Sunday, 22 July 2012

"But Sir...You've Never Made Breakfast Before": Alfred Pennyworth and The Dark Knight Rises

It's been a while since I last  posted but if anything was going to snap me out of a blogging stupor it was Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises. I was totally unprepared for how much  I would enjoy this film. Despite living with a man whose comic book obsession means our spare room is populated by replicas of superheroes organised according to affiliation and rank, I'm not big on superhero films and 'action' scenes usually bore me silly. The Dark Knight Rises, however, is a different matter. I'm not the first to say that the scenes of Gothman residents spraying champagne onto snowy streets out of the windows of repossessed manor houses give the film a fascinating socialist tinge. The evil leader of the "reckoning" is eventually defeated, but not before he necessarily exposes rotten, hypocritical and decadent actions and motives amongst the Gotham elite.

At the start of the film, Selina Kyle makes her entrance as a maid serving up shrimp balls to Gotham's self-satisfied patrons while Bruce Wayne stays holed up in his mansion, padding around in his silk dressing gown. Set eight years after the tragic events of The Dark Knight, it's no wonder that Wayne feels a little sorry for himself. But Selina has no sympathy for his luxuriant reliance on servants to serve his meals, answer his door and make his bed. After stealing his mother's pearls and wearing them to another society fundraiser she warns Bruce that he'll soon regret thinking he could "live so large and leave so little for the rest of us."

The most prominent servant in the film is of course the Batman's batman, Alfred. Alfred doesn't share Selina's sense of social injustice. He is there to support the Wayne empire, not to help topple it. But then again he is not just a prop; he is Wayne's business partner, even a surrogate father. And he's not afraid to stand up to his employer. Just after Alfred tells Bruce to buck up his ideas and stop feeling sorry for himself, for instance, he alludes to the fact that Wayne - a man so self-reliant that he can physically mend his own broken back - has never actually learnt to make his own bed. Sure enough, the next morning Bruce wakes up to the doorbell ringing and calls feebly for Alfred like an indolent teenager shouting for his mum. My title is taken from this comic strip, Gotham Adventures #60, where a similar exchange occurs:

Nonetheless, I couldn't help but want more from Alfred. I never got a sense from the film of the things he must necessarily have given up to support Bruce, even though he  has no family of his own, no possessions, no home and no partner. We might expect a flash of anger from Alfred faced with Wayne's thanklessness, not just Michael Caine's teary-eyed regret. You might argue, as a friend of mine did in the pub afterwards, that Alfred hasn't really lost anything because he's gained a family in the Waynes. But if Alfred is a father figure to Bruce, he's a strange one. I mean, what kind of father still makes his adult son's bed every day?

The ambiguity of Alfred's position is brought out nicely at times in the comics. In Superman/Batman #2 Superman struggles to make sense of the fact that Alfred is both paid employee and something more to Batman; that his work is both a paid task and an act of care (picture courtesy of my aforementioned comic book-loving partner):

Does Nolan's story encompass this kind of complexity? I'm not sure it does. It does remain, however, an almost perfect film.

P.S: For an excellent take on the history of Batman films do visit my good friend, The Magnificent Tramp.