Batman has countless amazing stories across comic books, television, and film, but not all of them are well known. In my first entry in The Greatest Batman Stories, I delve into one of the greatest episodes of Batman: The Animated Series – “Heart of Ice.”
The 1990’s cartoon Batman: The Animated Series may be the definitive version of The Dark Knight himself. Its tone, mood, and grasp of the character make it a favorite of fans far and wide. Not only that, but it has provided outstanding versions of villains that are often far better than their movie interpretations.
The stories of Batman: The Animated Series (BTAS) are so strong that they have actually influence comics themselves, making writers alter the looks, personalities, and origins of some characters to be more in line with their cartoon counterparts.
No example is stronger than that of Mr. Freeze, a throwaway villain from the ‘60s who had been forgotten until his reintroduction in the BTAS episode “Heart of Ice.” Not only is it the reason why Mr. Freeze became an iconic villain, it is one of the best Batman stories told in any medium.
A Heartbroken Villain
Prior to his appearance in “Heart of Ice,” Mr. Freeze, originally known as Mr. Zero, has an uninteresting thief/scientist who used a freezing gun and needed to stay in subzero temperatures due to a cryogenic chemical accident. There wasn’t much to him and he was rarely used.
But that all changed in “Heart of Ice” when writer Paul Dini and producer Bruce Timm decided to completely overhaul him in appearance, demeanor, and backstory.
The episode is a tale of revenge while also being an origin story for the villain. Batman must investigate a strange series of robberies that leave both buildings and victims frozen solid. Eventually, the Dark Knight’s detective skills lead him to the perpetrator, Mr. Freeze. Slowly over the course of the episode, Batman’s investigation and Freeze’s confession reveal a tragic motivation.
Freeze was once Dr. Victor Fries, a cryogenic scientist who embezzled funds and ran secret experiments at the company he worked at to cryogenically freeze his terminally ill wife, Nora. Unfortunately, in the midst of his attempt to stabilize Nora’s frozen condition, Freeze’s employer Ferris Boyle violently interrupted with security guards, causing Nora’s death and exposing Freeze to chemicals that altered his biology. Now, Freeze can only live in subzero temperatures and is hellbent on revenge against the man who cost him everything.
It’s this tragic backstory that makes Freeze into a truly sympathetic villain. His cold, emotionless demeanor is in sharp contrast to the man who was so heartbroken over his wife’s illness that he risked everything to save her. He insists that any and all emotion is now dead inside him, stating “I am beyond emotions. They’ve been frozen dead in me,” and upon recounting the loss of his wife “It would move me to tears if I still had tears to shed.”
What really brings power to the story is that Freeze’s insistence that he has no more emotions is a lie. Like those who have suffered great loss in real life, Freeze has buried his immense emotional scars as deep as possible. His focus on revenge against Boyle is indicative of his rage and sorrow, but it is at the end when we see the true Freeze. Locked in his refrigerated cell at Arkham Asylum after being defeated by Batman, he stares at a wind up ballerina dancer he keeps in memento of his wife, heartbroken over his loss and crying as Batman watches from nearby.
Unlike many other stories, Batman is not the focal point. While we uncover the mystery alongside him, the emotion and meaning is rooted in Freeze. That’s not to say that the Caped Crusader is not important. We still root for him and side with him in the conflict. Compared to the vengeful villain, the standoffish Dark Knight seems downright warm and friendly. While he is committed to stopping Freeze, he also sympathizes with him and similarly dislikes the slimy Boyle.
Like every great BTAS episode, the story is incredibly strong on all fronts. Kevin Conroy will always be the perfect embodiment of Batman and Michael Ansara’s performance as Freeze is suitably chilling until it becomes melancholic and heartbreaking. Of special note, Mark Hamill voices Boyle, which he actually recorded before being hired to voice The Joker, another iconic performance for another blog entry.
The story is told in a fantastic manner, mixing mystery, action, and origin story in a clean and efficient way. But it lingers long enough in the details to sit with characters and emotions. Neither side is sacrificed for the other and by doing so, it increases emotional investment as the viewer is drawn into the progression of the story. Scenes of Batman quietly investigating in the Bat-Cave are just as captivating as Mr. Freeze rocketing up hundreds of feet in the air by freezing a busted fire hydrant.
Top that off with great visuals. Mike Mignola, who would go on to create and draw Hellboy, created Freeze’s new look. His simple yet eye-catching cold blue suit has hints of steampunk while looking modern. Importantly, his glowing red goggles help to remove the most indicative aspect of his humanity: his eyes. Rather than being able to see how much he is hurting, we can only see expressionless red goggles that pierce the icy cold environments he creates. Of course, when we finally see him weeping in his cell at the end, these goggles are gone and we are left with the man trapped beneath the icy demeanor.
“Heart of Ice” encapsulates everything that is great about Batman: The Animated Series. It has both an interesting story and characters, pays great reverence to Batman and his world, and does it all with both style and substance. If you were to collect all of the greatest Batman stories, a large portion would be from BTAS, and “Heart of Ice” would rank among the very best.