Superhero movies and comic book-related TV shows are virtually unavoidable today. This was not the case in the 1990s, yet this era produced one of the all-time greats in the long history of superhero adaptations: Batman: The Animated Series.
It only ran for two seasons on Fox Kids, but because of the superior quality of the series, it left a decisive imprint on the superhero genre and upon even non-superhero fans such as myself who were drawn to the show growing up. Batman: The Animated Series was significantly more artistic than almost any superhero adaptation that the comics universe had seen before or since. It used visual styles and design motifs from art deco, gothic art, and film noir, contained film references to classics such as Metropolis and Citizen Kane, and featured comic book characters who were moodier and more multidimensional than the monochromatic heroes and villains of the typical superhero fare. Its list of prominent cast members reads like an ensemble of a feature film — Mark Hamill, Ed Asner, Ron Perlman, Roddy McDowall, and Michael York. Perhaps most critical to the show’s success, however, was its casting of Kevin Conroy in the role of Batman and Bruce Wayne.
Conroy, who died on Nov. 10 in Manhattan at the age of 66, lent the superhero a deeper, raspier voice than the previous Batman actors, including Adam West and Michael Keaton, had given him. Conroy’s gravelly Batman perfectly matched the tone and feel of this complex, multilayered Batman; his was the kind of Batman who, when Robin suggests watching It’s a Wonderful Life on Christmas, replies, “I’ve never seen that. I could never get past the title.” Conroy’s Batman paved the way for Christian Bale’s even darker and raspier versions of the character in Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008). While Bale’s voice sounded forced, as if he was either talking while weightlifting or speaking through a kind of Darth Vader-like mask, Conroy’s sounded completely natural. It was as if he was born for the part. In some ways, he was.
Born in Westbury, New York, in 1955, about fifteen years after the debut of the first Batman comic and at about the time when the comic series was entering its “silver age,” Conroy studied acting at the Juilliard School in New York; among his classmates was the eventual face of Superman on film, fellow New York native Christopher Reeve. Conroy, who roomed for a time with Robin Williams, had been enjoying a solid and steady early acting career, appearing in TV shows such as Dynasty, Tour of Duty, and Ohara, as well as in one-off guest spots on Matlock, Cheers, and Murphy Brown. But it wasn’t until he won the role of Batman for an animated series based on the comic set to appear on the Fox Kids network, beating out over 500 others for the part, that he received the role that would define his career. Even more impressively, though, was the way that Conroy’s now-fabled Batman voice defined the legendary DC character. In spite of the short run that Batman: The Animated Series had on Fox Kids, Conroy’s Batman voice had left its mark on the character and on fans. He was asked to portray Batman in so many later adaptations of the comic that by 2019, he had become the actor that had played Batman more times than any other man in the history of the comic.
The idea to lend Batman a different, huskier-sounding voice was his own, Conroy told reporters in 2017. “Early on, I said, ‘This is the most famous and powerful guy in Gotham. Are you telling me he just puts on a mask and no one knows it’s him? Seriously? There’s got to be more to the disguise.’ My template for the two voices was the 1930s film The Scarlet Pimpernel. I played Bruce Wayne as sort of a humorous playboy to counteract the brooding nature of Batman.”
Upon his death, Warner Brothers released a statement that surely resonates with anyone who grew up with Batman: The Animated Series or who loves the comic book genre, and Batman in particular: “Warner Bros. Animation is saddened by the loss of our dear friend Kevin Conroy. His iconic performance of Batman will forever stand among the greatest portrayals of the Dark Knight in any medium.”
Daniel Ross Goodman is a Washington Examiner contributing writer and the author, most recently, of Somewhere Over the Rainbow: Wonder and Religion in American Cinema.