Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Mr. Freeze: One of the Greatest Comic Book Villains that No-one Ever Notices

(This post hast been updated for 2020) 
“This is how I’ll always remember you, 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!” 

    When it comes to famous comic book villains, there’s plenty of great one’s that range from the Joker, to Thanos, to Doctor Octopus, to Lex Luthor, to Venom, to Dr. Doom, and my personal favorite is Magneto from the X-Men comics. However, with all the famous comic book villains … why doesn’t anyone ever acknowledge Mr. Freeze? He’s cold-heart-ted, is forever trapped inside a suit that keeps his body temperature below freezing, and surprisingly, having a gun that freezes things makes him come off as a cool gun-slinger. I honestly think he’s the greatest of Batman’s enemies ... not just because he looks cool and has a nifty gun … but because I find him the most complex, sophisticated and tragic. Granted, there have been several different variations of the character over the years ... some ruthless ... some sympathetic ... and some downright silly ... but when he’s done right, I feel he outshines all the rest. So, why does Mr. Freeze always get the shaft? Well, let’s take a look it his media legacy, and see if we can find an answer. 

      As always, it’s best to start at the beginning, and it’s clear that he wasn’t that complex at first. When he was first introduced in the comics, he was referred to as Mr. Zero, and was basically just a one-note joke villain. The 1960’s animated TV show referred to him as “An Ice cream man from Mars”, which isn’t the least bit intimidating. However, things changed for the better in the live action 1966 Batman TV series staring Adam West. This is when the characters name was changed to Mr. Freeze, and thanks to the popularity of the show, the name has stuck with him ever sense. In his first appearance, Mr. Freeze is played by George Sanders, who you may recognize as the voice of Shere Khan from Disney's “The Jungle Book”. In this first episode, Batman is accidentally responsible for the creation of his frozen enemy … something that Tim Burton would noticeably take inspiration from in his 1989 movie, but with Batman accidentally creating the Joker as opposed to Mr. Freeze. This also marked the first time that Batman in the 60’s show felt any form of sympathy for one of his rouges.

    Further appearances from Mr. Freeze in the 60’s show were played by two different actors … Otto Preminger and Eli Wallach. In both cases, his costume was redesigned to feature a freezing collar, as opposed to a full-on Freeze suit, although his signature weapon remained the same. These final two portrayals fell in line with the campy tone of the show, and he no-longer warranted any sympathy from Batman. Despite their goofy appearances, Mr. Freeze in the 60’s show is still a staple of the character, and I was still plenty disappointed that he wasn’t in the 1966 film “Batman: The Movie” … I mean that was the biggest collection of Batman villains in a live-action film, and it would have been the perfect opportunity to see him among all the other classic Batman villains.

     Yet, the big one to set the template of the character was the 90’s animated Batman TV series. 
Show writer Paul Dini completely recreated the character, and is responsible for giving Mr. Freeze both a tragic backstory, as well as personal motivations revolving around a frozen wife. Whenever I think of Mr. Freeze, the first thing that always comes to mind is his design, voice and motivations from this highly influential TV show. His new design was inspired by “Hellboy” creator Mike Mignola, and holly cow … he’s never looked better. Voice actor Michael Ansara was the final ingredient that made this the definitive portrayal of the character. His voice is so firkin awesome, his performance is genuine, and dare I say it … but his voice gives me “chills” every time. He also delivers all the best and most cryptic lines, which have now become staples of the character. Batman: “To satisfy your vengeance, you would take away innocent lives?” … Mr. Freeze: “Think of it Batman, to never again walk on a summers day with a hot wind in your face, and a warm hand to hold … oh yes, I would kill for that”. Further menacing lines include … "The cold eyes of vengeance are upon you," and "All who cross me must feel the icy touch of death." While his "ice buns" would get grading in other incarnations, they're delivered with a sheer sense of menace, and come-off as awesome character quotes. 

