DCAU #14: Heart of Ice

IN THIS ONE... Mr. Freeze makes his debut, looking for revenge for his wife's death.

CREDITS: Written by Paul Dini;  directed by Bruce Timm.

REVIEW: Before this episode, Mr. Freeze was nothing. A C-lister at best in Batman's rogues gallery, there's no way he would have appeared in a big budget Batman movie only a few years later (not even a terrible one). While Batman does have some credible "science fiction" villains (Clayface maybe?), they don't always fit in with a cast that's almost entirely made up of psychological pathologies, driven by obsession and trauma. That's what Paul Dini gave Freeze. Psychological depth. In retrospect, it was fairly easy to do. Dini simply gave him attributes associated with the cold - emotionlessness, bitterness, calculating revenge, ruthlessness - and worked his way back from there to give Freeze an origin story that would lead the character there. Recast as a loving husband whose dying wife was taken from him by his corporate masters when they pulled the plug on his cryogenic experiments, also accidentally giving him his frozen condition, Mr. Freeze becomes a rather sympathetic figure, if one frozen mid-motivation, the very essence of obsession. And the more you contrast such villains to Batman, who also "lost everything" and still came out on the right side of things, the more remarkable the Dark Knight becomes.

The story is full of amazing touches. Freeze using a fire hydrant to propel himself on a plume of ice. Batman getting a cold. Alfred's chicken soup joke, and how it figures in Freeze's defeat. The double meanings lacing Bruce Wayne's conversation with "CEO of the People" Ferris Boyle (including Bruce's sarcastic "I feel ill"). How Boyle is just as cold as Freeze is, probably more, but masks it in a philanthropist's cause; Freeze just refuses, or is unable, to hide the same way. Batman saving the henchman coldly left behind and saving him from hypothermia. His ice cold retort to Boyle, "Good night... humanitarian." Freeze worshiping a representation of his wife in a snow globe. I'd say the only weak part is the MacGuffin of the ice cannon's different parts needing to be stolen and assembled, but it's a MacGuffin, that's usually how it goes.

And while the script alone might have been enough to make this a triumph, Bruce Timm's direction puts it way over the top. This is an episode filled with motion. Wind, snow, ice, debris, all in swirling motion, and responsive to the characters' actions. A lesser episode wouldn't trouble itself with squishing a small amount of snow under a walking character's boots. The episode literally shines thanks to a glittering effect, and metaphorically by the amount of detail put in. Kids playing in the background in the aftermath of Freeze's attacks. Nora's snow globe fogging up. Tiny reflections in Freeze's red goggles. There's more atmosphere in the Batcave, a better than usual use of shadows... the episode is just more ANIMATED. About the only note I'd give it is to dial down the distortion on Freeze's voice, which was sometimes hard to understand. But you damn right these guys won an Emmy for Heart of Ice.

IN THE COMICS: Mr. Freeze first appeared as Mr. Zero in Batman #121 (1959) - leading to three appearances on the '66 TV series under that name with different actors in the role - and became Mr. Freeze with Detective Comics #373 (1968). He was such a loser, the Joker had killed him unceremoniously in the Robin II mini-series in 1991. This episode's quality and popularity led to DC Comics minting Paul Dini as a bona fide comics writer, and his first non-DCAU assignment was to adapt his origin story to mainstream continuity (in 1997, though the villain was quickly resurrected in 'Tec #670, 1994, and brought in line with the cartoon version), giving Nora Fries and Ferris Boyle their first appearances in continuity.

SOUNDS LIKE: Michael Ansara, famous as the TOS era Klingon Kang, voices Mr. Freeze. That's Mark Hamill as Ferris Boyle.

REWATCHABILITY: High - Many still consider it the best BTAS episode ever made, and you can see why. The bar's been set very high, gentlemen. (Imagine, this originally aired THIRD.)


Anonymous said...

In recent years, in the nu52, it seems Mr. Freeze is delusional and there was no Nora Fries and childhood madness and etc. I am of mixed opinions.

On the one hand, this episode should stand. Between this episode, one or two good subsequent episodes, and the final appearance in "Batman Beyond", it's a story worth preserving.

On the other hand, every rampage Mr. Freeze has been on where he killed innocent people whittled away at this episode. The point is that Mr. Freeze is so consumed with loss that he can't feel anything else, but he also has enough intelligence that, even on an abstract level, he should be reluctant to put others through the same thing. Killing people who refuse to get out of his way is one thing; killing innocent people with abandon is another. And he's done too much of the latter for "grieving husband" to explain it.

If Anonymous ruled the DC offices, Mr. Freeze would be used sparingly, and while he would be capable of cruelty he would reserve it for people he felt were in some way guilty of Nora's death. He might even extend it to people who callously caused death the way Mr. Boyle did. (Okay, I just now noticed the pun.) But random cops, security guards, and the like ... ? Mr. Freeze ought to give them the choice to leave him to his business, and if they choose not to, well, they made their choice.

I would also have Mr. Freeze create at least some medical technology with humanitarian goals, not because he feels for strangers exactly, but because Nora would approve.

Siskoid said...

I think they should play more on his moral ambiguity as well. But yes, I'd use EVERY member of Batman's rogues gallery sparingly. He has probably the best such gallery in comics history, and there's absolutely no reason for every story to be a Joker story.

