The superhero world was dealt a terrible blow with the news that actor Kevin Conroy has passed away at age 66. It’s no exaggeration to say Conroy defined the voice of Batman for several generations of fans, from his original work on groundbreaking Batman: The Animated Series to follow-up shows like Batman Beyond and Justice League to the critically acclaimed Arkham games.
Bat-fans can and will debate on which actor best portrayed the character in live-action, but the simple truth is that Conroy was Batman, every bit as much as Christopher Reeve embodied Superman. With only the power of his voice, Conroy gave us the most nuanced and fully realized version of the Caped Crusader ever to appear outside the comics. This is how Conroy’s made humanity the most important tool in Batman’s crimefighting arsenal.
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One of the true hallmarks of Conroy’s Batman performance was his talent for drawing such a distinct line between his Bruce Wayne and Batman voices. Watching Batman: The Animated Series, it’s easy to see how even Bruce’s friends like Lucius Fox and Commissioner Gordon could remain blissfully unaware of his nighttime antics.
There’s a scene in the episode “Heart of Steel Part 1” that captures this perfectly. As Batman is doing his thing in the Batcave, Alfred fields a call from Lucius and Conroy’s voice immediately shoots up an octave and loses all its gruff edge as he mentally puts on a different mask.
But the real beauty of Conroy’s performance is that it was never simply about playing Bruce Wayne or Batman. They weren’t two people occupying the same body, but merely different shades of a person still struggling to make sense of a senseless tragedy decades after the fact. There are many moments over the course of the series where echoes of Bruce bleed into Batman’s voice, especially when dealing with his enemies.
“Heart of Ice” is an early example of this. That episode is arguably the very best in the series, and notable for fundamentally transforming Mister Freeze from a crook with a high-tech gimmick to a profoundly tragic figure. Obviously, Freeze’s voice actor Michael Ansara is doing the heaviest lifting in that episode, but Conroy also plays a vital part in helping redefine the Batman/Freeze dynamic. Bruce shows a deep pity for Victor Fries and his wife Nora. Even after ultimately defeating Freeze with the power of chicken soup, Batman doesn’t revel in his hard won victory, but only reveals his disgust towards corrupt GothCorp CEO Ferris Boyle and the lives he destroyed.
So many episodes over the course of the series hinge on those deep, empathic connections between Batman and his enemies. “Two Face Part II” ends with the iconic shot of Bruce flipping Harvey Dent’s disfigured coin into the fountain, a reminder of the friendship that was destroyed. In “Perchance to Dream,” Batman rages at the Mad Hatter after experiencing a dream world where his parents still lived, only to realize his nemesis was willing to give him paradise if it meant leaving Tetch free to pursue his dreams.
Conroy’s Batman is defined by his relationships with these twisted misfits, and the fact that he shows such compassion for them no matter how many death traps and psychological gauntlets he endures. Even the Joker is no exception. 2011’s Batman: Arkham City ends on a haunting note, as Joker finally overplays his hand and succumbs to his terminal illness. Batman seems to wrestle with the question of whether to save his foe or let Gotham finally be free of the Joker, but ultimately reveals he couldn’t condemn someone even as twisted as Joker to death.
It’s Joker who ultimately seals his own fate when he accidentally destroys Batman’s antidote. Once again, Batman takes no pride in saving his city or finally being rid of his archenemy, but simply mourns the fact that he couldn’t save a man far beyond salvation. Conroy’s performance gives life to the turmoil of emotions quietly bubbling beneath the cape and cowl.
Batman’s Battles With Age
Conroy’s Batman legacy would have been secured even if the actor never voiced the character again after Batman: The Animated Series. But thankfully, Conroy continued to voice Batman pretty regularly over the course of 30 years. Therein lies another advantage of his Batman performance. He had the opportunity to age and grow old alongside Batman in a way we’ve never really seen from the various live-action versions.
Obviously, that was the entire premise behind Batman Beyond, a BTAS sequel set decades into the future. Conroy’s versatility is on full display in every single episode. In Beyond, the combination of age, failure and regret have caused Batman and Bruce Wayne to blur together to form one aging, antisocial and embittered man. The series premiere even gives this futuristic Bruce Wayne a brief but compelling origin story, showing the final night on the job where everything went wrong.
