Batman: The Animated Series Rewind Review Looks At S01E03 Heart of Ice
Welcome back Bat-fans as we take a walk down Batman memory lane and rewatch Batman: The Animated Series for its 30th anniversary! Today we're going to take a look at what is probably the most celebrated and impactful episode of the entire series and an episode that elevated a lesser Batman villain to the upper echelon in pop culture and comics. Today we're taking a look at Heart of Ice.
Heart of Ice (Original Air Date: 9/7/1992)
This was the third episode put on the air, but again there was some jumbling with the order the episode was produced versus the order in which it aired. Heart of Ice was actually the fourteenth episode produced but was moved up to the first week of episodes to air because of how good it was.
The episode is built around the comic book villain Mr. Freeze who, in 1992 when the episode debuted, actually wasn't even alive in the comics anymore and wasn't that well-respected a character before his demise. First appearing in 1959's Batman #121, Mr. Freeze was introduced to the world as Mr. Zero, a silly frosty-gimmicked heist-leader who had to be kept at subzero temperatures and used a freezing gun, to get around the era's Comics Code Authority that largely neutered Batman's rogues' gallery of psychos and gangsters and instead replaced them with spacemen, inter-dimensional imps, and sci-fi gimmick villains, such as Mr. Zero. He wouldn't be known as Mr. Freeze until the 1966 Batman TV series when the show made the name change that stuck while maintaining his overall goofy presentation.
B: TAS creator Bruce Timm wanted to take the character in a new direction and came up with the concept that Mr. Freeze was a brilliant scientist who survived a horrible accident that left him beyond death or emotions; a truly frozen man, inside and out. He passed this idea off to young writer Paul Dini, whom he'd worked with on Tiny Toon Adventures and was here serving on his first episode of the series that he would become famous for. Dini focused on the soul of a man who had truly lost everything and was emotionally frozen, turning one of Batman's silliest villains into his most tragic. He said the following about his process on the episode:
"After we did the inital development on Freeze, I left Warners for a while to work on a movie. Alan Burnett came on to supervise the writing, and he asked if I would write some freelance scripts. The first one I wrote was Heart of Ice, as no one had touched Freeze since we had done the early development on him. In writing the story, I thought if Freeze claimed to be dead to emotion, then the last scene should be him breaking down. I worked backward from that idea, setting up the conflict that would get him to that point."
Dini crafted a tragic story about Victor Fries, a brilliant cryogenics scientist whose wife is stricken with an incurable disease and the only thing he can do is cryogenically freeze her until he can find a cure to save her life. When his corrupt boss interferes and destroys his operation, Fries suffers an accident that not only transforms his body to a state where he must be kept at subzero temperatures at all times but also costs him his wife. He is now dead inside and focused solely on one thing: revenge against the man who did this.
The official synopsis for the episode: "Brilliant cryogenics expert Dr. Victor Fries is transformed into Mr. Freeze, a vengeful creature who can only survive in subzero temperatures."
The episode is haunting right from the opening seconds. The simple sad/beautiful musical theme (in this episode composed by Todd Hayen) hits you in the heart immediately, creating what is often argued as the best villain theme music of the entire series. Through a light snowfall, we hear a cold, almost robotic voice speaking poetically about a lost love while we see a snowglobe with a dancing ballerina inside. His words turn to vengeance, promising to make the man pay who did this to them. "The monster who took you from me will soon learn that revenge is a dish best served cold."
Have you ever seen such an ethereal, effective opening to what is ostensibly a children's cartoon? Mere seconds into the third episode, it felt as if B: TAS, and the Batman mythos with it, were elevated into a higher art form.
From there we see through a news report that not only in Gotham sweating through a heatwave, but that GothCorp factories have been attacked and robbed in a series of crimes that have left the buildings covered in ice and snow. We get a statement from GothCorp CEO Ferris Boyle (played by Mark Hamill, more on that later), who plays the innocent bewildered victim card here and says they're "the people company" and are willing to listen to their attacker's problems.
We move into the bat cave, where we find Batman analyzing the stolen GothCorp machinery and figuring out that with all the parts together, it creates a giant gun able to generate intense cold. He tells Alfred (played in this episode and through every other one except the first three produced by Efrem Zimbalist Jr., who immediately sounds like a more engaging and natural fit in the role) that only one more component remains and Batman heads to the facility that has it, ready to intercept the attackers.
