Sun
Nov 11 2012 12:00pm

Batman: The Animated Series Rewatch: “Heart of Ice”

Batman: The Animated Series Rewatch on Tor.com: Heart of Ice

“Heart of Ice”
Written by Paul Dini
Directed by Bruce W. Timm
Episode #014
Supervising Composer Shirley Walker
Music Composed by Todd Hayen
Animation Services by Spectrum Animation Studio
Original Airdate - September 7th, 1992

Plot: Batman, suffering a cold, discovers Mr. Freeze behind a series of ice attacks against Gothcorp, and that Gothcorp CEO Ferris Boyle is responsible for the death of Mr. Freeze’s wife.

I’m going to make a pretty bold statement here but I think it’s also uncontroversial: “Heart of Ice” is the best episode of Batman: The Animated Series.

First off, Dini and Timm make Mr. Freeze a fantastic villain, maybe the best in the series. Usually, I hear it stated that they “got Mr. Freeze right,” but that’s really an understatement. They didn’t just understand the character better than most, they created him almost entirely whole-cloth.

Yes, Batman has been fighting an ice themed villain named either Mr. Freeze or Mr. Zero since 1959, (and he showed up on the 1966 Batman show as well), but that character didn’t have the tragic origin story, a dying wife, an emotionless demeanor, or the relentless single-minded focus on revenge that makes Mr. Freeze so compelling here. He wasn’t even named Victor Fries! Dini and Timm made all of that up, inspired in part by the horror movies of Vincent Price and Boris Karloff. 

Mike Mignola, pre-Hellboy, beautifully redesigned Mr. Freeze’s iconic dome headed refrigeration suit with all the perfect Mignola touches that make a great villain. I cannot tell you how much I love Mr. Freeze’s red goggles, which recall the emotionless HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey and contrasts blank red circles with Batman’s surprisingly expressive white triangles.

But the person who deserves the most credit for making Mr. Freeze one of the best villains of the series, and this the best episode, is Michael Ansara. A lot of praise goes to Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill as voice actors, but it’s Ansara who steals the show here. His seemingly flat delivery, aided by audio editing that adds a metallic tinge to his words, give his every line weight and menace. It’s a surprisingly nuanced performance, since Freeze claims that he has no emotions, no tears to shed, but his every action is fueled by sorrow, longing, and pure hatred. Ansara effortlessly portrays Freeze’s hidden emotions, so that, at the end, when Freeze’s tears do come, that audience is not at all surprised.

But Freeze alone is not what makes this episode the best one. Another major component to this episode is that is the single best example of the Vengeance Origin plot. Here, Dini nails the right balance of how justified Freeze is in seeking revenge (Ferris Boyle did basically kill his wife and tried to kill him) with how outlandish and cruel Freeze’s vengeance is (he will kill everyone at Boyle’s party). Thus Batman is actually torn between stopping Mr. Freeze and helping him get vengeance on the man responsible for his fate.

Which brings us to Ferris Boyle, Freeze’s opposite, and the perfect Batman foil. Boyle is everything Freeze is not, personable, charming, rich, but lacking in any real emotion or empathy for another person. Mark Hamill captures Boyle’s smarm perfectly, and in fact it was on the strength of this performance that Hamill would be cast as the Joker (who originally would have been voiced by Tim Curry, which would have been... different.) Boyle is exactly the kind of villain Batman, an extra-legal vigilante, should be fighting: someone whose actions are technically legal but morally abhorrent. Even though he’s always trying to stop Freeze, Batman clearly has more sympathy for the man in the robot suit than he does for the one in the power tie, and has no problem leaving Boyle half frozen with a super cold “Good night, humanitarian.” (God, I love this show).

Also crucial to the strength of this episode is that Batman is the protagonist. While one of the strengths of the series is that Batman can step aside and let other characters shine, the best episodes are about the choices Batman makes, how he pursues justice in an unjust world, and how he deals with others whose sense of justice overlaps with his own. This episode is a battle of wills between Freeze and Batman, and both come out looking like dangerous opponents. Batman starts predicting Freeze’s targets and getting to crime scenes before Freeze strikes. Freeze surprises Batman by being utterly ruthless. Batman deduces Freezes identity, Freeze traps Batman. Batman escapes and destroys Freeze’s ultimate weapon, Freeze has a fairly good back up plan. Back and forth, like a great tennis match.

“Heart of Ice” has some great economic storytelling. We learn Freeze’s origin story as Batman does, developing both characters at the same time. And while we can only guess why Fries had so many security cameras in his lab or who edited the tape together after the accident, using “found footage” to tell the origin moment is super effective. As is Batman creating a computer simulation of Mr. Freeze’s ice cannon in act 1, setting up the tank Mr. Freeze has in act 3, sort of a super-heroic take on Chekov’s Gun. All of this means they can squeeze a fairly complicated story, origin and all, into under 22 minutes.

