Comics Watch: Should Mr. Freeze Return to the Big Screen?

Detective Comics Cover -DC Comics- Doug Mahnke - Publicity - H 2019
Doug Mahnke/DC Entertainment
DC's latest issue of 'Detective Comics' feels primed to inspire Matt Reeves' 'The Batman.'

Welcome back to The Hollywood Reporter's weekly Comics Watch, a dive into how the latest books from Marvel, DC and beyond could provide fodder for the big screen. This week tackles DC's Detective Comics No. 1013, so be warned, there are spoilers for the issue ahead.

No comic book superhero has a rogues gallery quite like the Batman. From gangsters, clowns, feline fiends, masked madmen, mad scientists, monsters and immortals, the Dark Knight’s villains run the gamut of every corner of crime, science fiction, fantasy, and horror. But in terms of Batman’s modern films, and those that have utilized his characters, his more grounded villains have gotten the spotlight. While Christopher Nolan’s exceptional Dark Knight trilogy utilized fantastical villains like Ra’s and Talia al Ghul, Scarecrow and Bane, they were each approached from a semi real-world perspective, markedly different from the more comic booky elements of the characters we see in the comics. And adversaries like Catwoman, Two-Face and the Joker all thrived within a grounded setting, which has made them the go-to picks for feature films and solo projects like the recently released Joker. As casting for Matt Reeves’ The Batman heats up, with villains Penguin, Riddler and Catwoman all rumored to play a role, I can’t help but wonder when the time will come for Batman’s more unrealistic villains, like Mr. Freeze, to take their place in modern Gotham.

In this week’s Detective Comics No. 1013 by Peter Tomasi and Doug Mahnke, Mr. Freeze’s story takes a drastic turn. Following the introduction of nanobites into his body, making it possible for him exist within any environment without the need for his suit, Mr. Freeze accepts an offer from Lex Luthor: a serum that will cure and resurrect his wife, Nora, from her cryogenic state in exchange for his loyalty in the upcoming Doom War that has been building in the pages of Justice League. The terminally ill and frozen Nora Fries has been the central motivating factor for Mr. Freeze for decades, and it’s difficult not to think of the character alongside his wife. But Mr. Freeze, originally named Mr. Zero when he first appeared in Batman No. 121 (1959), and later renamed for the purpose of the 1960s Batman TV show, didn’t always have a wife as part of his backstory. It wasn’t until Bruce Timm and Paul Dini’s Emmy winning episode of Batman: The Animated Series, “Heart of Ice,” in 1992 that Nora Fries entered the picture and forever changed Mr. Freeze and how he was utilized.

Following the success of “Heart of Ice,” Nora Fries and Victor Fries’ updated origins were introduced into comic canon in the one-shot Batman: Mr. Freeze (1997), just in time for the infamous feature film Batman & Robin (1997), and the superior animated film Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero (1998). It’s the former, Joel Schumacher-directed film that has likely made filmmakers and Warner Bros. cautious against introducing the character, along with other villains like Man-Bat and Clayface, into contemporary Batman films. While Batman & Robin receives far more vitriol than it deserves, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s hammy, pun-heavy performance as Mr. Freeze is just one of those things that’s hard to bounce back from in terms of winning back the perception of the character from non-comic reading audiences. While Bane survived his limited appearance in Batman & Robin to reach greater heights in The Dark Knight Rises (2012), and Poison Ivy will surely make her way to the big screen in just a matter of time given the popularity of Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, Mr. Freeze may take longer to thaw out from cinematic purgatory.

Part of the problem with bringing Mr. Freeze back to the screen is that “Heart of Ice” has been utilized so heavily for the past 27 years. Beyond the fact that most of Freeze’s comic book appearances since 1997 have dealt heavily with the villain searching for a way to cure his wife, Batman & Robin and the television series Gotham have also told that story. Audiences are familiar with it, and part of the attraction of Batman films and the villains they employ is their ability to be reinvented in order to keep audiences guessing. It’s one of the reasons why Joker lends himself so well to the big screen. But Mr. Freeze has become so familiar that beyond the potential for awesome special effects, it seems unlikely that his story could surprise audiences regardless of how great a story “Heart of Ice” is. During DC’s New 52 initiative, a drastic step was taken to once again alter Mr. Freeze’s history and characterization.

In Batman Annual No. 1 by James Tynion IV and Scott Snyder, with art by Jason Fabok, Nora isn’t Mr. Freeze’s wife, but a young woman born 1943 and kept cryogenically frozen at Wayne Enterprises by her family until a cure for her heart condition could be found. Victor Fries became obsessed with Nora, and took a position at Wayne Enterprises to be close to her. This version of Freeze lacks the tragic element that Paul Dini introduced and has a creepy fixation on frozen bodies, one that perhaps befits a cinematic interpretation of Freeze as a cold-based serial killer. While DC Rebirth took the character back to his familiar “Heart of Ice” beginnings, perhaps there’s something within that New 52 version, somewhat controversial among comic readers, that would strike a chord with audiences who want something new. And then, there’s the unfrozen Nora factor.

This week’s issue of Detective Comics isn’t the first time Nora Fries has been revived in the comics. After being tossed in the Lazarus Pit, Nora became the villain Lazara, with the power to create flames and revive the dead in Batgirl No. 70 (2006). From the looks of DC’s advance solicitations, it appears that, within this new continuity, Nora will once again take a villainous turn, this time as Mrs. Freeze. The existence of a married criminal team, Mr. and Mrs. Freeze, opens up possibilities for the character that haven’t yet been explored, and a necessary break from Mr. Freeze pining over his frozen lover. Perhaps this new take, or evolution of the characters, is one that could be brought to the screen in a Batman movie or spinoff.

There’s certainly reason as a comic book fan to want to see “Heart of Ice” adapted as closely as possible for the big screen with all the pathos and tragedy it deserves. But there’s equally an understandable reason to desire something new, something that can ensure the longevity of the character beyond familiar beats. If Reeves’ Batman film is really going to open up the world of Gotham and make it a place where spinoffs like the rumored Batgirl, Nightwing and Gotham City Sirens can exist, then it needs to take full advantage of the strange and unrealistic corners of Batman’s world. While it may seem risky to some camp-weary Batman fans, Batman & Robin was 22 years ago. Cold comfort perhaps, but Mr. Freeze, and Nora too, deserve another chance in a Gotham City that can balance grounded and emotionally complex villains with the fantastic elements that comic books rely on.