Thursday, October 14, 2010

Batman: The Animated Series Re-Watch: Episode Fourteen: Heart of Ice

I have to admit, I was dreading reviewing this episode. It was my favorite, it's the one that won an Emmy, as is voted best episode in fan polls. But it's entirely possible the Suck Fairy had visited in the last eighteen years. I'm happy to report that it just isn't so. Heart of Ice is great.

Plot: Batman investigates a series of "freezing" attacks on GothCorp, and discovers Mr. Freeze, who blames CEO Ferris Boyle for the death of his wife.

While the visual design of Mr. Freeze is basically unchanged from the comics and 1966 TV show (a robot suit with a glass dome over the head and a freeze gun), Batman: the Animated Series totally reinvented the character of Mr. Freeze for his episode. Or, rather, invented, because he didn't really have a character before. He was just a criminal who committed ice crimes the same way the Penguin commits bird crimes. His emotionless behavior and tragic origin story were invented by director Bruce Timm and writer Paul Dini (respectively) for this episode. (This is in fact the first episode Timm directed and Dini wrote). Dini in particular was inspired by Boris Karloff and Vincent Price movies to make Mr. Freeze's motivation the death of his wife Nora, and turn the episode into a ghoulish vengeance from the grave story.

And so for the fourth time we get the revenge plot, where supervillain tries to get revenge on non-supervillain, and Batman gets in the way (we'll see it a lot). The difference this time is that, unlike the Scarecrow, who was totally in the wrong, and Two-Face, who was totally in the right, Mr. Freeze is kind of right and kind of wrong.

When he was Dr. Victor Fries, he was trying to do a good thing, save his wife and possibly countless lives, and Boyle's a dick, valuing Nora's life at less than three million dollars and directly causing the accident that kills Nora and traps Fries in his frozen condition. On the other hand, Fries was stealing from the company to pay for the experiment and as Mr. Freeze he would kill everyone in the building to get revenge on Boyle. So Batman is understandably torn.

And it's crucial too that, in this episode of Batman, BATMAN is the protagonist, something he hasn't been since The Forgotten, when he mostly had amnesia, or The Underdwellers before that. This episode is about how Batman reacts to someone else's vigilante crusade, one whose motives overlap with his own. In that respect, the key choice is when Batman lets Freeze escape so he can go back and save the semi-frozen hood that Mr. Freeze left to die. Batman cannot NOT care about people. Which makes it a much bigger moment at the end when he DOES leave Boyle half-way frozen, (with a cold delivery of "Good night, humanitarian"). It's clear that Batman feels Boyle deserves much worse than the common criminal, and is willing to let Freeze have some of his revenge.

And that's the contrast of the three main characters. Boyle, voiced by Mark "the Joker" Hamill by the way, makes a big show of compassion, literally adding "the People Company" to his company logo, but it doesn't take much to make his mask slip and reveal the heartless bastard at his core. Mr. Freeze is the opposite. He claims to be emotionless, that all feeling has been frozen dead inside him, specifically he claims he has no more tears to shed, and yet, there they are, at the end of the episode, as he thinks about how he failed his wife. Batman, if anything, is closer to Mr. Freeze, on the surface emotionless, but fueled by both anger and compassion to seek justice.

Narratively, Dini and Timm pull out some interesting tricks. The opening title card is incorporated into the show itself for the first time, as the camera pans from the text to Mr. Freeze's snowglobe. The "flashback" for the origin story is actually a tape Dr. Fries was recording when Boyle broke into his lab (though as Timm points out in the commentary, Dr. Fries must have set up 14 or so cameras to get all the coverage, and someone else must have come in and edited the tapes together). In the first act, Batman creates a computer model of the giant ice cannon Mr. Freeze uses in the third, a superheroic example of Chekov's axiom.

They also do a good job of making both Batman and Mr. Freeze competent competitors. Batman deduces Freeze's next target before Freeze strikes, Freeze successfully fights him off and escapes by leaving a man behind. Batman discovers Freeze's true identity, Freeze surprises and captures Batman (because he apparently built his secret frozen base in the basement of GothCorp, which is either brilliant or stupid but it sure is ballsy as hell). Even to the end, when Batman has dismantled the freeze cannon and knocked out Freeze's crew (one using his signature over the shoulder backhanded punch), he can still only flail uselessly against Freeze's unstoppable robot suit (thank God for Alfred and obvious targets like unprotected glass domes).

One thing I noticed this time is that even though this Mr. Freeze is the more serious, darker, more complex character, he is still constantly making cold puns. Right from the beginning, "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," he's pretty unrelenting. Mostly, he gets away with it because Michael Ansara voices Freeze with an emotionless deadpan (aided by production work to give his words a metallic echo) which lends these incredibly cheesy lines with menace and weight. If anyone deserves credit for turning one of Batman's silliest villains into one of the most emotionally resonant, and making Heart of Ice one of the best episodes of Batman: the Animated Series, it's Ansara.


Patrick said...

I always liked the allusion to Mr. Freeze as Charles Foster Kane, all the way down to the snow globe.

Steven said...

Oh man, Citizen Kane is ALL OVER this cartoon. Lighting choices, angles, use of music for transitions, the fact that every gate has big letter on it. It's a wonder they didn't do an episode called "Citizen Wayne."