SubZero is Still Worth Watching 25 Years Later
In a world where Batman: The Animated Series brought fans so many incredible stories in its first couple of seasons, it is often easy to forget about the many good adventures that came later. Many were turned off by the change in art, the restructuring of the show, or simply fell out of watching for other reasons when the series became The New Batman Adventures. There were also fans that felt that the theatrical outing with Batman: Mask of the Phantasm was simply the peak, showing what this creative team and performers could do at the top of their game. Even then, they proved that their creative vision was still strong with each additional show. One of the great animated Batman movies that seems to have slipped past many viewers was the first to go direct-to-video film — Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero.
SubZero is another solid chapter in the tragic story of Dr. Victor Fries. The movie continues his tale after the first two episodes he starred in and acts as the crescendo for one of the show’s most memorable villains. It was a simpler narrative compared to the previous motion picture, as we see Freeze making a life for himself amongst the ice with his new ward, Koonak, their two polar bears, and his frozen wife, Nora. A submarine disturbs all of this, however, breaking Mrs. Fries open from her cryogenic tube, leading her husband to return to Gotham to get help to save her life. For this, she’ll need new blood and organs, however, and it turns out that one Barbara Gordon — also known as Batgirl — is the perfect match. With the Commissioner’s daughtered kidnapped and soon to be harvested, Barbara attempts to escape while the GCPD, Batman, and her boyfriend, Robin, hurry to find her.
It’s a solid story, one that doesn’t focus as much on Batman and allows other characters more time. This is really about Mr. Freeze being unable to let Nora die and being willing to do whatever it takes, up until the very end when it seems the humanity he was desperately searching for away from Gotham finally returns. Koonak attempting to help save Barbara seems to be the catalyst for this. His accomplice in this desperate attempt to save Nora is Dr. Gregory Belson, who has his own crushing problems that make him act impetuously. In the beginning, it’s Freeze who is more willing to be ruthless and savage while Belson is unsure. As the story progresses, though, it’s as if the two switch alignments a bit and show their true selves. It gives Belson’s death at the end more weight.
The B-plot is about Dick Grayson and Barbara Gordon’s relationship. In some ways, it is doomed to fail, but we get to see Robin being pushed into pursuing her more romantically and then literally pursuing her when she’s taken. Some complain we don’t get to see Batgirl in the suit as much here, but she isn’t simply a damsel in distress or an object to be rescued. Barbara attempts to escape twice, tries to find out more about why this is happening, and is active during the final confrontation. We are given a bit more time with these two members of the Bat-Family and it’s somewhat comforting to see them like this.
The action in the film is exciting. We are shown a wonderful title sequence with the bat symbol freezing over and Mr. Freeze swimming in shorts with his two guard polar bears — instant engagement. Those two animals contribute to the fights a good bit, plus there’s an exciting motorcycle chase and the final showdown is on an abandoned oil derrick — a perfect set piece for a Batman thriller. Actually, everyone’s entrances here are excellent and feel classic for the characters. I know that at 66 minutes, some people complain that SubZero feels like it has a few pacing issues and filler scenes, but I believe that’s just giving some scenes time to breathe, which makes the acting stand out even more. A few of the fights and chases are mapped out beautifully. It’s a smaller budget than Mask of the Phantasm, but still impressive in spots, showing what the series could have done with more time and money. Part of me wonders what this would have been like as a live-action production.
This brings me to the mostly wonderful animation. With The New Batman Adventures adopting an updated art style closer to that of their Superman counterpart — and to streamline the work for studios — SubZero is the last feature to use the original technique the show began with. This makes it feel a bit more special, like the end of an era. Unfortunately, SubZero also used a lot more CGI, and while that looks good in small touches, a few scenes here stand out in a bad way. It was too much and perhaps dated the movie more than anything else. Also, a personal small gripe: this was one of the first movies I can recall someone showing me that had the bad guy, Belson, shooting with a standard revolver. These usually hold six bullets, but he fired nine times. Once this was pointed out, I couldn’t help but notice it each time.
The soundtrack is serviceable for sure, but it’s missing some of that flair that came from Shirley Walker, who was responsible for the music to so many of the amazing episodes from the series. The beginning is a rush of nostalgia because it takes advantage of the Danny Elfman theme, and a couple of classic songs were added in to help set the tone. Diehard fans of Batman The Animated Series and Justice League Unlimited will note the use of “Am I Blue?” briefly in a scene, which also appears in the episode “This Little Piggy,” where Batman sings this tune beautifully in an amphitheater to help out Wonder Woman.
The voice cast does a splendid job as always. I’ll never get tired of hearing Kevin Conroy play Batman, even if this was around the time he began slightly altering the voices for Bruce Wayne and his alter ego, but I have to agree with many other fans that it’s Michael Ansara who steals the show here as Mr. Freeze. Loren Lester also puts in some great work as Robin, while this is Mary Kay Bergman’s only time as Batgirl. Her voice should sound familiar — especially to anyone who watched the early seasons of South Park.
Though SubZero was originally released in 1998, it is believed that the film was actually meant to come out in the previous year to coincide with Batman & Robin after the excitement over Arnold Schwarzenegger’s casting for Mr. Freeze. The delayed debut was most likely an attempt to separate SubZero from the negative reviews and press around the live-action offering, further proving that this was the movie we needed in Batman & Robin’s place, animated or not.
The movie actually underwent several other changes in the early stages. Originally the script had Bane as the featured villain and a sub-plot about Bruce Wayne’s inability to date anyone seriously without telling them he’s Batman. Rumors have also sprung up (via IMDB) that Mark Hamill and Arleen Sorkin recorded lines as the Joker and Harley Quinn for SubZero, but the scenes were cut, which is entirely possible considering the level of interference from management at Warner Brothers.
His name is in the title, so it makes sense that this movie works best for Victor Fries, making us care for him once again and providing fans with another spectacular adventure. SubZero is solid, but other than the fact that there is no way he doesn’t realize Barbara Gordon is Batgirl now, the otherwise happy ending is a bit bittersweet. This was almost the perfect sendoff for the character, wrapping up his story in a way where everything would have felt whole. He ends up appearing once more in the series with new motivations, since Nora is now healed. It’s an ending that Bruce Timm, one of the creators of Batman The Animated Series, wasn’t a fan of, according to Back Issue #99, because it put Freeze in an odd spot and changed how they saw the character of Nora. Still, some fans liked the conclusion here enough to ignore the rest.
This isn’t a perfect Batman film and it probably isn’t even the best animated feature from that team, but it is full of character and heart. SubZero isn’t just worth revisiting or even seeing for the first time, it’s an important and overlooked piece of the show, coming in from the cold of something much worse.