Ricky Church pays tribute to the late Kevin Conroy by revisiting his most legendary Batman performances…
For 30 years, voice actor Kevin Conroy provided his voice as Batman in a number of projects ranging from animated series, films and video games. To say he was a generations Batman (arguably more than one generation to boot) is a massive understatement which is why it has struck such a blow to Batman fans that Conroy passed away on Thursday from an unspecified illness he had been battling for at least the past few months.
Conroy began his tenure as Batman/Bruce Wayne in 1992’s Batman: The Animated Series and quickly became a fan-favourite for his take on the Dark Knight, balancing his dark stoic nature with his compassion and the playboy persona as Bruce Wayne. With countless hours dedicated to the Dark Knight over three decades, Conroy has delivered many great performances as Batman and here are just a few of his very best to watch and remember him by.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm
If you’re not going to dive into Batman: The Animated Series right away, there’s no better place to start than the series’ theatrical feature film Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. The film sees Batman investigating a mysterious vigilante who is killing Gotham’s mob bosses with the blame being pinned on Batman. As he dives deeper into the case he discovers it has a personal connection to his past and how he came to be the Dark Knight.
This film is a prime example of why Conroy is so beloved as Batman as he captures so many of the different aspects to the character. His Batman is intelligent, all business, moody and even snarky while his Bruce is an emotionally vulnerable and tragic figure and it’s his performance as Bruce that really shines. Fans were used to hearing Conroy’s charismatic playboy take in BTAS, but he took it to a whole new level as Bruce’s younger days were explored at a time when he was very conflicted between keeping the vow he made to his deceased parents or marrying a woman he loved. As he heartbreakingly says to their grave “I didn’t count on being happy” and Conroy sells Bruce’s trauma incredibly well. It goes without saying Conroy is definitive as Batman, but it’s easy to forget what an excellent Bruce Wayne he made.
BTAS – ‘Perchance to Dream’
One of the big ‘what ifs’ of Batman is what his life might have been like had Thomas and Martha Wayne not died. ‘Perchance to Dream’ follows that premise as Bruce Wayne suddenly finds himself in a world where his parents are healthy and alive. Not only that, but there are no costumed criminals running around Gotham, Bruce is engaged to Selina Kyle (who has never been Catwoman) and he was never Batman… yet somehow there is still a Batman preventing crime in Gotham. It seems like a dream come true for Bruce, yet despite everything he can’t accept it and keeps digging to find out what is going on.
This episode is notable because Conroy portrays Bruce throughout the majority of the runtime and gives a terrific performance as he can’t quite believe his apparent new lease on life. He also does double duty as Thomas Wayne, being the loving and supportive father we always thought he might have been as he tries to help Bruce accept reality. When the reveal comes of what this world actually is and how Batman responds coming out of it, it’s a heartbreaking moment of what Bruce continues to suffer through and how he would like nothing more than to accept that reality and Conroy delivers it perfectly.
BTAS – ‘Beware The Gray Ghost’
If there is anyone more iconic than Kevin Conroy or Michael Keaton as Batman it’s Adam West, the star of the 1966 Batman series. Despite the series turning away from Batman’s darker roots as the comics had done at the time, it made his popularity soar and is still referenced in various media, from the popping ‘POW!’, ‘BANG!’, ‘ZOINK!’ sound ‘effects’ to Robin’s “Holy (whatever random thing comes to his mind), Batman!”. West’s contribution to the Batman legacy is significant so it is no surprise the Batman: The Animated Series episode he guest stars on should be one to watch.
In ‘Beware The Gray Ghost’, West plays Simon Trent, an actor who was once the star of a hugely popular superhero show ‘The Gray Ghost’, but since the show was cancelled Trent’s career has been in a downward spiral as he’s often been typecast or passed over for roles because no one can see him as anything other than the Gray Ghost. It’s reduced him to resenting his famous role and he’s forced to sell off his own memorabilia to make ends meet, but when a criminal in Gotham City is copycatting a villain from the show Batman turns to Trent for help solving who is responsible.
It’s quite a meta episode and role for West to star in as he went through quite a similar period in his career where he was either typecast, looked over or returned to voice Batman in 70s and 80s animated series. West delivers an emotional and stunning performance as Trent while Conroy speaks for all of fandom as it’s revealed Batman was a huge fan of the Gray Ghost as a child, watching the show with his parents, and tells Trent how much he admired and was inspired by him. To hear two iconic Batmans in one episode giving their all, each one reflecting their place in Batman history, is nothing short of exceptional.
