Clumsy title that. Batman & Mr Freeze Subzero is the second in the animated DC Universe Batman film. It had the unenviable task of following up the excellent Mask of The Phantasm, which is generally regarded as one of the bets Batman stories. Quite wisely the series creators decided to not retread any ground and instead utilised a villain that they had helped reinvent. There’s an episode of TAS called Heart Of Ice that may well be one of the most highly regarded Batman stories of all time. In it Paul Dini took Mr Freeze, a villain that had largely been a joke, and gave him an incredible new origin story. Subzero uses the core of that origin to tell a new story giving Mr Freeze the focus he deserved. Click the link for the review…
Fun fact! Batman & Robin was received so badly by critics, fans and small household rodents that Warner decided to delay the release of this animated feature because it was starting to receive better reviews than the Joel Schumacher film. I guess they were worried that their big budget flagship summer movie would look a bit stupid when a low budget straight to video animated film was being lauded for providing a much more compelling story. When Mr Freeze’s origin was rewritten the core of it was that he had frozen his terminally ill wife to save her life until a cure or a donor could be found. She had a very rare blood type and the organs needed were the sort people can’t live without. After an accident with the cryogenics occurs Victor Fries (Michael Ansara) finds he needs to live in a sub zero temperature environment in order to live. Fries becomes Mr Freezes and turns to crime to fund the research and costs of curing his wife and keeping her frozen.
What works so well about this origin is that his motivations become relatable. He becomes the sort of villain that people find most compelling. Like say Magneto from the X-Men he has a earnest desire to make wrongs right but has chosen a more villainous goal. Subzero is essentially the last part of the original Animated Series, before the animation style changed and the name changed to The New Adventures Of Batman & Robin. As such you can sort of view this as a finale to that series. What it sets out to do is provide closure to Mr Freeze’s story and having his story be the finale to the series is a wise move as he was easily one of their most successful villains.
As this film begins Mr Freeze is now living in an Arctic cave he’s essentially made his new home along with his still frozen wife Nora and an Inuit child he has adopted along the way. Oh and his pet Polar Bears. The child, Kunac, is a very important piece of what makes Mr Freeze relatable. Just the fact that Freeze is caring for a child shows that he has not lost his humanity despite his cold demeanour and even colder body temperature. This isn’t a child he exploits of manipulates like any other villain would. He genuinely cares for the child’s well-being. As the film starts an US military submarine surfaces in Freeze’s cave and breaks the chamber his wife was stored in. After putting the sub crew on ice Freeze heads back to Gotham to get a former surgeon friend of his to help find a donor to save Nora’s life, whether they’re willing or not. As luck would have it Freeze picks the one woman out of 18 on the compatible donors list that happens to also be Barbara Gordon (Mary Kay Bergman), daughter of the Commissioner and the secret identity of Batgirl. Naturally when Freeze ice-naps her neither Batman or Robin are too pleased.
Whilst the story itself doesn’t delve into what makes Batman (Kevin Conroy, as if I need to mention that) tick as Mask of The Phantasm did we instead get a story that shows just how multi-layered Mr Freeze can be. He is almost entirely the films emotional core barring the budding romance between Dick Grayson (Loren Lester) and Barbara. Pretty cool that a man with near frozen internal organs can be the warmest, most emotional centre the film could have hoped to have. I especially love that a team of writers from a kids TV show managed to write a more compelling story involving Freeze than the extremely well paid writer of Batman & Robin did. Just shows you that the talent doesn’t always rise to the top. It also shows just how compelling Paul Dini’s Freeze character design was that other people could produce such a good story for him despite the film retreading thematic elements that were present in Heart Of Ice.
Subzero had a much longer production time than Mask Of The Phantasm and it shows in the animation. The film features smoother and more complex sequences than anything in the series or the previous feature. It’s also, I believe, the first time CGI was used to model scenery and action sequences in the DC Animated Universe. One highway chase sequence in particular uses computer animated models to create an action sequence that wouldn’t have been possible in regular 2D cel animation. They even throw in a bunch of shots which you’ll see in a lot of modern car chase films, such as the camera swooping through the window of a car to show a close up on a characters face. I doubt Hollywood film makers were copying these shots but I can’t recall similar shots ever existing on film in the pre-CGI days. First film I remember seeing do a shot like that was What Lies Beneath.
Performances are, as usual for these films, of a very high standard. I’ve always liked Michael Ansara’s voice for Freeze. He’s cold and emotionless but has a sense that he is always pained by what he’s having to do. As though he regrets being the way he is but is doing his best not to show it. Mr Freeze became one of my favourite villains in all of comic book history after his treatment on TAS and that was certainly helped by Michael’s performance. I needn’t mention how good Kevin Conroy is as Batman here. He does this role so well I wouldn’t be surprised if an audio recording session with him is a lot like how Krusty The Clown records dialogue for his products. He must just turn up, read the lines and nail them each time. Although evidently he actually waits for the recording tech to start the tape.
Follow the relevant links at the end of this video to see the whole episode in chunks. Well worth watching. This episode even won an Emmy for outstanding writing in an animated show.
If there’s anything I have to criticise it’s one element that is missing. After Barbara is kidnapped Jim Gordon (Bob Hastings) has one scene where we see just how angry and motivated he is by these events and then nothing. It would have added a layer to the story to have his pursuit of Freeze shown in full, whilst also tying him into the finale. We could have also been given a moment for Gordon to see that his daughter might not be as helpless as he may have thought. It really is a small issue though as you could honestly watch this film without realising that this one potential element is missing. Still, the film is only 67 minutes long so it’s not like they were pressed for running time.
So you may have guessed that I really like this film. I’d say it really only plays second fiddle to Mask Of The Phantasm, being on par with Under The Red Hood, when it comes to the quality of the animated films. It has some great action, a compelling plot and villain and even manages to end of a heart warming note. So heart warming Mr Freeze himself starts to melt a little. It’s a shame this has never been released on DVD in the UK. I had to import a copy. Someone needs to change that. If ever a director feels like bringing Mr Freeze back for a live action Batman film this and Heart Of Ice are the stories that absolutely must be the template for the character’s story arc. Seeing as a Batman reboot is coming in the next few years we may well see this happen. Just for Gods sake don’t cast Arnold Schwarzenegger as Freeze. Also make Mr Freeze a Dr. Really bugs me that just because he’s a bit villainous he doesn’t get to call himself Dr Freeze.