Batman Week: Alfred
If I’m going to ramble on about Batman, I should talk about Batman’s Batman. Without Alfred Pennyworth, Bruce Wayne would be lost and aimless. This holds true in all incarnations of the character.
He’s Come a Long Way, Baby:
Okay, maybe not all incarnations. Alfred began as comic relief in Batman’s stories. Introduced way back in 1943 in Batman #16, Alfred was originally overweight, clean-shaven, and a bumbling wannabe detective. In this case, we can thank the Batman serial films for changing things to the more awesome version of Alfred we see now. Those films depicted Alfred as thin and sporting a mustache. Wanting to match the comics up with the films, DC had Alfred visit a health spa, lose weight, and grow a ‘stache. The modern look of Alfred was born.
Over time, Alfred became known for his dry wit and unflappable loyalty to Bruce Wayne and company. When people started asking how Alfred about Alfred’s background, new stories were crafted that explained his role as a military man and former intelligence operative. Fittingly for Batman’s life, Alfred has become a retired James Bond of sorts – capable even in his old age and able to dress down even the goddamned Batman when he needs to.
Stab him? He’s bothered more about the volume of your yelling:
And afterward, he’ll exploit a new car out of his employer in between barbs about the hospital’s food:
Even in the comedic 1960s TV series, Alfred still retained his awesomeness, successfully foiling the Joker here:
Basically, outside of a few 1940s comics, Alfred has been the servile snarker and secret badass of the Bat-clan.
Alfred in the Dark Knight Trilogy:
Prior to the release of Batman Begins, I had been pretty fond of Michael Gough’s portrayal of the character. He was probably the shining moment of brightness in a series of terrible movies. (1989’s Batman was okay, and I liked Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne, but everything else that Burton and Schumacher contributed to the franchise can go eat a dick.) I was actually pretty upset that Mr. Gough was being cut out of the franchise. Luckily, Michael Caine stepped in and made it apparent what was missing.
One thing that the previous Batman movies of the 1980s and 1990s had neglected to show off in Alfred was his inherent toughness. In those movies, barring an unfortunate incident in Batman & Robin where some idiot decided to turn him into Max Headroom, he was every inch the stereotypical British butler but none of the badass that he had been for decades. Alfred’s the guy who diapered Batman’s bottom. He needs to be just as tough soul-wise as Bruce Wayne.
Alfred’s strength came through very well in Batman Begins, highlighted most by this scene where he braves a burning building to save Bruce Wayne:
Without Alfred there, Bruce would have died in the fire. Without his subsequent words of encouragement, Bruce would have given up and conceded failure, letting Ra’s al Ghul win the day.
In The Dark Knight, Alfred shows off his wisdom and gives some information about his military background. At the same time, he explains the Joker’s motivations to Bruce, who is still in the dark as to how this new criminal works:
Here, Alfred provides Bruce with the insight that he needs to fight a madman like the Joker. Without Alfred in The Dark Knight, Bruce would probably have been convinced that he was after a crook with common criminal motivations rather than the truly dangerous monster he was facing.
One of the arguable failings of The Dark Knight Rises is that Alfred just sort of disappears in the second half of the film due to this falling out with Bruce. This, however, plays well into the most important aspect of the character…
Alfred the Father Figure:
Above all else, Alfred is Bruce’s father. Not his biological father, but the closest thing Bruce will ever have to a real dad. Thomas Wayne’s death effectively stripped away his fatherly qualities, transforming him into an ideal rather than something real. Look at the flashbacks in Batman Begins – he’s effectively an angel, not a real person.
Alfred, by comparison, is the dad Bruce needs. He cares deeply for his surrogate son, but he’ll reign him in when he needs to:
In this scene, Alfred is also guiding Bruce back to the right path as he risks straying from his need to keep Batman as a symbol for Gotham. By reminding him that his quest can’t just be personal, he’s keeping Bruce from being just a vigilante who can be locked away or killed.
Alfred guides Bruce. And when he needs to, as much as it pains him to do so, he fights with him. The Dark Knight Rises features him having a falling out with Bruce as he tries to keep him out of the Batman suit. This turns out to be the wrong course of action on Alfred’s part, as Batman is the only thing that can save Gotham, but it is understandable. As Bruce’s surrogate father, he doesn’t want to see his son destroyed.
Despite Alfred’s absence for most of The Dark Knight Rises, he still has a lot of impact on Bruce’s life – and on the audience. It’s hard not to tear up a little when he apologizes to Bruce’s parents for not keeping him safe. And ultimately, it is by telling Bruce about his hope of seeing him living happily outside of Gotham that we get the happy ending for Batman. Without Alfred’s guidance throughout Bruce’s life, there’s a good chance that the death-seeker in him might have taken over and remained inside the Bat at the end, dying a noble death but ultimately leaving nothing for Bruce Wayne after the Batman is gone. Alfred, like any dutiful parent, wanted to make sure that his child got a happy life. One of the most gratifying moments of this whole trilogy comes when we see Bruce and Selina living happily with no need for Bruce to return to his role as Batman. It’s the type of closure that will never happen in the comics because of the nature of serial fiction, and it’s an ending that is only made possible because of what a good friend, guardian, and father Alfred is.