And the episode is full of little “gosh wow” animation touches: the snow falling during the usually still title card, the Citizen Kane-esque snowglobe as a metaphor of Freeze and Nora’s trapped states, Batman just backhanding the hell out of Freeze’s thugs, Freeze riding the frozen spray of a fire hydrant into a building, and of course the final battle where Freeze effortlessly knocks aside Batman until Batman realizes that maybe that big glass dome is maybe a weak spot.

Which brings us to the final part of why this episode is so great, it is so goofy. So very very goofy. Yes, it’s a noir crime story and a ghoulish tale of revenge from beyond the grave, but it’s also a cartoon about a man in a bat suit defeating a man in an ice suit by hitting him in the face with a pun. There are so many puns in this episode, starting with Mr. Fries vs. Mr. Boyle (ha ha). Freeze is constantly making cold puns: “Revenge is a dish best served cold,” “That’s Mr. Freeze to you,” “warm regards,” “the cold eyes of vengeance,” “the icy touch of death.” It’s unrelenting. Freeze also built his lair directly under GothCorp headquarters, which is either brilliant or stupid but it sure is ballsy as hell. Add to that the subplot of Batman with the sniffles and Alfred’s particular bedside manner and you can see that the best episode of Batman: The Animated Series is also one of its silliest.

So, all in all, “Heart of Ice” is the best episode because it has everything you could want in a Batman story, a compelling crime drama, a complicated moral quandary, conflicted characters, thrilling adventure, and just some very funny lines. A beautifully told, emotionally resonant story and “Heart of Ice” is just the best episode of Batman: The Animated Series, hands down.


Steven Padnick is a freelance writer and editor. By day. You can find more of his writing and funny pictures at padnick.tumblr.com.

14 comments
Christopher Bennett
1. ChristopherLBennett
I don't think you'll get much disagreement from anyone about this one. This was the episode that solidified B:TAS as a masterpiece, that catapulted Paul Dini into the pantheon of Batman writers, and that, as you say, irreversibly redefined Mr. Freeze (or arguably defined him for the first time). Even the campy Freeze played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in Batman and Robin used Dini's backstory and motivation. (Actually the Freeze in the Adam West series had a given name, Dr. Shivel, and a bit more backstory than most of that show's villains -- a rather Joker-like one, in fact, since the accident that transformed him into Mr. Freeze was caused by Batman during an attempt to apprehend Shivel, and so he was seeking revenge on Batman himself. But that was touched on in only one of Freeze's three appearances in that series.)

A lot of credit also goes to composers Todd Hayen and Shirley Walker, who contributed one of the series' finest and most poignant scores (now available on CD, fortunately). The fine work done by Spectrum Animation Studio also deserves mention. On the DVD commentary for this episode, IIRC, Timm mentions that the head animator of Spectrum personally airbrushed the condensation fog onto Freeze's helmet in every frame, a remarkable bit of attention to detail.

"Heart of Ice" was actually the first episode broadcast in B:TAS's regular weekday-afternoon time slot -- following the series premiere "The Cat and the Claw Part I" on the morning of Saturday, September 5, 1992 and "On Leather Wings" on the evening of Sunday, Sept. 6. The rest of that debut week consisted of the "Feat of Clay" 2-parter, "It's Never Too Late," and "Joker's Favor," with "Cat/Claw" finishing up the week on Saturday morning. So they were definitely front-loading the strong episodes.
Matthew Abel
2. MatthewAbel
This really shows of some of the Max Fleischer style homage BTAS does so well. Freeze looks a lot like Superman's mad scientist foe from the original Fleisher short. Which, really, is pretty great stuff.
Ashe Armstrong
3. AsheSaoirse
No lie, this episode still gives me...chills.
Alan Gratz
4. agratz
Yep, we're going to get along just fine on this re-watch ride now that we agree on Best Episode. Great breakdown of the entire episode. Beyond the dialogue you quote, and the scenes you mention (in particular Bats backhanding a villain, movie-style), I remember little things in this episode. Little things that stay with me. The soft "tic-tic-tic" as the ice drops from the henchman's legs in Batman's water tank. The sound of the Bat Computer compiling the image of the freeze gun. And of course Ansara's voice. But maybe my favorite moment comes right at the end, as we pull back to see Batman watching Fries in his prison cell. IIRC, Batman turns to leave--then looks back over his shoulder for the briefest moment before leaving for good. It's as if he's thinking, "There but for the grace of God go I." It's just an incredibly powerful moment that sums up everything you said about the episode being so personal to Batman. Perhaps no other villain in the entire series will strike so close to home for him, or be so sympathetic.