A giant truck plows through the security checkpoint at the GothCorp facility, followed by a speeding Batmobile on its tail. We see Mr. Freeze in the back of the truck, as he shoots the road with his freeze gun, covering it in ice and causing the Batmobile to spin out and crash.
Freeze then ices over the entrance to the building, allowing them to crash through. As they begin to steal materials, Batman follows them inside and intervenes, taking out the henchmen. Batman yells for the villain to "freeze!", but he replies "that's MISTER Freeze to you!" before freezing an oncoming Batarang. As he tries to shoot Batman, Freeze accidentally freezes one of his own men and then demands the others leave him to die as they make their escape.
As you can see, the animation in this episode is strikingly perfect. The visuals are crisp and stunning and the movements and action are all flawless. The way the freeze effects appear and attention to little snowy details in the animation was truly something special. As good as On Leather Wings looked, this episode took the animation to all-new heights.
Batman brings the frozen henchman back to the bat cave, where he is able to defrost him. We see that Batman is now suffering from a cold as a result of his battle with Freeze. After dropping the criminal off with the police, he heads to a meeting with Ferris Boyle as Bruce Wayne, where we see that Boyle's public persona as a caring head of industry is all an act and he's actually an arrogant heartless scumbag that Wayne detests. "Look, Bruce. That 'People Company' line is great PR, but when the wage slaves start acting like they own the place, it's time to pull the plug."
Through questioning Boyle, Wayne finds out that the only man it could be that is pulling off these crimes against GothCorp is a former scientist that Boyle callously explains was using company property for his own experiments, but the man is dead so it's impossible, right?
We learn Boyle is receiving a "Humanitarian of the Year" award that night at a gala and we then see Mr. Freeze is preparing to attack the ceremony as he lashes out at a TV report on Boyle's award. "The canon must be completed tonight. I have my own warm wishes to bestow on Mr. Boyle."
Batman does more research and finds out about Dr. Victor Fries, whom GothCorp told the media died in a freak accident. Batman sets off to GothCorp to get the actual files on Fries, but Alfred first compels him to take a thermos of chicken soup for his cold. Batman infiltrates GothCorp by impersonating a security guard and once back in his Bat attire, finds the files on Fries, which include photos of him and his wife, Nora, along with her medical records that state she's positive and terminal.
Also included is a videotape, which Batman views and sees it's Fries documenting his work, where he explains he froze his wife so that he may keep her alive while he works on a cure for her disease. Boyle and security barge in and Boyle demands he shut down everything immediately and open the freezing unit, killing his wife. Fries panics and grabs one of the guard's guns and orders them to leave, but after pretending to be sympathetic, Boyle pushes Fries into the freezing chemicals, which causes an immediate reaction that freezes the room over. The last moments on the tape are a freezing Victor reaching for his wife as he frosts over.
Batman exclaims "my god!" as he watches the tape of the tragedy, but Mr. Freeze approaches him from behind, replying "Yes. It would move me to tears if I still had tears to shed." before blasting Batman with his freeze gun.
A bit of interesting trivia here. Batman saying god was apparently an issue, as children's programming wasn't supposed to have any religious exclamations. When the series was syndicated years later on Toon Disney, the line was cut from the episode.
Next, we find Batman hanging upside down and frozen to the ceiling. Mr. Freeze has taken his utility belt, so he has no tools to escape. Instead, he tries offering humanity to Freeze, telling him he's sorry for what happened to his wife. Freeze rejects his sympathy, explaining how he has no more feeling. "I'm beyond emotions. They've been frozen dead in me."
They discuss how Freeze must keep inside his coolant-fueled suit to survive, as his body must now be kept at subzero temperatures at all times. Freeze explains how he will get his revenge on Boyle tonight, but when Batman asks if he's willing to kill everyone else in the building to do it, Freeze gives him a truly haunting response that tells you almost anything you need to know about how this character ticks.
It's painful. It's relatable. It's just great dialogue. It's often said how the best supervillains are the ones you can almost empathize with and while that's definitely true with villains who are driven by a social agenda (Magneto, Killmonger, etc), it's rare that we get one we wholly feel for and with on a personal level. Seeing what happened to Victor Fries and hearing him describe his internal turmoil in such tactile ways that anyone who has loved and felt these sensations can immediately understand and feel, that's powerful.
Freeze and his henchmen head to the ceremony, while Batman is able to free himself from his icy restraints. Freeze arrives outside the building with his weapon and uses it to freeze the entire building from the ground up. As Boyle receives his ill-gotten award, Freeze and his men are interrupted by Batman outside. Batman is able to retrieve his utility belt and then we get to see one of Batman's hallmark most-badass moves that we've seen in many different adaptations, where a goon thinks they have the jump on him and as they approach him from behind, the Dark Knight throws up his fist and knocks them out without looking. You don't get cooler than that!
