On Batman and Mr. Freeze: SubZero

As part of the DC Animated Film Universe (Superman/Batman: Public EnemiesBatman: The Dark Knight ReturnsSon of BatmanWonder WomanGreen Lantern: First FlightJustice League: Crisis on Two EarthsJustice League: The Flashpoint ParadoxJustice League: WarJustice League: Doom, Green Lantern: Emerald Knights) and tied to Batman: The Animated Series, Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero could have effectively given Victor Fries a fairly strong ending for his character, but he actually would return again in The New Batman Adventures as well as Batman Beyond. According to The A.V. Club review:

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 AdventuresSubZero 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.

According to the m0vie blog review:

Surprisingly, not all films featuring Mr. Freeze are terrible. Batman/Mr. Freeze: SubZero doesn’t quite live up to the best of the animated Batman movies or even animated television shows, standing in the shadow of both Mask of the Phantasm and Return of the Joker, but it’s still a surprisingly solid adventure that offers a much better showing for the Caped Crusader than either of the Joel Schumacher Batman movies.

Batman/Mr. Freeze: SubZero seems consciously aimed at a younger audience than either Mask of the Phantasm or Return of the Joker. For example, the plotting runs on a lot more contrived coincidences, the emotional depth of the movie is quite shallow, and the villain even recruits a pair of adorable polar bears to do his bidding in what must be a sly dig at Tim Burton and Kevin Smith’s failed Superman Lives! script. I mean, Freeze seems to have developed the ability to command two polar bears to do his bidding, to the point where he’s so confident in his control of them that he’d just put a girl he needs alive in the back of a truck with them.

In fact, Victor’s whole evil plan seems rather unfortunately constructed. Desperately needing an organ donor for his dying wife, Freeze finds a list of eighteen possible candidates in Gotham City. To be fair, it makes sense he’d return to Gotham. He knows the city well, and he has contacts there. However, when he brings back the list of names, he happens to draw Barbara Gordon. Barbara Gordon is, of course, Batgirl. It would be a contrived coincidence if he picked her, and she turned out to randomly be Batgirl. That would rely on considerable suspension of disbelief on its own.

However, Barbara is also the daughter of the police commissioner. I suspect that Freeze must have been aware of that, given his frequent interactions with various law enforcement bodies in Gotham City. Kidnapping the daughter of any police commissioner seems like a risky move, but it seems especially short-sighted when Commissioner Gordon just so happens to be the best friend of Batman, the character who has foiled the last number of your evil plans.

The script of Batman/Mr. Freeze: SubZero is fairly weak. It hinges on those sorts of awkward contrivances repeatedly, and nothing really makes too much sense if you stop to think about it. That said, it’s not without its charms. As during the show itself, Barbara’s presence does bring out the best in her father as a character. When Barbara advises Dick that she’s “just playing hard to get”, Jim cuts in, “She is hard to get.”

The movie also provides a suitably vile character in the form of Gregory, an old acquaintance of Victor Fries who is desperately trying to clear some gambling debts. Freeze is undoubtedly an anti-villain, a character with pure motivations who will do terrible things to protect the people he loves. Gregory, on the other hand, is a truly awful piece of work. When he discovers that Freeze plays to murder Barbara and steal her organs, he seems to be disgusted. “You’re a piece a’ work. I said I’d help you… but… this…” And then his true colours show. “This is gonna cost you more than a gold nugget.”

To be fair, the film’s character work with Victor is pretty solid. The character has never been better than he was while being animated as part of the shared DC universe, with Heart of Ice offering the best take on the character ever. He seems suitably conflicted by what he has to do, if dedicated to doing whatever it takes to keep his Nora alive. It’s not the strongest portrayal of this take on the character, but it is better than his appearance in Cold Comfort, the story that would directly follow. (It goes without saying that it’s better than Batman & Robin.)

While the script is weak, Boyd Kirkland’s direction is actually fairly solid. The introductory sequences with Fries, establishing that he’s actually found some small measure of peace, are lovely. And there’s a wonderful sequence towards the end of the film as Freeze finds fire closing in on him. There’s a genuine sense of panic as the character fires his freeze gun rapidly, giving us a sense of how truly scared he is beneath that icy exterior.

The short sequence in the Arctic looks lovely, although the animation does make awkward use of CGI technology. I was never too impressed with the use of CGI on Bruce Timm’s other shows, as I don’t think that the technology was at the stage where it would be appropriate to use. Batman/Mr. Freeze: SubZero offers the perfect example, as it looks like Victor Fries’ tranquillity is ultimately disturbed by a bunch of hostile polygons rather than a submarine.

That said, the movie was the last time we’d see the “classic” Batman: The Animated Series designs for characters and their world. I honestly miss those, and I never warmed to the updated sleeker designs that were introduced for The New Batman Adventures and Justice League. This is what an animated Batman should really look like, with lots of nice detail and a bit of colour to lighten things up. The villains would generally look a lot worse, and Mr. Freeze’s stylishly retro design here fit the character perfectly. It’s nice to see Batman/Mr. Freeze: SubZero give that a fond send-off.

There are other nice touches. The introduction is styled to resemble Tim Burton’s two films, with a bat symbol from Batman and a flowing body of water with bats flying over it like Batman Returns. There’s even a nice reprise of Danny Elfman’s iconic Batman score, although Michael McCuistion cleverly gives it a bit of a colder edge, mixing in sounds that call to mind Christmas or snow. The whole film is very well put together, and Boyd Kirkland does an excellent job as director.

That said, the film does finally resolve the dangling Nora plot thread, which really should be the conclusion to Victor Fries’ character arc as set up in his debut appearance. While his role in Meltdown in Batman Beyond works well enough, I can’t help but wonder if the character should really have been retired after this point. I think it illustrates quite well that the Nora story places very clear limits on the stories that you can and can’t tell using the villain. I can understand why Scott Snyder’s Batman run made a point to re-write Freeze’s background. While I adore this version of the character, I don’t think it should be the only version. And there are reasons that I think it shouldn’t be considered to be set in stone.

Batman/Mr. Freeze: SubZero is an entertaining enough action yarn, even if it lacks a lot of the depth or complexity one might expect from Batman: The Animated Series. Kirkland’s direction is great, but the plotting and scripting feel a little too simplistic to really measure up to the best of the show. Still, if you have to see one movie featuring Mr. Freeze, there’s really no comparison.

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