“Heart of Ice”
Written by Paul Dini
Directed by Bruce W. Timm
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.