Mask of the Phantasm explores the tragedy and isolation of Bruce Wayne, but Batman and Mr. Freeze: SubZero, its 1998 direct-to-video sequel, explores grief and loss differently and pushes Mr. Freeze and Barbara Gordon to the forefront of the story. This is still a Batman film, but the Dark Knight takes a backseat to the drama surrounding Mr. Freeze’s cryogenically frozen wife, Nora, and the steps he takes to ensure her survival. While not as emotionally resonant as the previous film, SubZero is a damn fine sequel to Mask of the Phantasm and a complimentary companion to the animated series that inspired the film.
SubZero, directed by Boyd Kirkland, was initially planned to coincide with the 1997 release of the much-maligned Batman and Robin, the live-action flick directed by Joel Schumacher starring George Clooney as the Caped Crusader. Both films feature Mr. Freeze as the primary antagonist, and Barbara Gordon assuming the mantle of Batgirl. Due to the myriad of poor reviews for Batman and Robin, SubZero was pushed back for a release date of 1998, a move that ultimately saved the film. SubZero succeeded where Batman and Robin failed by presenting a complex and sympathetic Mr. Freeze, establishing aspects of his personality that would become a mainstay in the Batman universe.
The film picks up after Mr. Freeze’s appearances in the animated series. Following the episodes “Heart of Ice” and “Deep Freeze,” he’s put his villainy and life of crime behind him, building a peaceful and quiet life in the Arctic with the frozen Nora, his adopted Inuit son Koonak, and his two pet polar bears, Notchka and Shaka. Of course, the peace doesn’t last, and Mr. Freeze resorts to his villainous ways when a submarine emerges through the floor of their cave home, shattering Nora’s containment pod. With her condition rapidly deteriorating, a desperate Freeze learns he needs an organ donor to find a cure. With the help of a former associate, he discovers that Barbara is the perfect match and attacks her and Dick Grayson during a dinner date. Freeze kidnaps Barbara and brings her to an abandoned oil rig where he explains the procedure. Meanwhile, Batman and Robin give chase, but their investigation isn’t the focus of the film, and much of the screen-time is devoted to Barbara trying to escape the rig while Freeze prepares for the operation.
One of the highlights of SubZero is Barbara herself. This movie could’ve easily relegated her to the role of someone who needs saving by her male team members, but Barbara is no damsel in distress. She fights back with a fury and determination that would make her father proud and looks for every opportunity to escape. At the same time, she wants to help save Nora and offers to undergo the procedure at an established hospital, but Freeze ignores all her attempts to make a deal. When the time for the operation arrives, Barbara discovers that the procedure will kill her, and with help from a frightened Koonak, she escapes just as Batman and Robin arrive in the Batwing.
The battle on the oil rig is both tense and emotional, as Freeze becomes more and more desperate to save Nora and the Bat team risks their lives to get everyone off the rig as it goes up in flames. When Freeze breaks his leg, he begs Batman to get Koonak and Nora off the rig and leave him to die. This is a man who’s given up and accepted his demise, but he fights for the family he loves to his last breath. In the film’s conclusion, it’s revealed that Freeze survives the oil rig explosion and returns to Gotham City, where he learns that Nora has been revived after an organ transplant operation funded by Bruce Wayne. With the world believing him dead, Freeze returns to the Arctic with his two polar bears, most likely to live out the rest of his life in isolation.
It’s a sad ending, but not entirely, as the Bat Family is reunited and Nora survives. At it’s core, SubZero explores grief and the steps a man is willing to take to save the woman he loves. It almost mirrors the steps Bruce takes to avenge the murder of his parents, but both men chose to fight for their loved ones in different ways.
Freeze isn’t entirely redeemed in the end; he still kidnapped Barbara and froze the entire crew of the submarine responsible for the accidental destruction of his cave, but at least he’s nowhere near the corny ice-pun-dropping villain he is in Batman and Robin. He’s damaged and complicated, true to the tone of the animated series and the Batman franchise as a whole.
SubZero is a fantastic film that builds off of the animated series with nuance and heart. Kevin Conroy, Michael Ansara, Loren Lester, and Mary Kay Bergman give stellar voice performances and bring the characters to life in a way Batman and Robin failed to do. Mask of the Phantasm is still my favorite animated Batman movie, but SubZero, with its complex villain, deco-art style, jazz-inspired soundtrack, and moody and icy atmosphere, is a close second.