     His introduction episode titled “Heart of Ice” is universally regarded as one of the best episodes of the series by far, in fact it’s my personal favorite, and it even won a day-time Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing in an Animated Program. 
We see through flashback that he was trying to rejuvenate his deathly ill wife, who he'd been keeping frozen. In the process, he was interrupted by his wicked boss, who’s interference leads to the accident transforming him into Mr. Freeze. In present day, the villain is out for vengeance against the man who ruined him, with Batman being the one obstacle getting in his way. Everything from the visuals, to the pacing, to the atmosphere, to the back and forth conversations between our hero and villain are all presented on a higher quality then most animated programs of its time, and continues to be replicated all these years later. More than anything, this episode found the perfect balance between making Mr. Freeze a ruthless threat, while also making him someone to sympathize with. The final spoken words from Freeze in this episode sum it all up ... “I failed you, I wish there were another way for me to say it......but I cannot. I can only beg your forgiveness, and pray you hear me somehow ... someplace ... where a warm hand waits for mine”.

    Unlike the other iconic villain’s of Batman rouges gallery, Mr. Freeze was used sparingly, and arguably had the most layered character arc over the course of the show. His follow-up episode titled “Deep Freeze” saw the bitter sweet reunion between the villain and his still frozen wife. Instead of seeking vengeance, his new goal is helping her regain her health and life again. Unfortunately for him, all his efforts get shattered at every turn. It may seem odd, but comparing Mr. Freeze’s unfortunate background with Bruce Wayne’s makes it seem like Batman got it easy. While Batman’s backstory is tragic, his parents are only dead, which means Bruce can morn them and move on. Mr. Freeze by contrast isn’t so lucky. His wife isn’t dead, she’s stuck in a form of limbo where the possibility of life is still there, but Freeze loses his chance to save her every time. He can neither morn her death or save her life, he is literally and figuratively frozen in this horrible predicament, and the one thing that makes his heart so cold isn’t hatred or greed … its hope! That is a brilliant set-up for a great villain, and one worthy of more recognition.

    In 1998, there was the animated direct to video movie titled “Batman and Mr. Freeze: Subzero”, which initially concluded his arc from the animated series. In this film, we see his desperation reach a fighting new low, in which he abducts Bat-Girl, and means to sacrifice her as a final effort to save his wife. 
On a side note, this marks the first and only time in which Mr. Freeze has two polar bears at his side, which has always felt like an iconic staple of the character. Once again in this film, we can sympathize with his goals, but it still doesn’t justify his actions. He also remains a consistently menacing villain, but he still has a certain sense of honor and dignity to him. In the end, he becomes a better man, and one that Batman puts his life on the line for. It’s not often that a hero and villain can come to a respected understanding. While the film did a good job with Mr. Freezes character, the plot is a little repetitive, and Batman is hardly in the movie. In fact, he doesn’t even see Freeze till the very end of the film, where they have a very brief fight. They got the internal conflicts down just fine, but I would’ve still liked a good external conflict with Batman involved. Had that been handled a little stronger, I would have placed this among the absolute best Batman movies. While that’s not the case, it is still the absolute best in which Mr. Freeze has ever been represented in a movie.

    Following after the movie came “The New Batman Adventures”, which followed the same continuity of the previous show, despite a new look and character redesigns. Even though Mr. Freeze’s story concluded in the movie “Subzero”, it just wasn’t fitting to continue the Batman series without one of his most popular villains present. 
Thus, in his return episode titled “Cold Comfort”, Mr. Freeze took on a noticeably darker persona. His suit was literally darker, but this time the character didn’t have the same sympathetic goals driving his actions. This was Mr. Freeze after he lost everything, no longer able to reunite with his love, as most of his body was destroyed, and replaced with cybernetic limbs. As such, he’s going to make sure that everyone in Gotham feels his same level of pain and loss. In other words, he has now officially become Darth Vader ... or maybe Dr. Loveless from “Wild, Wild West”, as he’s got these silly spider legs now. Putting that silly detail aside, this marked the highest threat level the villain has ever been, and it was genuinely thrilling to see Batman engage him in a climactic final battle with the fate on the city in the balance. While I prefer the pathos of the character, it is still a treat to see Mr. Freeze just go full villain, and he putts our hero through the fight of his life. Their final duel to the death is riveting, and we see Batman put in a grey area in which the only way to save the city is to break his one rule ... and kill Mr. Freeze. However, the final visual closes the episode on an ominous note, that he’s not really dead, and that he might return one day.

