Editor’s Note: This year, the iconic Batman: The Animated Series turns 30 years old. “Return to Gotham” is a new monthly column looking back at the cartoon that remains a touchstone of the superhero genre and one of the most iconic portrayals of The Dark Knight.
A superhero is measured by his supervillains, and Batman has the best supervillains in a walk, whether you judge them by their complexity, their distinct visual design, or the ways in which they serve as foils for Batman himself. One of the strengths of Batman: The Animated Series is that the creators clearly understood this, and took the approach of centering the villains in a lot of episodes—not just in terms of the plot, but often in terms of the perspective. As a result, B:TAS is unbelievably dark for a children’s cartoon, and regularly features plots that are predicated on grown men descending into madness. There was nothing like it before and there’s been very little like it since.
It should be mentioned, though, that there’s a clear divide between the villains on B:TAS. To provide something nobody asked for, I present a humble hypothesis that might highlight and classify this dichotomy: You can split Batman’s villains between “social” and “anti-social” ones, and it’s the difference between the baddies who might, say, gather for a poker game where they talk some shit vs. the traumatized loners who exist totally apart from all humanity. (The Joker, for all his claim to being Batman’s archnemesis, still falls into the former category, while the ones I discuss here absolutely do not.)
It is that latter category that B:TAS put the most effort and craft into, and seems to be the one that most interested them: The villain of the first episode, who only shows up once more during the run of the show, absolutely falls into this more exclusive category, which contains some of the show’s best episodes.
“Heart of Ice” introduces Mr. Freeze into the show, but I didn’t realize until recently that it was the first story featuring the character to establish this particular origin story, which has gone on to completely reshape the villain within DC canon: The live-action movie Batman & Robin actually borrows this same premise for the character just a handful of years later; it’s appeared in the Arkham series of Batman games (which were also partly written by members of the show’s creative leads); it also figures into the Harley Quinn cartoon.
The story Batman finds himself drawn into a series of heists of high-tech industrial machinery from a company run by a sleazy CEO (Mark Hamill, putting in some extra time in the booth between Joker appearances no doubt). Mr. Freeze (Michael Ansara)—a dude with robo-armor, a freaking ice gun, and an apparent lack of concern over his henchmen’s Glassdoor reviews—appears to be stealing components for a super-size version of his freeze ray. So far, so Saturday morning cartoon. It’s only when Batman delves deeper into the truth behind Freeze’s origin that he uncovers the real villainy at play in the episode. In security camera footage snatched from the company’s archives, Batman discovers that Mr. Freeze was misusing company cryo tubes to try to save his terminal wife, only for the experiment to be interrupted by Hamill’s CEO, resulting in Freeze’s gruesome disfigurement.
I want to be clear that this reveal includes Mr. Freeze wailing his dying wife’s name as his liquid-nitrogen soaked hand pathetically grasps at the glass of her disrupted cryo chamber. This is a children’s show.
Then there is Clayface (Ron Perlman, in one of the show’s innumerable casting coups). The shapeshifting villain got an epic and deeply, physically unsettling two-parter of an origin story before showing up only sparingly in subsequent episodes. Perlman’s Matt Hagen is an actor with a facial disfigurement, and in order to secure more work, he uses an unsafe product created by recurring gangster capitalist Roland Daggett (Ed Asner, whose voiceover work was just one incredible part of his incredible career). Daggett’s goop lets Hagen completely sculpt his face into its old handsome leading man form… or whatever else Hagen desires, including that of Bruce Wayne, whom Hagen impersonates in order to steal Wayne Enterprises secrets and pin the crime on Bruce.
Obviously, that tips off the Batman. But in the course of hunting down the men who framed Wayne, Batman runs afoul of a new creature entirely: Clayface. In a violent and horrible scene, Hagen fails to steal more of the face-goop from Daggett, and Daggett’s henchmen give him a completely unsafe dose.
This ends in a shot of Hagen’s hand dissolving into flesh-colored goo and dripping down onto the street after they leave him for dead in a car. He awakens to catch a glimpse of himself in the car’s rearview mirror and unleashes a soul-shattering cry of misery. This is a children’s show.
There are a number of similarities that set these types of villains apart, even from other disfigured madmen like the Joker or Two-Face. For all the Joker’s dedication to what you might call “chaotic evil” (a fierce need to disprove and destroy both a sense of order and the premise that the world is or should be good), and for all Two-Face’s devotion to a cruelly random duality, their schemes generally boil down to either “hiring goons to rob banks” or “demand a ransom to not destroy the city.” It’s the reason there are plenty of Two-Face and Joker episodes; the guys have what TV writers call “a franchise.” They’ve got to go do crime. This is also why the Riddler, Penguin, Poison Ivy, and the Mad Hatter get up every day.
Clayface, Mr. Freeze, and the Man-Bat are different creatures entirely, driven not by the impulse to commit crime or transgress society, but by their own perception of the necessity of doing so. Mr. Freeze can’t exist above freezing temperatures—he could probably put his mind toward fixing that, but he’s broken and focused on taking vengeance. The Man-Bat creature needs to keep stealing chemicals in order to prolong its aberrant transformation—he could resist it, but isn’t strong enough to do so. Clayface has the ability to blend in however he likes, but can’t truly be anything he regards as human anymore—he sees no path forward from it. In their respective handfuls of appearances, they are either trying to cope with their condition or are even actively rejecting evil deeds. In one example, when an imprisoned Mr. Freeze is sprung by a twisted Walt Disney stand-in who wants his help creating Disney World And We Freeze The Rest of the World While We Hang Out In Tomorrowland, Mr. Freeze completely blows him off at first, and after he’s been coerced into helping he slips the leash at the first opportunity.
Perhaps to highlight just how different they are from the usual suspects, these villains all share the attribute of being much more physically dangerous than others: Batman can’t really win a fistfight with any of them, as he can with the Joker. Defeating all three generally involves a combination of busting out the utility belt, careful preparation, and trying to appeal to whatever shred of emotion they’ve got left. In a show that is keenly aware of how mortal Batman is, it’s one more metaphor for these villains’ distance from humanity.
There is also, at least in the case of Mr. Freeze and Clayface, the common thread of being the victim of vicious corporate malfeasance (in Freeze’s case, repeatedly). The show knows it, too: Batman’s one-liner to Hamill’s character after vanquishing Mr. Freeze is the most ice-cold delivery in the episode, and the episode’s denouement is just a moment during which the villain, who proclaims himself free of all human sentiment, sheds tears for his lost love.
These episodes are tragedies, ones in which the villains set out to achieve something and fail to do so in a way that exposes their own human failings, or the cruelty of a world they cannot belong in anymore. It was way deeper storytelling than anybody could have expected from a cartoon show you watched between homework and dinner.
Tune in next month, as Return to Gotham goes even deeper into Batman: The Animated Series’ iconic rogues gallery.
Kenneth Lowe would weep if he had any tears left to shed. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog. Be sure to tune in next month for another installment of Return to Gotham, as we examine what Batman’s rogues gallery says about this version of the character.
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