Growing up, I spent almost every summer at my grandparents’ house. It was heaven. There was no stress, no expectations, and most importantly, no school.
I look back on those summers with great fondness and nostalgia. Spending those few precious months a year with grandpa—a quiet yet opinionated Arkansasian—contributed heavily to my worldview and general outlook on life.
Part of my summer experience was watching my favorite TV shows. When my little brother was old enough, we started watching Dragon Ball Z. And when my grandpa started watching more TV with me, we would watch reruns of syndicated adult dramas, such as ER.
But before all that, when I was just a young warthog, the zenith of the television-watching day was Batman: The Animated Series.
If memory serves me correctly, the WB carried that show in the 4:30 time slot, right before everything became news-related. I remember not wanting to miss the show, so I would plant myself in front of the TV during the 4:00–4:30 time slot, and I’d suffer through Pinky and the Brain (or, later, Animaniacs).
I didn’t know it at the time, but years later, I think what made this Batman so great wasn’t the excellent storylines, nor the vocal talents of Kevin Conroy or Mark Hamill—though both of those factors no doubt helped the show stand out.
Instead, what made this adaptation the best was that it flipped the previous small screen / big screen Batman paradigm. This wasn’t the story of how millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne disguises himself as Batman to fight crime, it was the story of how Batman disguises himself as Bruce Wayne in order to fit in.
It’s a concept with which most of us can relate: an outward-facing [faker] persona, and an inward-facing [truer] one.
For some people, there’s no difference in what they portray outwardly and what they hold close to their heart. Those folks exist on a level that I’ve never been able to achieve. See, deep down, I don’t much enjoy interacting with other people, and would rather be by myself generally speaking. (But I have to be gregarious for work and most away-from-home life situations, so I do it and do it well. I just don’t do it when I don’t have to.)
For most people, though, Conroy’s Bruce Wayne / Batman is a familiar concept. Oftentimes, our fear of being perceived as different holds us back. We don’t want to share our true selves, for fear that we won’t be accepted. So what do we do? We create a version of ourselves that we think will be more acceptable to society.
Thankfully, most of us eventually develop thick-enough skin as to not care about what other people think. But those unsaid societal lessons about behavior and perception are ingrained in us, and even as fully confident and realized adults, our instincts mostly tell us to be the persona when placed in an uncomfortable situation.
This is why Conroy’s Batman is so relatable.
He voiced Batman / Bruce Wayne for the entirety of the series, as well as several movie spinoffs set in the same universe. He has played Batman more times than anyone else.
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. That’s when he’s his most comfortable; he’s at his most naked, most emotionally raw when he’s in the bat cave alone. When he goes out to Wayne Technologies. [He] faces the world and puts on a suit – that’s the performance.
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. It makes it less of an artifice. It just makes it ring true. So that it’s not just putting on this odd costume and pretending you’re someone you’re not.
The character of the Bat evolves out of the loss of his parents as a child and the trauma that induced. He’s never resolved that pain in his life, and he spends his life avenging their deaths. The Bat is the persona he has gone into to accomplish that.
That Bruce Wayne is the disguise (and not Batman) is a theme not often addressed in most of the other Batman interpretations. Most egregiously are those that took place on the big screen.
Consider Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Nolan’s take on Frank Miller’s dark and troubled Batman of the '80s is arguably the best big screen Batman we’ve had. And yet, Christian Bale’s “darkening” of Batman’s voice was a complete joke. Bale’s portrayal of Batman stands in stark contrast to Conroy’s: Bale’s Batman is the disguise. He has to make his voice more raspy when in the Batsuit. Bruce Wayne is his normal, with a normal voice.
If we look back even further, to the Tim Burton movies, the truest depiction of the Bruce Wayne / Batman paradigm comes from Val Kilmer. And that’s only because Kilmer seems so naturally stoic on film, and said stoicism translates well into the man-of-few-words Batman that Conroy gives us. We can catch a little of the whole Bruce Wayne is the disguise premise, but it’s subtle at best. And the rest of the Burton Batman are just as backwards as the Nolan Batman.
Most recently: the Dawn of Justice Batman, portrayed by Ben Affleck. This Bruce Wayne / Batman portrayal suffers because it has Affleck taking cues from Christian Bale’s Batman and his terrible voice affectations. Again, Batman is the disguise.
If you fancy the Bruce Wayne is the disguise theory, Conroy’s portrayal is the only consistently accurate one that matters, and that’s because most of us can relate to this Batman more than any other.
Much of this analysis of Kevin Conroy’s Batman could only exist from my current adult point of view. As a kid watching Batman on TV, none of this theory that Bruce Wayne is the disguise ever occurred to me. But I’d like to think that the pieces were all there, and it just takes growing up for the puzzle to come together: when Bruce Wayne is seen on screen, his voice is lighter. It sounds more chipper, more personable. But as soon as Bruce Wayne gets back to the Batcave, his voice reverts to normal. The Batman voice is his normal voice, because Batman is his normal.
It’s okay to have a persona. It’s as good of a societal defense mechanism as any. Hopefully, as we get older, this defense mechanism becomes less necessary. But in case it doesn’t, there’s always this: even Batman needs a disguise.