Let's Talk About Kevin Conroy's Greatest Batman Moment

I never thought I would be saying this so soon, but revered voice actor Kevin Conroy has died at age 66. The man who so many looked up to as "Batman" for decades has left us, and the world feels a little dimmer without him. As the stories about working with him continue to flood in, the common throughline shows industry-wide respect for a wholeheartedly kind individual. It's never easy to watch people who have contributed to the entertainment you've grown up with pass on, but it's even harder when they're as treasured as Conroy was.

For over 30 years, Conroy had been the Caped Crusader's definitive voice, whether in the guise of Bruce Timm's "Batman: The Animated Series" or the "Arkham" video games. Among the sea of talented folks who have donned the cowl, Conroy struck this perfect balance, where the imposing stature of Batman is molded from the hidden melancholy of Bruce Wayne.

Although "The Batman" is my favorite live-action adaptation, it's hard to argue that "Batman: Mask of the Phantasm" is anything other than one of the best representations of the character in any medium. The film may have underperformed when it was first released to theaters in 1993, but in the time since, it has been rightfully acclaimed as a benchmark in the DC character's legacy.

Batman is shown as a protector, a path forward, and more hauntingly, a curse, especially as Bruce finds love at a critical moment in his life. Everything with Mark Hamill's Joker and Dana Delany's Andrea Beaumont is brilliant stuff, but there's one scene that best exemplifies just how fitting Conroy was in the role.

'I didn't count on being happy'

The graveyard scene in "Batman: Mask of the Phantasm" comes at a critical point in the film, where Bruce Wayne has started to fall for Andrea just as he's attempting to reconcile with his place in the world as Gotham's protector. Prior to this scene, his innate sense of moralism leads the hero-in-training to confront a motorcycle gang causing trouble. As Bruce, he gets the wind knocked out of him. Later in the evening, he has a personal reckoning with who Bruce was and who Bruce is becoming, as he visits his parents' tombstone. As Bruce gets on his knees, he confronts the promise he made so long ago:

"Please! I need it to be different now. I know I made a promise, but I didn't see this coming. I didn't count on being happy."

Batman has always been deconstructed throughout his many adaptations, but the confusion and sorrow in Kevin Conroy's voice is devastating here. The Caped Crusader is no stranger to brooding confrontation, but Conroy unleashes something different than anything we'd seen before. We want him to live a happy and fulfilling life with Andrea, but knowing that we're watching one part of a long flashback, it hurts, even more, to see the sun on the horizon that could have been under different circumstances.

The scene is also a great parallel to when Batman sees Andrea visiting her father's grave earlier in the film. He stares at the Wayne tombstone, not with the mournful disorientation of Bruce, but with the cold acceptance of Batman. Conroy's performance on both ends of the Caped Crusader is legendary, but this scene remains a special part of his history. If this scene gives you the feels, know that it was just as harrowing for Conroy to record.

Kevin Conroy's recording broke voice director Andrea Romano

In Vulture's oral history of "Batman: The Animated Series," there's a section where voice director Andrea Romano reminisces on the day they recorded his dialogue for the graveyard scene. Once Conroy had finished speaking the dialogue that ended up in the finished film, she needed to take a breather to process where he had taken his performance:

"I was crying so hard. I was absolutely devastated, in a good way, by his performance there. I've always said that I will never ask an actor to do something I'm not willing to do myself. So actors trust me to take the ride with them and Kevin knew that he could open up during that scene and, in doing so, I was right there with him, but I literally could not speak to continue on."

Being vulnerable in front of another human being can take a lot out of you, and if the person listening to your words has never seen you in that state before, it can be a deeply emotional experience for both parties. Bruce is always trying to mask his internal pain through the protective actions of Batman. You rarely see him this bare, let alone when it comes to loving someone. For a character whose appeal is fighting bad guys while dressed in a spandex costume that resembles a human bat, it's a shockingly heavy scene that gets to the heart of Batman's humanity.

'You can't fake Batman'

When it came to bringing out this rarely seen side of the Caped Crusader, Kevin Conroy knew he had to pull this out of him from within, as he simply couldn't manufacture that kind of emotion (via Variety):

"That was the time I realized fully that you can't fake Batman. You can't just make a deep, husky sound with your voice. You have to base it in the pain of his childhood each time or it doesn't sound right"

The recording booth had been stunned into silence, as Conroy saw the ripple effects unfold, especially with Romano. In her tears, he saw the true effect he had behind the microphone as Bruce:

"She could see I really, really went emotionally to the place that he goes to. Boy, I was proud of it and I loved it and I think that's the day I realized, This is really going to be an acting experience that I'm going to be really proud of."

Nearly three decades later, this scene holds up immensely well as a reflection of why Conroy's considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest, interpretations of Batman ever put to the screen. In the span of 76 minutes, you get to see almost every shade of the DC superhero in one emotionally resonant performance. Conroy considered playing Batman as one of the greatest pleasures of his life, which makes it that much more devastating that he was taken away too soon. 

In reflecting on how Conroy masterfully brought Batman to new places, I couldn't help but reflect on a similar moment from his comic earlier this year.

An emotional parallel to Finding Batman

Less than five months ago, Kevin Conroy released "Finding Batman," a comic commissioned for DC Pride that details his experience in the industry as a gay man. As you travel from panel to panel, you're witness to a man who saw the death of his friends at the height of the AIDS epidemic, all while the industry mocked him for being openly queer. It's a devastating, yet inspiring read that illustrates just how much he wanted to be accepted by his peers in an unforgiving world that didn't love him back. As I reached the end, I saw a parallel to the graveyard scene from "Mask of the Phantasm."

Conroy's father was a destructive alcoholic, while his brother suffered from schizophrenia, both of whom shunned him in their own ways. In the comic's final panels, it shows him going in for the audition that would change his life. To channel Batman, Conroy envisioned cradling the bodies of his loved ones, while trying to reconcile with the happiness that would come from this incredible career opportunity. Much like Bruce in that scene, he alternated between how Batman would feel versus what was going on internally.

But unlike Bruce, who tragically fell into his role as the shadow of Gotham, Conroy was instead granted the role of a lifetime. Love won. Out of his pain came the voice of the character he was destined to play. With the wound still feeling fresh, we now mourn a significant loss, not only for the death of a great Batman, but for Conroy, a man whose heart was bigger than himself.

"Batman: Mask of the Phantasm" is currently streaming on HBO Max.