You people just came to me (I’ve Got Batman in My Basement)

Near Apocalpyse of '09 LogoSorry this is late, I screwed up the queuing.

It’s September 30, 1992, two days after “Two-Face, Part Two.” Little has changed in the world.

On TV we have “I’ve Got Batman in My Basement,” which oddly enough has a poor reputation, with no less a figure within the DCAU than Bruce Timm reportedly calling the script “terrible.” Yet this is exactly what every kid watching supposedly wants, according to the power-fantasy model: to be the hero.

Sherman, the boy detective to whom the titular basement belongs, is an interesting juxtaposition of two characters. As a child detective who aids Batman, he immediately recalls Tim Drake, the third Robin, who began as precisely that–a child detective who deduced the identity of first Robin, and then Batman, but kept it a secret until he felt Batman needed his help. However, the pair of a nerdy boy menaced by bullies and his tomboyish partner Roberta, who stands up to the bullies, recalls child detective Encyclopedia Brown and his friend Sally, the stars of the Encyclopedia Brown children’s stories by Donald J. Sobol.

Either way, the pair rescue Batman after he falls in a fight with the Penguin. It might seem odd that the Penguin is the single villain Batman has fought so far to truly defeat him, but this episode depicts the Penguin as fully Batman’s equal, an erudite, cultured thief who commands a powerful bird ally and whose umbrella contains as many lethal gadgets as Batman’s utility belt contains countermeasures.

But it is Sherman who becomes the micro-Batman, stealing him away to an underground lair to recover his strength after the Penguin lays him out with poison gas. Unfortunately, the Penguin eventually tracks him down, and Sherman responds by recruiting the assistance of Roberta and his two bullies to fight the Penguin and his thugs, holding them at bay and briefly capturing the Penguin.

And there the empowerment fantasy should end, right? Sherman becomes a hero, gets a nod of approval from Batman, and wins the respect of his bullies. But no–the Penguin breaks free, captures Sherman and Roberta, and his thugs capture the two bullies. The Penguin stands over the unconscious Batman, about to kill him with a blade from his umbrella–when, of course, Batman reveals that he has been faking for the last few minutes, and beats the Penguin fairly easily, fencing his blade with a screwdriver before kicking him into some shelving.

What we are seeing, in other words, is once again Batman’s role as the protector of children, which is to say the audience. Sherman was utterly outclassed by one of Batman’s least physically dangerous villains, and would likely have died if not for Batman’s intervention. Other than initially following Batman and taking him home, Sherman’s help to Batman is all defined by and dependent on Batman. It is Batman who tells him where to find the pill that cures the poison, and Batman’s utility belt that slows the Penguin down long enough for Batman to recover. In the end, Sherman is helpless alone, and gladly retreats after his adventure to safer sorts of detective work, finding neighbor’s lost pets and tracking down stolen newspapers, aided by Roberta and the two (presumably now ex-) bullies.

The only other sense in which Sherman serves as a savior or protector of Batman is in protecting his identity. Twice, other characters seek to unmask Batman, first Roberta and then one of the bullies. Sherman stops them both times, the first time citing client confidentiality as an important part of being a detective. That’s true as far as it goes, but more importantly this reveals one of the few roles the non-heroic have in a superhero fantasy: that of the secret-keeper. Alfred is the primary figure with that role where Batman is concerned, and serves as a good example: someone the hero trusts, who can keep the secret of their identity, and thus be permitted access to greater knowledge of the hero. In return, this gives the hero someone to talk to and confide in, a connection to the people they protect, and thereby a motivation for that protection–the secret-keeper is second only to the love interest in terms of the frequency with which they are menaced by villains.

Even though Sherman doesn’t know Batman’s secret identity, he still places himself in the position of protecting it, in exchange for getting Batman’s protection from criminals like the Penguin. This is the essential bargain underlying the protector fantasy: the hero trusts the secret-keeper to protect his identity, and the secret-keeper trusts the hero to protect their life.

Just to make sure we got that Sherman doesn’t want to be Batman, he wants to look up to him, at the end of the episode he introduces Batman to his mother, and asks if Batman is single. The implication is obvious: Sherman wants Batman to be his father.

Contemplated as a father-figure, Batman stands revealed as a very traditional model. He is stern, emotionally unavailable, disciplined, and demanding, with a strong moral code that he enforces using frankly brutal methods. He is a distant, powerful lawgiver and protector, exactly the kind of father implied by the sentence, “Just wait until your father gets home.” (That Sherman’s mother dresses like a 1950s sitcom housewife of the sort that would say precisely that line just reinforces this.)

But that’s very much the protector fantasy in a nutshell. There’s no particular reason to gender the protector, but nonetheless this is exactly what the superhero is like: a powerful figure who does good, protects us, trusts us to keep his secret, but never actually opens up to us or needs us. The hero is there when we need them, and gone as soon as we do not, a pair of legs in a basement window that turn and walk away after a job well done.

No, this episode isn’t terrible. It’s just not the empowerment fantasy people keep mistakenly expecting superheroes to be.


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4 thoughts on “You people just came to me (I’ve Got Batman in My Basement)

  1. I completely agree that for most of the comic book-reading and cartoon-watching audience, the protector fantasy is correct.

    However, I have to say that superheroes, personally for me, are an empowerment fantasy. For a social justice activist, it would be awesome to be an actual Social Justice Warrior that kicked ass and saved the day. Going through intense ninja training or even being irradiated would still be a hell of a lot easier than overturning embedded social structures that require decades of changing people’s minds and political reform. Having a cape and suit would be so much simpler.

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  2. I will get to this particular fantasy later… But I would posit that you’re actually fantasizing about being a superVILLAIN, who are the real empowerment fantasies. After all, you said it yourself: what you’re fantasizing about is the power to overthrow the established social structures, instead of the slow plodding work of following the rules.

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  3. Hm, not sure what that says about me. Although that is what The Doctor does all of them time (without violence), but he’s often of ambiguous morality.

    In retrospect, I think it’s not so much the fantasy of overthrowing the structures as not having them be problems in the first place. The fantasy of having all problems be simple enough that they can be solved with simple violence. I think that’s something that makes me a pacifist in most circumstances – I think it would be easier certainly if things could be solved with violence, but I know that’s almost always the worst option, morally and practically. But despite my philosophical leanings, I really wish I knew my way around a sword, bow and arrow.

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