Justice League Unlimited – ‘This Little Piggy’
Batman has had many potential love interests in both the comics and various animated series, most commonly with Catwoman and Talia al Ghul. Justice League and its continuation series Justice League Unlimited introduced a potential new interest as Batman and Wonder Woman shared feelings for each other that Batman wasn’t quite willing to follow up on due to his worry about complicating his mission or disrupting the team dynamic. The JLU episode ‘This Little Piggy’ brought their relationship to the forefront as Wonder Woman voiced more vocally her concern for Batman’s emotional unavailability, but then due to a spell of the ancient witch Circe she’s turned into a pig and Batman has to undo the spell before it is too late.
This is one of Conroy’s most subdued yet emotional performances as Batman as he has to confront his feelings for Wonder Woman more directly than he usually likes to. Even Zatanna, who he goes to for help, is shocked at how much Wonder Woman means to him with how reluctant he is to let his feelings be known. But the real highlight of the episode comes toward the end when Circe strikes a bargain with him to transform Wonder Woman back: he has to sing ‘Am I Blue?’ from songwriters Harry Akst and Grant Clarke. Conroy, who loved singing in his life and stage career, has said this is one of his favourite moments as Batman and uploaded his version of the song to his website. ‘This Little Piggy’ isn’t just a different and fun adventure that explores Batman’s emotional mindset but one held very close to Conroy’s heart, making it a must-see episode.
BTAS – ‘Appointment in Crime Alley’
Crime Alley is such a monumental spot in Gotham City not just because of its name, but it is the spot where Batman was born. It was in this neighbourhood a young Bruce Wayne witnessed his parents shot to death and vowed then and there to rid the city of crime. Based on the comic ‘There is No Hope in Crime Alley’ from legends Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams, ‘Appointment in Crime Alley’ sees Batman trying to save the rundown district from a developer looking to illegally destroy it whether or not people get killed.
One of the reasons Conroy has been so memorable as Batman is due to his ability to say so much with so little dialogue and that is the case here as Batman races around Crime Alley to prevent one catastrophe after another while investigating what businessman Roland Daggett is up to as well as the disappearance of his friend and parental figure Dr. Leslie Thompkins. Despite the horrible memory associated with Crime Alley, Batman still holds onto it to help the district in anyway he can much like Thompkins and his parents did, hoping that one day it can be turned around and a good place to live. Conroy is great throughout the episode and shows many different sides to Batman, from the compassion he has to a mother and daughter being threatened by Daggett’s goons, anger at a man holding his evictor hostage and his sorrow at his parent’s murder site. It is one of Conroy’s most memorable performances in his entire tenure as Batman.
Batman: Arkham City
It was to the joy of many fans when Rocksteady announced Conroy and Hamill would reprise their Batman and Joker roles for Batman: Arkham Asylum, a title that would go on to become a best-selling and definitive adventure as players donned the cape and cowl themselves. While the duo returned for two more Arkham games and gave terrific performances in each one, Batman: Arkham City stands as the best one for them in their trilogy.
The game sees a downtrodden section of Gotham City remodeled into a prison as Arkham City in the wake of the asylum’s damage in the first game. Led by Dr. Hugo Strange, he largely lets the criminals do what they want on the Arkham streets as Joker, Penguin and Two-Face fight a gang war for control while Joker is slowly dying from Asylum‘s Titan formula. Through the main story and multiple side quests Conroy explores Batman’s intelligence, dedication to justice and his own inner turmoil as Joker has poisoned him with the same formula in a desperate bid to find a cure. Conroy gets to be quite emotive in his performance with the inclusion of Talia al Ghul, Batman’s sometimes enemy/sometimes lover, as well as an actual somber moment as Joker succumbs to his illness. Arkham City most definitely marks a significant point for both Conroy and Hamill in their time as Batman and Joker.
BTAS – ‘Robin’s Reckoning’
Rarely can ‘Batman’ be separated without being followed by ‘and Robin’. For nearly all of Batman’s existence he and Robin have gone hand in hand as the ultimate team, being nicknamed the Dynamic Duo. While Robin was a fixture in Batman: The Animated Series from the beginning, it wasn’t until the two-part ‘Robin’s Reckoning’ where his origin was explored.
On a seemingly routine patrol, the pair find evidence that Tony Zucco, the man who killed Robin’s parents, has come back to Gotham. This has been a case Batman has regularly obsessed over as not only has Zucco escaped his clutches on a few occasions, but it is an opportunity for Robin to gain the closure he never did as his parent’s murderer was never caught. The two-parter highlights how Dick Grayson came to be Bruce Wayne’s ward and crime fighting partner as well as the tension the pair face as Robin is a college-aged young adult and is equally passionate, if not more so for obvious reasons, to catch Zucco on his own. Conroy’s performance as both the emotional adoptive father and the tough but well-meaning mentor to Dick is among the series’ best and goes to show what great chemistry he and Robin actor Loren Lester shared throughout their tenures.
