Why I love Kevin Conroy’s performance in Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

The voice actor brought his life experience to the role of the Caped Crusader, and in the process gave us a batman for the ages.


Kevin Bui

If your ears have ever been blessed by the voice of the late Kevin Conroy – perhaps through any of the countless animated shows, direct-to-video films and video game franchises in which the actor played Batman over the last three decades – you’d quickly be able to recognise that deep, soulful tone of his. For a first-time listener, it’d be easy to mistake the actor’s voice for that of a jazz crooner tucked away in an underground speakeasy rather than a frequent face on the comic convention loop. But for many other people around the world, the mere whisper of his words connotes a whole flurry of emotions, one that evokes both an elusive magnetism and an irreparable sense of grief that have become hallmarks of the Dark Knight character ever since.

When Batman: The Animated Series first premiered, there was little indication the show would introduce what is widely regarded today as the definitive take on the hero. Up until that point, the character’s perception in the public eye was at the mercy of its live-action adaptations; first with the campy, tongue-in-cheek 60’s series led by Adam West and then later with Tim Burton’s 1989 eponymous blockbuster starring Michael Keaton. It wasn’t until Conroy’s voice first graced the airwaves in the autumn of 1992 (in an after-school children’s show no less) that television audiences would first familiarise themselves with the character’s inherently mature themes, raising the mainstream profile of both men substantially in the process.

As is the case with any iteration of the iconic hero, the animated series’ success hinged on the performer who would end up portraying the Caped Crusader throughout the show’s three-year run. The honour would ultimately go to Conroy, a Juilliard-trained theatre actor who had primarily done guest spots on sitcoms and soap operas before being cast as Batman. The thespian approached the role as an “archetypal hero” in the same way he would playing Hamlet during his days at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. In addition to the rave reactions Conroy’s performance received, the animated show would quickly prove to be both a critical and commercial juggernaut; its rapid success led to 1993’s Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, a theatrically released feature film that contains the actor’s finest hour as the character.

The film, rolled out on Christmas Day 30 years ago, is told in a bifurcated structure that switches between past and present, with its dramatic tension centred around Bruce Wayne’s inner conflict between settling down and living the life his parents envisioned for him or continuing his mission of justice as Batman. The last time Bruce saw Andrea Beaumont, a childhood friend and a fellow member of Gotham high society, she left him heartbroken by walking out on his marriage proposal – a deeply emotional scarring that would finally propel him to commit to his heroic mantle. Ten years later, Andrea strolls back into town looking to settle some family business once and for all. On the same night, a new masked vigilante called the Phantasm begins to haunt the streets of Gotham, murdering a local crime boss and framing Batman in the process.

Mask of the Phantasm’s twin narratives allow Conroy to flex his talents across the character’s two distinct personas, anchoring one of the most heartbreaking renditions of the hero’s origin with his wrenching vocal performance. “I’ve always thought Batman was the real character, and Bruce Wayne was the disguise,” the actor explains on a featurette that accompanies the recently released 4K remaster of the film, “for Bruce, he has to play the society scene…he’s the bachelor in town.” It’s an approach that’s evident in the flashbacks we see of Bruce and Andrea’s courtship, Conroy deploying a bouncier, more energised tone to signify the lifted emotions of Wayne in the days before his descent into obsessive vigilantism.

While the film’s two storylines are initially presented as separate strands, one following Bruce in distant memories and the other shadowing Batman in the current day as he tracks down the Phantasm, it quickly becomes apparent to The World’s Greatest Detective just how intertwined these events truly are. As Batman works to uncover the identity of the Phantasm and clear his name in the present, Conroy’s voice switches to a noticeably lower register, not quite to the same degree as some of his gruntier live-action counterparts, but coarse enough to audibly signify his character’s inner anguish. In the film’s most devastating scene, a lovesick and internally conflicted Bruce Wayne visits his parents’ grave, tearfully confessing his doubts about his quest for vengeance. “That scene at the grave was [when] I realised fully that you can’t fake Batman,” Conroy recounts in a 2017 oral history. “You can’t just make a deep, husky sound with your voice. You have to base it in the pain of his childhood each time or it doesn’t sound right.”

Bruce’s traumatic youth would become a point of return for Conroy’s many performances as the character, the actor utilising his own experiences as a gay man to better convey the struggle of someone leading two very different lives. “I often marvelled at how appropriate it was that I should land this role”, the actor details in an autobiographical comic released by DC just before his death. “As a gay boy growing up in the 1950s and 60s in a devoutly Catholic family, I’d grown adept at concealing parts of myself. Of putting aspects of myself in a separate box and locking it away.”

Despite the self-admitted similarities between him and his most famous character, Kevin Conroy and Bruce Wayne possess two entirely different relationships to their iconic legacies. Mask of the Phantasm ends with Batman doomed to roam the streets of Gotham forever, his one chance at happiness slipping away as she sails out of the harbour for the very last time, condemning the hero to a life of suffering in the shadows.

It’s a strikingly bleak contrast when compared to Conroy’s own connection with the role – an honour bestowed on the actor that he seemingly never grew tired of up until his final days in the recording booth. If the Bat Signal serves as a constant reminder of Batman’s omnipotent presence perched high on the rooftops above, Conroy’s many outings as the character likewise allow him to live on in the minds of audiences forever, that bellowing voice of his echoing from our screens for the rest of eternity.

Published 22 Dec 2023

Tags: Batman Batman: Mask of the Phantasm Kevin Conroy

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