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Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero

Batman_&_Mr._Freeze_SubZeroOriginal Release Date:  March 17, 1998

Directed by:  Boyd Kirkland

Written by:  Boyd Kirkland and Randy Rogel

Animation:  Dong Yang Animation Co., Koko Enterprises Co., LTD.

Running Time:  67 minutes

I feel like we can’t move onto The New Batman Adventures without first talking about Batman & Mr. Freeze:  SubZero. This direct to video feature is essentially the true finale to the original run of Batman:  The Animated Series. It’s existence can be owed to the fact that Warner Bros. wanted to do a tie-in film with the upcoming feature film Batman and Robin which featured Mr. Freeze as the main antagonist. This was supposed to be released alongside that, but since that film was so poorly received it was held back until March of 1998. This complicates things as by that time The New Batman Adventures was airing on Kids WB and had even aired a Mr. Freeze episode that follows the events of this story. It was released to video, which in 1998 meant VHS, and also aired on Kids WB. I could only find one release date listed online so I’m not sure when the television premiere took place (it could have been the same day), but that’s how I first saw this one.

freeze and bears

Mr. Freeze has returned, and he brought polar bears this time.

Mr. Freeze was first introduced to the animated viewing audience via “Heart of Ice” which first aired in 1992 as part of the show’s first season. It was so successful at rebooting the previously campy Mr. Freeze into an A-tier villain that the writers were reluctant to return to the character out of fear that whatever they came up with couldn’t possibly match “Heart of Ice.” Eventually, they relented and Mr. Freeze appeared in the penultimate episode “Deep Freeze” in which he partnered with Walt Disney Grant Walker in an evil scheme, but eventually turned and become a reluctant hero in the end. The episode basically proved what the staff feared initially as it wasn’t nearly as good or on par with “Heart of Ice.” It’s not a bad episode, but hardly a highpoint for the series. As a result, SubZero feels like a second attempt at capturing the magic once again and perhaps the lengthened running time will help tell a worthy story.

For the film, most of the principal players from BTAS were able to return. In the director’s chair is Boyd Kirkland who directed many episodes in the series as well as the show’s other feature, Mask of the Phantasm. Kirkland also co-wrote the film with Randy Rogel, another individual who had several writing credits in the main series. The voice cast was also largely returned for this one including Kevin Conroy as Batman, Loren Lester as Robin, and Michael Ansara as Mr. Freeze. The only notable change is Mary Kay Bergman taking over the role of Barbara Gordon for Melissa Gilbert. This would be Bergman’s only performance as Gordon as she would be voiced by Tara Strong in The New Batman Adventures. The other notable absences are Bruce Timm and Paul Dini, who were credited with this new version of Freeze. They were likely busy working on Superman and The New Batman Adventures during the development of the picture. Also missing is composer Shirley Walker who was replaced by Michael McCuistion, who had previously worked on some episodes of the show. He would go on to score 3 episodes of The New Batman Adventures as well as several more for other DC animated productions. Walker would also contribute to the sequel series.

gordons and dick

Barbara has a new voice actress, Mary Kay Bergman, and a new beau.

The film basically picks up where the series ended. Victor Fries has made a home for himself in the arctic alongside his still in stasis wife, Nora. He’s acquired a pair of polar bear companions as well as a twelve-year-old Inuit orphan named Koonak (Rahi Azizi). When an expedition by a US submarine disturbs their home and destroys the containment unit keeping Nora alive, Fries is forced to once again don his Mr. Freeze persona.

Nora cannot survive for long outside her containment unit which brings Freeze back to Gotham and in contact with an old colleague, a cryogenics expert by the name of Gregory Belson (George Dzundza). Belson just so happens to be in great financial distress as he tried to game the system with some insider trading in the futures market that didn’t pan out. He’s desperate for cash, and Freeze has access to a gold ore vein in the arctic. He needs Belson’s help to perform an operation for the only hope Nora has at survival is via an organ transplant. Unfortunately, she also has a rare blood type and no organs are available and are unlikely to become available in time, so they’ll need to harvest them from a living donor.

nora fries opening

Once again, it’s the welfare of Nora that motivates Freeze.

