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The New Batman Adventures – Cold Comfort (Review)

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.

As wonderful as Heart of Ice was, offering a classic origin to a bad guy who would have otherwise been a footnote, there is a sense that the reimagining of Victor Fries hemmed the character in a bit. By giving him a moving origin story based around his wife, it meant that the character’s arc would be dictated by Nora. As such, it limits the story-telling opportunities, because there are really only so many stories you can tell. Fries can be seeking revenge (Heart of Ice) or striking a deal to preserve here (Deep Freeze) or responding to her loss (as here), but that’s pretty much it.

Cold Comfort is the first episode featuring the character without the direct involvement of writer Paul Dini. It certainly shows, as it feels like a fairly wasted chapter in the character’s arc.

Has Freeze flipped his lid?

On paper, the idea is fairly sound. Victor Fries is, after all, a character who claims to have frozen all the emotions out of himself, but remains driven by them. So it stands to reason that – were he to lose Nora – he would not respond in the most mature or considered of ways. Freeze, to be fair, maintains a pretty consistent motivation throughout his appearances, unlike other villains with sympathetic origins like Clayface or the Mad Hatter. You always know where Freeze is coming from, and there’s never a sense that he’s doing anything for the sake of being eeevil or any nonsense like that.

So the idea that Victor would respond to his loss by projecting on to other characters feels somehow appropriate. He lost Nora, so the world itself must feel his pain. For a character as stunted as Freeze, it seems like a logical coping mechanism. There’s something wonderfully theatrical about Freeze declaring to Gotham, “Search your heart for the thing you love the most. Then despair. For I have come to take it from you.”It is, despite his stoic exterior, a supremely petty act, but it’s one perfectly in character.

He doesn’t paint a pretty picture…

The problem arrises from the execution of the idea. I mentioned above that this was the first episode featuring Mister Freeze not to be written by Paul Dini. It was, instead, written by Hilary Bader, who contributed a wealth of DC animated universe stories, but none of which are especially well remembered. In Cold Comfort, for the first time since he appeared on the show, Freeze is driven by plot rather than by character. It seems his actions don’t flow from his logical character motivation, but adhere to the rigid structure of a television episode.

For example, it feels strange for Freeze to open his attacks with two relatively small-scale crimes. The villain has enough experience to know that Batman will be instinctively drawn to the resurfacing of a long-dormant rogue, no matter how relatively petty the crime might be. Freeze’s plans culminate in a plan to freeze Gotham itself, presumably as an act of existential angst and as a direct strike against Batman. It’s telling that when Freeze targets Bruce Wayne, he attacks Barbara, Tim and Alfred; when he goes for Batman he goes for Gotham. However, there’s no reason for Freeze to organise his attacks on such a steep gradient.

Batgirl generated a cold response from me…

It feels like we witness the first two attacks merely because the episode needed to reintroduce the character as a threat. It’s in keeping with the character’s emotional immaturity, but it feels a bit illogical for Freeze to bother with some dinosaur bones or a mural if he’s going to destroy the city anyway. Maybe the episode could have fallen back on the plot of Freeze stealing components to build his Freeze bombs, or alerting Batman in some other way. Freeze’s motivations might be very emotional, but his approach is usually a bit more calculated.

Another example of how little the episode seems concerned with Freeze can be seen in the way that the story deals with Nora, Freeze’s wife and reason for being. We’re told, in a single line of dialogue, that Nora moved away from Gotham and started a new life. This is in a scene with Batman. Freeze only fleetingly touches on the break-up, which feels a little out of character. This is a guy who was so obsessed with her that he froze herso that he could cure her.

It came from beyond the freezer!

While it’s perfectly in character for Freeze to consider himself “unworthy” of her love, he seems to let her go a little too easily. It could even work as a small scene indicating that Freeze was still keeping an eye on her, still obsessed with her, still – like in the earlier episodes – watching a woman he loves who he can’t interact with. I don’t mean that he would get jealous or possessive – this version of Fries clearly loves Nora enough to want her to be happy, even if he isn’t. I just mean some indication that he didn’t suddenly lose interest once her body temperature jumped above freezing.

Instead, Freeze feels like a bit of a gimmick here, and there’s little that Michael Ansara can do to really stop that. Ansara is a wonderful actor, and one of the best cast villains in the show. However, he has little to work with here. The script doesn’t make Victor seem anywhere near as tragic as his first two outings, despite the actor’s best efforts. That said, Ansara has a wonderful knack for melodramatic proclamations. “I did not come here to steal bones, Doctor Madison,” he advises his first victim. “I came to steal hope.” Any other voice actor saying that might seem corny, but Ansara has a magnificent gravitas.

Gotham needs to chill out…

There’s also the problem with the climax, which features batman straight-up killing Victor Fries. There’s really no ambiguity about it, Batman ties him to a bomb and detonates it. That’s about as close to murder-one as Batman is ever likely to get, and the character does it without breaking a step. Perhaps he feels that Victor is no longer human and so he can relax his rigid “no kills” policy. After all, Batman is seldom concerned about the fate of even sentient robots. More likely, however, is that the script simply doesn’t care. In many ways, Cold Comfort feels like an interesting plot with interesting ideas, but executed in the worst possible way.

