My good friend, boss, and racquetball partner, Stephen Schleicher is a big fan of the Animated Universe that spiraled out of the Batman Animated Series. Specifically, he affirms that Kevin Conroy is the best Batman voice actor ever. And I tend to agree. So what’s the problem, you ask? I believe there are times when you should NOT use the best man for the job.
You may not think about it, but when you watch an episodic animated show you expect the character’s voices to stay the same from episode to episode. It’s a connection that is so simple that we just accept it automatically. This is what Stewie Griffin sounds like, this is what he has always sounded like, and this is what he will sound like next episode. The sound of Stewie’s voice, along with the frantic pattering of his little feet build a mental and emotional bridge between each episode, creating consistency and allowing us to work from expectations so that we don’t have to reassess Stewie each episode.
If you watch cartoons as much as I do, then you have certainly encountered the flipside to this. When, suddenly, without warning, a character’s voice changes. I can think of few entertainment experiences as jarring as the first episode when a new voice actor is brought on board. In the future we might learn to accept and even prefer new Meg, but seeing the same character with a different voice can be a truly sour experience.
I know some of you read through that paragraph and said “Why would he say that? Doesn’t that undermine his argument?” Nah, we’ll get back to this later.
WHEN TO CAST KEVIN CONROY
So when do you cast Kevin Conroy as Batman? Certainly any time that you want to draw a direct connection to Bruce Timm’s (et al.) Animated Justice League universe. It was truly an awesome thing that Conroy and Daly made the jump to the Justice League. But perhaps the best example was Kevin Conroy coming back to play elderly Bruce Wayne for Batman Beyond, creating an unmistakable connection saying “Batman Beyond is the future of the Batman Animated Series.” Boom! Perfect!
So when do you NOT cast Kevin Conroy as Batman? Well, anytime you DON’T want to establish a direct connection to Bruce Timm’s (et al.) Animated Justice League Universe. Does this new animated short feature a character that died in the Justice League Cartoon? Does this new animated movie showcase a different Flash? (say, a Barry Allen over a Wally West). Perhaps most importantly, does this short deal with themes that would have been out of place in the Batman/Superman Adventures? Then bringing in the same voice actors makes that connection confusing. A really poor example of this (well, a good example of this being done poorly) is Batman: Gotham Knight, An animated anthology which is supposed to bridge the gap between Nolan’s Batman Begins and The Dark Knight movies; Starring, you guessed it, Kevin Conroy as Batman. Why? Because Kevin Conroy is THE BEST ANIMATED BATMAN! And although that may be true, all the stuff we’ve already talked about is still there. Conroy’s very distinctive performance automatically forms a bridge in our minds. A bridge that gets in the way of what this anthology is trying to accomplish. Is this tied to the JLU universe? No. Is this tied to the Nolan movies? Yes, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at it, or more importantly, listening to it. Christian Bale and Kevin Conroy play Batman in a drastically different way. It’s not the same Batman, and Gotham Knight loudly reminds us of that while still expecting us to accept that this is tied to the movies.
WHEN TO CAST PETER CULLEN
Ok, let’s get back to building that expectation. Peter Cullen originally voiced Optimus Prime in the 80s and has recently come back to voice him in movies, video games and probably toys that you push a button on and they’re all like “PEW!PEW!AUTOBOTSROLLOUT!” Now, between 1997 and 2007 there had been other actors voicing Optimus Prime but due to the Movies’ success (and retrofeeding nostalgia fetishism) Cullen is now a part of every new and ongoing transformers project. Which, as we’ve said before strengthens the bond between them (and let’s not even go into tonal shifts between the movies and tv shows). So what happens when Peter Cullen retires? There’s a whole generation of fans who will only ever have heard Cullen as Optimus Prime, being too young to have been conscious of his hiatus. Will they reject any other voice actor because every iteration they’ve ever seen has the same voice? Maybe. It’ll certainly stick in their craws in some way, but in an industry where every eyeball on your product equates to dollars, Hasbro’s media division may be setting itself up for failure.
WHEN TO STOP TALKING ABOUT PEOPLE TALKING
In the end I feel this question is one of artistic expression versus short term gains. Does having a popular voice actor draw people to the project? Yes, absolutely. But was that the right choice artistically? The answer will vary depending on who you ask, of course, but I would personally like to see our little piece of the industry driven less by inertia and nostalgia and more by vision and innovation.