Alfred Don’t Shiv

So the latest episode of Gotham, a series detailing the early life of Bruce Wayne before he was Batman, has Alfred step up and accept Bruce’s request to teach him to fight. The recent cartoon series Beware the Batman also had built into the show’s backstory that Alfred was the one who first taught Bruce Wayne how to fight.

This is an interesting development, I think. Alfred, for most of his existence, has been a kindly old, aristocratically British gentleman. There was little indication that Alfred could himself put up a fight and none that Alfred taught Bruce anything about the martial arts.

Maybe there was an earlier example, but I think this new, tougher portrayal of Alfred really started with Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight films. Michael Caine’s Alfred is much more of a working class butler who, it is revealed, has a history in the military. He’s presented as capable of rescuing Batman from a fire through physical force and seems able to handle himself. Was the change purely a choice on Nolan/Caine’s part that then found its way into the Batman myth, or does it reflect something deeper in our culture?

The Batman myth is constantly retold and revised. And each retelling, each revision, can easily be seen to reflect truths about the culture it finds itself in. The 50s had the innocent Batman, for a time that wanted heroes to be innocent. The late 60s and 70s saw a tall, mysterious Batman who was getting a bit old as his boy wonder grew up and struck out on his own—right when America was coming out of the last of the innocence and sliding into cynicism and a feeling of being out of a golden age. The examples could keep going.

Assuming that the change in Alfred that seems to be taking more and more pervasive of a hold is also similarly culturally based, what is it that this says about our culture? I’m really asking!

My guess, FWIW, is that it has something to do with our lack of faith in CEOs and other corporate big wigs. Our entrepreneurial aristocracy—of which the fictional Wayne family are part—is often portrayed in a fairly negative light with bailouts and excess greed. In fact, somewhere around the introduction of Fight Club, the Western zeitgeist seems to have truly rejected the claims of protection by the aristocracy, even to the point of fantasizing about taking them out of power. Fight Club shows the working class as having teeth rather than the captains of industry. The proletariat being the sheep dogs left to sleep outside so that the bourgeoisie lambs can get fat off the land. Whether that’s right or not (both about the current political climate and about Alfred’s change), I don’t claim to know or guess. But I do think it’s worth noting the change cropping up in the myth.