While it may be hard to believe, especially for a children’s cartoon that aired on Saturday morning TV; but after 25 years I think Batman: The Animated Series (BTAS) should be considered one of the most influential pieces of media ever made. Not just on the Batman canon, but also on wider pop culture.
Prior to the launch of the cartoon in 1992, Batman’s portrayal on the television was very much one of camp. The 1960s Batman TV show, while fun, was a clear product of its time, preferring to take a more upbeat and colourful approach to aspects of the franchise.
But BTAS chose a much darker tone, with many film noir and gothic characteristics peppered throughout the adult-oriented storylines during its three year run. When you add in the astounding work by series creators Bruce Timm & Eric Radomski; the excellent writing by Paul Dini; as well as the memorable score by Danny Elfman and Shirley Walker; it’s no wonder the show would go on to win four Emmys.
It would undoubtedly be possible to debate for years as to what is the number one most influential aspect of BTAS. Some may appreciate it for its introduction of fan favourite Harley Quinn; others for the establishment of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill as the definitive voices of Batman and Joker respectively.
But in my humble option, nothing beats the groundbreaking storytelling of the 1992 episode: Heart of Ice.
For those of you not familiar with the episode, Heart of Ice follows Batman as he investigates a series of break-ins at a tech company. It’s soon revealed that said heists are being perpetrated by a Mr Freeze; a man clad in a strange machine-like costume, and committing his crimes with what can only be described as a “freeze-gun”.
Previous to Heart of Ice (in, say, the comics or the 60s TV show), Mr Freeze was generally considered to be nothing more than a two bit criminal. A villain who had the singular gimmick of temperature related names and puns. (Which 1995’s Batman and Robin apparently thought was a good thing!)
But in the hands of writer Paul Dini and director Bruce Timm, Mr Freeze became so much more. Instead his robberies were framed as necessary thefts in order to fund research into curing his terminally ill wife; Nora. Until he can find the cure, he keeps her in an experimental cryogenic chamber, and chooses to carry around a small toy ballerina as a way to keep his wife close to his heart.
The episode itself is primarily centred around Freeze’s desire for revenge against his former boss and publicly perceived humanitarian, Ferris Boyle. Having withdrawn the original funding for Freeze’s research, and pretty much being directly responsible for Freeze being forced to spend the rest of his life in sub-zero temperatures; it’s abundantly clear as to why Boyle’s actions would lead Freeze to becoming a criminal.
Without a doubt, Heart of Ice was the first time I had experienced this concept of a “sympathetic villain.” Before this villains (at least in media aimed at children) were fairly cut and dry. The Nazis in Indiana Jones, the Empire in Star Wars, The Wet Bandits in Home Alone. All of them clear bad guys that you root against.
But Mr Freeze was something new. Something that I hadn’t really seen before. A bad guy who had a compelling and tragic back story; but more importantly, a bad guy who did the wrong things for the right reasons. There was honestly a moment where I didn’t want Batman to show up, just so that Mr Freeze could get justice (or revenge if you will) for the terrible things he had been forced to endure.
Though Batman does end up stopping him, the episode makes it clear that the Dark Knight is not happy about how things have ended, showing his clear feelings on the matter when he hands over a tape of Boyle’s misdeeds to a journalist.
For most cartoons this would be the ending. But Heart of Ice takes one step further, showing us the now classic scene of Mr Freeze locked away in Arkham Asylum, shedding tears and begging forgiveness from his wife for his failure.
How many cartoons before or since would be willing to end on that note? To tell a tale aimed at pre-teens that says not everyone who is a villain is really bad? And not everyone who is hero is really good? It may have been 25 years, but Heart of Ice still resonates in the exactly same way it did in 1992.
So, did you watch Batman: The Animated Series? What was your favourite episode?