Story by Paul Dini, Bruce W. Timm
Teleplay by Paul Dini
Directed by Kevin Altieri
Music Composed by Shirley Walker
Animation by Dong Yang Animation, Inc.
Original Airdate―November 26th, 1994
Plot: Theme park mogul Grant Walker abducts Mr. Freeze to his floating city of Oceana. In exchange for Freeze’s help becoming immortal, Walker claims he can restore Freeze’s wife Nora to life.
On paper, “Deep Freeze” should be awful. First off, it’s a sequel to the canonical “best episode of Batman: the Animated Series,” written by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm and must disappoint by comparison. Secondly, it’s based on the urban legend that Walt Disney had himself frozen just before his death in an attempt at immortality. And finally, it’s a story where Mr. Freeze and a Walt Disney stand-in “go Galt,” create their own country, and try to destroy the rest of the world. It should be an eye-rolling, unsubtle jab at the animation competition, and a waste of a good villain.
And yet, magically, it’s not. I should have more faith in Dini, Timm, and Kevin Altieri, because “Deep Freeze” is one of the best episodes in the entire series, a stunning, pulp fiction adventure that also contains possibly the most heartbreaking moment in the whole show.
One thing that makes “Deep Freeze” great is that it’s the only episode in which a supervillain actually manages to reform. After watching villain after villain after villain fail to go straight, the moment Freeze decides to sacrifice his own happiness in order to save the lives of others is extremely gratifying. Freeze’s expression softens and melts with sadness. Michael Ansara’s acting is once again perfect, capturing the voice of a man who uses an emotionless persona to hide his inner torment finally letting himself be vulnerable. The heartbreaking moment is when he asks for his wife’s forgiveness, because it’s unclear what he’s apologizing for. Does he want forgiveness for the crimes he’s committed in her name, or does he need her forgiveness for prioritizing the lives of others over hers? Either way, Freeze knows that doing the right thing means there is no happy ending for him.
And, in fact, doing the right thing does not mean Mr. Freeze stops acting like a villain. He ruthlessly and brutally dismantles Walker’s operation, trapping the mogul himself at the bottom of the sea (forever!). He shoots Robin rather than argue about whether Batman will let him die with his wife. Even when warning the citizens of Oceana to evacuate their sinking city, he takes to a giant monitor to declaim at them in the most supervillainous terms possible: “Your city is doomed. If you value your lives, you will flee now.”
“Deep Freeze” establishes that Mr. Freeze is practically immortal, which exaggerates the tragedy of Freeze’s origin. Victor Fries succeeded in his mission to preserve life through cryogenics, but only in success realizes it wasn’t a goal he should have pursued. With his wife (mostly) dead and his revenge (mostly) achieved, Freeze has nothing to live for, and all the time in the world to live it. Unlike most other revenge motivated supervillains, he hasn’t committed any other crimes since his origin. He has nothing to do, for eternity. “Old and infirm as you are, I'd trade a thousand of my frozen years for your worst day” he tells Walker. At least at the end of this episode he can spend eternity with the body of his wife, which is somehow both sweeter and sadder than being locked with a snow globe representing his wife, and definitely a lot creepier.
The real villain of the piece is Grant Walker, and what could have been weak joke turns into one of the more monstrous villains on the show. For one thing, as great a villain as evil Walt Disney can be (see The Venture Bros.), Dini, Timm, and Altieri keep the direct references to Disney to just theme park mogul, an interest in cryogenics, and a mustache. Walker shares more in common with John Galt, trying to create his perfect, techno-fascist society away from government interference. Watching Batman and Robin fight robots and fanatics in a sinking Art Deco dystopia gave me flashbacks of playing BioShock, and I wonder if Ken Levine maybe saw this episode as a younger man.
But Walker also fits particularly well into Batman’s Rogues Gallery. He’s a dark reflection of Bruce Wayne, as they are both wealthy men “obsessed with getting their own way and they don't let little things like the law stop them.” Walker shares Ra’s al Ghul’s dual goals of immortality and reshaping the world, even if it costs the lives of billions. Walker is actually worse than Ra’s, since Walker’s plan involves killing billions out of pure spite and a lack of empathy for people he has not personally selected for salvation. And as Freeze himself learns, living forever doesn’t sound so great if you have nothing left to live for.
“Deep Freeze” also acts as a bridge to Superman: the Animated Series. The whole tone of the episode is bigger, grander, and more pulp fictiony than usual. Batman and Robin aren’t fighting gangsters, thieves, and murderers. They fight an army of giant robots, shark torpedoes, and ice-men in a fantastic sci-fi dystopia. Dini and Timm bring back Karl Rossum to show this shift in tone originates from within the show, but even his cameo acknowledges BTAS has limits. Batman and Robin are greeted by Bat-Mite, the 5th Dimensional imp who happens to be their biggest fan. But this Bat-Mite turns out to be “just” a flying robot toy, because such superpowered beings are beyond the scope of BTAS. And so Bat-Mite is thrown on the pile with Mr. Mxyzptlk, Krypto, and Streaky the Super Cat—other characters that don’t fit into this show but could fit into the next one.
