Understanding the Character: Alfred

Alfred Pennyworth poster The Dark Knight Rises 201230 Days of Batman

I must admit that upon learning I had been tasked with writing about Alfred, the dutiful yet dull butler, out of all the great characters in the Batman series, I was a little bit peeved. However, having revisited the entire film series as part of our 30 Days of Batman season, it became evident very quickly that I had underestimated the old chap, and that it could be argued that without Alfred, there wouldn’t even be a Batman.

From his very basic characterisation in the original 1966 Batman, to today’s more complex portrayal as part of the Christopher Nolan trilogy, Alfred Thaddeus Crane Pennyworth has come a long way. Over the years he has repeatedly proven his loyalty and dedication to Bruce Wayne, imparting pearls of wisdom to the renowned billionaire that have saved his skin on countless occasions. Without this trustworthy and constant support in his corner, the chances are Batman would never have been able to overcome some of his most dreaded adversaries.

While the films have all been rather sketchy regarding Alfred’s origins, the comic books have given us a better insight into his background. First appearing in Batman #16 (1943) Alfred began life as an overweight bumbling figure, providing comic relief as a counterbalance to Batman’s more serious adventures. However within a year he had slimmed down and morphed into the enduring figure we know today. A former actor and one-time intelligence agent, he stumbled onto Wayne’s secret identity by accident, consequently adding the duties of Batman’s official carer to his already vast list of responsibilities as the Wayne family butler.

Michael Gough as Alfred Pennyworth in Batman Forever 1995 Screen shot

However while Alfred proved popular in the comic books from his inception, it wasn’t until Tim Burton’s 1989 resurrection of the series that he would see his character properly explored on the big screen. Played by BAFTA and Tony winning actor Michael Gough, Alfred was faithfully brought to life. Over his four manifestations of the character Gough not only fitted the grey-haired, stiff-upper-lipped Englishman to a tee, but more importantly conveyed those all-important characteristics of reliability, steadfastness, and intelligence, all with a sly wink of the eye. Throughout the course of the Burton-Schumacher films, Alfred shows himself to be a researcher, healer, confidant, and friend; talk about going above and beyond for your employer!

In Batman (1989), Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne tells Kim Basinger’s Vicki Vale, “Alfred’s great; I couldn’t find my socks without him.” Before later admitting, “Alfred is my family.” Big statements that really cemented the character’s prime position as Batman’s ultimate companion. Furthermore in 1997’s disastrous Batman & Robin, Alfred is given his own subplot, albeit a poorly developed one. It transpires that he is dying of a rare disease called MacGregor’s Syndrome, just as his niece Barbara Wilson (soon to become Bat Girl) shows up at Wayne Manor. Naturally Alfred is cured of his illness before the credits roll, but this marked the first time that the character had been utilised on his own terms, rather than directly linked to Bruce Wayne.

Alfred Pennyworth in comic book form

By 2005 Alfred had undergone another transformation. This time it was double Oscar winner Michael Caine who stepped into the butler’s shoes, and most would agree that he’s done a fantastic job. His portrayal of the character, built on a never-before-seen toughness, really is the finest of them all, mostly because Nolan’s series has added more depth to the character than any previous incarnation. More than ever he is the voice of reason inside Bruce Wayne’s head. “Know your limits, Master Wayne,” he wisely tells his young ward. This Alfred has raised Bruce from childhood, and the love and respect between the two men is evident in every scene. It’s clear to see that he knows Bruce better than anyone else, and would do anything to protect this man who has essentially become the son he never had. In The Dark Knight (2008) Alfred plays an integral part in helping Bruce understand the mind of The Joker, highlighting the notion that a mad man does not necessarily need a reason to do what he does.

Questioned about the role Caine has spoken at length about how he sculpted his own background for the character: “I didn’t want the usual obsequious, bowing, dinner-is-served type of person. I wanted someone extremely tough. So I did a back-story on myself. He was an SAS sergeant, which is a very tough British army unit, got wounded, didn’t want to leave the army, became in charge of the sergeant’s mess in the canteen and therefore he knew how to serve drinks and prepare stuff, which made him attractive to Bruce Wayne’s father. He wanted a very tough butler.”

Michael Caine as Alfred Pennyworth in Batman Begins 2005 screen shot

So what’s next for this unassuming but integral character? Knowing how much Alfred means to Wayne, could we see him used as bait in some sort of villainous escapade? Or perhaps those former SAS skills will be put to the test, and Alfred will be forced into the action? If Nolan revisits the original comics for inspiration there’s a mine of potential stories available; at one point he was killed by a falling boulder before being resurrected as a villainous telekinetic called The Outsider who vowed to kill Batman!

Whatever Nolan has in store for the character in the forthcoming The Dark Knight Rises the fact remains that while villains, sidekicks and love interests have come and gone from Bruce Wayne’s life, the one constant presence has always been the selfless and downright legendary Alfred.