With all these Marvel and DC movies hitting the big screen in the last 10 years or so, we’re watching some of our favorite source material being mined for scripts and concepts. And usually, it’s a one-directional affair. The stories in the comics influence the movies and rarely is it the opposite. But in the case of Batman: The Animated Series, some of the ideas created by the writing staff were too good to let them stay within the confines of the cartoon. Harley Quinn might be the first one people think of in a case like this, but Mr. Freeze is, without question, the best.
“Heart of Ice”
I’ll just say it straight up: it’s all downhill from here, because this is the best episode of Batman: The Animated Series. That’s okay, though, because it’s really, really good. There are still lots of excellent episodes to go – but it doesn’t get better than this. This is the quintessential Batman story, and even the Television Academy recognized it, awarding the episode a Daytime Emmy for outstanding writing. And one look at the credits tells you why. “Heart of Ice” is directed by Bruce W. Timm himself and written by Paul Dini – both legendary creators in the Batman community, catapulted to that status by this very episode.
But really, everything about this episode is a cut above an already excellent show.
“Heart of Ice” introduces us to Mr. Freeze, a pale-skinned man trapped in a suit of steel and glass, mourning the loss of a loved one and vowing revenge. In the middle of a record-breaking heatwave, Gotham reporter Summer Gleeson stands in a snowdrift – one of many in a string of crimes. The report cuts to a word from Ferris Boyle, the “humanitarian CEO” of GothCorp – voiced by Mark Hamill – claiming that he has no idea who could be targeting him.
Batman is already on the case, though. He knows what the polar prowler is up to and where he’s going to hit next. Batman is on the scene just as Mr. Freeze is getting there, and we get our first glimpse and just what a great-looking episode this is as the Batmobile charges on in pursuit of Freeze’s van. As the sleek auto spins out of control, the episode spares no expense at showing us every angle of the car. It’s a gorgeously animated sequence and it’s clear the team put a huge effort into this episode in particular.
We also see quickly that Mr. Freeze is a formidable opponent for Batman. His ice gun isn’t a toy, and he seems well-versed in how to use it. When the robbery is over, Freeze gets away, leaving Batman to tend to one of his cronies left behind with a serious case of “ice leg.”
After this, we get to meet who we quickly figure out his the real villain – that humanitarian CEO from before. People get candid when they think the person they’re talking to is on their side, and we learn quickly how much Boyle’s private persona differs from his public one. Also, we learn that Bruce Wayne apparently carries a hat? Since when does Bruce Wayne wear a hat?!
But this is a fast-moving episode. With Freeze’s cold ray on the verge of completion, Batman is racing to discover the villain’s identity and origin in an effort to understand him.
The episode makes an interesting choice here in having us discover Freeze’s re-designed origin alongside Batman. If you’re familiar with the modern Mr. Freeze, you might not know that this episode redefined the character. The original Mr. Freeze, called Mr. Zero at one point, wasn’t named Victor Fries and had the rather simple origin of being a criminal who had it out for Batman following an encounter where the caped crusader came out on top. The character first appeared in 1959, and it was over 30 years later when Paul Dini and Bruce Timm would turn him into one of Batman’s most tragic and sympathetic villains.
And while many elements of Mr. Freeze have stayed steady throughout the years – a preference for sub-zero environments, often wearing a glass helmet of some kind – this episode crystalized a couple more iconic elements. First is the voice, provided by actor Michael Ansara. The voice is cold and emotionless on its own, but it’s made especially haunting with the post processing that gives it that eerie vibration. And then there’s the outfit. Timm pulled in artist Mike Mignola – who would later go on to create Hellboy – to design Freeze’s costume. It can’t be a coincidence that Freeze’s helmet is the same shape as the snowglobe in which the statuette dances at the beginning and end of the episode.
There’s also a fascinating three-way mirror show happening here between Freeze, Boyle, and Batman/Bruce Wayne. Both of the CEOs have two sides to them – public and private personals that reveal very different people. Boyle and Fries – yes, that’s right, boil and freeze – are mirror images, too. Boyle is a warm, expressive man, charismatic and likable – but ultimately this is a front for a whole lot of nothing. Freeze, meanwhile, is cold and suppressed, but he’s bubbling over with very real and understandable rage and pain, despite his insistence that he no longer feels anything.
In the end, it’s Freeze and Batman who are more alike than anyone else. Freeze’s plight is sympathetic. We can’t help but think that it wouldn’t be the worst thing if Boyle turned into an ice cube, and it’s clear Batman thinks the same thing. After taking huge pains to care for a frozen criminal, Batman simply walks away from Boyle, frozen to the ground, with a simple “Goodnight, humanitarian,” leaving him shivering.
As Batman checks in on Freeze in his cell at Arkham Asylum, it’s hard not to see it as him looking in on another version of himself – a kindred spirit taken down a crueler path. Both characters speak of vengeance and see themselves as personifications of it, but express it in very different ways.
There are tons of great details throughout the episode. Mr. Freeze speaks almost entirely in puns, which gives some levity to the tragic story while somehow not undercutting it. The tinkling music calls to mind tragic and lonely characters like Edward Scissorhands. When Batman drops in on Freeze’s cold ray, he gives one of Freeze’s goons a no-look backhand that has to be a reference to the 1989 Burton Batman film.
This episode really has it all. We see Batman as a detective, a fighter, and a hero, and we see him living in a grey world rather than in black and white. We get a tragic, sympathetic villain that holds a mirror up to Batman himself and elevates existing Batman fiction. We get the silliness of classic Batman puns that hearken back to the 1966 series. We get stellar animation that shows off not just Batman and Freeze, but Gotham and its people, too. This is the quintessential Batman episode, and it’s not hard to see why this episode, in particular, deserved an Emmy.
Next week: Catwoman.
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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