Ice to Meet You? — A Look at the New 52’s Reintroduction of Mr. Freeze.

By Alex Ehrhardt, regular guest contributor
First, as a warning, this piece is an analysis of a plot twist. It is one of those plot twists, the ones that really ought not be spoiled. It’s the plot twist in the recent Batman Annual #1’s ‘First Snow,’, written by Scott Snyder and with art by Jason Fabok. Prior to the most recent reboot of the DC universe, Mr. Freeze’s origin was canonically the one written in 1992 by Paul Dini for Batman: The Animated Series. This Freeze was Doctor Victor Fries, who was building his criminal empire specifically to fund research for his terminally ill wife, Nora, currently in cryogenic stasis. Needless to say, Freeze was, for twenty years, one of Batman’s most sympathetic antagonists. The love many fans had for this morally gray Mr. Freeze certainly accounts for the controversy surrounding Snyder’s take on the character.

In ‘First Snow,’ the story that introduces the rebooted Freeze, we are presented with a revelation in the climax. It turns out that Victor Fries has never even met Nora. She was frozen in the 1960s, and was the subject of Fries’ doctoral thesis. Mr. Freeze is transformed, with this twist, from a loving husband descended into extremity, into an obsessed and deluded stalker.

This is a change that fans and critics have objected to in great numbers. However, around this unpalatable bit of alteration to a familiar universe, there exists a well-told chiller of a tale (sue me, I had to do at least one pun about cold here somewhere). For the bulk of the story, recurring bat-fans are given the familiarly tragic Freeze they know, and new readers have that same sympathetic origin set up for them—until the revelation, readers can reasonably assume that Nora really is Victor Fries’ wife. In fact, up until the revelation, readers are set up to, to some extent, root for Freeze. In this story, he has found a way to safely unfreeze Nora, whose heart condition is now treatable with modern medicine, and intends to leave Gotham with her, forever. Since readers still think that Nora is his wife, this seems to be a good outcome—Victor Fries gets to be happy, and Gotham has one less supervillain to worry about.

While the plan’s component of killing Bruce Wayne may not be something readers root for, Snyder, has, at this point, at least given us a sympathetic motive for Freeze’s doing so. After all, it was Bruce Wayne who shut down the cryogenics project that would find a way to unfreeze Nora, and it was in a confrontation with Wayne over this very project that Victor Fries suffered the accident that altered his body chemistry, transforming him into the Mr. Freeze with whom we are familiar.

The shock of discovering the truth about Fries and Nora is made all the more potent by the way in which Snyder has thus far set us, the readers, up so that we feel sympathetic to Freeze. Our emotional momentum is reversed with the revelation in the story’s third act. The power of the ending comes not solely from the shock of the unfamiliar, but from the sudden necessity to reevaluate our sympathies, and the way in which all of Freeze’s actions become, in retrospect, profoundly disquieting. The putting-on-a-pedestal of a woman who may not want any such attention is the dark flip-side to the sorts of stories that make Dini’s take on Freeze so sympathetic, and Snyder’s ‘First Snow’ brings this to the fore. The title of the story is taken from a line within, said by Victor’s mother: “How I love the first snow, unbroken and white, before it’s ruined by footprints.”

The symbolic connection to Nora, then, is that, to Snyder’s Freeze, her frozen state renders her unspoiled: she is inert, unable to act, and it his his prerogative to act upon her. She is an idealization of the innocent victim—Freeze knows her only insofar as he knows the details of the process by which she is put in stasis. She is his project, but not really a person. In a sense, the relationship between Freeze and Nora can be seen as a critique of the damsel-in-distress archetype. As readers, our sympathy is so easily gained, in part, because, even if we are unfamiliar with Dini’s Freeze, we know to root for the guy trying to save the girl. Another layer of the shock of the twist, then, is that we must, in some way, face the dark underbelly of the structures we accept daily in narratives both fictional and about the real world.

The most common objections to the changes to Freeze are centered around the idea that the new Freeze, without the angle of sympathy, will have less interesting stories centered around him. This is entirely possible. Indeed, within Batman’s rogue’s gallery, he now occupies a similar niche to the Mad Hatter, who is obsessively in pursuit of a woman to be his ‘Alice.’ However, regardless of what can be done with the new Freeze, as a self-contained story, ‘First Snow’ is a thought-provoking and well-written work.

The Last Airbender and the Misguiding Power of Romantic Tropes

When you—a television fan of great taste, I’m sure—love a show, that show isn’t obligated to love you back. It’s a source of despair for the avid television watcher.

