high society. Ultimately, the only club that takes Penguin is the one that he owns. Compare this to Batman, a perfect physical specimen with two loving parents, yet similarly scarred by tragedy. Their circumstances push them in two very different directions, but exploring the similarities between the characters adds depth to the conflict.
This episode’s focus on children was the perfect opportunity for some villain pathos, but it is ignored in favor of juvenile hijinx. Frank Paur’s direction doesn’t help matters, lacking the cinematic flair of the other directors and turning in a product as bland in visuals as it is in narrative. Compare the Batmobile sequence in “I’ve Got Batman In My Basement” with the one next episode. The former looks like something off a Sega Genesis cartridge, while the latter is actually a dynamic piece of visual storytelling. There’s nothing spectacular about the action in this episode. Bird wrestling aside, the big fight between Batman and Penguin is a screwdriver-umbrella fencing match, which is intended to be cute but is just really goddamn lame. B:TAS should never be lame. Thankfully, “I’ve Got Batman In My Basement” is about to get shot with a freeze gun and shattered into a thousand inconsequential little pieces, as Paul Dini and Bruce Timm erase the memory of this dreadful episode with their Emmy-winning “Heart Of Ice.”
“Heart Of Ice” (season 1, episode 14)
The opening sequence ends, and Eric Radomski’s title card appears. A simple black background with scattered snowflakes, but something is different. The snowflakes are moving. From the very first moment, this episode is alive. The flute and bells of Todd Hayen’s orchestra play their music box melody, as a blonde ballerina spins into frame, revealing the snowflakes to be small pieces of plastic inside a snow globe. A mechanical voice speaks: “This is how I’ll always remember you. Surrounded by winter. Forever young. Forever beautiful. Rest well, my love.” Poetic and crushing, these first lines are the driving force of the entire episode, setting the tone immediately. With the force of a vicious blizzard, “Heart Of Ice” blankets the preceding episode in a thick layer of glistening snow, pleasing to the eye and frigid to the touch. As the camera pans away from the snow globe, the voice continues, as the speaker is revealed: “The monster who took you from me will soon learn that revenge is a dish best served,” pause for the piercing red eyes of Freeze’s visor, “…cold.” In less than a minute, Paul Dini has done more for the character of Mr. Freeze than 30 years of comic book continuity, and all he had to do was look at the character’s core temperature.
In reinventing Mr. Freeze (Michael Ansara), Paul Dini looked at what it truly means to be cold, in both a physical and emotional sense. A scientist employed by GothCorp, “The People Company,” Victor Fries developed cryogenic freezing technology that could save his terminally ill wife Nora. When GothCorp CEO Ferris Boyle (Mark Hamill) shuts down the project, the timid Victor pulls a gun on him but is knocked into a table of chemicals before he can use it. Exposure to the chemicals creates Mr. Freeze, an emotionless avenger that can only survive in subzero temperature, hence the suit. Mike Mignola’s sleek design for Mr. Freeze immediately separates him from previous iterations of the character, with a mechanical exoskeleton inspired by the pulp robots of the 1950’s and lifeless red eyes that pierce in stark contrast to the primarily blue color palette of the episode. This is no campy ice clown with a German accent; Mr. Freeze is a frozen ghost of a man, with the sole purpose of destroying Ferris Boyle for the sins of his past.
Both the script and direction are completely committed to the cold theme, and director Bruce Timm bathes the episode in cool colors that give extra significance to warmer colors. The pink dress of Freeze’s revolving ballerina gives her warmth that Nora’s frozen body lacks. If the eyes are the window to the soul, Freeze’s red visor reveals the burning fire of vengeance that lives within the costume. Eyes have a lot of significance this episode, and Boyle’s are the same icy blue shade that appears throughout, revealing the cold mentality of GothCorp’s CEO. This is a man who justifies his crimes against Fries by shamelessly admitting, “That ‘People Company’ line is great PR, but when the wage slaves start acting like they own the place, it’s time to pull the plug.” Scenes like the one with Bruce Wayne in Boyle’s office show how B:TAS’s emphasis on Bruce’s business life is a major boon, opening opportunities to explore real world issues like corporate hypocrisy that bring an extra sense of maturity to the story. Like “Two-Face,” one of the villains is fantastic, and the other is just a regular man, but it’s the second that is truly terrifying, revealing the capacity for evil by the men that don’t wear it plainly on their face.