That’s where Barbara Gordon comes in. She’s the unlucky one who matches Nora’s rare blood type and is also of similar build. Mr. Freeze abducts her from a club while she is on a date with her new boyfriend:  Dick Grayson. It would seem Barbara got over her Bat-crush and settled on the Boy Wonder, though the film makes it seem like everyone is still keeping each other in the dark regarding alter-egos. Freeze, along with his two polar bear companions, takes Barbara to an abandoned offshore oil platform where the surgery will be performed against her will.

Most of the film involves the setup before transitioning to a focus on Batman and Robin’s detective work which will eventually force a showdown with Mr. Freeze. At a mere 67 minutes, the mystery of where Freeze took Gordon and what he wants with her isn’t lingered on for too long and there’s plenty of time saved for the climax on the oil rigging. It’s paced well and the movie moves along without feeling rushed. If anything is sacrificed, it’s the final confrontation at the end. Batman and Freeze really don’t have much of a confrontation, as circumstances force them to contend with a burning platform. It’s a similar setup to the episode “Deep Freeze” in that regard, but with smaller, more obvious, stakes.

batman robin batcave

Batman and Robin have some detective work ahead of them, but at least Robin’s gloves are now the proper shade of green.

The film in large part feels like a referendum on “Deep Freeze.” If you recall, in that episode Freeze learns his wife is still alive and then immediately agrees to help a wealthy man destroy the planet to revive her. It was a pretty outlandish setup which is why Batman was able to convince Mr. Freeze to not go along with Walker’s plan. In this film, Nora’s life is on a timer and in order to save her Freeze merely has to sacrifice one woman he doesn’t even care about. While it would have been interesting to see how he would have responded had someone been able to reason with him that Nora would never want an innocent to die so she could live, that’s never broached and it’s conceivable to think Freeze would not be swayed. He’d likely rather Nora live and despise him than for her to die. Freeze’s desperation causes him to act impulsively throughout the picture, and his relationship with Belson gives him a plausible reason to return to Gotham in an effort to save his wife knowing it will likely put him in the crosshairs of The Batman.

dr belson

Belson is pretty much a slime ball.

In many ways, it’s Dr. Belson that ends up being the film’s ultimate villain. He’s described by others as a jerk and he’s essentially a criminal for engaging in insider trading. Had he been successful with his futures play he might have been caught. When Freeze first approaches him for aid the film teases he won’t go along with murder, but he’s mostly feigning his apprehension and just uses it to leverage more money out of his old colleague.

barbara fighting back

Barbara may spend most of the film kidnapped, but she never stops fighting.

Barbara Gordon’s kidnapping may be the main plot device that gets this film rolling, but she’s hardly playing the role of damsel in distress. Her kidnapping is voluntary, as she doesn’t want Mr. Freeze to harm any of the patrons of the club she’s abducted from, especially Dick. She also tries to escape her confines more than once and realizes she has a sympathetic ear in Koonak. It would have been disappointing if the woman who is Batgirl just sat around and waited for Batman and Robin to save her, but Rogel and Kirkland know what they’re doing.

The film is visually quite nice and a noticeable cut above the television series. Dong Yang Animation, which animated most of season 2 and some of season 1, did the traditional spots with Koko Enterprises doing the CG. The colors are an obvious upgrade as Robin’s costume actually features two shades of green instead of that odd blue. The scenes on the flaming oil platform are especially spectacular and it’s obvious more care was put into this project as a whole. I also really like a spot at the beginning of the film where Fries emerges from the arctic waters. His body is coated in a thin layer of ice which cracks and breaks apart as he moves. The CG is used probably more often than I would like. It’s dated, but not woefully so. It’s a touch distracting in some of the chase sequences and with the Batwing, but it looks nice at the film’s onset with Fries swimming in the arctic amongst a swarm of CG salmon. The only real disappointment I have with the look of the picture is that it’s presented in 4:3 instead of 16:9. I assume that’s the aspect ratio it was created for since it was going to be broadcast on television, and since this was before the proliferation of 16:9 television sets, there was basically no need to develop for that if it was only ever going to be viewed on a TV set.

koonak and barbara

I hope you didn’t get too attached to Koonak, because he’s not coming back.

