As one of the most iconic superheroes ever to make the jump from page to screen, it's no secret that DC's Batman has been at the forefront of popular hero culture over the past few decades. A character hailing all the way back to the Golden Age of comics, Bruce Wayne made his debut nearly 80 years ago and his popularity is holding stronger than ever today.
Ben Affleck is the newest actor to take up the mantle of the Caped Crusader as part of the DC Extended Universe — DC and Warner's first proper crack at building a shared narrative universe in the style of DC and Marvel comics. And, despite mixed reactions to his debut movie, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, his older, darker Batman has been generally well received so far.
But though Affleck is the current live-action Batman, perhaps no other is as iconic a Dark Knight as Kevin Conroy, who has voiced the Caped Crusader for nearly a quarter of a century across various media.
For Many Fans, Kevin Conroy IS Batman
Conroy made his Batman debut alongside Mark Hamill's Joker in 1992's Batman: The Animated Series. He's since become synonymous with the character to the point of inseparability, going on to voice Batman across movies, video games, shorts, commercials and numerous animated series — still going strong today with the recently released graphic novel adaptation Batman: The Killing Joke.
And, like many others, Conroy recently expressed a dislike for Batman v Superman and the way Batman in particular was handled. His main gripe? A firm belief in the fact that Batman doesn't kill. As he told IGN:
"Personally I love the fact that Batman – in the stories I’ve done, and the way he’s been rendered by Bruce Timm and Paul Dini, the people I’ve worked with most closely – he never kills anybody. He doesn’t cross that line. Batman is not a killer."
So — aside from not mowing down people with Batmobile machine guns — for Conroy, what does a true Batman make? Here's the advice from the man behind the mask for how to truly play the Dark Knight.
1. Understand The Alter Ego
The concept of the alter ego is a long-standing staple of the superhero genre, with the psyche being split into two — the superhero and the mild mannered "normal" alter ego. Typically the hero origin begins with an event that leads the "normal" person to put on a mask and become someone else, but for Conroy, Batman's cowl is not his mask.
"Well, the key to playing Batman for me has been the fact the persona of the Bat – the character of the Bat, the putting on of the mask – is not the performance. The performance is Bruce Wayne. The real essence of the man is Batman."
"Bruce Wayne is the performance element. That’s always been my key to the character, and I think when you play it that way it makes the Batman so authentic."
This is a statement that certainly can be applied to many characters in the DC Universe, but Batman is perhaps the most prevalent of these.
While characters typically have other interests and those they are close to outside their superhero persona, Batman doesn't. And even when he does become close to someone they are typically people whom he becomes close to as Batman, not Bruce Wayne — the Batman Family, or two of his great loves, Talia al Ghul and Catwoman for example.
For all intents and purposes, Bruce is a fiction. Batman is the real core of the man — created in a dark alley one fateful night, many years before.
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2. Batman Is For Everyone
While Conroy might have been critical of the DCEU's version of Batman, he is in no way opposed to the fact that the character still has a measure of interpretation to him. And don't worry, he likes Affleck's version of Batman too — just not the killing part.
"I love the fact that Warner Brothers have for the live-action Batman changed the casting so frequently. I think it’s really interesting to see different actors in the role, to see what they bring to the character. Everyone brings something different."
"And there have been so many actors that have been wonderful. I liked Michael Keaton and I like what Ben Affleck is doing with it now. But they couldn’t be more different."
Because he's such a well loved superhero, and because everyone has subtly different outlooks on life and action, everyone who comes to embody the character — from Adam West to Ben Affleck — brings something new to Batman, a previously unearthed facet of his personality.
There is no one definitive way to play Batman. For Conroy, that's a big part of what makes the character so inspiring, and why so many are drawn to him.
3. Embrace The Darkness
Having played the Caped Crusader for nearly 25 years now, Conroy says his major challenge is not keeping up with how the character has evolved but keeping it fresh for the long-time fans.
"The thing I’ve discovered is the audience for Batman is the most loyal and the most passionate you’re going to find for any franchise. They know everything about the character. They understand him."
To understand how to move with the times, you have to understand what makes Batman so interesting, and Conroy describes him as "a psychological portrait."
Indeed there has been much made of how Batman embodies psychological traits, especially when it comes to defining how childhood trauma shapes personality traits later in life (seriously, there's even been a book written about it).
"[Batman is] almost this anti-hero; he has this darkness about him, and people really relate to that. They relate to his flawed character. There’s an ownership the audience feels about the character, and once I established that voice 25 years ago, the obligation I had was not to deviate and keep it consistent. If I ever lied, or if I ever phoned it in, they would be all over me."
4. A Bat Of Few Words
Darkness is where the Batman hides, but he also finds his home in silence. You've probably noticed that most iterations of the Dark Knight across the comics and in live-action haven't been the chattiest bunch, especially when they're behind the cowl.
"Batman is a man of few words. So when you’re the voice actor doing the role you really have very few opportunities to sketch the character. Because most of it is action. He’s the strong silent type. There aren’t a lot of moments where he expresses his emotions. So you have to learn to nuance the few lines you have to flesh out the character."
Indeed, Christian Bale's Batman coated each word with enough growl that we got a sore throat just listening, you certainly get the idea that merely speaking is an effort for him. But because he's the archetypal "strong silent type," that makes the moments when we do see a crack in the cowl all that more meaningful.
One of my personal favorites from the comics (shown above) occurs during Hush, when Batman comes closer than ever before to beating the Joker to death, believing that the clown has just killed his childhood friend, Tommy Elliot. We're treated to a long inner monologue as Batman finally gives into the anger and pain that came when Joker crippled Barbara Gordon/Batgirl and murdered Jason Todd/Robin. It's an emotional moment, made even more sobering by the fact that it's an unusual one.
5. Justice For All
And now the rub. How do you place a character like this — the lone wolf — alongside a group of others such as, say, the Justice League?
"Well the challenge, and there is a real challenge in it…. Then you translate that into an episode where you have seven leading characters and you’re sharing the stage with seven other people. In 'Justice League', there are often episodes where I’ll have four or five lines, where in 'Batman: The Animated Series' I was used to having the entire script to create a portrait of the character. When you only have a few lines it’s much more difficult."
Conroy has voiced Batman both as a leading man and as a side character or member of a group. Balancing the dynamic he has with the rest of the League can be tricky, and this is the challenge now facing Ben Affleck's Batman as we move forward into the ensemble Justice League — Part One piece of the DCEU.
For Conroy, it all comes down to knowing who Batman is. Instead of trying to over-act with the piece of the shared material he's given, he places his faith in his own 24-year spanning knowledge of the character.
"If you just inhabit him, and speak truthfully, it will resonate with the audience. But it is harder to do because the temptation is push it when you’re sharing the stage with lots of other actors."
It helps of course that Batman is so well established in popular culture that even the casual viewer will likely have at least a base idea of the character and how he relates to his environment. And as Conroy pointed out, the Batman audience is one of the most passionate in DC Comics history. At the end of the day, as Legends of the Knight taught us, "We are Batman."
What do you think makes Batman, Batman? Tell us your thoughts in the comments, and check out our facemerge of every live-action Batman actor below!
Source: Kevin Conroy interview with IGN