The origin of Mr. Freeze
Batman: The Animated Series was a critically acclaimed cartoon from the 1990's known for helping solidify the Caped Crusader's image as the Dark Knight. It was the first animated show to portray him as the brooding, paranoid loner in a dangerous city of lunatics. In the same light, it was the first time that a great amount of attention was paid to the psychological issues that characterized Batman's Rogues Gallery. Whereas previous cartoons had portrayed the villains as bank robbers and jewel thieves with wacky gimmicks, Batman: The Animated Series gave us villains with real psychological issues that explored the human psyche and mirrored Batman's own issues. The result of this turned former C-List villains that nobody cared about into compelling characters. But no other villain saw such a profound change as Mr. Freeze.
Mr. Freeze originally debuted in 1959 as a stock villain named “Mr. Zero”. The popular Adam West TV show renamed him “Mr. Freeze”, but that didn't change the nature of the villain; Batman #121 debuted him as simply another gimmick villain out to simply commit crimes with his henchmen. He attempts to create a freeze gun, but an accident covers him in the gun's chemicals, forcing him to live in subzero temperatures to survive.
Regardless of the name, the villain pretty much languished on the Rogue's Gallery B-List for over 30 years. Mr. Freeze was a simple career criminal who would use his freeze gun (rather than a more effective regular gun) to steal diamonds, rob banks, or destroy Batman. A one-note villain who commits generic crimes using ice and cold themes? Sounds like Arnold Schwarzenegger's portrayal of the villain was more spot-on than we give him credit for.
Then came “Heart of Ice”, the Emmy Award winning episode of Batman: The Animated Series, which transformed Mr. Freeze from a run-of-the-mill Batman villain to one of the most three dimensional, relatable, and tragic villains in comic book history. Now he was originally a Gothcorp researcher named Victor Fries who put his wife, Nora, into cryostasis so he could work on a cure for her terminal illness. Embezzling money from his employer to do so, a confrontation with GothCorp CEO Ferris Boyle left him unable to survive outside subzero temperatures, rendering him unable to reach his lab, research, and his wife. Thus, Mr. Freeze seeks not to commit crimes or defeat Batman, but to exact revenge on Boyle.
This episode has been used as the origin for Mr. Freeze for over 20 years, until “Cold, Cold Heart”, the DLC (Downloadable Content) for the video game Batman: Arkham Origins. “Cold, Cold Heart” attempts to take the story laid out in “Heart of Ice” and expand on it. But does it do a better job? Let's take a look at both “Heart of Ice” and “Cold, Cold Heart” and see which works better in telling the origin of Mr. Freeze.
Heart of Ice
The 20 minute episode of Batman: The Animated Series that put Mr. Freeze on the map. Airing September 7th, 1992, it's starts off with a “chilling” monologue that shows the audience that this Mr. Freeze is much different than his previous incarnations. Without knowing the details, we get a sense of loss and tragedy from him. His robotic voice shows us that his theme of coldness isn't only about temperature, but emotion as well.
We see that Batman is already well into his investigation into Freeze's robberies of equipment from GothCorp, which markets itself as “The People Company”. It's CEO, Ferris Boyle, is nothing but a hypocrite who talks about giving back to the people but cares only for his company's profits. We see more of Mr. Freeze as well, a broken victim with a “heart of ice”, so to speak. Driven by revenge, he has seemingly lost touch with the very emotions that make us human. During his first confrontation with Batman, he orders his henchmen to leave one of their defeated partners behind, claiming him to be incompetent dead weight. He does this with no anger or malice in his voice; the henchman will only slow down his mission of revenge against Boyle and so Freeze cuts his losses without a second thought. He also has no interest in tangling with Batman, telling him that everything he is doing is a personal vendetta that doesn't concern the costumed vigilante. His complete lack of emotion is what makes him stand out from other Batman villains in the scant few minutes that we've seen him at this point. There is no evil or ruthlessness, no desire for glory or money or power. There's just nothing. His thirst for vengeance is as strong as Batman's struggle for justice, and we can only wonder what tragedy has pushed Mr. Freeze down this path.
