As if Batman: The Animated Series hadn’t already quickly established itself as being a gorgeous piece of television action animation, and a distinctive and surprisingly grown-up adaptation of the Dark Knight, it gave us possibly its most nuanced and melancholy episode its third time out of the gate. “Heart of Ice,” written by Paul Dini and directed by Bruce Timm, is one of the handful of standout episodes that are even better than the high standard of the episodes in general.
And to think it all stemmed from what was traditionally a silly bad guy.
The episode’s focus is on Dr. Victor Fries, aka Mr. Freeze, voiced brilliantly by Michael Ansara. The character of Mr. Freeze (or originally “Mr. Zero”) debuted in the comics in 1959 and was one of the book’s joke, or gimmick, villains. He had a freeze gun that malfunctioned and put him in cryogenic wakefulness for the rest of his life. On the Batman TV show (which changed his name to Freeze), the character was played by three different actors (George Sanders, Otto Preminger, and Eli Wallach), and he was one of the campiest of all the campy bad guys. And this was the plight for this character until Dini thoroughly reworked the character’s backstory to make him one of the most compelling and heartbreaking in the whole Bat-canon.
Dr. Fries’ wife, Nora, had a rare condition that was killing her. In order to save her, and so that he could find a cure, Fries had her cryogenically frozen. While his research was nearing its end point, GothCorp CEO Ferris Boyle (voiced by a pre-Joker Mark Hamill), a shrewd and cruel businessman who publicly appears to be a charitable philanthropist, burst in and pulled the plug on Fries’ research, destroying his equipment and kicking the poor scientist into a table of cryogenic compounds, leaving Fries badly exposed and forced to live in sub-zero temperatures for the rest of his life. Years later, after developing a suit and a weaponized freeze gun, Mr. Freeze begins robbing GothCorp offices and plotting his revenge against Boyle.
That is one HELL of a backstory, and a completely justifiable position to have. Freeze, in the Animated Series universe, is perhaps the most sympathetic villain and one whose rage is easy to relate to, especially for Batman, whose entire ethos was borne out of a need for revenge. However, because Batman is who he is, he knows that he has to stop Freeze from killing or hurting people, even if he fully believes Boyle to be a heartless cretin. When Batman sees the security footage of the incident, he’s disgusted and sorrowful at what Boyle has wrought upon himself, but knows he can’t allow it to happen. It’s this dichotomy in having to stop a guy you feel for and save a guy who you think is utterly reprehensible that makes Batman such a dynamic character, and the show much more dynamic by extension.
Freeze himself is just as cold as his condition. In the ’60s series, Freeze cackles and ways stuff like “Wild!” all the time, but here he’s almost like a Michael Myers type; completely deadly, completely unfeeling, almost completely unstoppable. The character design for him, with the red goggles and grey, black, and purple suit, really adds to this creepiness factor. He’s a man – we can see him under the glass – but he’s a shell who is driven by nothing but cold, calculated vengeance.
Bruce Timm himself was the director of the episode, and I think for this reason it’s one of the best looking and most consistently stunning episodes they ever did. They had time to get the gears of the series going (while it was the third episode to air, it was the 14th produced), and the Batman machine was going full bore by this point. The episode just makes you feel cold, regardless of how warm it is in your home when you watch it, and for a 2D animated program to convey that amount of temperature is a huge feat. Timm didn’t direct many of the episodes, but when he did, they were almost always this pretty.
“Heart of Ice” was an absolute triumph, and is often voted by fans to be the best episode of the whole series, or close to the top anyway. It’s certainly one of my favorites and one that has stuck with me these 20 years. So profound was its impact that many fans might be surprised that Mr. Freeze only appeared once more in the whole 85 episode run of The Animated Series and once in The New Batman Adventures. He was, however, given his own direct-to-video movie after the initial ending of TAS, entitle Sub-Zero. It’s pretty good and gives us more of a chance to see one of toondom’s best and most compelling baddies.
Next week, we take a look at another, even lesser-known (at the time) bad guy, who’s given a two parter to introduce him. That, of course, is Clayface, and the episodes are “Feat of Clay” parts 1 and 2. Let me know in the comments how much you enjoy “Heart of Ice.” I could go watch it again right now, and I just finished watching it.