It’s nice if the writers and artists of said show appreciate you. Without a fan base, many programs linger and die unmourned deaths, remembered on message boards in blurry screencaps or YouTube videos watermarked with the TV channel’s logo. Creators of entertainment should, if they’re kind and, more importantly, smart, appreciate the audiences that have championed their fame.

They still have no obligation to love their fan base back with the same fervor that the fans love them. The stories a show tells are its own. Even a program’s most fervent follower isn’t entitled to change the content the artist wants to deliver.

Fans can love that content. They can hate parts of it with a fiery passion. They can hate it for an ending that, to their minds, doesn’t quite work, and they can sure as hell critique it. Sites like this this one wouldn’t exist if we weren’t allowed to analyze and question our entertainment. Still, one can’t change what’s broadcast into a TV box unless they’re providing or else hired to shape that content.

To make this preamble short, I’m not sure I understand some fans of Avatar: The Last Airbender.

The animated fantasy martial arts show aired from 2005 to 2008, a family show with a wide ensemble cast which stars the spirit of the world in one of his many human incarnations, Aang (voiced by Zach Tyler Eisen). It has nothing to do with James Cameron’s Avatar films and has regrettable connections with M. Night Shyamalan’s lackluster 2010 live-action adaptation of the series, The Last Airbender.

Detailed, often spiritual, and sometimes just plain beautiful to look at, the heavily Asian influenced fantasy show is a bright jewel in Nickelodeon’s recent programming.

It has garnered a huge following, not only among children and parents, but young adults who identify closely with some of the teenage protagonists. This includes, Katara (voiced by Mae Whitman), an approximately 14-year old member of the Water Tribe and the earliest ally of the show’s protagonist, and Zuko (Dante Basco) the show’s fire bending antihero and conflicted villain who makes good.

Katara has found a lot of popularity in fan fiction and fan art as a cypher for girls and young women. She’s thoughtful and loses her composure in only the most tense of situations. A number of fans have devoted very detailed fan fiction, art, and communities, meanwhile, to pairing her off with the anguished Prince Zuko.

I would by lying if I said I didn’t think pairing-off polar opposite characters as couples is bad storytelling. It’s a reliable plot, a very well used trope at this point but one that fosters great chemistry between leads. It’s an easy idea, though, and a classic arc that, according to a very relevant TV Tropes article, is at least as old as Much Ado About Nothing.

A couple of problems surface with being zealous about this pair. The first is that the contingent of fandom that adores the couple, “Zutarans,” has some very vocal members who insist that the relationship be canon and that the creators have actively made fun of the fans for thinking they were supposed to be.

This may be the case in all honesty, though, because of the second problem: the characters in question meet only a few times before teaming up at the end of the last season. The screen time they do share involves Zuko: invading Katara’s village in search of Avatar Aang (“The Avatar Returns”), tying her to a tree (“The Waterbending Scroll”), attacking her (“The Siege of the North,” “The Chase”) and betraying her (“The Crossroads of Destiny”).

It’s a testament to the power of tropes that this little shared screen time and animosity is interpreted as a love connection. Popular entertainment conditions its viewers to expect certain developments in a story. When two beloved characters pay attention to each other in a certain context, that translates as “romance” for any audience that has a passing familiarity with Beauty and the Beast.

Even if that context is violence.

Maybe especially if that context is violence, judging by the number of fans who respond strongly to Zuko tying Katara to a tree. It is fantasy, I guess, and a fictional hate-to-love romance is better than audiences attempting to reconstruct it in real life. It’s excellent catharsis.

But that isn’t the story Avatar: The Last Airbender wanted. The context of Zuko and Katara’s relationship is violence up to the end of the third season, where he understandably has to work for her trust. Katara, meanwhile, spends a lot more time supporting and building an emotional bond with Aang. He’s a suitor that, while a year younger than her, certainly seems like a gentler, more stable option than the moody Fire Nation prince.

Stability doesn’t make for a very good will-they-won’t-they romance, however, but that’s not what the series creators wanted to make. This isn’t due to a lack of “appreciation” on their part, it’s just that an earth-shattering, high-drama romance wasn’t a part of the series’ shape. Co-creator Bryan Konietzko, for his part, certainly adores his fans enough to make a Tumblr account with daily images of the next series set in the same universe, The Legend of Korra. Which I find to be quite nice.