Anonymous said...

And, utilize the characters in ways that play up their strengths. Two-Face is a lawyer who lost the ability to prize good over evil. Penguin is about a veneer of respectability. Use them in thematically appropriate ways; don't just make them guys who rob banks and try to shoot Batman.

Something new that's happened in the nu52: Killer Croc has done the opposite of what Mr. Freeze has. Seems Killer Croc has made himself the protector of the homeless who live beneath the streets of Gotham, and even of children in general. I really, really don't mind that he feels he has a positive role to play, that still allows him to be a monster when not engaged in his benevolent duties. (I also like to imagine that Batman would try to encourage Killer Croc's protective instincts, and would help him find out which Wayne Foundation outreach centers are easiest to break into and get what he needs.)

Green Luthor said...

To be perfectly honest, I can't really say for sure that Mr. Freeze wouldn't have appeared in a live-action Batman film without this version, as the 1966 show did give him *some* name recognition value amongst the general public. (The Burton/Schumacher series had already used Joker, Penguin, Catwoman, and Riddler (and Two-Face, who didn't appear in the 1966 show); at that point, the only villains from the comics who also appeared on the show and that hadn't been used in the films were Freeze and Mad Hatter, and Freeze would probably be the easier sell.) (Granted, Arnie's Freeze did borrow from Dini's version, although, to be honest, they probably should have borrowed more. A less emotional Freeze probably would have made the film less campy, and we probably wouldn't have had to deal with as many of those terrible, terrible puns.) (Although every single other character would likely have still been making terrible, terrible puns, so the movie would have sucked anyway probably.) (I'm rambling again, aren't I?)

Anyhoo... continuing to tie things back to your Babylon 5 reviews, Michael Ansara also played the technomage Elric in "The Geometry of Shadows". (And his voice was used in the season 5 opening credits. "I see a great hand reaching out of the stars...") (And, honestly, save for Ansara's own lack of star power (i.e., he never would have been cast in the role), I think he would have made an excellent live-action Freeze as well, although I suppose we'll never have the opportunity to find out now.)

Siskoid said...

I'm not sure it's fair to say the movies were playing with the '66 playbook. Two-Face and Bane appear in these films, and they weren't in '66, and Freeze was called Mr. Zero then, if anyone remembers him at all. I have much stronger memories of King Tut and Egghead, personally.

It's more likely that Bane's role would have been buffed up, or that someone like Scarecrow or even Ra's al Ghul (who shares an environmental streak with Poison Ivy) would have been the extra villain. Heck, with the tone of those films, Bat-Mite wouldn't have been out of the question.

But Freeze was on the receiving end of an Emmy only a few years before and had been upgraded in the comics. '66 (under a different name) or not, I don't think he was on the same level as Clayface, Maxie Zeus, Mad Hatter (though they just did the mind control hat idea in Forever), Firefly, Killer Croc, etc. He was more on par with Signalman or something.

Green Luthor said...

I'm not saying that Freeze definitely would have wound up in "Batman and Robin", just that it's a possibility. For the non-comics-reading public, the most well-known version of Batman at that point (not counting the Burton/Schumacher series, since it's decisions related to said series under discussion here) would have been the 1966 show. I can't say with certainty that the decisions regarding which villains to feature in the movie were influenced by the show, just that I could imagine someone went through the roster of Batman's villains to see who they could use that might have name recognition, hit Freeze, said "oh, yeah, I remember that guy from the show", and put him in.

To sum up, would Mr. Freeze have been used in "Batman and Robin" were it not for "Heart of Ice" (and B:TAS in general)? I don't know for certain, but I can't rule it out, either.

(Irrelevant side note: before Arnie, Patrick Stewart was considered for the role of Freeze. That... would have been a much different movie. Especially if they used the same dialogue.)

Andrew Gilbertson said...

"Seems Killer Croc has made himself the protector of the homeless who live beneath the streets of Gotham, and even of children in general."
Rather than doing ANYTHING to give kudos to nu52, I would just spin this as 'So, they're transparently ripping off Venom: Lethal Protector, eh?' :-)

As for the overall review, I completely disagree, Siskoid- this was a mediocre episode, at best.

...Kidding, of course! Enough praise cannot be lavished on Ansara's Fries, and the DCAU's take in general (mind you, having just finished 'SubZero' a few weeks ago- like Peter Parker, they need to realize that we won't walk away from the program if they occassionally give the poor guy a break!). Some 'classics' are very much overhyped to me- but this is one that definitively earns its title. Great review for a great episode.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure where you get the idea that Mr. Freeze was called Mr. Zero on the Batman '66 series, as he was called Mr. Freeze from his first appearance on the show, played by George Sanders. Here's Joel Eisner's (the writer of the Batbook, chronicling the making of the TV show) take on the episode that introduced him on the show: http://tothebatpoles.blogspot.com/2011/09/batscholar-on-episodes-7-8.html

I agree that this is one of the strongest episodes of BTAS and served as a playbook for how to do the character from that point on. He's set to appear in an upcoming episode of Gotham, but, from the previews I'm not sure if they're going with the pathos that has been a part of his character since this episode.

-Bungalow Bull

Siskoid said...

Right, only in the comics, sorry.


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