That said, there are some nice moments here, scattered throughout the episode. Although it’s not even nearly worth the value of consistent characterisation, Victor’s “spider”form is kinda cool, painting the character as a sort of weird science monster that might have wandered right out of a fifties horror comic. The animation is actually really quite nice, and there is a delightful sense of the uncanny valley when Victor is cast as little more than a head in a jar on a set of legs.

To the Victor, the spoils…

There’s also some nice Bruce Wayne stuff here. In particular, in a very small scene that feels like it really needed more development, we finally get to see Freeze confront Bruce Wayne. Like most of Batman’s villains, Freeze reflects the hero. Both project a stoic exterior to mask the anguish underneath. However, Bruce dealt constructively with his loss, while Freeze is very much frozen by it. (The fact that Nora never actually died will do that. Bruce would probably be less well adjusted if his parents spent years on life-support.) However, Bruce built up a family for himself, and Cold Comfort actually does a half-decent job showing this.

“You were just a boy when you lost your family,” Freeze states. “But you keep trying to create a surrogate family for yourself.” That’s certainly a very optimistic reading of the way that Bruce operates, and it’s one that rejects the image of Batman as a brooding psychopath. Of course, it also makes this all very tragic in hindsight. We know from Batman Beyond that Bruce’s attempts to build a family will fail, and that – despite his best efforts – he’ll end up lost and alone, pushing away those who care for him. It’s quite tragic.

He’s a-head of the evolutionary curve…

That said, the episode also seems to hint at the romance between Bruce and Barbara that apparently happened. To be fair, Timm consistently characterises it as an error of judgment on the part of both parties, but it still feels more than a little disturbing to imply a relationship between Bruce and his surrogate daughter. (And, incidentally, the actual daughter of one of his closest friends and a girl he has sworn to guide and protect.) It is, perhaps, an illustration of how lonely and isolated Bruce is that he even considers the option. Certainly, The Animated Series never shied away from portraying Batman as a flawed and conflicted individual.

Still, it feels just a little bit creepy watching a fully grown man flirt with a girl half his age who clearly idolises him. There are hints of it here, like the “call it a night”bit after the training and the short sequence where Bruce helps her up, while Barbara has a flirty grin on her face.Then again, I’ve never been fond of Robin as a character either, if only because he’s essentially Batman’s child soldier in a War on Crime, which pushes Batman from an urban vigilante to a reckless surrogate father. Maybe I need to relax a bit. I don’t know, but I honestly think that the romance between Bruce and Barbara was just a little bit too much for an animated show like this.

Kicking it, Bat-style!

There are other nice moments, like Bruce playing a father figure to Tim. Of course a kid is going to fail Civics if he lives with Batman. “You don’t know the first thing about the American justice system, do you?” Bruce asks Tim. Tim responds, “I know it’s bogus.” Bruce tries to get smarmy, inquiring, “And how did you come to that well thought-out conclusion?” Tim answers, “Watching you.” Game, set and match. In fact, for an episode that’s supposed to be about how Bruce has constructed a surrogate family, it’s actually a pretty thorough evisceration of Bruce as any form of patriarch. He abuses his relationship with Barbara and he can’t teach Tim basic values. I’m surprised the episode doesn’t feature him working Alfred into a heart attack.

There’s also a small (but nice) Bruce Wayne moment after Freeze makes his reappearance. Conversing with Gordon, Bruce is in full-on social idiot mode, as he explains, “And there it was, right on my TV, Mister Freeze and that Lizard!” Gordon very politely corrects him, “Dinosaur.” Bruce off-handly replies, “Whatever.”It’s a moment that illustrates just how awesome Kevin Conroy is. The man is simply amazing with the right material, but he’s still pretty impressive when the script is hardly the best.

Batgirls just wanna have fun…

Cold Comfort feels like a massive disappointment and a waste of potential. There’s a lot of good raw material here, but the script can’t harness its ideas into anything quite worthwhile.

4 Responses

  1. Mr. Freeze wasn’t the only character who got the shaft after a completed character arc in the original series. Clayface was revealed to be alive and Two-Face was still mentally unstable, even though Batman The Animated Series ended the arcs on the characters. I think this is the greatest failing of the mediocre New Batman Adventures, the need to turn this wonderfully designed world into standard superhero cartoon fare. The new animation designs don’t help (how does Gotham have an eternal red sky? Everything else has a typical day to night cycle ).

    • That said, the Clayface story is the one with Tim Drake and the little girl, though? I think it’s good enough to justify resurrecting the character. As for Two-Face, he’s in the last episode, isn’t he? It’s an adaptation of an old Alan Grant comic, from what I recall. And is an interesting Two-Face story, but one that the script can’t quite pull off.

      • Two face originally appeared in the episode where Tim drake becomes robin. He’s a fairly generic villain and his role could be played by anyone.

      • I had forgotten that! I was thinking of The Judge!

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