Before Zach Snyder turned him into a psychopathic vigilante and before Christopher Nolan adapted him as a growling but vulnerable crimefighter, Batman was far more human. Batman: The Animated Series ran, with great success, from 1992 to 1995. Overseen by Bruce Timm, the genius behind DC’s animated universe, the series ensured that DC dominated the television market until the Marvel Universe had grown enough to allow them to expand into TV. Despite ending in 1995 B:TAS spawned sequel films and series that continue in various ways, shapes and forms to this day. Two of these films were Batman: Mask of the Phantasm and Batman and Mr Freeze: Sub-Zero. Both films humanise Batman and his various allies and nemeses like never before or again.
In Mask of the Phantasm an old girlfriend reappears in Bruce Wayne’s (Kevin Conroy) life just as a masked avenger begins to systematically slaughter Gotham’s gangsters. The deaths are blamed on Batman, who finds himself hunted by the law before being caught in a deadly triangle between the Phantasm and their last target, the Joker (Mark Hamill). Sub-Zero focuses on the wider Bat-Family, bringing in Batgirl/Barbara Gordon (Mary Kay Bergman) and Robin/Dick Grayson (Loren Lester) to fight Mr Freeze/Dr Victor Fries (Michael Ansara). Mr Freeze seeks to cure his wife Nora from a rare disease and Barbara Gordon turns out to be the perfect donor. Promotional as these synopses may seem I assure you the pathos, drama and darkness that lies at the heart of every Batman story is inherent to these two very underrated films.
This article isn’t intended as a criticism of the Nolan films or of Snyder’s more recent over-indulgent epic. Instead it is intended as an attempt to educate. Both The Dark Knight Trilogy and Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice have their good and bad points as do Mask of the Phantasm and Sub-Zero. We’re not talking about those here though instead we’re talking about the people under the make-up, cowls and spandex and what makes them do the things they do. With that said where else is there to start then with the Caped Crusader himself?
Batman is best when he is totally different from Bruce Wayne. Kevin Conroy plays the vigilante as tough, sympathetic and uncompromising whereas his Bruce Wayne is suave, disconnected and elusive. Sound familiar? That’s because The Animated Series drew heavily from Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman with Michael Keaton. Both films depict a very different Batman and Bruce Wayne, respectively. Mask of the Phantasm flashes between Bruce Wayne donning the cowl for the first time and a decade later where he is jaded and tired. This film focuses on the relationships Bruce shares with his dead parents and old flame Andrea Beaumont (Dana Delany). Conveniently Andrea arrives in time to complicate Batman’s hunt for the relentless Phantasm who has been killing off Gotham’s most powerful mobsters. Eventually it is revealed that Andrea is the Phantasm and has been hunting down the men that killed her father and forced her to abandon her engagement to Bruce Wayne. The question here is an obvious one: what do you do when a loved one commits a crime as heinous as murder? For Batman, there’s only one answer, even if it will hurt Bruce Wayne more than he can imagine.
For Bruce Timm’s Batman, negotiation has always been his go-to method: he saves fists and gadgets for last. He will use whatever psychological edge he can to talk his opponents down from his fear-inspiring costume to his own traumas and even his identity as Bruce Wayne. He does this in a final attempt at convincing Andrea that revenge isn’t worth the price one pays. By the end of Mask of the Phantasm there is no redemption for anyone though the opportunities are there. Batman will continue his war on crime. The Joker will continue his war on Batman. Andrea will continue running from her past and the feelings it dredges up. The final fight scene of Mask of the Phantasm is particularly telling in what it reveals about its three main characters.
Andrea arrives at the defunct World of Tomorrow Amusement Park to enact her revenge on those who killed her father. As the hitman who pulled the trigger, the Joker is last on her list. The park was also the site of Bruce and Andrea’s first date ten years previously and the state of decay the park is now in tells the audience everything they need to know about how the previous decade has gone. Well aware of the Phantasm/Andrea’s intentions the Joker beats her into submission before leaving her to be sucked into a huge jet engine. Batman arrives just in time to save Andrea. He and the Joker fight to a stalemate as the park begins to explode all around them.