Conroy quickly came to embody this aged, reclusive Bruce Wayne every bit as much as he did the youthful, compassionate hero of BTAS. In Beyond, Conroy’s voice carries a far more gravelly timbre. This Bruce is impatient and short-tempered – a man still coming to terms with the fact that he can’t be the one patrolling the streets every night. There’s so much about the thoughts, feelings and motivations of this Bruce Wayne that never has to be explicitly stated in the scripts. Conroy’s grave voice tells the full story.
But there have been other Batman stories that allowed Conroy to tackle a more subtle version of the “Batman confronts his mortality” trope. 2015’s Arkham Knight is probably the best example. While it doesn’t become apparent until well into the game, Arkham Knight chronicles Bruce’s last and most important mission as Batman. His body and mind are rapidly breaking down thanks to his ordeals in the previous two games. There’s an increasingly desperate edge to Conroy’s performance as Batman races against the clock. And in the game’s dramatic climax, Batman battles for his very soul as a flood of Scarecrow’s Fear Toxin opens the door for Joker to take over his mind. Arkham Knight allows Conroy to portray Batman at both his lowest ebb and at his most triumphant.
[sidebar – DC’s Arkham Knight prequel comic is worth checking out for more context about Bruce’s mindset during this period and his compulsion to leave a lasting mark on Gotham while he still has time left.]
Conroy is every bit as skilled at playing an elderly, embittered Batman as he is a Batman in his prime. That’s what paved the way for him to finally make the jump to live-action in 2019’s Arrowverse crossover Crisis on Infinite Earths. Conroy appears in the second episode as a Kingdom Come-inspired version of Bruce whose broken body is held together by an exoskeleton. This Bruce is as battered psychologically as he is physically. If the elder Bruce of Batman Beyond finds some measure of redemption through his partnership with Terry McGinnis, this Bruce has become consumed by darkness and hate. It’s a chilling performance precisely because Conroy is playing such a different version of his most iconic role.
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Conroy’s Batman Origin Story
Conroy always treated his Batman role with a sense of gravitas, recognizing that he was a temporary steward of a role that brings with it many hopes and expectations and responsibilities. BTAS Podcast host Justin Michael related an anecdote about Conroy’s appearance on the show. While many veteran BTAS actors would record faux-commercials for the podcast while in character, Conroy politely declined. To him, the idea of Batman shilling products for corporate America, even in jest – went against everything the character stands for.
To understand why Conroy had such a protective attachment to the Batman role, one need only turn to his autobiographical comic “Finding Batman,” which debuted in the anthology special DC Pride 2022. Working with artist J. Bone, Conroy gives readers a brief but powerful glimpse into his personal life and the struggles that shaped him on his road to becoming Batman. Conroy reflects on the difficulties of growing up as a gay man in a heavily conservative and religious community. He reveals the struggle he faced in trying to care for a mentally ill brother while also pursuing an acting career, and in watching so many friends and colleagues pass away in the ’80s during the height of the AIDS crisis. Even his professional accomplishments became overshadowed by the homophobia rampant in Hollywood at the time.
But despite the heavy subject matter, “Finding Batman” is ultimately a story of hope. It ends with Conroy auditioning for Batman: The Animated Series and tapping into the deep well of pain and loss within. He finds a kindred spirit in Bruce Wayne, a character also forced to spend his life wearing a mask and hiding his true self from the world. Conroy’s pain becomes Bruce’s pain, and that’s where his Batman springs to life.
Conroy writes, “It seemed to roar from thirty years of frustration, confusion, denial, love yearning… Yearning for what? An anchor, a harbor, a sense of safety, a sense of identity. Yes, I can relate. Yes, this is terrain I know well. I felt Batman rising from deep within.”
That’s what made Conroy the voice of Batman. He brought a lifetime of hardship and adversity to the table and harnessed it. Not to create a dark terror of the night, but to build a Batman shaped by pain and defined by compassion for his friends and enemies alike. Conroy’s Batman is the most human Caped Crusader of them all, and for that reason he’ll probably always be the standard by which all other Batmen are judged.
Jesse is a mild-mannered staff writer for IGN. Allow him to lend a machete to your intellectual thicket by following @jschedeen on Twitter.