"For what is Batman, if not an effort to master the chaos that sweeps our world... an attempt to control death itself?" — Alfred Pennyworth
When Epix TV launched Pennyworth — a series dedicated to Bruce Wayne’s longtime confidante — it put the spotlight on a character who’s had an indelible influence on the Batman’s journey. But to fans, Wayne Manor’s butler has long been a star in his own right.
Alfred Pennyworth has long been a steadfast presence by Batman’s side, in page and screen iterations of the superhero’s adventures, since he was introduced in the 1943 comic book Batman #16. Had there been no Alfred, one wonders how an orphaned Bruce’s transformation into the Dark Knight would have been effected.
Having lost his parents at an early age, Bruce Wayne’s sole adult guardian was Alfred; it was Alfred who was Bruce’s sounding board, foster parent, and ultimately, partner-in-crime fighting. Alfred advises Bruce on his relationships and personal life; he also ensures that the gadgetry and technology that enhance the Batman’s powers are always at the ready. Be it Wayne Manor or the Batcave — Alfred Pennyworth has a firm hand over both domains. He is mentor and physician, advisor and friend; above all, Alfred is family. And even in the crowded world of superhero sidekicks — where a Tony Stark/Iron Man has a Jarvis to assist him — Alfred Pennyworth stands alone.
To get a sense of Alfred’s indispensability, one need only see the animated film The Dark Knight Returns, which shows him dying of a stroke in his last years in the Wayne Manor. Another film (Batman & Robin, 1997) deepened the Alfred-Batman connection by introducing Alfred’s niece, Barbara Wilson, as taking on the mantle of Batgirl.
On screen, before Pennyworth, several gifted actors have imparted their own flavour to the character of Alfred. No fewer than 18 actors have essayed the role since 1968, in animated series, TV shows, films and video games.
Alan Napier was the first major star to play Alfred Pennyworth to Adam West’s Bruce Wayne/Batman in the famed 1960s TV show. Napier’s Alfred was almost akin to PG Wodehouse’s Jeeves — a faithful butler, ready with both coffee and counsel according to his “Master Bruce’s” needs. His patrician bearing fronted a resourceful mind, and while Napier’s Alfred tended to be more domestically inclined, he was always up for an adventure when needed.
However, it was Michael Gough who brought a certain heft to Alfred, after taking on the role in Tim Burton’s 1989 film. Gough’s stellar screen presence was ideal for his persona as Bruce/Batman’s moral compass, who wouldn’t shy away from calling out his employer on anything he considered wrong. Gough also has the record of portraying Alfred to three different ‘Batmen’ — Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, and George Clooney. This is perhaps why he’s among the most visible actors to have played Alfred.
Under Christopher Nolan, the contours of Alfred Pennyworth as a character underwent just as much of a change as the rest of the Batman universe. In the Dark Knight trilogy, Michael Caine’s Alfred is a spiritual godfather to Bruce. Right from Batman Begins, in which Bruce undergoes an identity crisis and is initiated into Ra’s al Ghul’s League of Shadows, Alfred guides his ward as he battles his inner demons, and helps him steer towards a crime-fighting career. Then, in The Dark Knight, we see more screen time devoted to the relationship between Bruce/Batman and Alfred, with meaningful personal conversations between the two.
And as Alfred in Dawn of Justice, Jeremy Irons shines as the tech-savvy ally, forgoing the traditional wardrobe choices for a far more dapper avatar. Irons as Alfred is not just a trusted lieutenant, but Batman’s eyes and ears.
With more Justice League films in the pipeline, Alfred’s work is far from over. His substantial presence in the hit video game Injustice: Gods Amongst Us bears testament to that fact. The Pennyworth TV series is only going to bring more attention to this beloved character, and can we just say — it’s high time!