Batman is emotionally distraught for the first time in a long while. The Joker takes full advantage of this as unbeknownst to him he plays on Batman’s greatest fear: losing one of the few people he was ever close to. All the same Batman fights Joker throughout the park; dodging remote-control planes, massive explosions, and the Joker’s barbed insults. At the end both men are left bleeding and bruised. Batman begs Andrea to give up on her revenge quest and go back to Bruce. However, just like Batman himself and the Joker, Andrea is too far gone. Andrea disappears stoically in a puff of smoke, taking the Joker with her. What’s the Joker doing as all this is going down? Why he’s laughing of course. As Andrea drags him off to an unknown fate the Clown Prince of Crime lets loose a gut-busting cackle that the Wicked Witch of the West would be proud of. Mark Hamill’s multiple performances as the Joker are hard to compare but Mask of the Phantasm stands out to me simply for the character’s closing moments. These are Batman and his nemeses at their most extreme but what about the more well-adjusted characters?
Batman and Mr Freeze: Sub-Zero revolves around two love stories. That of Victor Fries and his wife Nora, as well as Dick Grayson/Robin and Barbara Gordon/Batgirl. One romance is frozen in time while the other is just beginning. The film presents an ultimatum however: for one romance to live on, the other must die out. In an attempt to save Nora Mr Freeze enlists the help of the surgeon Dr. Gregory Belson, who just so happens to be in a pretty bad way financially. Overcome by desperation and greed, Belson agrees to help Mr Freeze kidnap Barbara Gordon to harvest her organs to save Nora. Cue an equally desperate rescue mission by the Caped Crusader and the Boy Wonder.
It is important to note here that despite his outwardly chilly condition Mr Freeze’s heart has not totally frozen over yet. He cares deeply for his wife, his two trained polar bears, and an orphaned Inuit boy, Koonak. Mr Freeze just wants his wife back. No doubt he’d be pulling similarly desperate stunts even if he wasn’t shooting ice beams or wearing a temperature regulating suit of armour. His plan to save Nora probably would have gone off without a hitch if Barbara Gordon’s new boyfriend didn’t happen to be Robin. Don’t kidnap a superhero’s girlfriend, who herself is a superhero. Seems like pretty sound advice to me.
Relocating from his Arctic cave base to an offshore oil rig Mr Freeze begins to prepare for the operation. It is on this rusting hulk that Bruce Timm’s unforgettable animation style is most apparent. Whereas Mask of the Phantasm had glorious amounts of detail in every frame, Sub-Zero doesn’t. This minimalist decision allows for a greater emphasis on the character and their expressions. For example, at one point Mr Freeze tells Barbara “Nora is the love of my life and I’ll do whatever it takes to bring her back!” Barbara’s reaction exhibits a whole range of emotions from shock to disgust to the subtle but obvious presence of sympathy. The red glow of Mr Freeze’s goggles is eerily present no matter where in the frame you look while the battle between avarice and terror is evident in Dr. Gregory Belson’s baby blue eyes.
Of course, it can’t end well for Mr Freeze. In an explosive rescue, he bravely sacrifices himself after doing his best to kill Batman and Robin. He implores Batman to rescue Barbara, Nora and Koonak while he does his best to fight the rapidly spreading oil fire. Belson meanwhile is crushed by falling debris during his attempted escape on a speedboat. Suffering from a broken leg Freeze urges Batman to escape while he can before plummeting into the burning waters below. Still, even love can bloom in the Arctic as a recovering Mr Freeze, his leg in an ice cast, watches a news broadcast that reveals that Nora is also in recovery. A Spring thaw sets in as Victor Fries sheds a tear before walking off into the snowy wasteland.
Batman was never more human than when he was animated. The cold, unblinking realism of Christopher Nolan’s films suggest that neither Batman nor his enemies can be redeemed. Snyder’s film goes even further positing Batman as an utter sociopath as evidenced by his willingness to kill Superman. Bruce Timm’s Batman whether in cartoon or comic form, is inherently good, sympathetic, and relatable. He is not a murderous walking tank or a freedom curbing fascist. Instead he is a man. A man that dresses up as a bat, granted, but a person like you or I regardless. This is the Batman we need these days.