    Michael Ansara returned to voice his signature character one last time, and brought finality to the story of Mr. Freeze in the following TV series called “Batman Beyond”. Still tying in with the continuity of the previous show, this series takes place in the future, with a new young Batman protecting the city, while an aged Bruce Wayne guides him. During this time, Mr. Freeze’s condition has kept him in a state of hibernation, and thus, in the episode titled “Meltdown”, it was time for him to thaw. However, this time he returns in a new human body that’s no-longer frozen.
As such, Mr. Freeze tries to make amends for his past sins, and aims to start a new life. The new young Batman wishes him well, all while the older and experienced Bruce Wayne is leery of his old foe. As is the case with Mr. Freeze, tragedy continues to dog his heals, even when trying to make a new life for himself. His condition reverses, and he’s betrayed by the doctors who initially revived him. As such, he becomes a villain for one last time, adorns a new super freezing suit, and goes on a suicide mission in an attempt to kill off all his enemies. The young Batman succeeds in thwarting his plans to commit genocide, but this time Mr. Freeze takes his final chilling breath ... and parishes during the battle. The final exchange between both the young and old Batman says so much with so little. They both reflect on their deceased foe, and note both the inexcusable monster who deserved his fate … and the sympathetic man who deserved better. While this was a great send-off for the villain, I feel it would have been stronger in two parts. Still, I think Mr. Freeze has the absolute best story arc of any villain from the iconic 90’s Batman series, and was personally my favorite of the whole lot … which I don’t say lightly, as Mark Hamels portrayal of the Joker is absolutely my favorite portrayal of that character too.   

    Even with a small number of episodes, Mr. Freeze was so popular that he was selected as the final main villain in the fourth installment of Warner Brothers live action 90’s film series. The result was 1997’s live theatrical picture “Batman and Robin”, with Arnold Schwarzenegger receiving top billing in the role of Mr. Freeze. This marked the characters very first appearance in a theatrical Batman movie, and his first time in live action sense the 60’s show.
This portrayal of the character seemed to combine both the sympathetic backstory and character motivation of the 90’s show, with the goofy tone and antics of the 60’s series … resulting in a villain who was a little too jokey to care for. The costume was also a bit over the top, resembling a light-up action figure, as opposed to a subtle Freeze suit. Now speaking personally, while this was a missed opportunity for my favorite Batman villain to shine in a live action picture, I never the less get a lot of joy out of watching Arnold Schwarzenegger in this role. The actor was clearly having the time of his life, and that sense of fun in his performance dose carry over to me. While not a good portrayal of the character, it’s certainly the most entertaining part of the whole film. It’s also something that I’ve come to savor, as it’s the characters only live-action theatrical appearance to date. Unfortunately, for as much as I have fun watching this silly performance, the damage was still done, and it’s arguably due to this portrayal that no other Batman movie has felt safe utilizing him as a villain. It’s a real shame because Mr. Freeze had all the potential and makings of a great comic-book villain to shine on the big-screen.        
    One good thing to note is that the villain has continued to shine in a number of terrific Batman comic books, and has continued to appear in video games. 
Mr. Freeze made his third transition to live action in the 2014 series "Gotham", in which he was played by Nathan Darrow. May not be saying much, but it is one of the villains better live action portrayals to date. The show also brought back his freezing collar from the 60's show, which was an interesting call-back. Mr. Freeze would also make a small return to the silver screen, as he's seen with all the other rouges in the animated theatrical 2017 picture “The Lego Batman Movie”. It was very appreciated, although I would have preferred something more then a walk-in cameo. He did have a note-worthy role in the animated 2019 direct to video movie titled “Batman vs Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”. In this highly entertaining crossover, Mr. Freeze is transformed into a mutant polar bear … which was actually more awesome then it sounds. He’s also continued to appear in a number of different animated Batman and DC themed TV shows, including "Batman: The Brave and the Bold", "Young Justice", "DC: Super Friends", "Batman: Unlimited", "Harley Quine", and several others. While I don’t think I need to go into detail on every single one of them … I do quickly want to mention my second favorite portrayal of the character behind the 90’s series.

