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Batman Beyond – Meltdown (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.

I was less than impressed with Victor Fries’ last appearance on Batman: The Animated Series in Cold Comfort, written by Hilary J. Bader. So I’ll admit to being quite surprised when she produced the story for Meltdown, a fairly effective conclusion to Mister Freeze’s character arc. Perhaps it’s a result of the bold new setting, or perhaps Alan Burnett’s work on the teleplay, but Meltdown does a rather excellent job wrapping up all sorts of loose ends and fairly effectively using Freeze as an unlikely, yet effective, counterpart to Bruce Wayne.

He never lost his head, and he always kept his cool…

Batman Beyond didn’t lean too heavily on Batman: The Animated Series. Terry McGinnis took up the role and found himself facing villains inspired by various Z-list comic book baddies, but there was never anything as forced as “Riddler 2.0” or “Penguin Jr.: Pingu.” Occasionally classic bat villains would turn up, but they were used sparingly enough that they never overwhelmed the series. Appearances from Bane or Ra’s Al Ghul made sense, and the Joker eventually turned up in a movie designed to bridge Batman Beyond to its predecessor.

That said, the use of Victor Fries here makes sense. Not just in terms of internal logic. After all, the character is all but immortal, as he was prone to point out, so it stands to reason he’d still be around by the time of Batman Beyond. However, it makes sense to revisit the character in relation to Bruce Wayne. Before Heart of Ice, Victor Fries was never going to be anybody’s favourite Batman villain, but writer Paul Dini found the most unlikely approach to the character, and found a way to make him both a compelling character in his own right and a fascinating mirror to Bruce Wayne.

A grave day for Victor…

While Terry McGinnis is undoubtedly the star of Batman Beyond, the series is also fascinating in how it portrays Bruce. This version of Bruce hasn’t died in the line of duty. He’s been forced to retire to the life of billionaire Bruce Wayne. It is, due to years of neglect in service of his mission, a lonely life. It’s hallow and empty. Bruce has, at best, a few years left in him. There’s something very sad about the fact that he’s more preoccupied in living vicariously through Terry than he is with trying to foster old friendships and to live his own life.

So there’s a massive irony when Victor Fries is able to put the past behind him in a way that Bruce Wayne simply can’t. Discussing the buried remains of his old frost-bitten head, he confesses, “It symbolises the end of a life, and the beginning of a new one.” Bruce had to give up the cowl – his old face – and yet he still can’t bury his old life and start a new one. Confronted by a victim of his crimes, Freeze seems genuinely moved. Although he concedes it is no excuse, he can only offer, “It was another life.”

Blight was always an a-peeling villain to me…

Just in case we don’t see the similarities between the two, he even founds the Nora Fries Foundation, a counterpart to the “Martha Wayne Foundation”, Bruce’s own charity. However, the irony would seem to be that Freeze can finally come to terms with his loss in a way that Bruce never really did. Even well past the age his parents were when they died, and years after Alfred passed away, Bruce still hasn’t let go of that life. Terry’s mother describes Fries as “a guy trying to put his house in order.” It’s telling that Bruce never seems to try anything like that.

If anything, the years have made Batman colder. In Batman: The Animated Series, the writers seemed to write Bruce as an optimist trying to allow his foes to go straight – giving them jobs and sponsoring their treatment. Sure, occasionally there was a villain Bruce seemed to take a personal dislike to (like in Riddler’s Reform), but – for the most part – Bruce seemed to mitigate his anger with a more considered humanism. It seems that there’s none of that left in this older, dried out Bruce Wayne. He has no time to pity or forgive Fries.

He kept that suit on ice…

He orders Terry, “I want you to follow Freeze. Don’t let him out of your sight.”  Asked to explain his reasoning, he states, “I don’t trust him.” When Fries announces that he’s setting up a charity to help victims of his crimes, Bruce is sceptical. When Fries describes it as “justice”, Bruce responds, “More like blood money.” Bruce warns Terry of Victor Fries, “He lives for revenge.” Perhaps there’s a note of bitter jealousy or resentment fuelling Batman’s paranoia, as if resenting Fries for seeming to overcome his burdens while Bruce could never do the same.

Of course, the episode has Fries revert to form. The script is smart enough to keep it relatively ambiguous. His attack on Powers is motivated by the attempt to kill him, so we’ll never know if Fries could have lived happily ever after had the treatment actually worked. Still, Fries becomes a monster. He kills with impunity. When he plans his inevitable suicide, he seems so petty that it isn’t enough to die alone. He seeks to take hundreds of innocent by-standers with him.

Talk about running hot and cold…

And yet, despite that, he remains curiously pitiable, even on a murderous rampage. When Terry approaches him with the compassion that seems to have evaporated from Bruce, Freeze seems almost moved by the plea for sanity. Begging Freeze not to end it, it’s hard not to feel sorry for the villain as he assured the younger Batman, “Believe me, you’re the only one who cares.” Despite his brutality and his willingness to murder others, Freeze feels much more sympathetic here than he ever did in Cold Comfort.

Michael Ansara, as ever, does an absolutely stunning job as Fries. Even noting some of his lines illustrates how ridiculous they sound, but Ansara gives everything this grand note of heightened tragedy. If Fries hadn’t become a cryogenics expert, I suspect he had a calling as a Shakespearean actor. It’s tough to imagine any actor other than Ansara delivering, “I have become what many men have dreamed of. An immortal. And yet there hasn’t been a day, an hour, a minute, where I haven’t thought about death. It obsesses me.” It reads as melodrama, and it is, but Ansara delivers it as great melodrama.

Shadow of the Bat…

That said, it seems like the creative team felt inspired a bit by Joel Schumacher’s dire Batman & Robin. They famously included a rather petty “take that” directed at Schumacher in Legends of the Dark Knight, but Meltdown instead manages a rather curt acknowledgement of two of Schumacher’s stylistic choices, as if to demonstrate that they are not inherently toxic when applied to the world of Batman. When Freeze arrives in his new suit, he boasts, “It’s something I’ve kept in cold storage.” You could easily imagine Schwarzenegger delivering the line with a cheesy grin, but Ansara delivers it with an understated elegance.

The design of Blight, revealed in this episode, seems to demonstrate that it is possible to apply a neon aesthetic to the character and world of Batman without resulting in the stylistic mess of Schumacher’s two Batman films. Blight looks like the kind of monster Schumacher may have tried to create, especially evoking those awful street gangs from Batman Forever, but he’s executed in such a way that he doesn’t look as ridiculous.

I think Victor just needs a cooling off period…

I should point out that I love the way that Andrea Romano seems to have gone out of her way to recruit cult actors for the show, given that Batman Beyond‘s entire visual aesthetic is very heavily informed by cult science-fiction like Blade Runner. Sherman Howard makes a great Derek Powers, and it’s nice to see Linda Hamilton recruited, even for a relatively small role as the doctor who pulls Victor out of the ice box.

Meltdown is a great little episode, and a fitting end for Victor Fries, one of the few villains to have a very clear narrative arc plotted from his first appearance through to his last. It also demonstrated that Batman Beyond was very much a spiritual successor to Batman: The Animated Series, even if later seasons would be less overt in demonstrating that link.

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2 Responses

  1. Reblogged this on drndark.

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