Matt Reeves’ Batman offers a new perspective on the Dark Knight, with many elements rethought or portrayed differently than we might be used to seeing. One of these that has not been talked about much is the relationship between Bruce Wayne and Alfred Pennyworth. The intimacy and affection we are accustomed to between them is almost completely absent in the manuscript of Reeves and Peter Craig. It’s clear that the two love each other, but it’s easy to be surprised at how Bruce treats Alfred. It’s a very nuanced relationship that goes on an interesting emotional arc throughout the film.
So why does Bruce and Alfred’s relationship feel so different in this film? This version of the butler definitely takes a tougher approach to love, but we’ve seen that before. It’s in Geoff John’s and Gary Frank’s graphic novel Batman: Earth One and in portraits of Sean Pertwee and David Mazouz on television Gotham. But there seems to be more distance between Robert Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne and Andy Serkis’ Alfred Pennyworth.
One reason is that we’re used to seeing an Alfred acting as missionary control for Batman. Remember Jeremy Irons Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League? He communicated with Batman during his patrols, always updated on everything that happened. IN Batman, Alfred informs Bruce of Mayor Mitchell’s murder and is surprised to hear that Batman has already investigated the crime scene.
Not only is Alfred not there with Bruce on his missions – he’s barely there in the movie! Alfred only appears in a handful of scenes throughout Batman and is completely absent for the last 54 minutes of the film. Yet despite this, Alfred gets the most out of his time on screen, and Serkis delivers one of the most influential performances of his live-action career.
The distance between Bruce and Alfred can also be attributed to Batman’s state of mind in Batman. He appears to be dismissing his life as Bruce Wayne, withdrawing from the public eye and avoiding meetings with businessmen. Alfred represents his past as Bruce Wayne, and at this point in his life, Batman embraces revenge and rejects his humanity. This evolves as the film progresses, and at the climax, Bruce has embraced hope.
In some ways, Bruce seems to reject Alfred as the father figure. There are a few moments in the film where he almost seems cruel to Alfred. At one point, Bruce coldly tells Alfred that he is not his father, and in another scene, he asks Alfred why he has Wayne cufflinks if he is not a member of the family. When Alfred wakes up from his coma, the first thing Bruce says is, “You lied to me.”
Their relationship is a little colder than usual, but then again, we’re used to seeing their intimate father / son bond, and it’s not here yet. If we did not have decades of media to compare this to, would the relationship between Alfred and Bruce still seem unstable? In addition, it is not the case that there is no precedent.
When Alfred first appeared in the 1943s Batman # 16, Bruce barely tolerated his presence. In the 1944s Batman # 22, Bruce and Dick gave Alfred a hard time about his job performance and made fun of him behind his back. In the 1949s Batman # 52, The Dark Knight caused Alfred to take the fall for Bruce Wayne’s apparent murder, and the butler was temporarily imprisoned. In the 1951s Batman # 68, Bruce fired Alfred cruelly as part of a trick to catch some criminals, but he did not tell the butler that the firing was false.
Bruce’s relationship with Alfred improved over time, but it would still be years before he became missionary control for Batman and a father figure for Bruce. When Dick Grayson left Wayne Manor to attend Hudson University in Batman # 217, the dynamics between the Wayne heir and his butler began to change. Alfred became the only person in Batman’s home who knew his secret and the primary person with whom Bruce could share information. This developed further after Crisis on infinite lands rewrote Batman’s story. Now Alfred had been a part of Bruce’s life since before his parents died, which changed him from a peer to a family.
The downside of being a father figure is, of course, that relationships with fathers and sons can be stony, and that’s what we see in Batman. During the hospital scene, Bruce gives us some insight explaining his cold treatment of Alfred: “I never thought I would feel such fear again,” he says. “I thought I had mastered all that. I mean, I’m not afraid to die. I now realize that there is something I have not come across. This fear of ever going through any of it again. Losing someone I care about. “
It’s a strong moment as Robert Pattinson strikes out of the park. It is suddenly made clear that Bruce has pushed Alfred away out of fear. He has shut Alfred out because he is afraid of losing him. Bruce’s cold treatment of Alfred was not because he cared, it was because he loved him so much that it scared him. Bruce’s confession hits harder because immediately after Alfred it opens up about his uncertainty about being a parent: “You were just a boy Bruce,” Alfred apologizes. “I could see the fear in your eyes, but I did not know how to help. I could teach you to fight, but I was not equipped to take care of you. You needed a father, and all you had was me. ”
This moment of vulnerability is far too real for any father who has ever doubted himself as a parent. Bruce and Alfred take each other’s hand and silently comfort each other. No words are said because no one is needed.
Some have pointed it out Batman is about Dark Knight learning to be a hero and stumbling along the way. But after a few revisits, I think it’s also about Bruce and Alfred learning to be father and son, and all the challenges that come with it.
The Batman, directed by Matt Reeves and starring Robert Pattinson as Batman and Andy Serkis as Alfred Pennyworth, is now in theaters and streaming on HBO Max. Not a subscriber yet? Sign up today to enjoy the best in DC movies and TV.
Joshua Lapin-Bertone writes about television, movies, and comics for DCComics.com, is a regular contributor to the Couch Club, and writes our monthly Batman column, “Gotham Gazette.” Follow him on Twitter at @TBUJosh.
NOTE: The views and opinions expressed in this feature are solely those of Joshua Lapin-Bertone and do not necessarily reflect those of DC Entertainment or Warner Bros.