When Batman & Robin came out 25 years ago in the summer of 1997, it pretty much acted as the death knell for the Dark Knight on the big screen. Following on the heels of 1995’s Batman Forever, this silly, sub-juvenile horror show from director Joel Schumacher killed any good will built up by the earlier Tim Burton Batman movies and created such an awkward situation for Warner Bros. that they ultimately decided it would be better to reboot the franchise eight years later by letting Christopher Nolan go in startling new directions with Batman Begins (2005).
Since then we’ve had Christian Bale as Nolan’s Batman, Ben Affleck as an older, more vengeful Caped Crusader in the Snyderverse, and most recently Matt Reeves and Robert Pattinson’s ultra-dark take about a younger Batman still finding his way. Each of them has had their supporters and detractors, but all have managed to make the memory of Batman & Robin slowly fade and heal by sheer virtue of their more respectful, complex, and darker-edged variations.
But what of the villains of Batman and Robin? A number of the top shelf members of Batman’s rogues’ gallery have received multiple and often interesting interpretations both before and after Batman & Robin, including Joker, Penguin, and Catwoman. Even the enemies done wrong in Batman Forever, Two-Face and Riddler, have been rebooted as serious characters in The Dark Knight and The Batman.
Sadly, the two main antagonists of Batman & Robin, Mr. Freeze and Poison Ivy, have been to date denied their chance at salvaging their identities on the big screen. Bane, luckily, has fared better, morphing from B&R’s hideous, non-verbal wrestler-henchman-butler to the monstrously powerful and cunning Tom Hardy portrayal in The Dark Knight Rises.
Yet Dr. Victor Fries and Dr. Pamela Isley remain trapped in cinematic prison, the former shackled by the memory of Arnold Schwarzenegger in his neon blue and silver suit, face painted like a Christmas ornament as he spewed some of the worst puns in film history (“Everybody chill!”). Ivy, meanwhile, thanks to an unhinged performance by Uma Thurman, came across as a car-wreck combination of Mae West and Tex Avery’s Red Hot Riding Hood. Both were deservedly nominated for Razzies for their performances, but did B&R damage those characters permanently as far as the big screen goes?
Mr. Freeze’s Journey from Gimmick to Tragic Figure
It didn’t have to be this way. While Freeze and Ivy have fluctuated between first and second-tier baddies in the pantheon of Batman’s famous, extensive list of villains (often considered the best in all of comics), both were certainly around long enough to earn enough gravitas and recognition within the universe of Batman’s printed adventures. And while the theatrical incarnations of both have failed them, animated and TV versions of the grief-crazed scientist Fries and the eco-terrorist Isley have, with varying degrees of success, done their best to rehabilitate the characters’ images.
Freeze actually made his debut in the pages of Batman #121 (February 1959) as Mr. Zero, created by writer Dave Wood and artist Sheldon Moldoff. Wielding an ice gun that could freeze anything – the same weapon which accidentally doused him and lowered his body temperature so that he must always remain in a cryo-suit—the villain of “The Ice Crimes of Mr. Zero” is not given much in the way of nuance or depth, his motivation for his diamond robberies mere greed. Mr. Zero was mostly a non-entity in the comics for a few years after that, but he gained a whole new following and caché in the late 1960s when he was re-introduced – this time as Mr. Freeze—in ABC’s legendary Batman TV series.
The character was a model of inconsistency on the show where he was portrayed by three different actors with three distinctly different looks—George Sanders, director Otto Preminger, and Eli Wallach—and was basically motivated by greed. But his cryo-suit, ice gun, and inventive traps for the Dynamic Duo, including one memorable episode in which he tried to turn them into Frosty Freezie drinks, made him popular enough that he was re-introduced in the comics, this time as Mr. Freeze.
The real turning point for Freeze, however, came on Batman: The Animated Series when he starred (voiced by Michael Ansara) in the season 1 episode “Heart of Ice.” The Daytime Emmy-winning episode, written by the great Paul Dini, completely rebooted the character, with Victor Fries revealed as a scientist who had placed his wife Nora in cryogenics while seeking a cure for her terminal illness. When the CEO of the company behind his experiments both cuts off Fries’ funding and causes the accident that mutates Fries’ body, he emerges as Mr. Freeze, driven by revenge and grief.
This origin story, one of the best of all Batman’s enemies, instantly turned Mr. Freeze from campy oddity to tragic antagonist and became official canon for almost all his subsequent appearances, including in animated projects, comic books, and, yes, even Batman & Robin. However, his sad story couldn’t generate any pathos in the Schumacher movie thanks to its tone and Schwarzenegger’s ridiculous performance.
