Batman: The Animated Series, “Heart of Ice”

08Feb11

Now this is one hell of a rebound.

Just as I did with Rupert Thorne, I used to think Mr. Freeze was a character created by the series. And in a sense, I’m right, at least as far as how he appears in the comics now. The story isn’t exactly the same, but he was popular enough to be recreated in the comics in the Animated Series mold. With the excellent performances and plotting in “Two-Face,” I’m hard pressed to say that “Heart of Ice” is the best origin episode in the series. There are a few small issues that could have held it back. But the excellent design for Mr. Freeze, and the performance from Michael Ansara, lifts the episode as a whole above these problems.

We open with Mr. Freeze speaking, instantly giving us his distorted voice as he talks about getting revenge. With a more traditional style of super villain, such as the Joker or Penguin, this whole scene would fall flat. But Ansara has a fine balance between the icy exterior monotone, and the emotions underneath. It is-for lack of a better word-chilling in its effect; you can easily believe that whoever this person intends to punish, it will happen.

The episode then cuts to a news report for the initial exposition, about how “Gothcorp” has suffered a number of cold related crimes, in the middle of a heatwave. After watching this in the Batcave, Batman tells Alfred that the things stolen thus far aren’t much on their own, but could be assembled into a powerful weapon that generates cold. Which is the first issue I noticed-if Batman, with no specialty in cryogenics, can tell what the stolen parts are being used for, why haven’t the Gothcorp people been able to put it together either? For that matter, why do they even have these parts. It’s not an important question, of course, but it still seems strange.

Batman goes to intercept the criminal responsible, which is how he meets Mr. Freeze, using a freeze gun (with a very distinctive sound) to first slow Batman down, and then to incapacitate him, however briefly. Much like other first act fights, Batman ends up losing. But the more striking thing about this scene is that one of Freeze’s henchmen gets caught by a stray blast….and when the others try to help him, Freeze commands them to leave him behind. The panic in the man’s voice is wrenching as he pleads with them to save him, a task that falls on Batman.

After bringing the man back to the Batcave, Batman uses some kind of unnamed tank (along with old anime footage of sciency machines) of chemicals to save the man from frostbite and death. He then follows up on the targeting of Gothcorp by talking to the CEO Ferris Boyle, played by Mark Hamill, as Bruce Wayne. There’s more exposition as Boyle talks about how a deceased employee would be the only person who’d hate the company enough to target them, and mentioning he’ll be getting a humanitarian award soon. Batman uses the information to first look up a newspaper report on the accident, and then sneaks into Gothcorp to review their file on the matter. It’s there we learn just what happened, as Boyle causes the death of Nora and Freeze’s transformation. As the tape finishes, Freeze appears, and takes down Batman and takes him prisoner. This is the second issue I noticed; Freeze plans to ambush Boyle at his party, but before he arrives, he somehow knows where Batman will be, incapacitates him, then…leaves the building with Batman to return later? It’s not entirely clear what’s happening here.

However, this is also a prime example of how the performances and dialogue lift the episode up. Batman doesn’t threaten Freeze with arrest, but actually apologizes for the death of Freeze’s wife, Nora. Freeze notes how he cannot exist in normal temperatures anymore, and how what’s been taken from him is more than enough to drive him to kill Boyle and those in the building with him…and for a moment, at least, it’s hard to blame him. Batman quickly frees himself once Freeze has left. While he’s not able to stop Freeze’s initial use of his ice cannon on the building, he is able to prevent it from being fully encased, and intervenes before Freeze can personally kill Boyle. Freeze tosses Batman around thanks to the protection of his armor, until Batman breaks open the glass helmet around Freeze (thanks to some hot soup Alfred gave him for a developing cold), disabling Freeze. After announcing that Boyle killed Freeze’s wife and handing the tape to the nearest reporter, Batman makes his exit.

The episode ends with Freeze in a special cell in Arkham, despairing about how he has failed his wife, hoping she’ll hear him “some place…where a warm hand waits for mine.” Batman watches the cell from outside, before making his exit.

“Heart of Ice” is probably one of the best episodes of the series, and I give full credit for that to Ansara’s work and the excellent dialogue he was given. Rather than simply being another villain for Batman to fight, Mr. Freeze is the protagonist of a tragedy. And he’s a strong enough character, both on paper and with Ansara’s work, that the episode could have worked just as well from his perspective. Batman doesn’t plan to let Freeze get away with murder, but he can perfectly understand why Freeze wants revenge. While he can prevent Freeze from killing so many people to get at one man, Nora Fries is still dead. It all winds up in an episode that I could show to anyone, at any time, as an example of how good the Animated Series could be.

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