This September marks the twentieth anniversary of Batman: The Animated Series, and the birth of the shared DC animated universe that would eventually expand to present one of the most comprehensive and thorough explorations of a comic book mythology in any medium. To celebrate, we’re going back into the past and looking at some classic episodes.
Heart of Ice is a phenomenal piece of television. Paul Dini’s sharp script somehow managed to take one of the most camp and forgettable theme villains in Batman’s iconic selection foes, and elevate them to a prime position. After all, were it not for that reimagining of the villain, Victor Fries would likely be a footnote in Batman history, ranking not too far above the Killer Moth or the Calendar Man in the dregs of Batman’s rogue’s gallery. However, while the story provided a concrete and grounded origin for an otherwise Z-list villain, it also raised some interesting questions about where the character could be taken after that.
His second appearance in the series, Deep Freeze seeks to answer those question. While, ironically, it’s considerably shallower than its predecessor, it’s still an interesting look a villain defined by this show.
Paul Dini effectively re-wrote the origin of Victor Fries. Various villains would be created for Batman: The Animated Series and then backported back to the comics that inspired the show. Harley Quinn is the most famous example, but the villain Lock-Up also counts. However, the show reimagined Victor Fries so thoroughly that he may as well have been created for the television adaptation. His origin and motivation – the love of his dear wife Nora – were introduced into the comics, and the character was written in line with Dini’s portrayal, to the point where any other take on the character has drawn considerable criticism.
However, while Heart of Ice gives Victor a compelling character hook, it also causes fairly fundamental problems in a serialised medium. It’s less obvious in a finite television show than it is in a decade-worth of comic books, but it’s still there. Freeze has a very clear character arc plotted out, and a consistent motivation. Everything that Freeze does has to, in some way, tie back to Nora. He isn’t a villain or even an anti-hero, he’s a character who operates on his own moral authority to restore his wife. This limits the stories that can be told using the character. This means everythingis about Nora.
It means the character isn’t as versatile as the Scarecrow or the Mad Hatter or Scarface or any of the other lower-tier Batman baddies. You can tell that the writers struggled a bit to use Freeze. He was a popular character, with his first episode winning an Emmy. He was the bad guy in a direct-to-video film. However, he did not appear anywhere near as regularly as more conventional bad guys like the Joker, Two-Face, Poison Ivy or even the Scarecrow or the Mad Hatter. Every time Freeze appeared, it was in service of his arc, as it is here, in Deep Freeze.
This is why I can understand Scott Snyder’s decision to re-write Victor Fries’ origin during his Night of the Owls. Fans have protested his take on the character, claiming that his reimagining removes the emotional complexity of Fries and makes him little more than another lunatic prowling Gotham with a gimmick. I can understand that – I find Heart of Icemuch more poignant. However, Snyder’s reimagining offers more storytelling opportunities. Of course, it doesn’t bother me, because I’ve never really been too bother for comic book continuity, so I can still enjoy the origin and arc of this Mister Freeze while accepting that the current comic book version of the character is substantially different.
Hm. And I’ve barely even mentioned Deep Freeze, the episode in question.
Deep Freeze exemplifies the fact that Victor Fries is now anchored to Nora. It’s not an inherently bad thing. In a television show running for a few years and its associated spin-offs, it gives the character a hook. Fries is one of relatively few of the villains in The Animated Series to have so clear a character arc. Other characters with tragic origins would frequently be reduced to villains-of-the-week in their subsequent appearances – think of the Clock King in Time Out of Joint. Instead, Victor’s character arc between here and his final appearance in Batman Beyond has a very clear structure to it.
Indeed, the opening sequence fairly effectively captures the fact that Freeze is now quite different from most of Batman’s baddies. After all, most would take the chance to escape their prison as a welcome relief. Freeze instead views the arrival of a gigantic robot smashing through Blackgate with a dispassionate, “Interesting.” Freeze actually seems quite happy to be in his cell, left to his own devices. When it’s clear the creature is coming from him, he calls and pleads for help – his cold exterior cracking for a moment.
Of course, that’s the wonderful irony of Victor Fries, and it’s part of the genius in how Dini mirrored the character to Batman. Both characters pretend to be stoic and emotionless, but instead are governed by them. As Batman explains, reviewing footage of the attack, “Look at the expression of fear on his face. That’s not easy to fake. Especially for a man who claims to be dead to emotions.” Later on, Batman’s appeals to Victor’s love of Nora draw a rather curt “silence!” from the character, a distinctly emotional outburst.
“You think you’re alone now?” Batman asks Victor as he prepares to assist Walker in a genocide. “Wait until she learns the truth.” In a way, it’s a fairly effective foreshadowing of where Victor’s arc would take him, and a wonderful illustration of how completely Victor’s moral compass is controlled by his desire to feel his wife’s love and approval. Michael Ansara is, once again, literally pitch perfect as Freeze, delivering lines that would otherwise seem cheesy and hackneyed with a rather profound tragedy.