Batman eventually discovers a videotape that tells the whole story: GothCorp researcher Victor Fries was in the middle of an experiment to save his cryogenically frozen wife, Nora. Unfortunately, he had been embezzling company funds to do so, and the CEO, Ferris Boyle, bursts in with a security team to have the project shut down. Knowing that Nora will die unless he goes through with the experiment, Victor pulls a gun of Boyle. Boyle tries to calm him down, then kicks him into a table which held some chemicals in a beaker. And thus Mr. Freeze was created. The cold hearted villain eventually strikes at Boyle while the latter is at an event awarding him for his humanitarian work. Batman saves the day, defeating Mr. Freeze and making the videotape public.
The story gets the job done quickly and efficiently. It's a little cookie-cutter now, but that's to be expected from a 20 minute episode of a children's cartoon in its very first season (still doing a much better job than most kids shows from that time and before). We start the episode with Freeze's crime spree already in progress, and Batman having finished most of the investigation already. He knows the “what”, but not the “who” or “why”. Being a character-driven tale, the story is quick and to the point.
A few people have felt that the story is a little rushed (as I mentioned before, we begin the story with Batman already knowing what Freeze is looking for and where he will strike next), and while I don't completely disagree, I also don't think that it detracts from the story at all. The plot in this episode is just a vehicle for the characters. While it could have used a bit more padding, we get everything we need from it. We learn what Mr. Freeze's plan is, what Ferris Boyle's crimes are, and we get to see Batman take on Freeze multiple times, finally succeeding in the end. Plus, they only had 20 minutes to tell a very complex, emotional, and human story. They worked with the timeframe they had and made the pacing work.
If I did have any sort of complaint about the story, it would be how uncharacteristically unprepared Batman is throughout the whole episode. Despite the episode opening with Batman knowing that someone is building a gigantic freeze cannon, he walks into battle with Mr. Freeze time and time again with nothing but his grappling hook and batarangs. No specialized Batsuit, heat grenades, or anything that could be used against a villain who wields ice as a weapon. Nothing that could get him out of captivity either; when Batman is suspended upside-down with his feet encased in ice, he has to resort to using a conveniently placed icicle to break himself out. This perpetual lack of preparation is almost out of character for him, as usually Batman would have something to get him out of almost any situation. Of course, he did have something on him at the end. A thermos of chicken soup Alfred gave him to fight off a cold. That's right. Rather than having any actual gadgets, Batman has been lugging around a thermos of chicken soup in his utility belt, which apparently weakens Mr. Freeze more than kryponite weakens Superman. Seriously, it actually shatters Freeze's glass helmet.
But this episode isn't about the plot. It's about the characters. And in a mere 20 minutes, “Heart of Ice” truly delivers something special. Mr. Freeze, like other villains, is an antithesis to Batman in some ways. While behind the mask they are both cold and calculating, and while both were shaped by a terrible tragedy they could do nothing to stop, the two loners are equally driven by two polar opposite ideals. Batman is driven by a pursuit of justice, while Mr. Freeze seeks only vengeance. Batman sacrifices himself for others, while Freeze sacrifices others for himself and Nora. At the same time, Ferris Boyle plays the opposite to Bruce Wayne. While Wayne devotes himself to philanthropy and fighting to make Gotham City a better place even while not dressed as a bat, Boyle thinks only of money and demands that the “wage slaves” know their place.
A great character piece told in 20 minutes. That's what “Heart of Ice” did and did to perfection. It would have moved me to tears if I still had tears to shed.
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Cold, Cold Heart
The video game retelling of Mr. Freeze's origin takes the basic story and expands upon it greatly. Much of the “expansion” is actually a complete change of the events. The sequence of events and motivations of the characters are quite different this time around, but is it for the better?