This film is the final presentation of Batman and the other denizens of Gotham in this art style. For some characters, like Summer Gleeson (Mari Devon), this is their final appearance all together. Veronica Vreeland (Marilu Henner) also has a cameo, but as a blonde now instead of her traditional red hair. It’s also the last appearance of Nora Fries and the only appearance for Koonak. I definitely miss this art style and the change for The New Batman Adventures is what kept me from getting into that series initially. When this surfaced on television it was like going back to an old friend.

Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero is a worthy follow-up to “Heart of Ice.” Even with the benefit of triple the minutes, it’s still not quite as captivating as that episode and I think that’s largely due to the surprise that initial episode had going for it. This film at least takes the character of Mr. Freeze and gives him a reason to act like a villain once more. It’s surprising that Paul Dini and Bruce Timm weren’t involved, but maybe turning to the duo of Kirkland and Rogel meant the pressure of doing something worthwhile with the character was largely removed freeing them to explore him unencumbered. For both, this was their last contribution to Batman: The Animated Series and it’s a worthy note to go out on. Had this been a theatrically released venture we’d probably unfairly compare it with Mask of the Phantasm where it would come up short, but for a direct-to-video venture this is more than acceptable.

Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero was originally released on VHS, but has since been released on DVD and Blu-Ray. It’s also streaming, if that’s your preference. The best way to view it, for my money, is via the Batman:  The Animated Series Blu-Ray set which includes this film as well as Mask of the Phantasm in one package alongside the entire television series.


Batman: The Animated Series – “Deep Freeze”

deep freeze titleEpisode Number:  84

Original Air Date:  November 26, 1994

Directed by:  Kevin Altieri

Written by:  Paul Dini and Bruce Timm

First Appearance(s):  Grant Walker, Nora Fries, Bat-Mite

Thanksgiving 1994 brought fans of Batman:  The Animated Series something they had been looking forward to for over two years. The penultimate episode, and final broadcast episode of Season 3, marks the return of Mr. Freeze who was last seen in “Heart of Ice” which aired September 7, 1992. That episode was so well-received that the writers didn’t really know where to go with Freeze following it. He couldn’t just become some garden variety super villain who shows up from time to time. His story was fairly complete when that episode ended:  Freeze, devoid of all emotion except vengeance, set his sights on the man who wronged him. While Freeze was unable to kill Ferris Boyle, he did out him as something of a monster and it’s presumed his life was ruined as a result. He may even be in jail, which is where we last saw Freeze pining for his wife in a cell coated in ice and snow.

That ending image to “Heart of Ice” was so well done that it was essentially re-shot for the feature film Batman & Robin. It was about the only thing that film got right when it came to the character. For Freeze to return he would need a new motivation, but how do you motivate a guy who claims he has no emotion? The answer is Nora Fries. We had only seen Nora in a flashback, and she was presumed dead as a result of Boyle’s actions, but Freeze is about to find out that isn’t the case. If Freeze could bring his wife back would it restore the humanity he once felt inside? And to what lengths would he go to in order to save her? Those are the pertinent questions Paul Dini and Bruce Timm had to ask themselves before determining if it was worth pursuing. For some reason, the answer to that question is going to partly include a Walt Disney parody. Confused? Read on.

freeze escapes

Mr. Freeze is kidnapped, and only Batman can find out by whom.

“Deep Freeze” opens in an interesting way as the camera finds a robot outside what I believe is Stonegate Penitentiary. The setting by the seas looks right and Fries is in a prison jumpsuit, though other write-ups I checked assume it’s Arkham.  The robot is fairly large, somewhat boring looking, but it has no problem getting past the security measures. In a scene that feels similar to Magneto’s debut in the X-Men episode “Enter Magneto”, the robot zeroes in on a specific cell. We know it to be the cell of Victor Fries, also known as Mr. Freeze, because it’s filled with ice and snow. Inside, Fries (Michael Ansara) watches the robot approach and begins to panic. He’s actually scared, as he bangs on his cell door and calls out for help. The robot breaks through the wall and approaches, grabs him, and jams him inside its body. As this unfolds, the camera pans back to reveal the music box/statue of the ballerina Fries associated with his late wife has been shattered in the process.