The later stories with Mr. Freeze, alas, lose the emotional punch of this first one. But at least he gets to keep the cool glass dome...
Tumas-Muscat
5. Tumas-Muscat
I wholeheartedly agree with your review of the episode as probably the best of the series. All the attention it gets is well-deserved and really uncontroversial in anyone's book.

Personally, despite not really being familiar with the previous incarnations of Mr. Freeze before having watched this episode, I appreciate how it elevated Mr. Freeze to a quasi-Shakespearian villain/dark anti-hero. Personally, it became the definitive origin of the character for me and I was quite thrilled to see it taken on board by the comics and future renditions of the character.

Which brings me to my problem with his latest appearance in the new 52. I was thrilled to see that the basic premise of Freeze's origin was retained, but I was less so to see how it was inverted and given a new twist. I appreciate the scope of the reboot to make things fresh, but to me it just made Freeze just another one of the many psychos in Batman's rogues gallery. It may lend to more frequent appearances of the character (and thankfully does away with the whole Lazara business), but I felt it removed a bit of his humanity which made him so intriguing in the first place.

So all in all, the animated version remains the best in my opinion.

@ 4. agratz: Even if later stories do lose the emotional punch of this first one, I would at least applaud the wirters/directors of the series for having the sense to use him sparingly. With such an originally tragic motivation, it was nice to see him only appear in relation to that motivation, and not devolve into a generic thematic villain of the week.
Tumas-Muscat
6. Rootboy
Agreed with everything here. Except - why does Freeze kidnap Batman instead of killing him? That always struck me as a weird out-of-character moment to keep the plot going in what is, ultimately, a kids' cartoon.
Christopher Bennett
7. ChristopherLBennett
@4: I agree about how powerful the final scene is. It makes me tear up every time I see it. I think even just listening to the music from that scene on the recently released soundtrack album made me cry.

@5: What has the New 52 done to change Freeze?

@6: Maybe Freeze didn't kill Batman because he saw himself as acting for justice and felt that they weren't really on opposite sides. Maybe he wanted to convince Batman to let him carry out his vendetta against Boyle.
Tumas-Muscat
8. Tumas-Muscat
@7: In the New 52 Freeze remains motivated by saving Nora, who is in cryoenic suspension. However, Freeze has never met Nora and only claims her to be his wife because he's obsessed by her, having even studied her for his doctoral thesis. Batman goes on to say that the obsession goes as far as Freeze more intrigued by her Nora's frozen state than Nora herself, due to an episode in his childhood.

So all the tragedy of a man desperately fighting to bring back his wife, the true love of his life? Thrown out of the window. Left is nothing more than a sick man obsessed with a woman - or the frozen purity of her current state - who mistakes his feelings for love.

While an interesting and well-executed twist, I personally preferred the old backstory. Freeze, I guess, is still a tragic figure in that he thinks he fights for a (what he thinks is) love which can never be returned, but to have it be a symptom of psychosis makes him so much less interesting and easy to empathise with.
Tumas-Muscat
9. John R. Ellis
The only villain-origin-centric episodes I feel compare to this one are "Mad as a Hatter" (which turned a particularly campy villain into someone equally sympathetic and creepy) and "Mad Love"...because it's Harley Quinn proving she'd actually do a better job than the Joker, given sufficient motivation, only limited by her blindspot regarding "puddin'"
Christopher Bennett
10. ChristopherLBennett
@9: And both of those were written by Paul Dini too (and Mad Love was originally a Harvey- and Eisner-winning comic by Timm and Dini that was later adapted into an episode).
Tumas-Muscat
11. John R. Ellis
True. I recall the only real tweaks were making sure Harley's nightie was opaque and toning down the innuendo a tad.

(Though as Doug Walker pointed out last year, the animated version still makes it quite explicit that the Joker and Harley have well, been together in more ways than clown and sidekick.)
Christopher Bennett
12. ChristopherLBennett
@11: There were a few other slight changes and omissions in the episode version of "Mad Love." What I particularly regret losing from the comic, which was no doubt cut for time, was the extended sequence where Harley broke the Joker out of Arkham and he had this great slow buildup from a mild titter to a chuckle to a full-blown maniacal laugh. In the episode, they jumped right to the maniacal laugh and it wasn't as potent.

Also, the episode used the updated costume design for Batman, even in the flashbacks, while the comic used the B:TAS design.
Tumas-Muscat
13. critter42
The Mr. Freeze missions in Arkham City are my favorite for all the above reasons. The ending once you complete the final one is just heartbreaking - and when do you hear THAT in a Batman game?

I don't think I have much to add other than my agreement that this was the best B:TAS episode and watch it whenever I can.
Alan Gratz
14. agratz
@ 9. John R. Ellis: Ah yes, I LOVE Mad as a Hatter! So heartbreaking!

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