This post is part of the DCAU fortnight, a series of articles looking at the Warner Brothers animations featuring DC’s iconic selection of characters. I’ll be looking at movies and episodes and even some of the related comic books. While most of the episodes and comics I look at will tie into the feature-length animated movies, I thought I’d start with perhaps the most beloved piece of animation that the studio produced using DC characters.
I believe that Batman: The Animated Series sorely deserves a place on list compiled of the “best animated series of all time”. It’s certainly perhaps the single best distillation of the Batman mythos into one pure form (although Christopher Nolan’s film series – and especially The Dark Knight – also deserve some acknowledgement). What made the series unique was that, instead of simply borrowing from the comic books, it also actively contributed to them – and not just in a “we need to tie into a popular adaptation” sort of way. Lasting changes to the Batman mythos can be traced back to this particular animated series – the fan-favourite character of Harley Quinn, for example, or several sympathetic origins to well-established characters. Heart of Ice is perhaps the most successful and well-executed of these revisionist takes on Batman’s iconic selection of bad guys – offering as it does an origin for Mr. Freeze.
Mr. Freeze isn’t exactly an “a-list” Batman villain. Indeed, if he ever made the “b-list”, it’s down to this particular episode. He was originally a fairly one-note petty criminal (the name “Mr. Freeze” says it all – although he started as “Mr. Zero”). His greatest exposure before this bunch of creators got their hands on him was during the campy 1960s Batman! television show, where he was played by – among others – The Good, The Bad & The Ugly star Eli Wallach and cult arthouse director Otto Preminger.
What Heart of Ice does – and it’s the same thing the show has done for characters as diverse as Clayface and Poison Ivy – is to offer a motivation beyond “ooooh, I want to become an ice-based criminal” for the villain’s path to becoming an ice-based criminal. Here we’re introduced to scientist Victor Fries and his wife Nora, who he is using as a guinea pig in his cryogenic experiments. (I guess cryogenics was kind of an inevitable career path for Victor. With a name like Fries, the only other choice was the fast-food business – though he’d have to pronounce his name differently.)
Anyway, Nora is dying. Fries figures out how to keep his beloved frozen until he can find a cure for her. However, his boss finds out, and is less than pleased. He pulls the plug on Nora and causes an industrial accident which leaves Victor unable to survive outside a containment suit. He can never touch anything. He can never feel. He’s become as cold as his wife’s body, pursuing vengeance at any cost – though even that doesn’t seem to directly engage him.
As such, Freeze becomes something of an effective mirror to Batman. Batman is also a character who claims to have been left emotionally cold by loss. At the risk of making a terrible pun, Bruce’s emotional development was frozen by grief the moment that his parents died. Like the best Batman foes, Freeze was suddenly a funhouse mirror to the Caped Crusader, a reflective surface through which Batman could see himself in a slightly warped manner.
Of course, the irony is that both men see themselves as emotionally frozen, but both are controlled by emotion. Everything Fries does is motivated by a desire to save his wife, just as everything Bruce does is to honour his parents. There’s an irony to this, of course. Just as Bruce’s parents probably wouldn’t want their son dressing up as a giant rodent to honour them, one wonders what Nora would make of Fries. His robberies and violence are all motivated by his love of her, but he lacks the emotional objectivity to reflect on the fact that these actions are the last thing she would want for him.
The flip-side, however, is that this origin effectively roots Freeze. Unlike characters like the Joker or Two-Face, if you embrace this origin, it’s hard to tell a Freeze story that isn’t about Nora. You see it in the remaining episodes featuring the character – they all revolve around his relationship with Nora. And, to be fair, it’s a case of diminishing returns. While Two-Face had a life before his accident, it’s easy enough to tell a story about Harvey that doesn’t feature his wife or his history as a DA. (His emotional connection to Batman is strong yet flexible enough that it doesn’t restrict his story-telling opportunities.
While I’m not sure I agree entirely with that argument, I can understand it. Freeze’s story has a definite objective or goal. If he cures Nora, that’s the end of his career as a supervillain. The same if she dies or if he fails. For the story to remain tragic, he has to remain slavishly devoted to her. So everything he does must be for her. I can see why Scott Snyder’s recent re-write of Freeze’s origin during Night of the Owls revised the link to Nora.
Still, I think that all a great Batman villain needs is one truly transcendental story. (In any medium, incidentally.) Sure, there are a few who have quite a few. The Joker has a tonne. Two-Face has quite a selection. Heart of Ice is that story for Mr. Freeze, a character who we never thought would actually earn one. And, regardless of whether it’s in continuity or out of it, it’s still a powerfully tragic and compelling Batman story.
This portrayal lent a tragic element to a character who had previously been almost a joke or a novelty, a footnote in the annals of Batman history. This origin proved so successful that, like quite a few things, it was back-ported into the comics. It even formed the basis of the character’s motivation in Batman & Robin. (Which then went on to ignore the fact that this was an inherently tragic story and instead gave the role to Arnold so he could make “ice” puns.) However, no portrayal has ever really quite as effective as this beautiful thirty-minute presentation.
Heart of Ice is an efficient storytelling engine. Its plot is simple and its character straightforward. It’s almost understated – quite like its villain. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of humour and warmth here. In fact, the series would execute humour far more effectively than the Joel Schumacher film – with the punning reserved for news reporters rather than the tragic villain. Still, the entire episode is effectively and carefully streamlined. The set pieces – an early confrontation between Freeze and Batman or an attempt to freeze a building – are simple, but effective.
What’s most effective about this episode – and perhaps reflective of the entire animated adaptation – is how it never manages to veer into campness or ridiculousness, despite the insane stuff happening. The show plays a guy with a freeze ray entirely straight – rather than acting as if it’s something to be embarrassed about or something to mock. The technology is pure science fiction, but it goes unremarked-upon – the focus is, quite rightly, on the story.
That was the charm of the show. It had this amazing ability to look past the inherent zaniness of some of the crazier aspects of the mythology – Poison Ivy’s control of plants, Ra’s Al Ghul’s immortality, Mr. Freeze’s freeze gun, the Riddler’s riddles, Clayface’s “made-of-clay”-ness - and find the heart of the character or story underneath. There was no overcompensating for insecurities – no wry smile that said “we’re not taking it seriously, either”. To these writers and directors, every part of the mythos at least deserved to be treated with the respect that a seventy-year-old franchise deserved. No winking at the camera or rolling of the eyes – if you’re going to do something, don’t do it by half measures.
Because that’s the true gothic appeal of Batman that was only really hinted at with the Penguin in Burton’s Batman Returns: every monster, no matter how malformed, is an inherently tragic one. In these sorts of monster stories, there’s always some sympathy for the beast – it’s rarely truly evil, only ending up that way through misunderstanding or as the result of persecution. That’s what lends Batman and his eclectic selection of villains their appeal: they are all monsters (and, in a way, so is he), but they weren’t born that way – they were made into monsters.
Heart of Ice is not only perhaps the greatest moment for the character of Mr. Freeze, who has stumbled alongside his opponent across multiple mediums, but it’s an example of the deep and genuine understanding of their source material that the writers on Batman: The Animated Series had – as well of how they weren’t afraid to play with the source material if necessary.
Filed under: Television Tagged: | animation, batman, batman: the animated series, btas, Christopher Nolan, Freeze, Harley Quinn, heart of ice, joker, mr. freeze, Nora, Nora Fries, Scott Snyder, Television