Fans, of course, are entitled to loving a show for their own reasons and taking from it what they like best, especially if the things they like best feed a burning passion that would otherwise go hungry. The original show, though, is ideally beholden to no one but the whims of the artists and the vision that they try their best to bring to the rest of the world.

Rapunzel: More Feminist than she looks

 In case you haven’t heard the news, Disney announced that Tangled, its computer-animated retelling of the Rapunzel story, is going to be its last Princess movie, at least for a while. This decision was financially motivated, but artistically it’s probably a good direction for the company to go anyway – it does seem as though the formula was becoming a bit of a crutch.

As the grand finale of Disney fairy tales, Tangled doesn’t disappoint – it does a remarkable job of incorporating all the elements that made the classic princess films charming and fun while also feeling like the modern, action-packed CGI films of the Pixar era. My favorite aspect of the film, though, and the one that makes me a little sad that Disney won’t be continuing further down this road, is the heroine, Rapunzel. The road towards princess self-actualization that began in Mulan and stumbled around blindly for a while in Enchanted has finally culminated in a character with a surprising amount of what feminist critics like to call Agency.
            Time for some background. When feminist critics talk about agency, we’re talking about the actions and desires of the female characters actually driving the narrative. This is not the same thing as a female character having some kind of physical or social power. For example, look at Queen Amidala from the Star Wars prequels. She wields immense political power, as ruler of an entire planet, and clearly she can handle a blaster pistol with the best of them. But she really only makes one decision that actually influences the plot of the movies. Most of the time she is a purely reactive force. She fights with the men, but it is to help further their goals.
Mulan is still pretty much the most badass Disney Princess.

            In recent years, Disney princesses have made a lot of progress in terms of accomplishments and abilities, but agency is something they’ve still basically failed to achieve. They remain essentially passive figures in stories where male characters drive the action. Their ultimate goal is usually either to marry a prince, thereby putting themselves under the power of a male character (Snow White, Cinderella, Ariel, Giselle) or to in some way help their fathers (Belle and Mulan) male characters who already have power over them.

Mulan is the first Disney movie to make progress in this area. Not an enormous amount of progress – Mulan is still basically a reactive character. She dresses like a boy and goes to war in order to protect her old father. Being a soldier is not her dream, or a way of pursuing any ultimate goal of hers, but rather something brave and selfless that she does for her family. But we don’t find out what Mulan actually wants for Mulan, and she probably never achieves it because she ends the film basically the same place she started it – as an atypical woman in a society where the roles allowed to women are severely limited.
Disney’s next active attempt at bringing the feminism was the rather misguided live-action comedy Enchanted. Disney’s attempt to deconstruct itself was amusing, but ultimately so full of unfortunate implications that my Feminism in Theatre class was able to spend an entire week dissecting them all. The bottom line, though, is that main character Giselle ended up having even less control over her own destiny than most Disney princesses. She has absolutely no goal save getting married, and the only real choice she is able to make is between two men.
The Princess and the Frog comes a lot closer to succeeding on the agency front. At the beginning of the film, Tiana has no desire to get married or be a princess, and instead is focusing on her dream of someday opening her own restaurant. And I mean focusing – she’s working two jobs and saving her own money towards that goal. At the end of the film she eventually accomplishes it, through hard work mostly shown in a montage at the end of the movie. This is all very well and good (and definitely makes her a stronger character than Rapunzel) but the problem is that while the character has a strong goal and ultimately accomplishes it, the movie is not about her accomplishing that goal. It’s about her marrying the prince.
Tiana’s adventure, much like Giselle’s, is basically forced on her. While her goal as a character is to start a restaurant, her goal within the story is to find a way to get turned back into a human. That’s what the narrative focuses on, and it’s a very reactive goal, which Tiana finally accomplishes – by accident. After she stops trying and decides to just be happy as a frog because, hey, at least she’s married to a good guy.
Like Tiana, Rapunzel has a unique goal. On the surface, her goal is kind of stupid – she wants to see the lights that appear over the castle every year on her birthday. After that she’s happy to return to her life of dull, isolated captivity. This is not terribly impressive, from a feminist perspective. But the way in which she goes about accomplishing her stupid goal is more proactive than any other Disney Princess to date.
After asking her “mother” (actually the evil witch) for permission to leave the tower on her birthday for the ten millionth time, Rapunzel decides to do what no Disney princess before her has ever done and Actually Do Something About It. She asks “mother” for a birthday present that she knows will take her several days to retrieve in order to get her out of the tower for the maximum possible amount of time, allowing her an opportunity to plan her escape.
Before she can make much progress, though, Flynn Rider, an Aladdin-like thief on the run from the palace guards for stealing the royal crown, decides to hide in her tower. Rapunzel responds to this outside threat by knocking him unconscious with a frying pan and tying him up with her own hair. When he awakens, she informs him that she has hidden the crown where he will never find it without her help, and he will only get it back if he acts as her guide, taking her to the castle to see the lights.