Beyond the technology, “Deep Freeze” has grander villains than most of BTAS episodes. The series has always had monsters, like Clayface, but these monsters still have had basic, understandable, human motivations; revenge, greed, survival. Freeze’s immortal ennui and Walker’s world destroying ambitions are beyond normal experience. And Walker is “just” a wealthy businessman (like the Terrible Trio) and he’s playing on a planet breaking level, which shows that anybody can, and going forward more people will. World beaters like HARDAC and Ra’s al Ghul were the exception. Between Luthor, Brainiac, and Darkseid, on Superman global villains will be the rule.
Written by Michael Reaves, Brynne Stephens
Directed by Dan Riba
Music Composed by Harvey R. Cohen
Animation by Dong Yang Animation, Inc.
Original Airdate—November 12th, 1994
Plot: While Batman’s away, Batgirl chases down Catwoman, who claims she’s being framed.
And so, we come to the end, with what is basically the happiest possible ending Batman could have. Batman, after all, will never willingly retire. As long as crime exists—and crime will always exist—and as long as he has the ability to fight crime, Bruce Wayne can’t not fight crime. How then can one happily end a series about a man whose story must end with his crippling or death?
One ends by showing that Gotham is a better place because Batman existed, and even when he’s gone, Batman’s fight continues. That’s the ending of The Dark Knight Returns, and The Dark Knight Rises, and every other “last adventure of Batman.” The fight goes on, even if Bruce is not the one fighting. Batman: the Animated Series ends on an episode Batman’s barely in, one that focuses on Batman’s sidekicks: Robin, the one he trained and Batgirl, the one he inspired. Batgirl especially proves that the idea of Batman has become bigger than Bruce, something he can’t control anymore. His example will create superheroes even when he’s gone.
“Batgirl Returns” is an episode focused on the future, like “Showdown,” it’s a pilot for a series that doesn’t exist. Dick Grayson and Barbara Gordon’s relationship is established as well as Robin and Batgirl’s. In contrast to the usual superhero secret identity shenanigans, Barbara and Dick actually seem to like each other while Batgirl and Robin can barely stand to work together. If they are actively dating is unclear, since Barbara dreams of making out with Batman, as is the question of how they don’t recognize each other. Catwoman is thrown in as a sometimes mentor/sometimes villain for Batgirl, someone with a lot of admirable qualities but who fundamentally cannot be trusted. “It’s okay, there will be another time,” she tells Robin, and that’s basically the message of the episode. The story goes on, even after we stop watching, even after Batman’s gone. There might as well have been a title card that says “Never the end!”
At the same time, even for an episode looking forward, “Batgirl Returns” is deeply tied into the past. The plot is both a retelling and a sequel to “Catwalk.” Once again, Catwoman is framed for a theft, but that doesn’t mean she’s innocent. But having gone through this once with Batman, Catwoman can’t go to him for help anymore, and must go to the next costumed vigilante on the list. Also, having embraced her true nature in “Catwalk,” Selina is more confident, self-possessed, and imposing. No wonder Batgirl admires her, and is so easily flattered when this accomplished woman calls her smart and brave and talented. Clearly, Batman hasn’t exactly supported her, and Robin remains a patronizing jerk.
(“Batgirl Returns” is also a passing of the torch, as Catwoman returning to crime means there’s an opening for a Batman sidekick that Batman maybe makes out with sometimes.)
But “Batgirl Returns” is also a sequel to, of all episodes, “Cat Scratch Fever.” Apparently trying to poison all of Gotham actually cost Roland Daggett most of his business, and he for some reason blames Catwoman for that (and not Batman? Who actually exposed him while Catwoman was bedridden?). Daggett tries his hardest not to be a supervillain, promising to just shoot Catwoman and Batgirl, though he still ends up monologuing long enough for Catwoman to escape.
Meanwhile, Barbara has implicitly had some unseen adventures since “Shadow of the Bat,” as she dons her costume at the drop of the hat and has gotten better at swinging from rooftops and fighting supercrooks. She’s even gotten her own batarangs from... somewhere. There’s the implication that her adventures have been very different from Batman’s. She has much more comic, cartoony reactions to life around her and the frustrations of dealing with Catwoman, and she quotes Robocop when she tries to sound tough. If Batman stories are pulp adventure, Batgirl’s are light-hearted, comedic romps.
And, again, this is the happiest ending we could have for Batman. Other than Barbara’s dream, the only time we see Bruce he’s in Paris wearing a tuxedo. He’s confident enough in Robin (and to a lesser extent in Batgirl) that he can leave Gotham entirely to focus on his life as Bruce Wayne, even if only temporarily. The only way that image of Bruce could have been happier would be if he had been there on a date (and of the available options, Zatanna would probably be best).
One of the darkest elements of The New Batman Adventures is the idea that Batman basically squanders the hopeful ending of this episode. Instead of relying more and more on his team, Bruce drives Dick Grayson away and ends up with Barbara as a partner instead. And despite the efforts of Bruce, and Barbara, and Dick, and new Robin Tim Drake during The New Batman Adventures, Batman Beyond shows the wounds never really mend, and Bruce ends up driving Barbara away as well. There really is no happy ending for Bruce Wayne.
And that’s how the series ends. Obviously the DC Animated Universe continues, but here’s a good place to stop for me to take a break. I just want to say it’s been a pleasure spending the last year watching, analyzing, and writing about one of the most definitive superhero stories all time, and one of the formative shows of my childhood, with you. You’ve been a great audience. Thank you very much for your time.