It is September 7, 1992, the day after “On Leather Wings.” The top song, movie, and news stories are largely unchanged. Today, Batman the Animated Series airs its third episode.
Think about the significance of that: this series is three days old. On the first day it presented (as we will see in a few entries) a tie-in to the then-new film Batman Returns to draw in audiences. On the second it aired the pilot, which was unusually well-animated thanks to its higher budget. On the third day they aired this.
That is a spectacularly strong start for a fledgling series. “Heart of Ice” is frequently cited as the best episode of the series by fans, including being voted as such in a major poll on the World’s Finest website and, independently, being named such by Wizard Magazine. It was influential enough that the comics completely revamped Mister Freeze to match his portrayal in this episode, changing his personality and motivation and introducing the character of Nora Fries. This is also the first episode, in both broadcast and production order, to be written and directed by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, respectively. The former was a producer of BTAS and its story editor, giving him great influence on the writing of the series as a whole, while the latter was either co- or sole creator of and a producer on every series in the DCAU except The Zeta Project, and responsible for much of its visual style, especially character designs.
In other words, this episode has quite a lot to live up to, and it largely succeeds. While there is certainly action to be had here, it is largely a character study of Fries, exploring his motivations and contradictions to a degree that no other villain we’ve seen thus far has received. Of course in true comic-book fashion, that motivation is One Bad Day involving a literal fridging, as his wife is lost in a tragic accident involving a cryonic freezing device. Interesting, while Fries says his wife was terminally ill, there’s no sign of this in the images we see of the past. Of course it’s possible she had an invisible illness or had not progressed very far, but it’s also possible that he’s simply not telling the truth–that she went into the test healthy and came out dead.
This puts an interesting spin on Fries’ actions throughout the episode, because he is consistently depicted as a liar. He claims his emotions were frozen, that he no longer experiences them, but like any character who claims to be emotionless he’s wrong. He is capable of making choices, which means he is capable of differentiating between the path he wants to take and the path he doesn’t, which means he wants things, which in turn means he experiences at least one emotion: wanting.
In Fries’ case, what he wants is vengeance, which in turn implies he’s still capable of anger. That anger arises from the pain he feels at the loss of Nora, so add love, grief and loyalty to the list of emotions he’s capable of. He also makes a lot of puns–thankfully, vastly better ones than the notorious Batman & Robin depiction of the character, and delivered in a monotone that makes them far less cringe-inducing than Schwarzenegger’s mugging for the camera–which indicates he still has a capacity for wry humor.
No, what is actually happening with Fries is the opposite of emotionlessness. He is driven entirely by emotion, massively overwhelming emotions that leave no room for him to feel anything else. He shows no pity for his injured henchman not because he is emotionless, but because he is in so much pain that the pain of others seems insignificant by comparison.
Now, I say he’s a liar, but it’s entirely possible, even probable, that he believes everything he says. He lies to himself about being emotionless because it creates a distance from his emotions, and pursues vengeance because it prevents him from thinking about how he failed Nora. After all, he put her in that tube. Even if the clear, monstrous inhumanity of Ferris Boyle is the immediate cause of Nora’s death (and death it is–she comes back later, but there is no hint in this episode that she could have survived, and all the characters act as if she’s dead), Fries put her in a position where Boyle’s negligence could kill her.
He is, in other words, a vengeance-obsessed man in a strange costume who had one bad day and is thereafter defined by his survivor’s guilt over it. Is it any surprise that the episode treats him with greater sympathy than any villain we’ve seen so far, even more than Man-Bat? Even his coloration–whites, pale blues, and light purples–is very nearly an inversion of Batman’s dark costume and bright yellow belt.
But this raises an interesting point. Thus far, in our analysis of this series, we’ve been playing with the notion that, contra Moore, “one bad day” is the recipe for a hero, rather than a villain. But here comes Fries, as clear an example as ever of one bad day creating a villain. Or is he? Certainly his target is no saint. Boyle is a reprehensible person who describes his employees as “wage slaves” and orders a dangerous experiment unplugged with a woman inside because it’s costing him money. He’d seem over the top if we in 2015 weren’t just coming out a recession triggered by a lending crisis in the wake of which banks foreclosed on homes that didn’t even have mortgages, kicking their dwellers out into the streets–and it’s worth remembering that the economy was in a similar position in 1992.
But still, Fries’ approach is to rob and kill his way to murdering Boyle as publicly as possible. His methods are still villainous, even if his motives are sympathetic. But then what are we to make of his many similarities to Batman? Key here is that while their methods are very different, they both share a vital element: both are acting alone, outside of the normal structures of society. Batman may use the police as a place to dump the criminals he apprehends, but he does not generally work with them. Like Fries, he operates outside the law–in fact, Batman is himself a criminal, being guilty of untold counts of assault, battery, breaking and entering, theft, destruction of property, and tampering with a crime scene–and that’s just in the fourteen episodes we’ve talked about so far!
What Fries and Batman share in common is that they are committing crimes in the pursuit of bringing down “the bad guys.” This is superficially similar to what Poison Ivy and Two-Face do, but with key differences: Ivy is pursuing a political cause, and is trying to change the world with her actions. Two-Face is pursuing power, trying to build an empire among the criminals he targets. Batman and Fries, on the other hand, are trying to bring people to justice, vengeance, whatever you want to call it–they are trying to punish people for being bad.
Maybe that’s really what “one bad day” creates: not a hero, but a vigilante. But if so, that brings us to a new question: what’s the difference? Just something to keep in mind as we move forward through the series.
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