Not as kinky as it looks.
As the film progresses, we come to see Rapunzel’s obsession with the lights as symbolizing a deeper need, not the typical wishy-washy “yearning for adventure” we get from most princesses, but a desire to discover her own identity – to find out who she is. She wants to see the lights because they appear on her birthday, and part of her knows they are meant for her. They are, of course – the lighting of the lanterns is done every year to commemorate the birthday of the princess who was stolen so many years ago.
So let’s look at Rapunzel for a moment. She has a clearly defined goal other than marrying a prince. She is willing to take steps to accomplish that goal on her own with no help. And when she does seek help from a male character, she first establishes power over him. Even more exciting, Flynn is the passive character in the story. He gets caught up in her quest, and every action he takes furthers her goals. He does go to rescue her at the end of the film, but ends up being captured himself, and ultimately becoming more of a liability than a help.
There’s a lot more I could say about this movie. Rapunzel’s magical hair as a symbol of feminine power is something that needs to be explored in more depth and I might well return to it. And there’s a case to be made that way in which she manipulates the male characters into helping her opens a whole new can of feminist criticism worms. But in spite of its problems, I think Tangled presents a female character capable of driving the plot without sacrificing their precious princess formula. And that’s an impressive accomplishment.

Why Zuko is Really the Main Character in "Avatar"

I have a lot to say about Avatar: The Last Airbender. A children’s show with a lot of adult fans, Avatar dealt with mature themes in surprisingly nuanced ways, featured three-dimensional characters and an increasingly serialized plot structure, and generally did all of the things children’s shows, at least American ones, generally avoid on the assumption that kids are stupid. The show’s unprecedented success is testament to the fact that kids are, in fact, not that stupid, and don’t like to be treated like they are.
One level of complexity that Avatar was never afraid to explore was moral ambiguity, the blurring of the line between good guy and bad guy. Primarily, this was done through the character of Zuko, who starts out Aang’s nemesis and eventually becomes an important ally. Zuko, who appears in every episode, is every bit as much the protagonist of the story as Aang, if not more so, and the way in which the two characters serve as foils for one another is perhaps the most successful aspect of the show’s writing.
It is often said that a good way to find the main character in a work of fiction is to look for the character that changes the most. By that definition, Zuko is unquestionably the main character of Avatar. Over the course of the show’s three seasons, he goes from a somewhat sympathetic villain, to an aimless wanderer, then becomes a much less sympathetic villain before finally joining the heroes.
Zuko doesn’t just realize one day that he’s working for the wrong side – he has to go through a long emotional journey to get to that point. He has to learn that he is capable of thinking for himself and making his own decisions, he has to learn why his father and his country are in the wrong, and then he has to build up the courage to actually do something about it. By the end of the series, he is a completely different person.
Aang, in contrast, struggles to master all four elements and understand his place in the world. In the process, his character undergoes very little permanent change. Often he is given advice by some spirit advisor and ignores it in favor of the morals and values he has stood by since the beginning of the show – for example, the Guru in the Southern Air Temple tells him to let go of earthly connections, meaning his feelings for Katara, and he says no. Aang’s big victory at the end of the series, his refusal to kill Ozai, is again a result of him ignoring his spiritual advisors and sticking to his guns, maintaining the principal of pacifism he has held dear since the beginning of the show.
Ultimately, the most important message of Avatar is that it is our choices, not our destinies, which define us. For Zuko, this is demonstrated by a full two and a half seasons building to the moment where he must make the right choice. For Aang, it is the realization that just because everyone expects him to take the Firelord’s life, that doesn’t mean he has to go against his true nature and do it. And while “violence is not the answer” is a fine message to leave kids with, I think Zuko is ultimately a much better role-model for younger viewers. The message of his story is that no matter where you come from, who your parents were, or how many times you’ve screwed up in the past, it’s never too late to make the right decisions, and that you are ultimately the person who decides what the right thing to do is. And that’s a message a lot of kids need to hear.