BTAS – ‘I Am The Night’
One of Batman’s most well-known traits is his refusal to give up and absolute commitment to justice. ‘I Am The Night’, however, sees Batman’s faith shaken by the belief Gotham City will never get better and he’s rocked even more by Commissioner Gordon’s near-fatal shooting, an event that could have been prevented had Batman been there at the right time. It’s enough to make him spiral into despair and actually consider giving up Batman for good.
Conroy’s performance in this episode stands out because we’re so used to hearing him as a confident bad-ass Batman, not one who is full of doubt and turmoil. This is also a rare episode that shines a bigger spotlight on the friendship Batman and Gordon share as Conroy delivers gravitas to the pain and guilt Batman feels for not being able to protect Gordon. His breakdown in the Batcave is a stunning moment, but it’s all the more heroic when he dons the cape and cowl again to prevent Gordon’s shooter from finishing the job and has a heart-to-heart with Gordon. Conroy’s emotional delivery throughout the episode is a great reminder of Batman’s humanity, vulnerability and stubborn perseverance.
Batman Beyond: Return of The Joker
Due to the nature of comics, the big two publishers rarely age up their superheroes or age them slowly to keep them relatable to their core audience and the modern times. That’s why Batman has always been within his mid 30s – late 40s, even after having several different Robins for partners, one of whom is his flesh and blood son. Various out of continuity comics like The Dark Knight Returns or Kingdom Come have explored Batman as an older figure, but Batman Beyond took it up a notch by presenting Bruce as an elderly man decades after he retired as Batman and training Terry McGinnis as the new Batman. Their mentorship came to a head in the Batman Beyond feature film Return of The Joker where the Clown Prince of Crime returns after a 40 year absence still somehow in the prime of his youth to plague Gotham once more.
Return of the Joker is actually a pretty dark story, so much so that Warner Bros. Animation had to censor it due some of its violence. Years later the original uncut version was released showing why it was censored with scenes like Joker torturing Tim Drake’s Robin into insanity, messages in the Batcave written as if they were in blood and, most of all, Robin killing Joker with a gun as opposed to the censored version of Joker dying through his own actions by accident. For a story this mature, it called on the whole cast but especially Conroy and Mark Hamill to bring their A-game to the performances.
It is amazing to think that at the same time Conroy was playing Batman in the final episodes of The New Batman Adventures and the beginning of Justice League when Batman at the peak of his abilities he was portraying a much older Bruce whose body betrayed him and became disillusioned by Batman until Terry convinced him (eg stole the Batsuit) to train him. Conroy strikes a difference in the two different eras of Bruce Wayne, especially in this film as we’re treated to an extended flashback detailing how Joker tortured Tim. The rage Conroy expresses as Batman at what Joker has done is complimented very well by the sorrow and regret he feels in his older age. Hamill likewise gives terrific and terrifying performance as Joker, one who largely abandons the silly jokes for a huge dose of sadism. Even though the pair would go on to play their roles again opposite each other, Return of The Joker marks a fitting end for their conflict within the DCAU.
Justice League Unlimited – ‘Epilogue’
When the DCAU was ending (or was supposed to end before Justice League Unlimited got renewed for a final season at the last minute), they crafted the JLU episode ‘Epilogue’ which took viewers back to the future of Batman Beyond, in fact going even further than where Return of The Joker left them, as Terry McGinnis discovered a shocking secret about his family and connection to Bruce Wayne and went to Amanda Waller for answers. While Conroy’s role is this finale is relatively small compared to Will Friedle and CCH Pounder, Conroy delivers one of his most powerful and emotional performances ever.
First there are the black-and-white portions of the episode where Terry imagines what he would say to Bruce and how his mentor would react with Bruce coming off as cold and uncaring, putting the mantle of Batman above everything else. While it’s meant to be an out-of-character moment, Conroy delivers it with such passion that you’d be forgiven for thinking this is how Bruce really thinks and feels toward Terry in his even older age. The real highlight, though, comes when Waller recounts a story to Terry of a time she advised Batman to kill Ace, a young telekinetic and telepathic girl who was experimented on by the government, before her powers brought on a sudden death that would result in everyone connected to her mind to die as well.
Batman seemingly accepted to kill her, but of course in typical Batman fashion he literally threw away that plan and instead talked to her compassionately and sat with her until she quietly passed away. Conroy doesn’t say much to Ace, but his admission that he knows what it’s like to have your childhood taken away and that he’s sorry she’s dying is filled with so much emotion and regret that he doesn’t need to say more. ‘Epilogue’ emphasizes that despite Batman’s gruff attitude, he’s a man who thinks with his heart first and values all life. It is an aspect that Conroy was able to capture perfectly throughout his 30 years of giving voice to the Dark Knight.
What are some of your favourite Kevin Conroy performances? Let us know on our social channels at @flickeringmyth…
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