    The 2004 TV show simply titled “The Batman” took place in its own continuity, and had its own style and tone that differed from its predecessor. While not on par with the quality of the 90’s animated series, it was never the less fun to watch, and once again, Mr. Freeze was able to stand out as my favorite of Batman’s rouges in the show. His introduction episode titled “The Big Chill” made for a highly entertaining debut, and won me over as a different version of the character ... one that can be respected in his own distinct way. 
This Mr. Freeze completely dropped all the humanity and pathos in favor of a straight forward threat … and even as a one-note villain with no sign of remorse … he was still awesome as a monstrous adversary. Voice actor Clancy Brown delivered an extremely menacing performance, and gave the character a size, a presence, and made the character shine as an imposing obstacle ... one with the strength to best Batman. His design was extremely over-the-top, looking like a walking iceberg, but it fit with the shows over-the-top tone, and presentation. Just like in the 60’s show, Batman is accidentally responsible for the creation of Mr. Freeze, razing the ethical debate if our hero is doing more harm than good. There’s a great scene in which the memories of Batman’s family perishing runs parallel to Batman’s loss during his first encounter with Mr. Freeze ... and our hero has an epiphany. He may have accidentally created his enemy, but it was the crime in Gotham that created him first. Despite not having anything of dramatic substance to support his actions, this Mr. Freeze still shined as a plain awesome villain, and appeared in multiple episodes of the shows run.

     I won’t go down all the villain’s appearances in this show like I did for the 90’s series, but I certainly wanted to mention my favorite episode of the whole show, as it likewise features Mr. Freeze as the main threat. In the season 4 episode titled “Artifacts”, we segue one-thousand years into the future, in which Batman has become a piece of history … and one that the people of New Gotham don’t entirely believe in. 
However, the new and improved Mr. Freeze comes out of hibernation, attacks the city, and threatens to kill off everyone with a new ice age. With no hero’s left to protect the city, a team of historians seek out the ruins of the Bat-cave in hopes to find some clue of how to stop Mr. Freeze. As they uncover relics in the cave, the episode flashes back on the events in which Batman made his final stand against Mr. Freeze. This episode is heavily inspired by Frank Millers graphic novel “The Dark Knight Returns”, and it’s a real treat to cut back, and forth between Batman’s final climactic mission, and a future where he’s become a legend lost in the books of history. Plus, it’s awesome that of all Batman’s foes, it’s Mr. Freeze who out lived them all, continued the Batman’s legacy, and proved once again to be one of his most powerful enemies. It’s just a sold episode all around, with a great set-up, and no shortage of admiration to the legacy of the Dark Knight.       

     In the end, for all his highs, lows and different portrayals, I still feel that Mr. Freezes deserves his place in the spot-light … not just as a great Batman villain, but in general, one of the great comic book villains.
While objectively not the greatest of Batman’s rouges, he’s still personally my favorite of the bunch, and the one I get the most excited to see different variations of in other forms of media. The best villains are those born of tragedy, similar to the way Batman was born from horrific events, and there’s so much potential for this character to have a truly sophisticated, dramatic and intense appearance in a theatrical Batman film. I understand that this portrayal in “Batman and Robin” was a fluke, but that doesn’t mean the character should be completely abandoned. He still has all the makings of a great movie villain, and one that I’m hoping to see make a come-back on the big screen someday. Any character deserves a second chance, and I really hope writers of future Batman movies will allow Mr. Freeze the chance to shine in a motion picture film. The character may literally be held on ice for now, but I’m still hoping for the best, and maybe one day my favorite of Batman’s foes will get his proper recognition as one of his absolute greatest.  

"It would move me to tears......if I still had tears to shed."