At the Batcave, Batman and Robin review the security tape of Fries’ abduction. Robin is impressed with the lengths he went to escape, while Batman points out that for a man who claims to feel no emotion, he sure looks scared on film. Batman is fairly certain that this was not orchestrated by Mr. Freeze and that someone has abducted him against his will. The presence of a robot offers one lead and we’re about to pay a visit to another old friend.

bat-mite

A character I never expected to see in this show:  Bat-Mite.

Batman and Robin arrive at the office of Karl Rossum (William Sanderson), the Blade Runner homage whom we last heard from in “His Silicon Soul.” Interestingly, Rossum’s debut came in “Heart of Steel” so this episode is a marriage of the two prior “Heart of…” episodes from this series. Anyway, when the heroes knock on the door they’re greeted by a flying, Batman inspired robot. Fans will recognize this little fellow as Bat-Mite (Pat Fraley), who in the comics is a transdimensional imp who idolizes Batman. He’s mostly comic relief, and really wouldn’t fit into the tone of this show, which is what makes his appearance suitable here as he’s a robot designed by Rossum. Batman and Robin find out Rossum now just uses his brains to make toys, if he’s given up on farming he doesn’t say, and he’s a little surprised to see the two pay him a visit. Batman shows him an image of the robot that abducted Fries and Rossum does recognize it as one of his designs, only his version was much smaller. It was designed for theme park operator Grant Walker who would use it for his attractions as a little animatronic. Rossum theorizes that Walker was able to reverse engineer the robot and build it in a larger scale.

grant walker

Meet Grant Walker, who bares a strong resemblance to a real world theme park mogul.

It just so happens that Grant Walker (Daniel O’Herlihy) is putting the finishing touches on a new park:  Oceania. That’s where the robot who abducted Fries has taken him. As its name implies, Oceania is located in the ocean off the coast of Gotham. It’s a floating artificial island and the robot enters it from below the water’s surface. It appears in a tube and Fries is let out. There he’s confronted by the elderly Walker, who is something of an admirer of Fries’ work. He says Fries is going to help him complete Oceania, while Fries is doubtful. Walker instructs him to get comfortable and he and the robot disappear in the tube. As they leave, someone contacts Walker to say they’ve detected a vessel approaching and Walker instructs him to deal with it in the usual fashion.

Knowing where to find Walker, Batman and Robin board the Batboat and start heading for Oceania. Oceania’s security measures detect the approaching watercraft and Walker orders it be fired upon, so this is apparently more than just some park. Batman is unable to avoid the torpedoes from Oceania, and the Batboat is destroyed in the process. Walker is informed that the watercraft has been taken care of, and he’s free to turn his attention back to his would-be business partner.

nora fries

Walker knows how to make Mr. Freeze play along.

Fries is then reunited with his suit and freeze ray. Once again as Mr. Freeze, he turns to Walker and questions what is stopping him from using his weapon against him. Walker then turns on the charm. Walker believes that due to the accident Fries endured that his body’s aging process has been essentially frozen in place. In other words, he’s immortal or as close to immortal as a human can get. Walker wants to achieve the same for himself, as he’s nearing his own end and wants to see his life’s work to completion. Fries initially refuses, and even seems insulted, but then Walker reveals he has something that Fries would be very interested in:  his wife Nora.

Sometime after the accident that supposedly killed Nora and turned Victor Fries into Mr. Freeze, Walker was able to acquire the body of Nora who is still suspended in a capsule. She’s there, in a liquid floating as if she’s a human snow globe. Fries is shocked to find his beloved wife is still alive, and Walker insists his team of scientists has the ability to restore her. If Fries would like to be reunited with his wife, he’ll need to help Walker get what he wants.

batman spotted

Batman and Robin’s infiltration does not go well.

