Chaos Theater Redux: Kevin Conroy

CT Redux: Kevin Conroy header
CT Redux: Kevin Conroy header

Chaos Theater Redux is a Features series that follows up on topics previously discussed during the podcast’s 2011-2017 run. This installment is a double feature with commentary from both Chris Guanche and Pedro Cortes.

Chris’ commentary

I’d meant to write this a few months ago, but other projects got in the way. When Kevin Conroy died on Nov. 10, 2022, it was another case of a brilliant actor gone too soon. I could say the same most recently for Lance Reddick of The Wire, Fringe and John Wick fame.

Conroy achieved something that I don’t think anyone could have foreseen in 1992 – he redefined the voice of Batman and Bruce Wayne, forever becoming the standard to be judged against. Although he got his start with the character in Batman: The Animated Series and reprised it in subsequent DCAU titles, he was also tied to the character through multiple non-DCAU animated movies and Rocksteady’s Arkham game trilogy. Like many other fans, whenever I read a Batman comic, the voice I hear in my head acting out those lines is Conroy’s. It’s been that way for 30 years and I don’t expect it will ever change.

What Conroy brought to the role was a humanity that you could see both in Bruce Wayne and the Dark Knight. I think one of Conroy’s best moments is in the 1993 film Mask of the Phantasm, which chronicles Batman’s DCAU origin story. In one scene, Bruce visits his parents’ grave and tries to sound out a justification for not becoming Batman because he’s fallen in love with Andrea Beaumont. Bruce declares: “I didn’t see this coming. I didn’t count on being happy.” It’s one of the most human and heartbreaking Batman moments ever captured on film – and it didn’t even happen in live action.

It’s not uncommon to see the Internet meme that Batman is just a sicko who enjoys punching mentally ill homeless people, and maybe that’s true if you’re Frank Miller. But Conroy helped bring to life a Batman who showed compassion for his adversaries. He showed us a Batman who never gave up on his friend Harvey Dent, even as he was lost more and more in the twisted persona of Two-Face. In the episode “Harley’s Holiday,” Batman goes out of his way to stop a paroled Harley Quinn from spiraling back into criminality after a misunderstanding occurs. After finally being captured, she asks Batman why he went through so much trouble for her when she’s only ever been a nuisance to him. His answer: “I know what it’s like to try and rebuild a life. I had a bad day too, once.” In the episode “Lock Up,” Batman confronts the villain of the same name, a former head of security at Arkham Asylum who has become a brutal vigilante who excessively punishes villains. In the climactic confrontation, Lock Up tells Batman that they could’ve been a great team who captured villains and ensured they were locked away forever. Batman rejects Lock Up’s vision of justice, saying: “I’ve seen how you treat your prisoners…forgotten and scared, without hope or compassion.”

What we didn’t know until much later in Conroy’s life was that he channeled that humanity, that sorrow and compassion, from his own personal pain. Conroy wrote the “Finding Batman” story for the DC Pride 2022 anthology, which detailed the rampant homophobia he experienced as a gay man. The story ended with Conroy auditioning for Batman: The Animated Series and being told by the creative team that the character wore a mask of confidence to the outside world while hiding the pain he felt from seeing his parents murdered. They asked Conroy if he could relate to that. In the final panel, Conroy wrote: “It seemed to roar from thirty years of frustration, confusion, denial, love, yearning… Yearning for what? An anchor, a harbor, a sense of safety, a sense of identity. Yes, I can relate. Yes, this is terrain I know well. I felt Batman rising deep from within.”

Through his pain, Conroy gave the world a complex, nuanced portrayal of one of the most famous fictional characters ever created. His Batman became a voice of hope for many, including famously in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when Conroy was volunteering by feeding first responders and someone recognized his voice. I only ever met Conroy once at a local convention, but he was exactly as warm, friendly, and fascinating as you’ve ever seen in any interview that he gave. For the rest of my life (and probably long after), Kevin Conroy will be the measuring stick against which all future Batmen are judged. That’s not at all a bad legacy.

Pedro’s commentary

For me, there has only ever been one Batman.

Yeah, Michael Keaton was technically the first and the subsequent live action versions have embodied various platonic ideals, but none of them could ever tap into what Kevin Conroy was able to so effortlessly achieve. He brought humanity to a character that, over time, has nearly become a meme of how ridiculous cape books could be.

Just think about the Arkham games. By their (admittedly sweet) dark and gothic designs, that version of Bats should have been overbearing and closer to the ridiculous over-the-top version that appears in The Dark Knight Returns. Yet, Conroy took the obvious gravitas and added the depth that he was famous for in The Animated Series. More than any other actor that has taken the role, he’s the only one that’s been consistently able to some of the weirdest shit and make it sound believable.

I’ve seen Conroy twice at conventions, and I think the story of him showing up at Kevin Smith and Ralph Garman’s Hollywood Babble-On podcast is what I’ll remember most. The show started late because Smith is always late and this was San Diego Comic-Con. This just gave us more time to get some drinks and get settled for when the hosts showed up. After doing their shtick and marrying a couple in the audience, they announced they had a guest and brought Conroy out. He was supporting a charity that I can’t remember at the moment, but Smith asked him to say something along the lines of, “Welcome to Hollywood fucking Babble-On,” and he did with relish. Smith cracked up and delighted in getting Batman to say fuck and the whole time, Conroy was having a blast. I don’t know what his personal feelings were toward what was the role the likely defined his career, but at that moment I could tell it brought him great joy, and it felt nice to see that as much joy as it brought a whole of audience of drunk stoners, it also made him happy.

I think there’s this interesting generational line, where there are the people that at the very least have seen The Animated Series and the other side has not. Maybe they weren’t old enough to watch it, or they don’t want to go back and watch older cartoons, or it’s just slipped them by. What I have notice is that the group that hasn’t watched Conroy’s performance on TAS typically thinks of Bruce as this borderline psychopath, a rich man taking out his fantasy of beating up the poor and doing nothing to actually help Gotham. And honestly, there’s a lot of popular Batman media to support this.

The live action movies haven’t done much to move that needle. The famous runs of Batman either lean on that violence (looking at you, Miller) or focus on the history of the character to the detriment of what makes him human (Morrison, you better raise that hand). But if you have taken the time to watch the old show and listen to the nuance that Conroy brought, the compassion, the yearning to help, I don’t think the violence is the first thing that would pop up. You’d remember Bruce trying to help Victor Fries not succumb to his sorrow and hurt others. You’d think of Bruce trying to give Harley a chance at a normal life and prevent her from making a mistake. You’d think of Bruce staying with an omnipotent girl as she dies, putting himself in danger so she wouldn’t die alone. You’d think of Conroy’s baritone, telling you it’s going to be alright. That at the worst moment of your life, Batman is there to help.

And I can’t think of a better way to be remembered: as the ultimate human hero, who knew what the worst the world could deal out, and would do what he could to make it better.


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