Superhero Sundays: Batman and Mr Freeze – SubZero
Matthew Turner | On 10, Sep 2017
Director: Boyd Kirkland
Cast: Kevin Conroy, Loren Lester, Mary Kay Bergman, Michael Ansara, Efrem Zimbalist Jr, George Dzundza
On Sunday mornings, we like to watch cartoons. So we’re working our way through animated superhero cartoons. We call it Superhero Sundays.
Batman & Mr Freeze: SubZero (1998) was the second animated Batman adventure to be based on Batman: The Animated Series, following 1993’s Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. It was originally intended as a tie-in to Joel Schumacher’s disastrous live-action Batman and Robin (which had Arnold Schwarzenegger playing Mr Freeze), but production delays meant that it came out nearly a year later, which was probably just as well.
The plot centres on Doctor Victor Fries, aka. Mr Freeze (Michael Ansara), kidnapping Barbara Gordon, aka. Batgirl (Mary Kay Bergman), because her rare blood type is the only thing that can save his dying wife, Nora, who’s currently in a state of suspended animation. As Batman (Kevin Conroy) and Robin (Loren Lester) race to discover Freeze’s secret location, Barbara stages an escape attempt of her own, but comes a cropper, when she realises she’s trapped on an abandoned oil derrick.
The voice work, once again, is pure perfection, courtesy of the legendary Andrea Romano. Conroy is the definitive Batman and Michael Ansara has a wonderfully rich, distinctive tone as Mr Freeze. There’s also strong work from Mary Kay Bregman (she has a very effective scream) and reliable turns from Efrem Zimbalist Jr as Alfred and Loren Lester as a very grown-up-looking Robin. In fact, SubZero marks Lester’s final appearance as Robin, as the character would shortly become Nightwing in the next animated Batman series.
Back in 1998, critics praised SubZero for its respect for the source material and its understanding of the characters, in stark contrast to the Joel Schumacher debacle. They weren’t wrong – SubZero contains all the elements of a classic Batman story, from a compelling villain to pulse-pounding action and a strong focus on actual detective work (something sorely missing from most, if not all, of the live-action Batman movies).
Directed by veteran animator Boyd Kirkland (who helmed 21 episodes of Batman: The Animated Series), the set pieces are genuinely thrilling, from an early motorcycle chase (with Dick pursuing Barbara’s kidnappers) to Barbara’s multiple escape attempts and an exciting finale that’s notable for not being a fight sequence, as Batman, Robin and Batgirl attempt to save Freeze and his wife from the (superbly animated) exploding oil derrick. Kirkland also makes great use of the Batwing (Batman’s bat-plane), with a number of impressive-looking shots.
In addition, the story has a real sense of emotional depth – Freeze is no ordinary cackling Bat-villain, but a man driven to extremes by love and loss, and there’s a strong level of sympathy for the character. He’s also one of Batman’s coolest villains (literally), what with his snazzy suit, freeze gun and – yes – trained polar bears, both of whom make formidable opponents for the dynamic, er, trio.
The dialogue is sharply written (particularly when Commissioner Gordon realises his daughter has been kidnapped) and there’s the tiniest hint of a subversive note in a Keystone-esque crash scene that makes the cops look like idiots. It’s also interesting that the script has the characters out of costume for a significant amount of the running time, yet still gives them plenty to do. A satisfying blend of comic book action and strong character work, this is one of the better Batman movies, heightened by striking visuals and terrific voice work.
(Side-note: Be warned that the version on Amazon Prime Video has a number of weirdly long scene transitions, with several seconds of a blank screen, lasting long enough to make you think your device is about to crash.)