Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero (released 3/17/1998)
For a brief period of time, it looked like Joel Schumacher had effectively killed the Batman film franchise. After the travesty of Batman & Robin, Warner Bros. began to lose faith in the superhero’s box-office allure, leading to a considerable delay for a subsequent feature film set in the DC animated universe. Having a Mr. Freeze-centric animated movie in theaters after Arnold Schwarzenegger brought the villain to life seemed like a no-brainer for the studio, but clearly they had no idea how campy and dumb Schumacher’s interpretation would be. Schwarzenegger turned Victor Fries into a neon blue punchline, and SubZero was pushed back a year and released directly to video, where hopefully the sting of Batman & Robin wouldn’t be felt at strongly.
SubZero is a huge step up from Schumacher’s mess of a movie, delivering a strong action thriller that shows how effective Batman and company can be when taken seriously. Yet while the action is spectacular, the story by Randy Rogel and Boyd Kirkland doesn’t reach the emotional heights of either Mask Of The Phantasm or World’s Finest. After a submarine destroys Mr. Freeze’s arctic hideout and shatters the cryogenic containment vessel containing Nora Fries, the villain has to find an organ donor for his wife before her disease claims her for good. Teaming up with an old colleague desperate for money, Victor finds a donor who matches his wife’s rare blood type, kidnapping Barbara Gordon and bringing the wrath of the Dynamic Duo down on his glass-covered head.
With a running time that barely exceeds an hour, the writers could have spent much more time expanding on Victor and Nora’s relationship to help amplify the dramatic stakes. There’s a beautiful moment at the very beginning of the film where Victor brings his frozen wife a flower and talks about their former life together, revealing a tender soul that is desperate to have his wife back. “The day we met was the happiest day of my life,” he says, leaving her the orange flower. “A gift for you. I found it in the snow. Fragile beauty clinging to life in this frozen wasteland. Like you, Nora.” Randy Rogel wrote one of BTAS’ most tragic romances in “Two-Face,” and exploring the time when Victor and Nora’s love was alive and thriving would have helped add some variety to the movie. There’s a lot of action, but the character development leaves a lot to be desired.
Taking place between Batman: The Animated Series and The New Batman Adventures, SubZero marks the point where Dick Grayson and Barbara Gordon’s relationship takes off. There’s a great scene where Commissioner Gordon is talking up his daughter to Dick while the camera cuts to her beating up a gang of men as Batgirl, and more of that type of clever storytelling would help boost the film’s momentum once it falls into a standard supervillain kidnapping plot. Dick and Barbara finally decide to take it to the next level by going on a date together, and of course that’s when Mr. Freeze abducts her. Dick Grayson begins to show the power and flair that would make him stand out as Nightwing as he races to save Barbara, and Dick’s fight scene against Freeze and the motorcycle chase through Gotham are easily some of his coolest moments in the DCAU.
While the rest of SubZero’s voice cast is consistent with the voices in BTAS, Mary Kay Bergman joins the ensemble as Barbara Gordon, giving her a squeaky, girlish voice that is out of sync with the confident young woman that came before. Bergman has voiced the women of Scooby-Doo, and she gives Barbara a Velma quality that can get pretty abrasive. The voice might be a letdown, but Barbara is a beast during the action sequences, proving to be surprisingly formidable even in a dress and Mary Janes. When she’s held captive by Mr. Freeze, Barbara tries to escape multiple times, and while those attempts don’t prove successful, she makes a big win by befriending Mr. Freeze’s “son” Koonak. When Victor is about to operate on Barbara, Koonak arrives to distract them long enough for Barbara to make a run for it. Luckily, that’s when Batman and Robin arrive to save the day.
The animation in SubZero is primarily hand-drawn, but with the expanded budget of a feature-length film, director Boyd Kirkland incorporates some CGI to give the movie a different visual flavor than the TV series. The opening credits sequence has Mr. Freeze’s polar bears swimming through a 3-D underwater world populated by schools of computer-generated fish, and while it helps make the movie look more expensive, the limitations of late-1990s technology results in some sloppiness. Much of the vehicle animation is done by computer, and while it probably made things a lot easier for the animators, the 2-D and 3-D elements don’t completely gel.
Batman might get top billing, but he really doesn’t do much in this movie beyond uncovering information that the viewer already knows. The story of SubZero could be cut down to fit into one BTAS two-parter (maybe even one jam-packed episode), but this movie is all about the action and showing as much cartoon collateral damage as possible. The last 20 minutes of SubZero are basically just a series of increasingly large explosions, ending with a rushed epilogue that revives Nora off-camera and shows Mr. Freeze alive and alone except for his polar bear companions. The BTAS interpretation of Mr. Freeze is a fantastic character with so much storytelling potential, but SubZero glides across the surface instead of truly breaking through the ice.
- Batman Beatdown: The Dark Knight’s first appearance in the movie is one of prime badassery in which he barely has to use his fists to scare the crap out of two thugs. It also teaches a valuable lesson: Never poke Batman’s cape.
- In a departure for the DCAU, this film includes actual licensed music like “I Only Have Eyes For You” by The Flamingos and jazz standard “Am I Blue?” That last one is notable because it’s the song Batman sings in the Justice League Unlimited episode “This Little Piggy.”
- Barbara Gordon looks beautiful when she shows up at the gala, and I love the way her Batgirl costume informs her evening wear.
- Using deadly polar bears as henchmen is genius. They might not be able to do much, but they sure do hit hard.
- “Come on people! A guy in a weird suit with two polar bears can’t be hard to spot!”