Batman as Shakespeare: Kevin Conroy on why the Dark Knight matters

It’s no shock to see fans at a science fiction convention carrying collectibles, especially when meeting the actors who portray their favorite characters. So last July at Raleigh Supercon, it wasn’t a surprise to see a fan walking away from Celebrity Row with some pretty high-end Batman memorabilia, an elated smile on his face.

So who did he meet? Adam West passed away last year. Was it Ben Affleck? Christian Bale?

No, it was Kevin Conroy, who voices the Dark Knight in the majority of animated depictions, starting with Batman: The Animated Series in 1992 and continuing on through more than 25 movies and TV shows, as well as countless video games.

You may never have heard of Kevin Conroy. In this world of superhero films that star mega-celebrities and cost hundreds of millions of dollars, he doesn’t have the same name recognition as his cinematic counterparts. But for many fans, he is thought of as the “definitive” Batman.

“Isn’t that wonderful?” Conroy smiles proudly. Even in casual conversation, he’s one of those people with a voice that could hold your interest reading the phone book. “I think I have a leg up on a lot of the live action actors because I was the voice of the cartoon, and the cartoon is how a lot of people got introduced to the character. He’s an animated character, and I was the voice associated with that character. So I kind of live in people’s imaginations, and that’s a very intimate place to be.” Another reason he has a leg up? For a lot of people, “I was there first.”

You’d think that he would feel a bit possessive of the character, having played him for so long in so many different forums, but he doesn’t. “I don’t think anybody owns Batman. It thought it was interesting when Warner Bros started the live action movies that they didn’t give the franchise to one actor. Traditionally they would build a franchise around one actor. When they started casting different actors in the role, I thought, ‘That’s really weird.’ But then when I saw how differently each actor approached it, I thought, ‘This is kind of genius, actually.’ Because you see what each of the different actors brings to the role. It’s the same role, but there’s the Keaton fan club, there’s the Clooney fan club, there’s the Ben Affleck fan club, Val Kilmer, Christian Bale… people all have different favorites. So I think no-one owns role. No-one can own it. He’s such an iconic character that everyone’s approach is valid. There’s no wrong way to do it. I have my way of approaching it. I have my little tricks, and I’m sure the other actors do too.”

For Conroy, many of those little tricks come from having perhaps a cleaner slate than some of the other actors who’ve taken on the role. “I came at the role without a lot of preconceptions,” he says. “I didn’t have a lot of background on Batman. My only experience had been the Adam West show from the ’60’s, and when [series creator] Bruce Timm found that out at the auditions, he said, ‘NO NO NO that’s not what we’re doing!!! We love Adam West but that’s not what we’re doing! Erase your memory! Totally the opposite.’”

When you think of animation, you usually think of kids on a Saturday morning. But while the series was indeed aimed at children, Batman: The Animated Series was seriously dark. He says the show creators “kind of had to bring me up to speed on the fact that this was a very noir, dark, serious, tragic story of this child who loses his parents and is reborn as this vigilante.”

In fact, when the series first aired, it was groundbreaking in that rather than starting with white backgrounds and painting in darkness, the animation was created by starting with black backgrounds and painting in anything lighter in a style producers named “dark deco,” befitting its tone.

“It’s a tragedy that has this hero, this anti-hero in it,” Conroy says, “and what’s so much fun for an actor in playing the character is that he’s got so many issues. There’s nothing easy about him. He’s taken on the sins of the world, and he wants to heal the world. He’s so noble, and that’s what especially young people admire about him so much. He’s got such nobility, but it’s not a plastic, sanitized nobility. He’s dark, he’s dirty, he deals with the underworld. He’s complicated. He can’t have personal relationships. There’s nothing easy about him. And people love that about him. Because people have complicated lives. They’ve got issues. Everyone’s got darkness in their lives. People love that he confronts it, he lives in it.”

Just because he confronts that darkness, however, doesn’t mean that he’ll ever really get over it — at least, as long as he continues to be Batman.

“I think that’s what happens in Mask of the Phantasm. He suddenly falls in love. He meets Andrea Beaumont and he realizes that life is really about sharing with someone else, loving someone. And he realizes that in order to do that, he’s got to be released from his vow to his dead parents. And he can’t. He goes to their grave, and he begs them to let him go, and at that moment this flock of bats comes screaming out of the earth and they pull him back down to his fate.”

Conroy sighs, the tragedy still resonating years later. “It’s so Shakespearean. It’s so epic. That’s what I love about the character. He’s a classic, classic hero. A very Shakespearean character.”

It may seem like a stretch to compare a comic book hero to Shakespeare, but that’s a world Kevin Conroy knows well; in fact, Shakespearean theater is where he started, training at Julliard under the legendary actor John Houseman, moving to New York to become an actor at 17, and performing in numerous Shakespeare plays both in regional theater and for Joseph Papp at the prestigious Public Theater. “So when I approached the character [of Batman], that’s where I approached it from,” he says. “because as I said, I didn’t have a lot of comic book background.”

There’s another reason to think of Batman as “Shakespearean”.

“I honestly believe that Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Hawkgirl, the Flash, they’re our society’s mythology,” Conroy explains, growing thoughtful, “the same way that the Greeks and the Romans used Arestes, and Achilles, and Agamemnon, and Clydemnestra to teach good and evil to their children. That’s all the mythological characters were. They were how to teach morality to people. They were all morality tales. We have those same stories now, but they’re called Batman and Superman and Wonder Woman. They’re our mythology, and the way we teach good and evil to our children.”

Conroy is occasionally tempted to sneak a little bit of Batman into Shakespeare (and in fact you can hear a clip of Batman as Romeo here; we couldn’t resist asking).

“He is very Shakespearean. A lot of the scenes are very epic.” He cites the end of Batman: The Killing Joke in particular. “That’s a very Shakespearean scene. The question is, does he kill the Joker, because he’s pushed to the limit. And it’s left hanging. That’s a classic Shakespearean moment.”

Conroy’s latest foray as Batman on TV is in Justice League Action, and the upcoming Lego DC Super Villains video game. So how long will he go on playing the Caped Crusader? “I will keep doing him as long as they ask me to. They don’t always ask me to!” he laughs. “People always ask me, ‘Why weren’t you Batman in that last movie?’ I say ‘Well, nobody asked me to.’ If they ask me, I do it. I love playing him.”