“I’ve Got Batman in My Basement” is an apt description of unlucky episode 13, both figuratively and literally. The Caped Crusader eventually finds himself in a boy’s basement as part of a story many levels below its predecessors in quality.
Why So Subpar?
This installment has most of the qualities of mediocre Saturday morning fare that the creative team had intended to avoid. A boy detective named Sherman Grant is central to the plot. That idea is not a problem in itself; kids often pretend they are detectives or spies. However, in this story, Grant is occasionally a precocious kid Sherlock with a vast store of knowledge, but sometimes incapable of making the simplest of deductions.
“I’ve Got Batman in My Basement” is also a poor introduction for the Penguin (’70s songwriter and veteran character actor Paul Williams). At the studio’s behest, the Penguin was designed to resemble Danny DeVito’s portrayal in Tim Burton’s “Batman Returns” (1992). But as written here, he has none of the whimsy or pathos of Burton’s take the character. Instead, he is somewhat of a dandy, wisecracking and occasionally alluding to Shakespeare. There is little––aside from the trademark umbrella weapons––that make him distinctively the Penguin. Instead, the writers gave him command over a vulture, which supplies some action, but little else.
None of this was a secret to the creative team. The kiddie-tone script was written before producer Alan Burnett had a firm grip on the direction of the series. In 1993, co-creator Bruce Timm dumped on the episode in the fanzine Animato!:
“I can’t even watch that show. It’s the epitome of what we don’t want to do with Batman. Strangely enough kids like it. The script came in and it was terrible. Normally, I tell the director to do what he can to make it interesting, and nobody could figure out a way to make it interesting. The storyboard artists didn’t care, and it shows.”
Our drama begins with a nighttime heist of a Fabergé egg by two goons who access the building by posing as window-washers. Batman confronts the goons on the roof of the building, but is attacked by a giant vulture, allowing the goons to escape. The only clue left behind is a handful of birdseed. (Given the presence of the giant vulture, this is a pretty thin reed, even for Batman’s detective skills.)
The next day, in Gotham’s suburbs, Sherman Grant shows his “junior detective” kit to his friend Roberta. They are bullied by two boys named Frank and Nick, who seize the toy set’s binoculars. Frank sees a large bird he thinks is as a hawk. Sherman, taking back the binoculars, identifies the bird as a giant South American vulture, down to its wingspan. Sherman, with Roberta in tow, bicycles off to follow the unusual bird.
The vulture flies into an abandoned birdseed factory, where the goons await their boss. The kids, hiding in a loft, see the Penguin arrive. Sherman instantly recognizes the stolen Vonalster Fabergé egg from the newspaper. The vulture discovers the kids, but its attack is foiled by Batman with a net. The Dark Knight grabs the egg, then throws a switch that buries the Penguin and his henchmen in a pile of birdseed.
The kids try to escape but activate a conveyor belt that propels them toward dangerous machinery. An annoyed Batman saves the kids, harshly shouting for them to “Get out… NOW!” Meanwhile, the Penguin has extricated himself from the birdseed. As Batman approaches, the Penguin uses his umbrella to fire a gas bomb which envelops Batman in a toxic cloud.
The Caped Crusader staggers out of the factory and collapses into the Batmobile. The kids follow him, sealing the car’s canopy before the Penguin and his gang can get at them. As the villains climb on the canopy, Sherman figures out how to start the Batmobile. With Roberta working the gas pedal, the kids careen away from the scene, eventually throwing the baddies off and permitting their escape.
Batman becomes semi-conscious on the couch in Sherman’s basement. He manages to say the words “capsule” and “visor,” but Sherman has difficulty understanding him. Roberta thinks they should contact the police, but Sherman insists on protecting “his client’s confidentiality.”
Mrs. Grant appears at the top of the basement stairs to ask what the kids are doing, but is reassured that they are simply playing. The relieved mother announces she is going to work.
Meanwhile, Frank and Nick discover the Batmobile hidden under a pile of cardboard boxes. Sherman goes outside to confront Frank and Nick. They discover anti-toxin capsules under the Batmobile’s visor, which causes Sherman to interpret Batman’s message. Sherman turns toward his house, only to be attacked by the vulture (which apparently spotted the Batmobile).
Sherman and the boys run inside, joining Roberta in the basement. When Frank and Nick discover Batman on the couch, Sherman stops them from unmasking him.
Keeping Villains At Bay
The Penguin and his gang arrive, cutting the phone lines before entering the house. The three villains are kept at bay for a time by traps reminiscent of John Hughes’ “Home Alone” (1990), devised from items in Batman’s utility belt.
Nevertheless, the gang eventually corners the kids in the basement. The Penguin retrieves the Fabergé egg, then approaches Batman with an umbrella-handle knife.
In the knick of time, Batman recovers enough to repel the Penguin. After knocking the goons unconscious, Batman grabs a screwdriver to engage in a knife fight with the Penguin, soon overcoming the waddling mastermind.
Mrs. Grant returns and is upset about the damage upstairs. She descends into the basement and learns what happened, calming herself long enough to ask whether Batman is single.
In the epilogue, Sherman posts newspaper clippings about the capture of the Penguin on his wall. He also has recruited Nick and Frank into the ranks of his junior detective agency.
The Penguin is obviously not a physical villain, so it is doubly strange that the episode climaxes with a direct fight between him and Batman, even a weakened Batman.
Yet for all of the episode’s flaws, the silver lining to “I’ve Got Batman in My Basement” may be its treatment of Batman as seen through the eyes of children. Given the tenor of the Batman comics and movies, it is a perspective which might only be found in an animated series. And that may be why––to Bruce Timm’s bafflement––kids like it.