Back when Batman & Robin was busy icing up the box office, the talent of Warner Brothers’ animation department were putting the final touches on SubZero a made-for-video feature meant to act as a merchandising tie-in to the Schumacher film and its lead villain, Mr. Freeze.
When the movie finally arrived in video stores in the spring of 1998 (following a production delay that, ironically enough, helped distance itself from the live action bat-bomb), it proved what most fans already knew: that the folks behind Batman: The Animated Series were the ones more in touch with the world of the Caped Crusader than a bunch of studio executives that wanted to sell toys (who’d-a thought it?). By presenting a fantastic adventure, a gripping mystery, and a storyline that touched on the more tragic side of one of my favorite villains Mr. Freeze, SubZero (aka Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero) was an effective slap in the face to Joel Schumacher and his live-action crew. Just as the animated Batman adventures that came before and after had proven, this was how the hero of Gotham should be done.
A sequel of sorts to the theatrical release Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, SubZero also served to bridge the gap between Warner Bros.’ The Animated Series and the revamped The New Adventures of Batman, which was about to begin airing on the WB network. This would also act as the final appearance of Dick Grayson as Robin (voiced by Loren Lester); the character would soon be promoted to Nightwing. As a result, Robin would get more screen time here than he had during most of the early cartoon episodes.
In other words, we get to see Robin kick some serious ass, most notably in a sensational motorcycle chase that finds him pulling stunts to wow Evel Knievel. Still, despite his promotion in terms of importance to the plot, Robin/Dick isn’t the centre of the film.
No, that distinction would belong to the notorious Mr. Freeze (Michael Ansara), the evil genius scientist who can only survive in arctic temperatures or, at least, a bulky “cold suit” designed to keep him alive and mobile. If you’re familiar with Freeze only through his Arnold Schwarzenegger incarnation, you’ve got the basics down – gun that shoots ice, dying wife cryogenically frozen – but you’re missing the deadly seriousness behind the character. Freeze, formerly Dr. Victor Fries, isn’t an evil man right out, but his quest to keep his wife alive has turned him to crime. Like the best members of Batman’s “rogues’ gallery,” there’s a sadness behind the villainy, and in both the Batman TV series and SubZero, the filmmakers never shun from this. The cartoon format is never used as an excuse to make the character, well, cartoonish. (Side note: the Freeze episodes of the cartoon series were perhaps its best and a favorite of critics, winning an Emmy for the episode “Heart of Ice”.)
In this adventure, Freeze’s wife is on the brink of death, and only an organ transplant will save her life. But with no deceased donor available, “we’ll have to use a live donor,” Freeze ominously decides. And how’s this for a problem: the only compatible donor available is none other than Barbara Gordon, Commissioner Gordon’s daughter, better known as Batgirl.
SubZero isn’t as sharp as Phantasm, which set the standard for Batman animation, and it lacks the clever surprises of the direct-to-video features that followed (The Batman/ Superman Movie and Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker). In fact, it is one of the weakest of the cartoon features, with some dialogue that doesn’t quite flow, a story that feels a bit too rushed in places in order to keep the running time brief, and a forced blend of traditional and computer animation that doesn’t naturally work.
And yet, it’s still miles ahead of anything Warner Bros. had to offer in their live action line, save for Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman. The filmmakers here, led by director/co-writer Boyd Kirkland, give their characters life; these are people who never see their story as a “cartoon,” but as a heartfelt tale of love and loss, with a few explosions and comic book science logic thrown in for good measure. There’s a depth to Freeze’s pain here, and his frozen heart (metaphor alert!) has shut off all emotion at the cost of his soul. The filmmakers present Freeze in such a way that you almost want to root for the him. Watch, also, as Commissioner Gordon reacts to his daughter’s kidnapping: you never saw that kind of raw emotion in the live-action films.
The film’s video premiere came pretty much under the pop culture radar, and therefore living a life as the unknown cousin in the Batman franchise. Fans loved it, of course, but limited promotion kept its reputation among the general renting public as “just another cartoon.” That’s too bad. None of the Batman”animated features are “just” cartoons; rather, they’re prime examples of the best these characters have to offer.
So fanboys and fangirls, what did you make of Batman: SubZero? Was it a chilling ride? Or should it be put on ice? Man, puns are cool. Sound off in the comments below or send us your thoughts on Twitter!