Episode Number: 14
Original Air Date: September 7, 1992
Directed by: Bruce Timm
Written by: Paul Dini
First Appearance(s): Mr. Freeze
Production episode number 14 was actually the third episode of Batman: The Animated Series to air. It’s also the first written and directed by the two individuals who receive the most credit for the success of the show, Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, respectively. And wouldn’t you know, it’s also probably the best episode of the show and maybe the best episode of television based on a comic book.
Prior to this episode’s airing, its star villain Mr. Freeze was a bit of a joke. Dead in the comics, viewers most knew him from the campy 60’s TV series where he was just some old guy with an affinity for the cold. He was a nothing character and a throw-away villain for Batman to dispatch when a little variety was needed. After this episode, Mr. Freeze was suddenly a star villain in Batman’s rogues gallery and is now probably among his top adversaries in terms of notoriety. He was resurrected in the comics and his backstory was retconned to closely mirror the events of this episode. Freeze isn’t the only instance of the show influencing the comics, and it’s probably debatable which contribution from this show is most important: Freeze or Harley Quinn. Regardless, this episode is my personal favorite from the show and one that stuck with me when I first saw it back in 1992. Prior to seeing this, I’m not sure if I had ever really empathized with a superhero villain on such a level and it really created a unique viewing experience for me as a child.
The episode opens in a foreboding fashion with a shot of a ballerina dancing in place. It’s a figurine encased in a snow globe and Mr. Freeze (Michael Ansara) is gazing at it longingly remarking how this is how he’ll always remember “you.” His character model is partially obscured by shadow and is illustrated like a background from the show clearly done on black paper. His mouth is the only thing that animates until his red, glowing eyes open. The eye bit makes no sense, since we’ll soon see that they’re goggles, but it does add a nice dramatic flourish which is something we will also see again.
Cut to a TV report from Summer Gleeson and the episode becomes a more conventional setup. Someone armed with an ice gun has been knocking off GothCorp locations and making off with some tech pieces. Batman, via his magic computer, is able to figure out what these pieces of equipment are being acquired for (a giant freeze canon) and knows what the next item targeted will be and where it’s manufactured. He’s able to arrive as Mr. Freeze and his henchmen hit the scene and Batman has his first encounter with his new adversary. Mr. Freeze, unlike some villains we’ve seen already, is debuting in the show and in the show’s universe as Batman has never encountered him before. We’re shown pretty early that he’s a vicious sort, not in his methods, but his mindset. He cares nothing for the men working for him or those his actions could harm. Batman is warned to stay out of his way, and he genuinely holds no ill will towards the caped crusader, but he also has no problem with killing him either. Freeze’s callousness is demonstrated in leaving behind one of his henchmen who he inadvertently froze. He shows no remorse and offers no apology that he froze the man with his handy ice gun and Batman is forced to help the guy out at the cost of letting Freeze escape.
Batman decides he needs to do a little sleuthing about Freeze and goes straight to the source: GothCorp CEO Ferris Boyle (Mark Hamill). Boyle is at a loss as to why someone would be targeting his company, but does tell Batman (as Bruce Wayne) that a former research scientist would possibly hold a grudge due to the company pulling funding, but adds that he died in a lab accident. It’s a curious thing to bring up if the man is dead, but it’s enough of a lead for Bruce to return as Batman to scour the security tapes. He locates the one for the accident Boyle mentioned and witnesses a rather disturbing scene. Scientist Victor Fries (pronounced Freeze, naturally) was experimenting with cryogenics and freezing a live human to place them into a state of suspended animation. His test subject was his wife, Nora, as she was terminally ill with what we can only assume is likely some form of cancer, and he hopes to keep her in this state until a cure is found. Boyle storms in with some guards to tell Fries his funding is being withdrawn as it’s proving too costly. He has the apparatus housing Nora Fries shutdown, despite the protests of Victor as this will surely result in his wife’s demise. Boyle cares little for the predicament of Nora, and when Victor begs him to reconsider Boyle tosses him aside into a bunch of random chemicals. Victor can only look on helplessly as his wife is essentially murdered before his eyes, the contact with the chemicals apparently resulting in his current state. It’s a haunting video, though I can’t help but snicker a little at the dramatic cuts contained in supposed security footage, but it helps tell the story.
