Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero (1998)
There are two obvious movies to compare Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero to. In fact, the obviousness of the comparison was such that I initially resisted it, before folding like the Denver Broncos to the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XXIV. Why that Super Bowl for the analogy rather than a more recent rout? Funny you should ask, because… Okay, I’m delaying going into this movie because there isn’t a lot there of interest to analyze. Once you get past the comparisons to Batman: Mask of the Phantasm and Batman & Robin, you’re left with what would be a standard episode of Batman: The Animated Series, albeit a two-parter.
So let me start with the comparisons. SubZero is preferable to Batman & Robin, the other late ‘90s movie featuring Mr. Freeze, Batman, Robin, and Batgirl. On the other hand, it’s nowhere near as good as the previous BTAS animated feature, the fantastic Mask of the Phantasm. That film had a neat mystery plot, a fascinating new character, and flashbacks that really added depth to the character of Bruce Wayne. It also threw in the always great work of Mark Hamill as the Joker.
SubZero just doesn’t have much going on besides the somewhat thin basic plot. Freeze needs a compatible donor for his cryogenically frozen wife, so he kidnaps Barbara Gordon. Batman and Robin attempt to rescue her, there are some action sequences, some decent animation, and a lethargic effort at a subplot with Barbara and Dick Grayson, but that’s about it.
Surprisingly, to me, this movie got a pretty good reception, but I think that’s just the result of looking good in comparison to Batman & Robin, in the same way that a mediocre baseball team looks good compared to the 1899 Cleveland Spiders. Why was that Spiders team so bad, you ask? Well, because the… okay, I must bring myself to find something interesting to say here.
Michael Ansara does good voice work, and I liked how the coolness of his tone would contrast with the expressions the animators would give Freeze, especially when he was enraged. I’ll cover some other bits in the movie that I liked. I thought that the last action sequence with the rescue of Barbara at Freeze’s base was pretty good, especially in the way that Batman, Robin, and Batgirl worked together to save Nora Fries. I thought that giving Freeze trained polar bear sidekicks was amusing, as was the bit where a guy at a restaurant says, “no pets, fruitcake,” to a scary looking supervillain in a very advanced suit working alongside two vicious polar bears. It’s sort of like the moment from The Dark Knight where the old guy played by real-life old guy Sen. Patrick Leahy tells the Joker, a dangerous, heavily armed sociopath, “we are not intimated by thugs.” Speak for yourself there, sir.
As far as things I just didn’t understand, I’m not sure I get the re-writing of Freeze’s backstory to make him an “outcast” who was only really embraced by his wife. Was that established in “Heart of Ice”? I don’t think it was. Also, why is Dick pursuing Freeze in the open, while in his civilian guise, when Freeze kidnaps Barbara? I know that he felt it was important to find out where Freeze was taking her, and it also added to the limp romance subplot between he and Barbara, but when your hero “disguise” already consists of just a little eye mask, you really don’t want to be casual about doing vigilante-type stuff when you’re walking around as Dick Grayson, college student.
Ultimately, SubZero is pretty forgettable. I’d seen it once or twice before, and could quite seriously remember nothing about it aside from the main kidnapping plot. If I tried to think about this movie again down the road, I’d likely not remember much about it then, either. So how did it get the good reputation it has? It was released shortly after Batman & Robin, so it helped to wash away some of the bad taste left by that, and the contrast between Ansara’s dignified, tragic Mr. Freeze and Schwarzenegger’s campy, pun-spouting Freeze has also strengthened this movie’s image.
I also think the film has been helped by its association with Batman: The Animated Series, a groundbreaking, terrific television series that did so much to add to the Batman universe as well as influence the kind of comic book or superhero storytelling that’s done with animation. However, there are a lot of better episodes and storylines from that series that should be given recognition long before this relatively ordinary representation of the show.