There Was No Better Batman Than Kevin Conroy

Oh Batman, my Batman... Beloved voice actor Kevin Conroy, who performed the role of Bruce Wayne and Batman in numerous animated shows, video games, and films, has died. For the many people who were too young to have seen Michael Keaton's performance in Tim Burton's "Batman" films and just a hair too old to be introduced to the character via Christopher Nolan's "Dark Knight" trilogy, "Batman: The Animated Series" was our entry into the dark world of Gotham and its tortured caped crusader. Conroy's version of Batman was a steadfast presence with a warmth that's absent in every other iteration. After all, Bruce has to love Gotham in order to be willing to give his life to save it. 

While Adam West's comical 1960's Batman was the first version of the character I ever saw and Val Kilmer is my favorite live-action adaptation, Conroy's animated Batman was the first one I ever thought of as a real hero. He struggled with his conscience, always tried to do what was right by the people of Gotham, and had a strict no-kill policy. He's conflicted but doesn't have the dark edge of some of the other versions who have given up a piece of themselves. He is the Dark Knight, with a code of ethics and a strict sense of morality. A lot of that comes from the writing on the animated series, but really it comes from Conroy himself. Whether he's voicing the character for a family-friendly cartoon like "The Animated Series" or something a little more adult like Rocksteady's "Arkham" games, Conroy brought a sense of real-world strength and protection from wickedness in his performance. No one will ever be Batman like Kevin Conroy was Batman.

The voice of justice

"Batman: The Animated Series" was a beautifully made cartoon with some of the best scripts in comic book entertainment, but it was really the vocal performances that made the series so brilliant. It's impossible to deny the greatness of Mark Hamill's Joker or Arleen Sorkin's Harley Quinn, but Conroy's Batman is a much more understated performance. It's not uncommon for Batman to get overshadowed by his massive rogue's gallery in his various incarnations, but Conroy's Batman always holds his own. His vocal performance is layered, hinting at Bruce's internal pain while also projecting his strength. Just hearing his voice makes me feel safe.

"Batman: The Mask of the Phantasm" was one of the first movies I ever remember seeing in a theater. My dad, who loved the Burton movies, was ecstatic to be able to take his kids to a Batman movie and share in the joy. I was only six or seven years old, but I'll never forget our excited chatter on the way home. It was the beginning of our lifelong love of Batman. For many Millennials, the cartoon series and "Mask of the Phantasm," the first theatrically released animated film from Warner Brothers, was our entry point into this sprawling franchise. For others, it came from Conroy's other animated Batman performance as a much older Bruce Wayne in "Batman Beyond." 

The ultimate Bat-father

One of the things that makes Batman so fun is that he's essentially the Bat-dad to the rest of the Batfam, including the various Robins, Batgirls, Nightwing, and more. He's a proud paternal figure who offers advice and the occasional stern lecture, serving up a surprisingly healthy masculine presence given all of his childhood trauma. Perhaps the most interesting twist on the formula, however, was the animated series "Batman Beyond," which followed an aging Bruce Wayne as he tutors young upstart Terry McGinnis (voiced by Will Friedle), who has taken on the cowl and is trying to save Gotham from itself as a new Batman. 

Conroy had plenty of practice playing a conflicted and haunted Bruce Wayne in the animated series and "Mask of the Phantasm," but in "Batman Beyond," he digs into the troubled side of the character much deeper than before. He's not as likable or as fun, but serves as an important contrast to Terry's impetuous youth. For kids who had grown up with the animated series, seeing this side of Bruce with the same voice was a shock to the system, but it taught us important lessons about grief, trauma, and aging. It was probably a bit intimidating to tackle such a different approach to the character after so many years of making him a brilliant yet troubled detective, but Conroy handled it with finesse and helped make "Batman Beyond" an incredible addition to the Batman canon. Conroy allowed his Batman to be something no one else really has: vulnerable.

A talented and genuine soul that will be missed

Batman, by his very design, has to be mysterious. He keeps part of himself locked away and hidden, living a double life in order to protect his loved ones and still be able to fight criminals in the name of justice. Each Batman actor has tackled this duality in different ways. Some have completely cut themselves off, becoming stone-cold and distant, while others play the role more like James Bond with a leather fetish, but Conroy's Batman and Bruce Wayne were surprisingly, genuinely vulnerable. Conroy was a gay man who had endured both being painfully closeted and treated with disdain because of his identity, and he turned that struggle into Bruce's internal conflict. It was easy to identify with this man who had to wear a mask in order to be seen, and Conroy's own intense vulnerability shone through in his performance. He made Batman more than a comic book character or a cartoon; he made him feel like a real person. 

Conroy was a beloved treasure in the animation world, on the convention circuit, and just in general, but he was also the best damn Batman there ever was or ever will be. Rest in peace. We'll keep the bat signal on for you.