Batman is horrified, and even utters a “My God,” at the sight which was surprisingly allowed to make it to air as any mention of God like that is usually rejected by network censors for a kid’s show. Mr. Freeze conveniently shows up to offer a little commentary on Batman’s reaction to the security footage before firing his ice gun at the screen ending the scene. Batman is taken prisoner and suspended from the ceiling via ice shackles. From here he’s able to pry Mr. Freeze about the night Boyle ruined his life. The “accident” he suffered has forced him to reside in a sub-zero temperature as he cannot live in any other climate. The suit he wears keeps him alive, and we’ll learn later it also triples his strength making him a pretty good physical adversary as well for Batman. Batman offers his sympathy and tries to reason with Freeze, but Freeze doesn’t care. His heart is ice and he only desires revenge against the man who murdered his wife and no one will stand in his way.
This is where Freeze makes the mistake of behaving like a typical villain, for all of his bluster about not caring about the lives of those who get in his way, he makes the mistake of leaving Batman alive. He even spills the beans on his plan to crash a dinner where Boyle is being presented with a humanitarian award, and soon departs with his super weapon now complete. Batman is left to extricate himself from his confines and pursue Freeze. He’s able to arrive just in time as Freeze is in the process of encasing a begging, pleading, Boyle in ice. Batman even retrieves his utility belt, and it’s a good thing, because Alfred had equipped him with a thermos of chicken soup to fight off a cold he acquired during the episode which comes in handy when he uses it to smash the glass bubble around Freeze’s head. He hands the Gotham PD the security tape he took from GothCorp depicting what happened to Nora Fries. The episode ends on a sad scene of Mr. Freeze in his frozen prison cell gazing at his snow globe representation of his wife apologizing through tears that he could not avenge her.
“Heart of Ice” is a triumph due to its story-telling and its style. Mr. Freeze has a retro sci-fi look with a dash of Darth Vader thrown in. His voice is modulated and fuzzy since it’s being amplified by the suit, and the red goggles work to hide any emotion his eyes could convey. His brow is in a constant frown and his cold mannerisms are achieved naturally without being too overstated by the character (something the film version from Batman & Robin was unable to achieve). His ice gun is a fun piece of animation and it’s particularly neat to see him use it in a manner similar to how Marvel’s Ice Man uses his powers when he smashes a fire hydrant and creates an ice track to a high rise. The pacing of the episode is well done, though the limited running time is felt a bit when Batman is able to figure out Freeze is improbably building a giant ice canon right away. I guess an ice canon isn’t a completely foreign concept to Batman. There is also a goof that probably bothers Timm and Dini when they watch this when the colors on Batman’s logo are flipped, and I do kind of hate that Freeze just captures Batman and makes the classic villain error of revealing his hand to the hero and letting him live to do something about it.
The shortcomings for “Heart of Ice” are real and go beyond nitpicking, but they’re not enough to do any real harm to the episode or take away from the fantastic back story dreamed up by Dini for the character of Mr. Freeze. Giving him the motivation of wanting to avenge his lost wife, and in turn making Boyle the real villain of the episode, means the viewer is in some scenes rooting against Batman. We want to see Boyle get what’s coming to him and we don’t want Freeze punished further. At the same time, the episode does make the crimes of Mr. Freeze obvious so it doesn’t go too far in making him sympathetic. The tragic air of the episode’s conclusion is a somber touch to end on, and appropriate one given the mood of the episode. The only real drawback is it’s too good, making it hard for the show to come back to the character because how can it possibly top this?
Thankfully, Mr. Freeze avoids the Two-Face treatment which saw that villain return more than once as basically a conventional Batman foil. The show never forgets the true motivation for Freeze and Nora is a part of the few times he does reappear. He never schemes with the Joker or serves as hired muscle for Poison Ivy. And best of all, Mr. Freeze is provided a legacy that still endures today making him one of Batman’s greatest foes, and he owes it all to this episode of a children’s cartoon.