Batman and Robin are able to eject, and continue on to Oceania. They sneak in, and end up in a town square of sorts where Walker addresses the inhabitants of Oceania from a large video screen in the sky. It’s here we get a good look at just what Oceania is. It’s basically Walker’s attempt at Utopia, which makes sense since it shares a name with a country from George Orwell’s 1984. Walker also isn’t planning on just creating a community that will live in peace and isolation, he intends to destroy everything around it. Deeming humanity too cruel to exist, he’s created a giant version of Mr. Freeze’s freeze gun and is planning on freezing all of Gotham as a start to completing his vision.

toony batman

Sometimes, Batman gets real stretchy and toon-like in this one.

Naturally, this isn’t something Batman and Robin are going to allow to stand, but they’re noticed by the security robots. They’re swarmed by flying droids, and they’re unable to handle them. The two get to toss some righteousness at Walker, but their words hold little sway. The robots then take them down below where they then come face to face once again with Mr. Freeze. He gets to do the aim at the camera gag again as he fires upon the heroes.

walkers new duds

Walker gets what he wants, as billionaires often do.

Batman and Robin get to watch from frozen restraints as Freeze prepares to do to Walker what Boyle unwittingly did to him. Walker climbs into a suit of his own and Freeze administers whatever it is that freezes a man. Walker’s skin turns pale blue, and he doesn’t die, indicating the process was a success. Walker seems quite happy to find his suit has enhanced his strength. With his job done, Freeze just wants to return to his wife as he considers his business with Walker concluded.

freeze reckoning

Mr. Freeze has to abandon his short-term goal of reviving his wife in order to save Gotham.

Batman and Robin are with Freeze as he tends to his wife, not really doing much of anything. From there, Batman is able to appeal to Freeze by referencing his wife. He reasons that should she wake up in a world of ice and snow created with the help of Freeze that she’ll resent him, even hate him. Freeze is initially dismissive, but apparently he reaches the same conclusion. He frees Batman and Robin, and decides to help them prevent Walker from carrying out his plan.

They attack Walker’s command center. There they’re forced to contend with Walker’s robotic minions once more, but this time they’re prepared and with the aid of Mr. Freeze they prove to be no match. Walker is shocked to see Freeze has betrayed him, and he’s helpless since he didn’t think to arm himself with an ice gun of his own. Freeze encases Walker in a giant ice cube and also freezes the controls to his massive ice canon. He uses the console to set the core to overload before broadcasting a message to the inhabitants of Oceania that if they value their lives they should escape. He tells Batman and Robin to do the same, but they insist he come with them. Freeze refuses, insisting his place is beside his wife.

robins cold

Mr. Freeze’s solution to his problem is very much in character.

As the ice begins to engulf Oceania, Batman appeals once more to Freeze. To put an end to the discussion, Mr. Freeze uses his freeze ray on Robin, instructing Batman that he’ll need medical attention and soon. Batman is forced to abandon Freeze, who returns to his wife. The place is falling apart, but Freeze appears resigned to his fate as Batman and Robin are shown escaping in the last lifeboat. As for Grant Walker, he’s found himself in a giant ice cube and he rages as it sinks into the water where he’ll never be heard from again.

In the Batcave, Dick is still thawing out as Alfred tends to him. Dick remarks he thought he’d end up like Walker, frozen in an ice cube forever, which is an interesting point since it makes it clear the duo know how he ended up, but it sounds like they have no intention of trying to extract him. An unusual dose of cruelty from the Dynamic Duo. As he shakes away the chills, he asks Bruce if he thinks they’ll hear from Mr. Freeze again (I feel like they’ve done this before). Bruce reasons that if his condition has really made Freeze immortal then there’s a good chance they will. On cue, we cut to a block of ice floating in arctic waters. Inside, the ice is apparently hollow as we see a silhouette of Mr. Freeze kneeling before Nora’s capsule. He extends a hand towards her as the episode ends.

freezes vigil

Not quite as good as the image of Freeze in his cell at the end of “Heart of Ice,” but still an effective and memorable way to end the episode.

