James Bond fans will argue until they’re blue in the face which actor is the best 007. But when it comes to Batman, there is no argument: Kevin Conroy, who voiced Batman for nearly 30 years beginning with Batman: The Animated Series, is unquestionably the best. On this, Batman fans are in near universal agreement. Conroy passed away this week at age 66, but leaves behind a permanent mark on the legendary comic book hero.
When Conroy stepped into the role, Batman had already been around for over half a century, and already had two iconic live-action performances in Adam West and Michael Keaton. In fact the timing of the series made it almost look like a cash-in on Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film. But the work that artist Bruce Timm, writer Paul Dini, and voice actor Kevin Conroy did with the character swept those portrayals and those that would follow right off the board.
It’s not that any of the other actors who have played the character are bad. Nearly every one of them brings something fresh to the role. But Conroy’s voice work helped to define Batman and Bruce Wayne as separate, individual people.
It’s not just his literal voice that he defined, but the two characters’ unique perspectives and tones. Conroy’s Batman was burdened and tired, but had endless compassion. His Bruce Wayne, meanwhile, was disarmingly smooth in that brown suit and yellow shirt he always wore. Batman and Bruce being different people wasn’t a new idea at that point, but Conroy made it tangible in a way no one else had before. It was such a clear, audible thing that the live-action Batmen to follow would all emulate it. Bale, Affleck, and Pattinson all have Batman voices separate from their Bruce Wayne voices.
Each actor to wear the cape and cowl has brought something to Batman; Pattinson has given us an inexperienced and antisocial Batman who hasn’t yet figured out his quest. Affleck gave us a Dark Knight Returns-style older Batman–a tired but brutal bruiser of a hero. Bale was a perfect Bruce Wayne in a grounded Batman world, and Keaton made Batman reclusive and awkward without making him angry. And West’s Batman just can’t be replicated, and shouldn’t be.
Even the other voice actors each bring something fresh to the role. Diedrich Bader plays Batman in the Harley Quinn series and has done so a half-dozen other times over the years, and he brings a flexibility to the character that no one else does, as he’s able to shift between serious and comedic fluidly. Will Arnett’s gravelly voice was perfect for the LEGO movies.
But Conroy made Batman serious, cool, and mature without ever making him edgy. He was genuine and had tons of heart, right from those earliest episodes of The Animated Series, through Batman Beyond, and into the Batman Arkham games. Batman: The Animated series will cast a long shadow over the character for the rest of his existence. If Batman is still around 50 years from now, those performances will still be compared to the work Conroy did.
There are so many ways to remember Conroy’s immense contributions to Batman history. The Batman Arkham games are available on just about every modern game platform, and Batman: The Animated Series is up on HBO Max. Also on HBO Max is perhaps Conroy’s single best performance as the Dark Knight in Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, a story that digs into Bruce Wayne’s mind and emotions to investigate both characters in a way rarely seen elsewhere.
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