The story starts off in Wayne Manor, where Bruce Wayne is holding an event in which he names Ferris Boyle the Wayne Foundation Humanitarian of the Year. Mr. Freeze crashes the party, having made some sort of deal with the Penguin: Penguin gives Freeze the use of his henchmen and lets him do what he will with Boyle, and Freeze gives Penguin access to his cryo technology. Wayne must defend himself, his home, and the other guests in his civilian identity at first before getting access to the Batsuit located in the Batcave. Boyle is abducted and Batman vows to save him. Already we have an interesting twist on the original characterization of this story's major players; Bruce Wayne greatly admires and respects Ferris Boyle, and we the audience aren't given any indication of his true nature until the end of the story.
Batman tracks down Freeze and Boyle to GothCorp, which we learn more about. In “Cold, Cold Heart”, the People Company is on the leading edge of tomorrow's technology, and cryo technology is being researched for space exploration and colonization. While that plays little role in the actual story, it's nice to get more of an insight into what GothCorp actually does. Deep inside the massive complex, Freeze and Penguin have a falling out; Penguin wants what he believes to be a superweapon hidden inside the lab that Freeze wants Boyle to open, and Freeze is not about to give it up. Damage to the machinery freezes the inside of the building, forcing Batman to leave and return with his Extreme Environment (XE) Suit.
Having full access to the building, Batman learns the truth about his enemy; Victor Fries had been performing research into Nora's condition to no avail. With nowhere left to turn, he made a deal with Boyle. GothCorp would pour its resources into finding a cure for her disease if Fries worked on their secret cryo weapons projects. But when Boyle didn't hold his end of the bargain, Fries stopped his cryo research. When Boyle and his security team try to “convince” Fries to continue (at gunpoint), the resulting accident leaves the hapless researcher unable to survive outside of subzero temperatures. Batman also discovers what Freeze is really after; Nora is still in the quarantined lab, and Boyle is the only one with the access codes. Batman saves Boyle from Freeze, and afterwards, saves Freeze and Nora from Boyle.
The story of “Cold, Cold Heart” is definitely an improvement over “Heart of Ice”. Not being confined to a mere 20 minutes, they were able to take a very quick series of events and turn it into a light corporate conspiracy thriller. Having Boyle receive the Humanitarian of the Year Award in the beginning instead of the near the end appealed to me more, giving a sharp contrast between a person's appearance as opposed to their true nature that I think defines most people in real life (to a much lesser extent than it does Ferris Boyle, unless you too have secret weapons projects and assault with a deadly weapon as part of your daily routine). And having Wayne Manor invaded gave us a chance to play as Wayne outside of his costume, and a chance to see him balance his need to defend his home with his need to protect his secret identity. The hinting at a superweapon (and the revelation that Freeze was keeping Penguin from his wife, rather than any non-existent weapon) and the mystery behind GothCorp's secret weapons projects fleshes out the story that “Heart of Ice” simply didn't have the time to tell.
However, the longer amount of time comes with its own set of problems as well. Whereas “Heart of Ice” had to condense a very emotional story into 20 minutes, “Cold, Cold Heart” takes steps to pad it out a bit more than it is needed. While I love the Arkhamverse's vision of the Penguin, I could only question how necessary he was to the story. Batman never really has a climatic confrontation with Penguin, whose role ends once he tells Batman where the parts for a cryodrill device are (Batman needs it to drill through an ice wall). That could have easily been left out of the game, and we wouldn't have to interrupt our romp through GothCorp to go hunting these items throughout the city. Speaking of which, the game pads out its length by forcing you to hunt down the necessary components to build this item, after going to its initial location and finding out that it's been inexplicably broken down into separate parts for no reason other than “It's a video game fetch quest and we need it to be able to boast about all the extra hours of gameplay we're charging you for”. I spoke about this sort of thing in the Batman: Arkham games before in another article, and while it really isn't that drawn out here, you could tell the mission to find the cryodrill parts were added just to fill the time.