Freeze rides an ice-wave up to the ballroom atop the building and reintroduces himself to Ferris Boyle before freezing his enemy. Boyle begs him to let him survive, which brings out another wonderful bit of painful dialogue from Freeze, "You beg? In my nightmares I see my Nora behind the glass, begging me with frozen eyes. How I've longed to see that look frozen on you!"
Batman stops Freeze from killing him and as they fight, Freeze explains that his suit triples his strength. As he chokes Batman above his head, Batman reaches to his belt for one last weapon, the thermos of hot chicken soup, which he smashes into Freeze's helmet, causing it to shatter and expose him to above zero temperatures. Freeze collapses, still reaching for Boyle and demanding vengeance. Batman corrects him that it's justice. He explains to the press there what Boyle did to Victor and Nora, before handing over the evidence to them and making his exit. He walks by the freezing Boyle and condemningly says "Goodnight, humanitarian."
We then go to Arkham Asylum (the first appearance of the iconic location on the series!), where we look into Mr. Freeeze inside a frozen cell. He pulls out the dancing snowglobe again and heartbreakingly apologizes to his wife for failing her and begs that she's in a better place, waiting to hold his hand again. Tears fall from his eyes, showing he does still have humanity inside him after all. We see Batman watching from outside as the episode ends with the chilling notes of the heartwrenching score playing over the images.
Bruce Timm directed this episode himself and the attention to detail throughout really shows. Of course, one of the defining parts of the episode is Michael Ansara's incredibly chilling and iconic performance as Mr. Freeze, creating the template for how every other iteration of the character would be played (Arnold Schwarzenegger aside, sort of). Oddly enough though, the performance did not come to fruition easily and Timm explained that it took quite a bit of conflict to get it where it needed to be.
"He was acting too much. It was really frustrating for him. He had never done cartoons before and an actor's first natural instinct is to act. He kept giving these line readings with all this inflection in them. I kept telling them that it had to be less, a lot less- like a robot. He kept saying it sounded so flat. Everybody else was looking at me too, and was asking me if I was sure. To them it sounded flat. I think it really sells it. I wanted his voice to sound like the Ebonites in that old The Outer Limits episode, Nightmare. They sound real metallic and hollow. I even played that for him at the recording session, and explained that was what I wanted it to sound like. It drove the sound guys crazy doing it."
Eventually, it did get there and it's impossible to imagine the episode without Ansara's voice, even though Timm originally campaigned hard to have Anthony Hopkins play the part.
And speaking of actors, let's talk about Mark Hamill, who appears here as the slimy Ferris Boyle. Now, of course, Hamill will go on to become iconic in and beyond the series for his performance as The Joker, but his involvement with the series started here on this episode and he actually would never have become The Joker without taking this role first. The great Tim Curry was originally cast as The Joker for the series, but in early recording sessions, it became clear quickly that he was playing the character as far too frightening for an afternoon kids show (I have to imagine the voice was something similar to his other iconic killer clown, Pennywise in IT). Curry dropped out of the role before any Joker episode aired, but the team was left scrambling to find a replacement in such a short amount of time.
While there to record this episode, Hamill heard about the issues they were having casting the role and asked if he could give it a shot. The story goes that he went into a booth, did what would become the iconic maniacal laugh, and he's played the role in numerous different mediums ever since. Talk about being in the right place at the right time, huh?
Heart of Ice would go on to become one of the most decorated episodes of the series, with Paul Dini winning the 1993 Daytime Emmy Award for "Outstanding Writing in an Animated Program".
It is considered the gold standard episode for the series, as in 2005 Wizard magazine named it the best of the entire series and its impact beyond the TV screen is substantial, as not only did it take an ill-respected foil like Mr. Freeze and create a truly compelling character with pathos for this episode, but it changed the character in every other medium forever. DC Comics adopted this origin for the character as canon going forward and every other adaptation has used it as the blueprint.
Mr. Freeze went from a goofy gimmick villain to one of comics' most revered in the course of 22 minutes.
This episode along with the entire series is available on HBO Max in full HD.
They will continue this approach in the next adventure, as Clayface will get the star treatment, and again, the show will take a lesser-known villain and make them into something more in Feat of Clay Part 1. See you next time Bat-fans!