If a great hero is defined by a great villain, and Batman boasts the most famous villains in the history of comics, does that make him the medium’s greatest hero? Batman represents the human in peak physical and mental condition – the sum of all righteousness, as it were. So perhaps it is not surprising that his most famous enemies are notoriously deformed and/or insane. Nameless thugs and establishment scoundrels withstanding, Batman’s most well-known foes are the Joker, the Penguin, Catwoman, the Riddler, Two-Face, Ra’s al Ghul, Poison Ivy, the list goes on. Grant Morrison rightly states that Batman’s each of these enemies embodies a different kind of mental illness.
But they are lunatics and criminals of a special sort. The villainy in Batman: The Animated Series (BTAS) emerges not from vice but from virtue gone mad. What G. K. Chesterton wrote in Orthodoxy about modernists could have been about the supervillains of Gotham City:
The modern world is not evil. In some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues… The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone.
The maladaptive virtues of the famous Bat-villains define them right down to their costumes. The Joker is funny but he makes life itself the joke. Poison Ivy prizes plants over people. Ra’s al Ghul (“The Demon’s Head” in Arabic) understands human depravity (he thinks) but does not realize his genocidal eco-terrorist plans exemplify it. Two-Face has a suit that reveals his double-mindedness. These are all lunatics, as Chesterton might say, each trapped in the clean, well-lit prison of one idea. And by his metric, no one faces more memorable lunatics than the Caped Crusader!
If any one episode established the place of BTAS in television history, “Heart of Ice” is that episode. Paul Dini’s story revolves around the Caped Crusader’s first battle with Mr. Freeze (aka Victor Fries). Here was a villain with a sympathetic motive; there was nothing simplistic or moralistic about it. In fact, “Heart of Ice” is a meditation on two men, Batman and Fries, who occupy the space between irrevocable loss and the madness of impossible desire, and the very different ways in which they live in this spiritual place. It is a true masterpiece of the form. “Heart of Ice” is also the touchstone for how Dini and other writers for BTAS would approach nearly all of Batman’s rogues.
“Heart of Ice” gave us a Mr. Freeze who epitomizes the Chestertonian definition of madness. Paul Dini’s script moves past Mr. Freeze’s second-rate freezing gimmick and runs with the idea that Victor Fries is a man who seems dead to emotion. Fries, like Wayne, is haunted by loss. Wayne lost his parents to a mugger, Fries lost his wife to a disease and the wrath of his employer. Wayne lives with the impossible desire to have a Gotham City that is free of crime, Fries yearns to be with a wife he cannot regain.
Yet Fries, despite his sympathetic motivation, is still a villain. In “Heart of Ice” he loses his wife to the cruelty of Ferris Boyle (this is a Batman cartoon, so goofy puns on “freeze” and “boil” are part of the deal). Boyle is a thug and a scoundrel, and yet he has a point--Victor Fries’ unauthorized experiment has put him $3 million in debt. And as laudable as it is for a man to love his wife, even before his freezing accident Victor Fries was willing to sacrifice another man’s money and resources for the sake of his beloved Nora. Given Fries’ opening soliloquy in “Heart of Ice” we don’t doubt his implacability:
This is how I'll always remember you [Nora]: surrounded by winter, forever young, forever beautiful. Rest well, my love, the monster who took you from me will soon learn that revenge is a dish best served cold.
But this is not a man remembering an actual woman, the real Nora Fries. He is praising an ideal. Fries will forfeit anyone and anything to wreak his vengeance on Ferris Boyle. As C. S. Lewis put it in The Four Loves, “But Eros, honored without reservation, and obeyed unconditionally, becomes a demon.” In Paul Dini’s Gotham City this demon owns the heart of Victor Fries.
In his commentary on “Heart of Ice”, Dini remarks that Victor Fries thinks he’s dead to emotion but in the end he is the most emotional character of all. Fries is not only trapped in the “clean, well-lit prison of one idea” (that the loss of his wife has extinguished all capacity for feeling) his one idea is tragically fraudulent. Emotions have not been frozen dead inside him, they are all he has inside him. His reason is trapped within the tiny universe of his self-pity and wrath. Fries’ desire to honor Eros without reservation puts him on the path to robbery, kidnapping, and murder.
In a later episode, “Deep Freeze,” Fries aids a maniacal tycoon Grant Walker by giving him immortality. The tycoon plots to kill most of humanity and make an undersea utopia with Fries’ help in exchange for Nora. Batman tells Fries that his wife would hate him for abetting a mass murderer if she could see him. Fries relents at this terrible rebuke, but like King Saul with David, it is a momentary stay of cruelty that doesn’t last. Even in this moment Fries gladly consigns Walker to an endless living death at the bottom of the sea. Soon Fries is kidnapping and willing to kill an innocent woman to give the comatose Nora an organ transplant (the DVD film Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero). In the end Nora’s life is saved but through Bruce Wayne’s charitable foundation.
When Fries finally concedes he can never be with Nora, he seeks to “steal hope” and destroy the work of artists and scientists who spent their lives on career-capping masterpieces (“Cold Comfort”). Everyone else, he says, must share in his suffering. Fries perversely repays Bruce Wayne’s generosity by attempting to kill Alfred and destroy Gotham so that Batman will share in his self-pitying misery. In the end his plans for mass murder would have killed even Nora, had Batman not stopped him.
Ironically, Nora’s life depended on a simple organ transplant. Blinded by his monomania Fries could only think in terms of using his power and expertise to save his wife. He tragically destroys his own life trying to save it, and in the end becomes more callous and cruel than Ferris Boyle, the man he blamed for his misery. Only in flickering moments does Victor Fries discern that if he really loved Nora, he needed to save lives rather than take them.
Both Batman and Mr. Freeze are defined by loss and impossible desire. Where Batman fights so that others don’t have to share in that agony, Mr. Freeze vows that everyone else must share in it. Fries has so deceived himself into that it takes continual battle with Batman for him to discover the truth about himself, that his heart is not, in fact, made of ice. Like other Batman rogues, Mr. Freeze only realizes his true motives, and wounds, in his battles with the Dark Knight. These are more than physical wounds; indeed, as with all of Batman’s villains, these are the wounds of discovery.