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It’s March 17, 1998. In the three weeks since “Growing Pains,” Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” had a brief stint topping the charts before being knocked down by Will Smith’s “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It.” Titanic is the top movie, as it has seemingly always been and seemingly will always be–as of March 1, it has become the first film to gross over a billion dollars.
In the news, NASA probes found liquid water under the ice crust of Europa, and enough water on the moon to potentially sustain a colony, on March 2 and 5 respectively. On Earth, news is rather slower–a general election in Denmark is about it.
That unfortunately sets the stage well for Batman & Mr. Freeze: Subzero, a meandering slog of a movie that is a massive letdown after both the general quality of Mr. Freeze episodes of the show, and the stellar prior Batman: The Animated Series movie, Mask of the Phantasm.
The problem is fairly simple, albeit one that will crop up repeatedly as we continue our journey: this movie is a throwback. It looks and feels like a too-long episode of BTAS, with a Dick Grayson Robin dating a Barbara Gordon that neither he nor Batman knows is Batgirl, a dark, noir-ish palette, and a Batman who lingers on the fringes and in the shadows of his own show.
None of these are bad traits in themselves–BTAS was and remains an excellent series! The problem is the baggage that comes with them. This is a sympathetic villain episode, as befits Mr. Freeze, star of the first such. It follows the now-familiar formula, presenting us with a tragic protagonist whose life is disrupted in ways outside his control, and who in desperation or fury turns to supervillainy as all other paths close to him. Victor Fries appears content to stay in his little Arctic family of himself, his wife, still literally fridged, silent and unmoving on her pedestal, his adopted Native son, and his pet polar bears (who are easily the movie’s best characters).
But, of course, a military submarine destroys that life, and of course he returns to supervillainy to try to save Nora. We’ve been down this road before, many times. But where “Heart of Ice” overflowed with genuine pathos, Subzero misses those registers, precisely because we’ve been here before. A sympathetic villain story is, by its nature, a character piece; it lives or dies by its success at depicting a tragic arc, as in “Heart of Ice” or “Baby-Doll.” But there is no arc in Subzero, only a plot. We already know what Fries is like when Nora is endangered, the lengths he will go to in order to save or protect her, and his willingness to live peacefully when she is safe. We are not watching his character change, nor is our understanding of his character changing, the two processes which we elide into the term “character development.” We are simply seeing him walk through the steps of familiar responses to familiar circumstances.
This is one of the problems with attempting to evoke nostalgia, especially for something as recent as six years previously: not everything that once worked is necessarily completely repeatable. Surprise, suspense, and novelty are not the end-all-be-all of fiction, as a spoiler-obsessed pop culture seems to sometimes believe. That said, the emotional impact of a particular character arc can still wear out with repetition, as one becomes first familiar with, and then jaded to, it.
Oddly, the movie was not intended to evoke nostalgia; it was originally planned for a June 1997 release, a few months before the beginning of The New Batman Adventures. It was intended, in other words, as a farewell to BTAS before moving on: one last look at the old world from before Harley blew up Krypton, and then a couple of months later the first reveal of what Batman and Gotham look like in the new world. But due to the box-office and critical failure of Batman & Robin, which also heavily featured Batgirl and Mr. Freeze, this movie was pushed back nine months, and thus feels like a throwback.
But then, much in it might have felt like a throwback anyway: while it lacks a “whore” figure to match Batman & Robin‘s Poison Ivy, it still has the problem of Nora Fries as a fridged Madonna, a woman presented as ideal because she does not speak or act or think, because she exists in perpetual victimhood as an object of worship.
Batgirl’s presentation is little better. She gets to throw a few punches and attempt escape a couple of times, but she basically spends the movie as a damsel in distress. Gordon is once again creepily obsessed with her love life, as he was in “Shadow of the Bat,” the literal patriarchy encouraging Dick Grayson to pursue and claim her. Later, after Freeze snatches her away, Gordon tries and fails to find her; he is, after all, the fairy-tale king in this scenario, with Batman and Robin as the princes rushing out to the tower to save her.
Utena told us all about that scenario.
This is exactly the kind of thing that Harley broke the world to end–this treatment of women as either succubi or goddesses, as princesses held captive in their towers and offered by their fathers to worthy suitors, or else as wicked witches. And because Subzero was flung forward by the equally apocalyptic (at least for that particular sequence of live-action Batman movies) Batman & Robin, it ends up not a mediocre end to an ongoing series, but an actively irksome throwback to things we thought dead and gone.
This is the problem with nostalgia. It gives us works rooted in the past, and as a result very often carrying with them all the noxious and toxic reasons we left that past behind. Nostalgic works are fragments of a world before we changed it, of things as they were, and as a result, more often than not, they are poison.
But that’s familiar, isn’t it? A piece of a pre-apocalyptic world, flung forward by apocalypse, turned toxic by its journey. We’ve seen things like that before–we know what to call them.
Nostalgia is pop culture’s kryptonite.
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