Overall, however, the story for “Cold, Cold Heart” is a pretty good improvement over the cartoon. It takes a simple story and turns it into something greater. Batman has a true climatic confrontation with Mr. Freeze that doesn't involve him using a thermos of chicken soup, and the XE Batsuit demonstrates the level of preparedness that the Batman character has become known for.
But what made “Heart of Ice” so memorable was its characters (after all, its main accomplishment is turning Mr. Freeze from a gimmick villain to a tragic one). How does “Cold, Cold Heart” stack up? Well, not quite as well. Not bad in any real way, but not quite has deep as the cartoon. I do like the relationship between Boyle and Wayne in the beginning. Boyle's humanitarian award is presented to him by a very proud Bruce Wayne, and when Boyle is captured, Batman is puzzled as to why someone would want to lay a finger on him. Batman vows to Alfred that the person ultimately behind Boyle's abduction would be wheeled into Blackgate Prison on a gurney when all's said and done. This gives us a very subtle look into the values held by Wayne, a multi-billionaire who values philanthropy and ethical business practices over cutthroat corporate scheming. In “Heart of Ice”, we see the look of disgust on Wayne's face when Boyle laments that those under him should know their place, but it seems more of a personal betrayal in the game. We never see the respect and admiration Wayne holds for Boyle in “Heart of Ice” (he makes the wage slave comment roughly about 20 seconds into their only scene together), but the “Cold, Cold Heart” version of Wayne looks up to Boyle. You could tell that Batman is personally affected when he discovers the truth about Boyle's crimes, and in the end it's Boyle that Batman promises to take out on a gurney.
But as an origin story for Mr. Freeze, it's his character and his relationship to Ferris Boyle that is the most important, and I think where the game version's characterization suffers. Here, Mr. Freeze is clearly a victim and Boyle is a terrible, evil murderer with no redeeming qualities. Freeze only kidnaps Boyle because the latter has the access codes to the lab where Nora is frozen in, but rather than simply allow Freeze to take his wife and leave quietly, Boyle refuses to cooperate and even taunts Freeze. He promises the icy supervillain that he will make him watch as his wife dies, attempts to beat Freeze to death, gloats when he believes Batman has been killed, and had already been secretly making weapons and assaulted Victor Fries because he wasn't cooperating. Freeze is a broken man on a rescue mission while Boyle is a cackling murderer who probably runs over puppies on his morning commute to work. That black and white characterization of the two is a significant downgrade from “Heart of Ice”. In the cartoon, neither Freeze nor Boyle truly play the role of “the villain”. Freeze was simply a desperate man who committed a white-collar crime to save a life, and he turned into a man who saw revenge as the only way to give himself and his wife peace. Boyle was a cutthroat Mitt Romney-type businessman, but otherwise hadn't technically done anything illegal (in the video of the accident, Boyle states that Fries embezzled $3,000,000 over the course of a couple weeks, and it's Fries that initiated violence by pulling a gun on Boyle, who technically acted in self-defense by kicking him into the chemicals). The game eschews this moral ambiguity in order to give us an evil, evil villain in a suit. It's ironic that the children's cartoon gives us a more grownup look at these two characters.
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So which one is better? Wow, that's hard to say. Do I have to answer? The fact is, I like both versions of the tale equally. Sorry for the cop-out, but each one seems to make up for the other's flaws. “Cold, Cold Heart” cleans up the story by giving it more time to be told and starting us from the very beginning. But “Heart of Ice” gives us a deeper characterization of Mr. Freeze and a morally ambiguous tale unlike anything a children's cartoon had ever done at the time.
While both tell a quality story (each in their own way), no Mr. Freeze story will ever have the impact or significance of that episode of Batman: The Animated Series. Without it, Mr. Freeze would have remained a one-note gimmick that would have faded into obscurity. Instead, we now have a timeless classic of a story introducing one of comic books' most tragic villains.
Then again, without that episode, we would never have had to suffer through Ah-nold's terrible performance in the role in Batman and Robin. Maybe that episode wasn't that great after all.