The End

Monday, December 21, 2015

The Polar Express (2004) (Movie Review)

       Life is full of changes, and growing-up has its up’s a downs. My personal transition from Elementary school to Middle school was kind of rough, and a time when I shut myself out from other things. Strait to the point, this was a time in which the Christmas season meant very little too me, and I had pretty much lost all its magic. Then in 2004 a little animated movie came out called “The Polar Express”, and needless to say, this film helped reignite that warm magical spark, which I had lost. Now “The Polar Express” has never been regarded as one of the great holiday classics, and has received mixed reviews, but it’s got fans, and some would regard it as a “small” yuletide classic in its own right. I’ll admit the movie is far from perfect, but it’s still very special to me, and is personally one of my absolute favorite Christmas movies that I love watching every year. The movie is directed by Robert Zemeckis, who’s responsible for some of my favorite family adventure films including “Back to the Future”, “Monster House” and “Who Framed Rodger Rabbit”, and this film is yet another great one to add to his resume.  

       Naturally, the movie is based on the children’s book of the same title, which incidentally is a book I’m quiet nostalgic for. I remember my parents read that book to me every holiday season. However, even with my love for the source material, I never thought they could do a proper book adaption, especially considering how short and strait forward the story is. For those of you who don’t know, “The Polar Express” is the tail of a young boy who’s slowly falling out of the holiday season. Then on one magical Christmas Eve night, he gets whisked away on a train bound for the North Pole. Through his experience journeying to the Pole he rediscovered that magic spark, and in a sense had his “faith” restored. I can actually relate to the kid in the film, because that’s how I was, and it was through the experience of viewing the film that I found myself gradually tiptoeing back to my love for the holiday again. Personally, that’s what I take away from this movie ... the experience. Where other Christmas movies have great moral values, or are really funny, or very nostalgic, “The Polar Express” is the only one that makes me feel like I’m experiencing the holiday.

     The storytelling is light as air, and the atmosphere is just magical. I also respect how this film took the mythos of Santa and turned it into a challenge of faith, which some kids can probably relate to in their own general way. Having said all that, the movie would probably be stronger if it was a direct to TV special like “The Snowman”, because a theatrical movie needs to be padded out in order to be feature length. While I still love the overall experience of the movie, I’ll admit that the detours are very obvious. There are some action scenes thrown in revolving around the train getting derailed, and those moments do conflict with the films simplicity. To be fair, those action detours are still done well, and can be exciting to watch, but it does feel like the animators are trying to promote a theme park attraction at times. Now for as padded as the movie can get, it at least maintains the spirit of the source material, unlike say the movie adaption of “The Cat in the Hat”, which filled its run time with dry toilet hummer, modern day references and obvious commercial tie-ins. “The Polar Express” at least sticks to its time period, and is trying to be something meaningful.

     Some may argue that it’s still a little manipulative, like some scenes are added in just because most classic children’s movies have scenes of the sort. For example there’s a random scary moment involving a puppet of Ebenezer Scrooge coming to life which has nothing to do with anything, and is basically just there so the movie can have a scary scene. Maybe there’s a little bit of foreshadowing here, because Robert Zemeckis next animated Christmas movie would be “A Christmas Carol”. Well, clich├ęd or not, I do love the majority of scenes in this film, in fact, it’s one of those movies I love watching just to re-experience select moments. One of the most inventive moments happens when the hero boy loses his ticket, which gets blown off the train leading into an amazing tracking shot following this ticket as it blows through a mountain side and back on board the locomotive. Tracking shots are impressive enough in live action, but for the animators to create a long take with no cuts on a computer is really something to admire. Some of the random moments also help create an otherworldly atmosphere that makes the train feel all the more magical. For example, the lead boy frequently encounters the ghost of a homeless man, but only he can see him. We’re never given any clear answers about this character, but his presence gives the train a more mysterious yet lively feel. I especially love all the little details, like this one moment in the opening when the boy boards the train, he looks over at his house and a strong gust of wind gives the illusion that his snowman is waving goodbye to him, little touches like that are wonderful.

