Batman Has a Butler
Batman has a butler, but does he get the respect he deserves? The mustachioed, prim Alfred Pennyworth has supported the Caped Crusader since the servant first strode into a comic book panel in 1943 and has been portrayed by almost as many actors who’ve played Batman. But who remembers the many Alfreds? Too many to mention—Alan Napier, Michael Caine, Sean Peartwee as the young(er) Alfred in pre-Batman days, to name a few. And with the animated voiceovers, we get Efraim Zimbalist Jr. to Steven Webber to a Legoed Ralph Fiennes.
So many actors, so many depictions—and what would you even call a butler, today? It’s not enough for him to be a nanny for a perfectly capable adult. We refuse to accept this for a superhero, which is why Batman’s butler has evolved into so much more. The sixties gave us the mannerly, unflappable Napier, the iconic image of the archetypical butler. But when we later met Caine, at turns proper and warm, the caring father, we guessed at his slightly rakish, Michael Cainish past. And Jeremy Irons? Superman v. Batman delivered a tactical and technical expert, the Alfred that Batman needs right now—who’s aloof, detached, and smoldering, the Alfred we deserve.
Alfred has transformed from a faithful steward—the keeper of the Wayne household and operator of the red, blinking batphone—to a batarang-and-batcar-inventor, a kicakss, badass fighter in grey-striped trousers and black-tailed coat. The steadfast, punctilious butler—the helpful manservant with a teapotted tray in the right hand and a pressed Batsuit in the left, waiting on his master hand and foot and cape—has become the all-out gansgta who’s spent his life using fighting, shooting, and batkicking mojo to train and whet the Dark Knight.
But Alfred’s role transcends the physical realm to the emotional, as he was tragically thrust into the role of the thankless Wayne scion’s surrogate father. Mother Martha didn’t have a tribe of relations, nor father Thomas a clan of siblings eager to get their paws after the vast sums bequeathed upon Bruce Wayne, eager to care for the young boy now parentless and alone. The child was not forsaken, though—because a servant, an attendant, a valet suddenly had his young patron forced into his bosom, as if the heir were the butler’s offspring. A worker morally bound to give up his world to his master, transformed into a codependent parent.
And what adult taught the boy about life? Now entering puberty, someone had to teach him about girls, and sex, and love—and no one would do so if not Alfred. The butler was skilled at serving, tech, and war. Perhaps he was capable of such tender discussions—but was this his job? When did he sign up for this? Not enough that he had to manage the life of a friendless, brooding adolescent, always sneaking off into some hidden cave teeming with bats, now he had to teach him life’s lessons? It was never in his job description—and certainly the headstrong boy wouldn’t listen. And now, the adult playboy Bruce Wayne perpetuates endless destructive, superficial relationships, the one-night stands, the inability and unwillingness to love except one leather-clad minx who leaps from window to wall, her head adorned with the ears of a cat, mewling as she steals rare jewels and his heart. And Alfred, ever-present, endures Batman’s aching reflections, the butler’s shoulder wet with the billionaire’s tears, while he remains selflessly sexless, unloved, and alone. Alfred has given his all to a caped man-child.
What gratitude does he get in return? Alfred, the giver, sacrificed his personal life to raise his young ward and continues to sacrifice it for his adult master. In turn, he taught Batman to sacrifice, a giver who now offers up his life in the service of Gotham. Even Bruce Wayne surrenders joy in the service of his Batman persona. But Bruce Wayne and Batman only take from Alfred. Sure, the butler gets three meals, a roof, and a warm bed at night, but he has given up his privacy, his love, and his life. Alfred is alone, without the touch of a woman or a man. His life is consumed, and his will is subsumed, by Batman and Bruce. Alfred Pennyworth’s life is devoid of agency. He experiences life in the third person, his sense of self replaced by the will of his lord and master.
Alfred deserves the Dark Knight’s gratitude, but Batman will never give it to the butler. But someone has to. And if Batman won’t do it, at least we can.