“You want to life like this?” Fries demands of Walker. “Abandoned and alone? A prisoner in a world you can see but never touch? Old and infirm as you are, I’d trade a thousand of my frozen years for your worst day.” A lesser actor would stumble over such lines, but Ansara illustrates just how perfect the voice casting on the show was. It’s hard not to feel a pang of sorrow for the man as he laments, “Yes, eternal life trapped in this wretched shell! What a miserable joke.”
Deep Freeze is also a bit of fun because it allows us to see Freeze as something of a tragic anti-hero, rather than merely an anti-villain. Once Batman convinces him that Nora would hardly approve of his actions, Victor frees Batman and Robin and sets out to take down Walker. There are a whole host of wonderful character moments there, as it’s immediately clear that Freeze’s priority is pretty much destroying Walker for nearly turning him into a mass-murderer. Everything else is secondary.
I adore Freeze’s rather matter-of-fact public service announcement to the citizens of the theme park, as he deadpans. “Attention, citizens of Oceania. Your city is doomed. If you value your lives, you will evacuate now. That is all.” It almost seems like the only reason he makes that announcement is that his wife can’t accuse him of killing everybody in the compound. Once Batman and Robin are free, Freeze couldn’t care less about their safety – when Robin helps him escape a robot, Freeze continues on his mission, refusing to repay the favour.
When Batman confronts him at the end of the episode, begging Victor to withdraw, Freeze rather wonderfully ends the confrontation by freezing Robin, putting Batman in a position where the Caped Crusader has not option to withdraw. There’s no malice in Freeze’s actions. It just seems like he had tired of the conversation, and had determined the most efficient way to end it was to turn Robin into a gigantic ice cube.
While Freeze himself is a highlight, the rest of the episode feels a little bland. I have to admit that I’m not a huge fan of the transition from Batman: The Animated Series to The Adventures of Batman & Robin and later The New Batman Adventures. Of course, there were exceptional episodes here and there, but the whole aesthetics seemed a bit different. It was more than just the addition of Robin, it was the style of the episodes, the construction.
Deep Freeze feels a lot less complex and ambiguous than Heart of Ice ever did. It’s a fairly gimmicky little episode, opening with a rather toyetic robot attacking Blackgate Prison before it awkwardly works in a cameo for Batmite. I have nothing against the lighter-and-softer elements of the mythos, but it feels rather awkwardly inserted into the narrative, as if the only reason for Bruce and Dick to visit Rossum was to work in a cameo for the camp imp. Ignoring Freeze’s character arc, the whole episode feels like a fairly cheesy high concept “Batman and Robin versus Walt Disney.”
The show doesn’t even try to hide how clearly the story is constructed around Walt Disney. Even Walker’s name evokes “Walter”, Disney’s first name, not to mention his pencil-thin moustache. Rossum worked as a “visioneer”, a rather blatant shout-out to the Disney term “imagineer.” Walker is “a theme park mogul” who boasts, “I’ve created wonders in my lifetime.” He also longs to live forever through cryogenic means, calling to mind that urban myth about the fate of Walt Disney, the story he froze his body so as to cheat death.
Naturally, Walker’s philosophy calls to minds various criticisms of Disney as a company, as he seeks to impose his own whitewashed perspective on the world. “Now,” he explains to his staff, “while most folk think that Oceania is just another theme park, we know better. The fact of the matter is that it’s not too nice out there anymore. Crime, hatred, violence… Things keep going on like that, it could mean the end of civilization. That’s why I decided to build a city where good folks can live in peace.”
Of course, it’s interesting who Walker considers “good folks” – perhaps consciously commenting on the social conservatism (and very politically incorrect undertones) of Disney’s films, as evidence by the fact the animation studio’s first African American lead character appeared in 2010. Walker seeks the same control over the real world that some critics would accuse Disney of having over their media empire, as he brags, “My world will have no crime, violence, or pain.” (And it’s delivered in a wonderfully sappy manner, as he vows, “Don’t anybody worry, we’ll be warm as toast in here.”)
In case you didn’t quite get the rather obvious subtext of Walker-as-Disney-as-totalitarian, Dini borrows boatloads of references from 1984. Walker’s themepark is named “Oceania.” His face is repeatedly broadcast on gigantic screens, like Ridley Scott’s iconic Apple commercial. It’s not subtle, but it’s certainly effective. However, the thrill of “Batman vs. Disney” never feels as significant as it should. After all, it should be great fun to see Batman tearing down Main Street, USA or taking out Mickey Mouse robots, but there’s just not enough room for that in the episode. Still, Walker feels fairly efficiently characterised, when compared to other villains-of-the-week.
Deep Freeze is a grand episode. In fact, it’s probably even a very good episode. However, given its guest star, it was always going to exist in the shadow of Heart of Ice, which is one fine piece of television. Deep Freeze falls well short of that mark, feeling like a more generic adventure with Freeze’s character arc grafted on top of it, but it’s solidly entertaining and charming enough that it never feels like a waste of time or energy.
Filed under: Television Tagged: | 1984, animation, batman & robin, Batman and Robin, batman: the animated series, btas, deep freeze, grant walker, mister freeze, mr. freeze, Oceania, review, Television, the adventures of batman and robin, victor fries, Walt Disney