    For some reason, the scene that always stands out to me the most is when a lonely boy sings about the simple joys he desperately wants to feel around Christmas, which leads into a duet between him and a young girl. It may seem just a little corny to have these children signing, but I just love this song, I love the melody and really love all the colors and visuals that are displayed in this moment. It’s simply a touching little scene with these two kids, and once again it just adds a little more magic to the experience. On that note, the music in this film is outstanding. The score composed by Alan Silvestri is one of the most magical and breathtaking scores I’ve ever heard. The Polar Express theme song is very catchy, and I also love this song titled “Spirit of the Season”, which definitely puts me in the holiday mood. Also, just about every classic Christmas song ranging from Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” to the Andrew Sisters “Winter Wonderland” can be heard in the film. The song “Believe” performed by Josh Groban is personally one of my favorite modern holiday songs. It’s hard to explain but this song just lifts my spirit and really gets me in the “feels”. The only song I didn’t care for was that silly “Hot Chocolate” number, which wasn’t an awful scene mind you, it just didn’t do much for me.

     Now it’s time talk about the characters, who add another rich flavor to the film. I like that we never learn their names, their just kids with distinct character traits, which help them stand apart from each other. The lead boy is like the everyday person who’s wide eyed and observes all the magic around him. The hero girl always takes charge, and acts out of pure faith, which puts her at odds with the hero boy who’s on a journey to rediscover his. There’s a “know-it-all” kid, who’s basically a walking dictionary, and finally there’s a lonely boy who though the experience gains the gift of friendship. Each child has their own arc, each identifiable and I like seeing their friendships bloom over the course of the journey. I especially love that the hero girl is African American, which makes her relationship with the lead boy feel very unique. It would have been so easy for the animators to make her a pretty Caucasian girl that looks like a perfect match for the lead boy, but by giving her a different ethnicity, it makes their friendship feel unconventional, all the more genuine, and it’s even more special considering that the film is set in the 1950’s. Of course I have to mention Tom Hanks, who’s terrific playing various characters throughout the film, ranging from the train conductor to Santa Clause himself. It’s hard to explain, but there’s something about this films portrayal of Santa that has this real presence to him. I’ve been around the block with different portrayals of Santa in various Christmas movies, and while this obviously isn’t the absolute best, he still feels the most mystical in this film than any other portrayal I’ve seen. While the movie makes it clear that Tom Hanks is just playing several different characters, I’d still like to believe that their all the same magical entity taking on various forms. That would have made more sense to give Tom Hanks all these roles if there was something connecting them all together. 

    Now let’s talk about the other obvious highlight of the film, which is the stunning 3D animation. While I regrettably didn’t see this movie in 3D, I was still very impressed with the artistry of the film. However, I can still imagine the transporting effect the 3D adds to the experience. The colors and designs in this movie are just wonderful. Plus there are several individual shots that look like pictures I could frame and hang on my wall. The setting of the North Pole is arguably my favorite I’ve ever seen in a Christmas movie. Many of the buildings are shrunken down to elf size, and there’s multiple colors coming from the chimneys. There’s a great segment near the end in which three of the kids get lost at the pole, which leads to some awesome locations, and terrific set pieces. The only time the animation suffers is with the human characters, who occasionally look like marionettes. This was the first animated movie to combine motion capture performances with the animation, and while it’s distracting at times, there’s still some great detail in regards to the human features, and it obviously can’t over shadow how stunning the animation is overall.

    For me, the best way to describe this film is like going to bed one night, and having this beautiful dream that takes many wild and magical twists, turns, then when you wake up you get this warm feel that you embarked on this enchanting adventure. From beginning to end, the movie makes me feel like I’m living a dream revolving around the Christmas season, and I really can’t think of any other movie that creates a feel as unique as this. Like I said in the opening, “The Polar Express” is far from perfect, but then again no movie really needs to be. All that matters is how much you take away from the experience, and in this regard, I received one of the most magical holiday movie experiences I could possibly ask for. The colors are beautiful, the music is fantastic, the premise is unique, the atmosphere is great, and the 3D animation is just dazzling. Honestly, films don’t always need a stellar story, sometimes I just want to experience something, and “The Polar Express” is a film that I look forward to experiencing again and again every year.

I give “The Polar Express” ... 4 ½ stars out of 5.