Monday, November 14, 2022

The Best Batman

Let me be transparent here: On this platform I've called Batman a Mary-Sue, uninteresting, and an example of toxic masculinity. And I still defend each of these positions, but I do have a blind spot in my Batman critique: 

Kevin Conroy. 

Every complaint I've ever had about Batman disintegrate in Conroy's portrayal. His recent passing has called me to reflect on the times he's portrayed the Dark Knight and how his performances over the years has shaped the character into something that is still worth championing for and why despite my own opinions he is still, in my eyes, a hero. 

Spoilers for a whole mess of Batman stuff. 

Batman: The Animated Series (BTAS)

BTAS was the first introduction to Batman for 90's kids (Unless your parents were cool like mine and let you watch the Michael Keaton ones). Painted on a black background, fighting a Joker voiced by Mark Hamill, Conroy gave us a human portrayal of Batman that was ahead of its time for children's cartoons. Here we got a Batman who could also be the millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne, one who felt things more than righteous anger, including fear and mourning. 

Two pieces stand out here: One was when he was doused with Scarecrow gas and was in a hallucination that his parents survived, and that he was not Batman. There's fear echoing in his voice as he quickly realizes that it's not real and fights to escape back to reality, despite knowing he'd be giving up a dream life he always wanted and deserved. It echoed an episode in Justice League: United when under the influence of the Black Mercy Superman had to make a similar decision. We get an example of Batman being in a situation where he has to fight with his mind rather than his skills, and how much it hurts to see everything he's going to lose. 

The second is the official appearance of Two-Face. Harvey Dent, the district attorney destined to lose half his face, was friends with Bruce Wayne in multiple episodes before he became the villain, including nearly being killed by Poison Ivy (He's still not over that one). Here Batman has a dream about letting Harvey down, and his parents being disappointed in him for failing to save his friend like he failed to save them. There's a humanity in Batman's voice that we rarely get, a vulnerability that reveals more about why he does it than a thousand "I am the night!" quotes ever could. 

Justice League/Unlimited

In the Animated Series spin-offs, Justice League and Justice League: Unlimited, Batman wasn't alone as he teamed up with six other great heroes. Conroy did not let the others overshadow the Bat though as he held his own with the booming bombastic action the show offered. 

In the Justice League cartoons, Batman was frequently the butt of multiple jokes about his inability to fly, not have powers and that he was a millionaire, all of which he had to grimace at and move on. He would occasionally quip back though, giving us another side to Batman we rarely see: a sense of humor. This is demonstrated perfectly in the Injustice Gang episodes where Batman is captured by the gang of villains, secured in a metal straight jacket, and kept under constant guard. Batman manages to manipulate each of his captors into turning on the others, sometimes with an inflection of his voice showing sympathy, and even seducing Cheetah (What is with him and cat-themed villains? It's like Cyclops and psychics). Under Joker's watch though he decides to make his move, giving them the slip and catching Joker by surprise, saying that he could've gotten out at any time but that "Someone needed to keep an eye on them". He also gets what is probably the funniest gag in the episode when he reveals that he paid the Ultra-Humanite to switch sides, demonstrating that yes, being rich is a super power. 

Now I would love to go over the Ultimate episode where he sat with Ace until she passed away, but the other scene I want to talk about is from the aforementioned episode where Superman was entranced by the Black Mercy, an alien plant that shows you your greatest paradise while it slowly saps the life out of you. Superman manages to lose it only for it to entangle itself around Batman, where we see that his ultimate dream is simple: He's back in the alley with his parents but his dad is beating the crap out of the mugger. The sequence itself has no Conroy, but it's after where the real hit comes. After he gets freed from the plant with the help of Wonder Woman and its used to imprison the villain that brought the thing to earth in the first place, Superman wonders what visions the plant is showing him, to which Batman replies "Whatever it is, it's too good for him.". The line delivery there is everything. It's barely restrained rage, its pain at having just found and lost everything all over again, it's knowing that this is the person responsible. In an already emotional episode, it's the perfect encapsulation of everything that's happened in one sentence. 

Batman Beyond brought us a different version of Bruce Wayne most audiences weren't familiar with: Old Bruce Wayne. Shown in comics like The Dark Knight Returns and Kingdom Come, this is a Batman who has lost his crusade. Because he's only human, the years of fighting took their toll on Batman and at one point, after a heart attack mid-battle, he had to retire. Crime continued to happen in his absence without him being able to lift a finger to do anything about it, and he became a sad old man in his mansion, not even having the energy to stay on the board of Wayne Enterprises. He finds purpose in the new Batman, Terry McGuinness, who he trains and mentors, thus accepting that while Bruce Wayne may die, his legacy will live on. 

The episode that exemplifies Conroy's chops best is one where Bruce is dipped into the legendary Lazarus pit, bringing him nearly back to his peak performance. Conroy goes from an older and jaded Bruce to a younger and hopeful one effortlessly, and you can hear the difficulty in his voice as he has to choose to return to being old again knowing what the cost of the pit would be if he wanted to keep using it. 

The Arkham video game series gave audiences what they'd always wanted: A more serious, darker Batman voiced by Conroy with some of the same emotional beats he had in the show. Here Batman gets to swear as he beats up the villains of Gotham City, but his emotional moments are all the more highlighted as the games could bring across the true darkness of his past and present in all the horrifying detail they could. 

Highlights for me include Batman being gassed by Scarecrow (Common theme here, Batman should think about hiring Scarecrow as his therapist) and having to relive his parents murder. The emotion that Conroy pours into his voice as his adult self transforms into his childhood version shows that deep inside Batman is just a scared little boy trying to save his parents. The second big highlight is during the finale of Arkham City where he pleads with the Joker to let him help him cure the mutation he's dying from, but instead Joker being Joker fights Batman and breaks the cure, and Batman has to watch this man die. You'd think this would be a triumphant moment, but it means that the Joker will never be brought to justice for the people he's killed and can never be redeemed, emphasizing the futility of Batman's mission. Batman says goodbye to him with this sadness, not over losing a friend but from watching any hope for this person die with them. 

Loss of a Legend

While a lot of the things I loved above can be equally credited to writing staff, animators and video game designers, I argue that the voice actors don't get enough credit for the jobs they do. Conroy was a better Batman than any other because he could portray fear and sadness right along with the anger we usually see Batman express (it’s a shame we only got to see him in live action once, during a subpar Arrowverse crossover). We had over 30 years of time with Conroy as Batman, and we were blessed to see how Batman should be done: As a well rounded character with flaws that we can connect to. 

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