66 is too young to lose anyone. But there is simply no age at which it would have been acceptable to lose Kevin Conroy.
In the first episode of Batman: the Animated Series, ‘On Leather Wings‘, Kevin Conroy performed three different voices: a blimp pilot, hapless millionaire Bruce Wayne (who has gotten richer over time) and his alter ego, the titular Dark Knight. Two of those individuals may share a body, but they are staunchly different characters. Michael Keaton was credited as the first actor to modify their vocals playing the character in Batman ’89, but Conroy is likely the larger contributor to the ongoing expectation actors bring two vocal takes as his twin-voices from BTAS have never been touched in live action or animation.
Christian Bale snarled. Ben Affleck used a voice modulator. I don’t recall what Val Kilmer or George Clooney did. With Conroy, there was a levity to his Bruce, a confident rumble to his Batman. Nothing gimmicky about either, they just worked. And so did Conroy, for 30 years, voicing the character in 16 television shows, 13 films and 16 video games. By my count, he racked up 277 episodes as the Caped Crusader, a staggering quantity that speaks to his quality.
For two years, I had the pleasure of reviewing his work for The Matt Signal, and time after time, I selected him as the Best Performance in an episode. He would have been my second choice in the majority of the ones he didn’t win outright. When I brought the column to a close, I declared him the best overall voice actor in the show. That was because he didn’t just do two distinct voices, he also acted his ass off, with Mask of the Phantasm likely his magnum opus.
The movie featured a number of flashbacks to before the events of the series, and allowed Conroy to demonstrate his bewildering talents like never before. Fans had been treated to his distinctive interpretation of Bruce Wayne for over a year by the time the film was released in 1993, so were very familiar with it… or so they thought. Conroy injected a hint of youthful exuberance into the pre-Batman scenes, a pang of naiveté that made the character’s moments of heartbreak all the more tragic. The scene in which he tells his parents’ graves that he never counted on being happy is immortal. Conroy added heightened emotion to the present-day sections too, as both Bruce and Batman. He was a damn professional. We’d be here all day if I tried to highlight all of his best episodes.
Having already proven he could make himself sound younger, a few years later Conroy was challenged to age himself up for Batman Beyond, set 40 years in the future and depicting a retired Bruce mentoring a successor, Terry McGinnis. Conroy nailed that too – obviously – reworking Bruce into a crotchety grump pushing 80 who needed a cane to walk in a world filled with flying cars. While his number of lines per episode was slashed drastically for the teen-focused show, whenever he was given a more substantial role in a story he crushed it. For many fans, Beyond’s greatest sin was not throwing the ball to their star player more often.
When thinking of Conroy’s work as Old Man Bruce, two specific episodes come to mind. The first, ‘Out of the Past’, featured some fountain of youth style shenanigans that let ‘Young’(ish) Bruce return and team up with his protégé. Even before that, our beloved hero is in a depressed existential funk after being forced to sit through Batman: The Musical. Conroy played the lead, treating us to his lovely singing voice, as well as giving a deft ‘bad on purpose’ performance, which is much more difficult than a lot of people think.
The second, ‘Epilogue’, was from Justice League Unlimited, and served as an unofficial finale for Beyond. Set ten years after the series, Terry learns that Bruce is his biological father and confronts him about it. Bruce is even older now, even more withered, throwing back a daily regimen of pills, and you guessed it, Kevin Conroy modifies his voice to sound believably older than the already aged-up voice he’d been doing for years. Their exchange is emotionally charged, and potentially some of the controversial Will Friedle’s best work. Friedle remarked on how ‘Out of the Past’ was a real treat for him as he got to see Conroy do the ‘classic’ Batman voice in person.
Speaking of both Conroy’s singing voice and Justice League Unlimited, many fans fondly remember a gloriously ridiculous episode of the show where in order to save Wonder Woman, Batman was forced to sing for a live audience. It was gorgeous. Conroy rarely got the same kind of meat to work with in the various Justice League cartoons and movies that followed BTAS, but little moments like this proved he was always ready when coach wanted to put him in in the game.
It is remarkable to me that Conroy basically never aged out of this role, lending his voice to the phenomenally popular Arkham games in the 2000s, and in fact his final role was 2022’s Multiversus. Warner Bros animation stopped using him as much in the 2010s, and one can only speculate it’s because they felt they needed a younger actor, but on every occasion they did bring him back, it was like he never left. His passion for the role burned bright, often treating convention attendees to monologues from comics that he hoped would be realised as full adaptations.
That passion is another of his defining traits: No other actor that had taken on this iconic role seemed as ecstatic to have done it as him. He was perpetually giddy to talk about it. I can’t fathom how many bespoke short performances he must have given fans and camera crews over the decades, and by all accounts he always did so graciously. Perhaps the most famous of these came from I Know That Voice, a lovely little documentary that aimed to give much-deserved recognition to the key players of the voice acting industry. In it, Conroy tells a charming anecdote about working in a soup kitchen after 9/11, and after some expressed doubt he was Batman, he gave a thundering rendition of the immortal “I am vengeance, I am the night, I am Batman” line.
The disarming smile and eyes that light up as he spoke were very much the norm for Conroy, who seemed to never be in a bad mood. Thousands have already taken to social media to share photos and stories, and I implore you to give them a look if you are able. In an age of dangerous parasocial relationships, there are very few celebrities I feel comfortable fully endorsing, but I am confident Kevin Conroy was a wonderful human being and the world is a slightly worse place without him in it.
For a window into his personal life, check out (the currrently free) ‘Finding Batman’, a story he penned for DC’s 2022 Pride Month, in which he publically came out while recounting his experience playing one of fiction’s most aggressively macho characters.
I feel guilty to have exclusively talked about a single role in the 44 year career of an actor. I have never seen his pre-Batman television work. Nobody has seen Yoga Hosers. But when you give the definitive performance of the world’s most popular superhero, outduelling multiple Academy Award winners, it’s going to define you as well as the character, and as I’ve talked about above, I honestly don’t think he minded.
For an overwhelming majority, whenever they close their eyes and think of Batman, they hear Kevin Conroy’s voice. That will last forever. Kevin Conroy will last forever.