Ironically, Freeze got to star in the second DC Animated Universe movie ever made, 1998’s Batman and Mr. Freeze: Subzero, which was much better received than his live-action incarnation from the year before. It also helped promote Freeze to a higher station among the Bat’s baddies, making him a fixture ever since.
Nevertheless, his sole live-action incarnation since B&R was on Gotham, where he was played by Nathan Darrow, leaving the character’s pop culture image frozen ince for millions of people as a joke and punchline.
Poison Ivy: A Femme Fatale Favorite Before and After 1997
Similar to Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy made her debut during the Silver Age of DC Comics, created by Robert Kanigher and Sheldon Moldoff for June 1966’s Batman #181. Unlike Freeze, however, her basic origin story and background were more or less established and canonical right from the start. Beautiful and deadly, Pamela Isley (confusingly called “Lillian Rose” in a 1978 issue of World’s Finest Comics) starts out as a dedicated botanist who is transformed by plant toxins into a sort of mutant and eco-terrorist who can control plant life, control minds through pheromones, and kill with a kiss through toxins that emanate from her lips and skin.
The basic facts of her origin have changed over the years, but the post-Crisis on Infinite Earths version conceived by Neil Gaiman for Secret Origins #36, in which the shy, naïve Isley is injected with plant toxins by her lover and professor, Dr. Jason Woodrue, turning her into a vengeful protector of nature (and connecting her to the ecological force known as the Green)—has been official ever since.
Ivy has morphed over the years from a villain to an antihero, protecting children in the No Man’s Land saga in one instance. And her basic motivation of protecting the Earth’s ecology would certainly seem to be based in good intentions, especially in this century. Still, those intentions are perverted by her general dislike for human life, her often intensely sexual presentation, and her love/hate relationship with Batman.
Surprisingly, all these aspects of the character were present and accounted for in Batman & Robin, just twisted into an unrecognizable, unfunny, and smug burlesque by the script. These matters were not helped any by Schumacher’s direction and Thurman’s performance (which, to be fair to her, was effective in terms of what was asked for by the director).
Like Freeze, Poison Ivy has survived and endured in the comics, various animated permutations of the DC universe, and live-action television. Like Freeze, a version of her appeared in the Gotham TV series, where she was played (under the names “Ivy Pepper” and “Pamela Pepper”) by Clare Foley (as a child), Maggie Geha, and finally Peyton List. Unlike Freeze, Ivy has shown up in the Arrowverse as well, in a vastly revamped version on Batwoman played by Bridget Regan and Nicole Kang.
More recently, in the cult favorite Harley Quinn animated series on HBO Max, Ivy has received a full antiheroine revamp with Lake Bell providing the voice. That interpretation might be indicative of how a modern film could approach Ivy, with her sensuality much less important than her ecological radicalism. She also is depicted as Harley’s lover in that series, a modern element to the character that Margot Robbie told Den of Geek as recently as last year that she would still like to see pursued in a live-action movie.
Freeze and Poison Ivy Ought to Be in Pictures Again
Mr. Freeze and Poison Ivy are among the many members of Batman’s rogues’ gallery who could, and should, eventually surface in a major motion picture. No less that The Batman’s director and co-writer Matt Reeves said so himself at a press event Den of Geek attended shortly before his movie was released: “It would be a challenge in an interesting way to try and figure out how that could happen, even the idea of something like Mr. Freeze… there’s actually a grounded version of that story which could be really powerful and could be really great.”
No matter how gritty and realistic any iteration of the Batman story onscreen is, and two of the last three have gone in that direction, we’re still operating in a universe where a wealthy, psychologically disturbed man dresses as a bat runs a sophisticated crime lab in a cave (or in the case of the Reeves movie, an abandoned subway station under a skyscraper). He also utilizes all kinds of gadgets, including a customized car to rival James Bond’s tricked-out Aston Martin, to battle not just common criminals but more freakish enemies as well.
Bringing the cinematic Mr. Freeze in line with the tragic figure of the comics and animated shows isn’t completely beyond the bounds of believability with a little sci-fi explanation along the way. Neither is the idea of introducing Poison Ivy as an environmentalist-turned-ecoterrorist who uses her advanced scientific knowledge and technology in a warped defense of nature, perhaps even against Wayne Enterprises. She could also provide a new romantic interest for Robert Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne and act as an interesting rival/foil for Catwoman.
It can be done, and we’d like to see it happen (start your casting suggestions in the comments below, and maybe we’ll do a separate item on those alone). While there are plenty of other Bat-villains who have yet to even make it to the multiplex, Mr. Freeze and Poison Ivy are such complex characters and integral parts of the canon that they deserve a shot at cinematic redemption, just as Riddler, Two-Face, and Bane have gotten. Let’s just hope it happens before either hell freezes over or climate change eradicates the ecology that Ivy has sworn to protect.