In the middle of an August heat wave, Mr. Freeze raids GothCorp plants to gather equipment for a giant freezing ray to be used on the evening of a humanitarian benefit honoring Boyle. Batman intercepts Freeze at the location of the final component, but he is unprepared for the brutality of Freeze’s weapon, luckily wrapping his cape around himself when he is encased in ice. Freeze escapes with the loot but leaves behind one of his henchmen whose legs were hit by his freeze gun. It’s the perfect moment of chilly indifference from Mr. Freeze, and one of a few “damn, that’s cold” moments this episode. Cold isn’t a gimmick but a state of mind for Mr. Freeze, and in Batman’s case, it becomes a physical ailment after breaking out of the ice. In both instances, cold ends up humanizing the characters, emphasizing the tragedy of Victor Fries’ story and revealing a vulnerable side of Batman we haven’t seen before.
“Heart of Ice” is a remarkable episode in terms of plot structure, giving both Bruce Wayne and Batman significant antagonists while expounding on the series’ core values of vengeance and justice. If plot structure is viewed geometrically, these connections between characters and ideas are the lines that define the shape, with the unreachable goal of creating a perfect circle. That perfect circle is reality. An episode of B:TAS has only 20 minutes to create this shape, and some episodes like “I’ve Got Batman In My Basement” and “The Underdwellers” fall flat because they don’t make the connections. What is Batman’s emotional connection to Penguin? There is none. What is his emotional connection to Mr. Freeze? Pity. Sadness. Anger. When he sees the videotape of Fries’ accident, all he can utter is, “My god.” Watching that videotape is like watching two people get gunned down in an alley. It’s another tragedy that Batman couldn’t stop, the creation of another monster where there was once a man. Boyle, Freeze, Bruce, and Batman are all connected on a personal level, with the cold theme serving as a throughline for the entire episode. Compare that to last episode, where there were almost no connections between any of the characters at all.
This is the first episode directed by producer and co-creator Bruce Timm, and time constraints required the episode to be a rush job with a variety of different storyboarders. The quality of “Heart Of Ice” goes to show just how strong Dini and Timm’s vision must have been from the beginning, because this episode is one of the most visually exciting episodes of the series thus far. The mini-movie feel is in full effect, and there’s a lot of Fleischer influence, from the balance of Bruce Wayne/Batman scenes to the retro sci-fi influence on the technology. The prominence of cold and winter imagery that really sets the tone for the episode, with the image of falling snow always appearing during the moments of high tragedy, a constant reminder of the ballerina from the beginning of the episode. Unlike a lot of Batman’s villains, I don’t think that Victor Fries has been completely replaced by his villainous alter ego. His devotion to his wife keeps Victor Fries alive, and as he sits in his subzero jail cell at the end of the episode, he holds onto hope that one day his wife’s warm hand will reach out for his. Until then, the cold glass of a snow globe will have to do.
- Batman Beatdown: As one of Freeze’s henchmen sneaks up on Batman from behind, Bat’s fist flies up instinctively, knocking out the thug with a nice backhand. Sneak attack!
- Penguin voice Paul Williams was a successful songwriter on top of acting, perhaps committing his ultimate act of villainy by creating The Carpenters’ miserable “Rainy Days And Mondays.” He did co-write “Rainbow Connection,” though, so it’s hard to hate the guy.
- “And that’ll get you five years… with good behavior.”
- Is “Sherwood” supposed to be an insult?
- Why are there so many missiles in the Batmobile?
- Ah, the good old conveyor belt of death. Sherman definitely hits the “Off” switch when it turns on.
- Sherman talks about the Batcave like it is public knowledge. Pretty sure it’s not.
- Scrap is some sort of super-vulture. He knows how to disconnect the phones in your house!
- Roberta has some seriously awful jokes. She’s miserable.
- As a kid, I loved pretending I had the Penguin’s umbrella whenever I carried one. That usually meant acting like it was a gun and using it to push elevator buttons.
- “Get out! Now!” Awesome delivery from Conroy, as Batman helps Sherman and Roberta escape the factory. He sounds like a really pissed off parent.
- The frost around Mr. Freeze’s helmet is an airbrush effect that Spectrum studios added without being asked.
- Ferris Boyle. Victor Fries. Get it?
- “The cold eyes of vengeance are upon you, Boyle.”
- Mr. Freeze kicking the top of the fire hydrant off and riding the stream of frozen water is so awesome.
- There sure are a lot of angles for Victor Fries’s personal video camera.
- “You beg? In my nightmares I see my Nora behind the glass begging to me with frozen eyes. How I've longed to see that look frozen on you!”
- Boyle gets freeze-rayed right in the crotch. That’s gotta hurt.
- In the commentary, Timm mentions the reverse Bat-sign that occasionally appears on Batman’s chest with a yellow bat on a black background. See if you can spot them in this episode. I’ll be looking for them from now on.
- When Batman activates the chemical bath and Freeze turns on the freeze ray, the fast cuts of the various elements charging up is straight out of Superman.