Mr. Freeze’s return is certainly welcomed given how well he was portrayed in “Heart of Ice.” Using Nora as a means to motivate him is also in-character and really the most appropriate way of doing it. The only other option would be to return the villain with another revenge angle, either resuming his quest to murder Boyle or in revealing there was another person associated with the accident, which would have been the lazy way of doing things. The portrayal of Freeze here feels authentic and in-line with his prior appearance. The only issue I really had with it is likely due to time constraints. He changes on a dime when confronted by Batman. One would think he’d be so consumed with restoring Nora that he would not have acted until he knew how to achieve it. It’s possible Walker was bluffing, or that he intended her to be able to exist in a sub-arctic environment alongside her husband after his plan was completed. That isn’t really explained. Perhaps had this been a two-parter such questions could have been addressed, and maybe that’s partly why the character will return in a feature-length production shortly.

The aspect of the episode that I can’t get over resides with the Grant Walker character. He is very obviously a Walt Disney parody. A theme park operator, the cryogenic connection, and even his appearance evoke Disney. Of course, the whole cryogenics rumor regarding Disney being frozen is just an urban legend, but it was still pretty popular in the early 90s. Oceania is also an obvious reference to Disney’s original interpretation for EPCOT, his Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow. Now, it’s just Epcot with the acronym having been abandoned since it’s just a theme park, but his vision for it was more ambitious. As far as we know though, he never intended to create a utopia at the expense of the rest of the world. About the only thing missing is a reference to Walker being an anti-semite or something, though Batman does remark that people like Walker are obsessed with power and think they can do whatever they want.

The Disney part of the equation doesn’t offend me as someone who is a fan of Walt Disney. It’s just too on-the-nose to be clever, and in an episode centered around the show’s greatest villain and most melodramatic character feels off. The show was so reluctant to revisit Mr. Freeze because of how well “Heart of Ice” turned out, and yet what appeared to bring about his return feels like it began as a joke.

freeze bang

There are lots of visual callbacks to “Heart of Ice” in this one.

Like so many of this season’s episodes, this one is animated by Dong Yang Animation. It, more than some of the others, really seems to have that “toon” quality to it that shows up from time to time. Batman and Robin’s first fight with Walker’s robots being the best example of this, along with the character of Bat-Mite. With Bat-Mite, I assume that was the desired result as he’s basically a cartoon character. Still, I like it and Oceania is an interesting locale to visit. There’s also a fun visual callback to “Heart of Ice” when Freeze first confronts Batman. He’s drawn as a background with the only animated part being his mouth and his glowing, red, eyes. The return of the Freeze theme is also welcomed as it suits the character so well.

Since this is the next to last episode of the show, it obviously contains some final appearances. Grant Walker won’t be seen again, though he was returned in the comic tie-in to the show. Mr. Freeze will return once more in this form in the Batman & Mr. Freeze movie and will then transition to not only The New Batman Adventures, but Batman Beyond as well where his immortality is really put to the test. Most surprising though is that this episode is the sort of final appearance for Batman himself. He will appear in the last episode in a dream sequence, but otherwise is not a part of the plot. The episode also marks the last onscreen appearance for Alfred, though he doesn’t speak in either of his scenes. This is the final episode directed by Kevin Altieri, who has directed 19 episodes of the show including this one. Fans of this show likely encountered him next with The Spectacular Spider-Man. He currently works on Stretch Armstrong and the Flex Fighters, but surprisingly has never returned to the DC Animated Universe.

In the end, “Deep Freeze” is a semi-satisfying return for Mr. Freeze. His character isn’t betrayed in any way, and it’s mostly a good thing that the show gave him another episode. His return was always going to be compared to “Heart of Ice” and it was likely not going to live up to it. And really, none of his following appearances will match that one. It was just the right time for him and there was no way to recreate the surprise fans felt when they actually discovered there was a way to make the character resonate in an emotional fashion. Prior to that episode, Mr. Freeze was just a joke, an old guy who made stuff cold. Under Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, with an assist from voice actor Michael Ansara, Mr. Freeze became so much more and is now probably one of the most famous villains associated with the property. That episode alone basically lead to a feature film, even if that film wasn’t very good (which wasn’t the fault of the character, but of a lot of things). I do wish this episode had gone in a different direction and didn’t lean heavily on a joke character, but ultimately it’s fine. A mid-tier episode for an upper tier villain.


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