‘Batman’s Alfred Is a Terrible Butler
Every new Batman franchise reinvents the concept for its own era. In the 1960s, he was a colorful avenger of crime. In the 1990s, he lived in a Germain expressionist nightmare filled mobsters and evil capitalists. In the 2010s, Zack Snyder transformed Batman into an emotionally damaged sadist who branded criminals with his logo and sometimes did CrossFit.
Only a handful of essential elements appear from series to Bat-series: Bruce Wayne, troubled orphan who uses his inherited wealth to avenge his parents’ death; an elaborate costume full of gadgets; an amazing Batmobile. And, of course, every Batman has an Alfred, the character’s loyal butler, manservant, advisor, and father figure.
Alfred’s so famous at this point that he got his own television series; Pennyworth, on HBO Max. He debuted in DC Comics way back in 1943 as a portly bumbler, but his iconic appearance — slender, erudite, with a thin mustache and a crisp English accent — came from the first Batman movie serial, which was released to theaters that same yet. Since then, there’s rarely been a Batman comic, cartoon, movie, or television series where Alfred Pennyworth wasn’t by his side. The latest film in the franchise, The Batman, reconfigures the world of its title character yet again. But it still gives Robert Pattinson’s Dark Knight his own Alfred Pennyworth, in the form of Andy Serkis. Alfred is about as beloved a character as there is in the Batman mythos.
He’s so beloved, in fact, that most audiences seem to miss the fact that sometimes Alfred is absolutely terrible at his job.
Okay, so maybe some movie Alfreds know what they’re doing. But not the most inept Alfred of them all, the one in the Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher Batman films. That Alfred, played by veteran British actor Michael Gough, is arguably the worst butler in the history of movie butlers.
In Batman, Alfred first appears at a fundraiser at Wayne Manor. He interrupts Bruce (Michael Keaton) during a conversation with journalists Alexander Knox (Robert Wuhl) and Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) because Commissioner Gordon has left the party in a rush, and Alfred suspects Batman could be needed. But he handles the situation indelicately, hinting so strongly that Wayne has to go that it’s surprising Knox and Vale don’t suspect him of being Batman right then and there.
A few scenes later, Bruce and Vicki have their first date at Wayne Manor. They begin their meal in the mansion’s enormous dining room, seated across a table that’s so long they can barely hear each other from one end to the other. After they relocate to the mansion’s much cozier kitchen, Alfred regales Vicki (and embarrasses Bruce) with stories from years earlier.
A lot of employers would probably be furious that their butler was emasculating them on a first date, but Bruce seems okay with it. He also doesn’t seem to mind that when Alfred finishes telling his story, he gets up and says “Please leave everything, I’ll tidy up in the morning” and then goes to bed. That’s not how being a butler works. That’s not how any job works! How would you feel if 600 words into this piece I was just like “Eh, come back in the morning, I’ll finish writing this then. I don’t feel like doing this now.”
Alfred’s next scene escalates his mild laziness all the way up to gross incompetence. Bruce and Vicki sleep together on their date, and the next morning she asks him to meet her for lunch. It happens to be the anniversary of the death of Bruce’s parents, so rather than explain that he’s choosing an afternoon wandering Crime Alley over a romantic meal, Bruce lies and says he has to go out of town for a few days. She accepts that reasonable excuse and begins to head out.
On the way back to her car, Vicki bumps into Alfred who, I have to hope, has by now finished cleaning up the dishes from last night’s dinner. Vicki says “I’ll talk to you guys when you get back,” and Alfred responds “Back, Miss Vale? We’re going to be here for quite a while.”
Alfred’s number one job — ahead of mending the Batsuit, and clearly far ahead of doing the dishes — is solidifying his boss’ alibis. This can’t be the first time Bruce Wayne has lied to someone to protect his secret identity; it may not even be the first time he’s lied to a woman about it. Either way, Alfred should at least have the wherewithal to understand that Bruce must have told Vicki a fib about a business trip in order to keep her from discovering something about his work as Batman. Instead, Alfred blows Bruce’s cover immediately. Afterwards, he seems totally oblivious to the massive mistake he’s just made. He’s utterly clueless.
When Vicki keeps calling Wayne Manor looking for Bruce, Alfred delivers her messages to Bruce in the Batcave and offers his employer some unsolicited advice. “She is quite tenacious, and if I may so, quite special,” he says as he hands Bruce a cup of coffee. “Perhaps you could try telling her the truth.” Cut to Bruce visiting Vicki at her apartment, where he is about to tell her he’s Batman when the Joker barges in and shoots Bruce in the chest. He only survives because he manages to hide a silver serving tray under his shirt.
Despite the fact that the last time he tried to give his boss advice it almost got him killed, Alfred keeps on telling Bruce what he thinks he should do. Sensing a connection between the Joker and his parents’ murders, Bruce asks Alfred to retrieve the case file on the Wayne murders. Alfred responds with anger. “I have no wish,” he says, “to fill my few remaining years grieving for the loss of old friends ... or their sons.” So he considers Thomas and Martha friends but doesn’t want their murders solved? This guy’s as bad a friend as he is a butler.
And he’s a really bad butler. Bruce getting shot prevents him from telling Vicki he’s Batman, so Alfred takes matters into his own hands. In an astonishing breach of butler etiquette, he brings Vicki into the Batcave, revealing Bruce’s secret identity to her and threatening his entire crimefighting operation.
While Alfred’s betrayal of Bruce’s trust remains a shocking twist 30 years later, it is also not out of character. It’s just that his character is the world’s least discreet housekeeper. As seen above, he repeatedly pushes Bruce into a relationship with Vicki. He tries to get him to call her. He needles Bruce about opening up to her. And when all that doesn’t work, he just straight-up spoils Bruce’s secret identity like Homer Simpson walking out of The Empire Strikes Back.
It’s not like Vicki Vale figures out Bruce’s secret and then bangs down the door of the Batcave, or that she suspects Bruce is Batman and then threatens the truth out of Alfred. Bruce is just sitting in the Batcave having one of his patented Batman-remembers-his-parents-getting-murdered flashbacks (broken pearl necklace and all) when who should show up but Vicki with Alfred in tow. Plus, Vicki is an award-winning journalist. How does Alfred know she won’t immediately run to Knox and give him the scoop of the century?
The scene is such a gross dereliction of duty on Alfred’s part that Batman Returns actually made fun of it:
The creators of Batman wanted audiences to see Bruce and Alfred’s connection as something more intimate and familial than an ordinary master and servant relationship, and that’s clearly evident in the final film. But if Gough’s Alfred is meant to be more confidant than domestic worker, that’s an issue too. What kind of confidant repeatedly screws up his buddy’s life? The answer is one who wouldn’t stay a confidant for very long. The only convincing explanation why Alfred remained employed through all those ’90s Batman movies is that he had so much dirt on Bruce Wayne’s double life that it would be too risky to lay him off.