How Alfred Is Totally Useless in 'The Dark Knight'
Alfred Pennyworth; Batman's most trusted confidant who still has to cook, clean, and launder his soiled underpants. In his over 80-year history, Batman's faithful butler has had many incarnations ranging from a doddering old man, to a TV's newest horny young superspy. One of the most memorable Alfreds of recent years can be found in Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, featuring the legendary Michael Caine as comics' greatest manservant. Caine's Alfred is warm, nuanced, and in retrospect, surprisingly unhelpful.
Throughout the series, Alfred weirdly ping-pongs between aiding Bruce Wayne and throwing shade at nearly all of his life choices. In Batman Begins, Alfred is understandably conflicted; he wants to be loyal and supportive of his surrogate son, but he also isn't thrilled with his ideas about dressing up in a black rubber jumpsuit and wailing on gangsters in the middle of the night. Then in the follow-up, The Dark Knight, Alfred is his full-on partner-in-crime-fighting. He helps arrange Bruce's secret expedition into Chinese airspace.
For some reason, Alfred's biggest concern with their highly illegal scheme that violates international treaties and could, for all we know, lead to World War Three seems to be that a yacht-full of young Russian ballerinas will relentlessly throw themselves at him -- because who can resist a crotchety butler in his mid-seventies?
But even in the midst of all this, Alfred still can't help but shoehorn in some backhanded criticisms of Bruce's decision to become Batman, like a parent's failed attempts to seem chill about their child dropping out of medical school to pursue improv comedy. When Bruce claims that the mob crossed a line, Alfred quickly adds that Bruce "crossed it first". Then he launches into his famous monologue about a ruby-chucking bandit he once encountered in Burma.
While this gives Michael Caine something to do other than bristle at the thought of spending the week on a sun dappled luxury boat surrounded by half-naked women, it doesn't really help the situation much. Alfred's comparison is flawed; yes the Joker's motivation is skewed, he cares less about money than seeding chaos. But Batman is right to be searching for what the Joker "wants" -- the Joker's not simply chucking tangerine-sized jewels in the dirt for "sport" he has an intricate series of meticulous plans to bankrupt the mob, seize power and terrorize Gotham.
Also, back up, what exactly is the backstory of this Alfred? We know he may have been in the military in his youth but why was he in Burma bribing "tribal leaders" for the British colonial government? And why was he then tasked with assassinating a random thief? Later, Alfred reveals that they caught the bandit by burning the forest to the ground. Which is a pretty fucked up thing to admit, Alfred.
And even though Alfred began the movie by repeatedly suggesting that Bruce should, maybe, quit being Batman for a while, when Bruce makes the decision to out himself and reveal his secret identity in order to stop the Joker from committing further murders, Alfred weirdly pivots to a pro-Batman stance, urging Bruce to "endure". So it's okay for him to stop being Batman in order to date women, but not in an effort to save a hostage from being gutted by a crazed clown? Then after Rachel Dawes' death, Alfred burns her letter to Bruce, in which she professes her desire to marry Harvey Dent.
Alfred's actions are debatable. On the one hand he's just trying to protect Bruce, on the other, it's a pretty messed up thing to do, and maybe Alfred should stop trying to fix every problem by burning it down. Clearly his plan backfires, because in the next movie, The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce has gone full Howard Hughes, convinced that his one true love died wanting him and not the future star of I, Frankenstein. Even Alfred realizes that he screwed up because he reverses his original decision and tells Bruce all about how he went full Amy from Little Women on that letter.
Then he takes off, claiming he "won't bury" another member of the Wayne family. Alfred is worried Bruce will sacrifice his life fighting Bane, since he's borderline suicidal and has a bad knee that everyone forgets about 45 minutes later. He's right to a certain extent, but ultimately, he's completely in the wrong. Bane turns out to be the biggest threat Gotham has ever faced and Batman is totally able to stop him in the end, bum leg and all. Alfred could have stayed and helped, instead he bails, Katie Holmes-style. He gives up on the one guy he kept insisting that he'd never give up on back in Batman Begins.
Alfred only returns at the end of The Dark Knight Rises for Bruce's funeral, where he tearfully confesses to the late Waynes that he "failed" them. Presumably as punishment for his years of flakiness, Bruce lets Alfred simmer in his grief for as long as it takes him to go on his next Italian vacation. Then he finally reveals to Alfred that he's both alive and has received the new Banana Republic catalogue apparently.
Alfred's occasional ineptitude isn't totally out of left field, it's deeply rooted in comic book history. When Alfred first appeared in Batman #16 he was pretty much the most useless human being in Gotham City. Originally, he wasn't Thomas Wayne's butler who helped raise Bruce, he was the son of the Waynes' butler. One day he just shows up ready for work at Wayne Manor without so much as calling first.
Alfred wasn't the dashing ex-spy he eventually became in later iterations, he was a schlubby amateur detective who served as a comic foil for the Dynamic Duo. His portly appearance only changed because the 1940s movie serials cast a thin dude with a mustache as Batman's butler. So, naturally the comics "altered" Alfred's appearance "to more closely resemble" his big screen counterpart. How did the writers explain Alfred's sudden weight loss? Easy, he took a holiday at a "health resort, cultivatin' a new figure." Yes, the slim Alfred that we're familiar with owes his trim appearance to jogging, chopping logs with an axe, and of course, painful steaming sessions.
Even in the late '80s, Alfred was less of a father figure to Bruce and more just some rando who shows up at Wayne Manor insisting that he should have a job there because his dad did.
Perhaps Alfred's comic book origins partially explain his wonky behavior in the Dark Knight films. While the character of Alfred evolved to become a paternal anchor for Bruce, his role as Batman's accomplice kind of contradicts that. It's no wonder that Alfred wasn't originally conceived as a father figure to Bruce, no parent, surrogate or otherwise, would be that chill with their kid becoming Batman. It's a crazy thing to do! But because these two aspects of Alfred's character were hatched at different times, and eventually smooshed together, in the "real world" of Nolan's films Alfred's character can be downright frustrating. Alfred is both a necessary in Batman's war on crime, and a concerned family member. Pick a lane, man. And until Batman starts burning down forests like a goddamn lunatic, maybe quit all the moralizing.
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