The Dark Knight and the Bitter Tears of Alfred Pennyworth: Batman and Realism Part 2

This week Screen Editor alex MacFadyen and Comics Editor Carol Borden continue discussing The Dark Knight Rises. We both like Batman and we’re fascinated by how many different Batmans there are. Even though there are things we like about the film, we want to figure out what is it about The Dark Knight Rises‘ Batman that makes him not quite ours, who is, what we like about him and why. Because Batman is good to think about. Part 1 is here.

CB: Last week, we talked about the bomb that Batman flies out of Gotham to save the city from being destroyed by Bane and Talia al-Ghul. It seems like Batman should’ve died in the subsequent explosion, not just because of the realities of nuclear weapons, but in terms of the story, because one of the most appealing and resonant things about Batman is that he is human, that he does take damage. He’s highly skilled. He has access to all kinds of technology and resources, but in the end he’s a human being whose superpower is that he never stops trying.

And this leads to a more fundamental problem I have with the ending—I can’t see Batman having a happily-ever-after ending. It seems like cheating somehow. And I really can’t see him doing that to Alfred.

Alexander MacFadyen: Yes, I see your point that he seemed to stop being Batman at the end, like he escaped the destiny that made him who he is by having a Hollywood ending. I suppose the point is that Bruce Wayne got to stop being Batman, but I guess for me Bruce Wayne is Batman as much as Clark Kent is Superman, and their sense of responsibility means they never escape their destinies. It seemed especially out of character for the Batman of Nolan’s Dark Knight series, and Michael Caine got to have some kind of Merchant-Ivory butler moment.

CB: I was going to talk about my own sense that Bruce Wayne is Batman, but your Merchant-Ivory observation’s both hilarious and trenchant. Alfred really did seem like he was in his own Merchant-Ivory movie: caring for Bruce Wayne as Howard Hughes-type recluse; crying over the Wayne family graves and encountering Bruce and Selina, a fallen woman saved from a life of crime, in the golden light of an Italian cafe. I had noticed the melodrama, but I was so distracted by the French Revolution stuff, I didn’t think about Merchant-Ivory. I’m curious what you think.

AM: I had only really noticed it at the end, but now that you mention it I can see how Alfred was dreaming of a life as a different kind of butler. I can almost see him in front of the tv at night in his cardigan, drinking tea and saying lines along with Anthony Hopkins while Bruce broods upstairs in his chambers.

CB: Yeah, I think I would really like to see The Dark Knight Rises all from Alfred’s perspective, done completely in the style of Remains of the Day or even as a humorous BBC drawing room mystery series in 12 parts. It seems like there are different aesthetics or even tones in TDKR. There’s gritty realism. There’s the Merchant-Ivory melodrama. And there’s a fairy tale sensibility to the prison and the parable of the child who escaped it. Any two of them together seem to undermine the third.

AM: I think it’s the way the series was sold as gritty and realistic that makes the ending seem a bit off to me. It sticks out because it suddenly veers into cartoonishness, with Batman as a cookie-cutter superhero and Alfred as a caricature of an English butler.

art by edgar torné

CB: Superhero movies are fantasy, but maybe we don’t notice so much because fantasy as a genre has gotten kind of codified as Tolkienesque or alternate Medieval History. There might be a tension between superheroes and realism in that the more you try to make them realistic, the more rationalization/justification for their superheroics is necessary. The fantasy elements of Superman, for example, are readily apparent. It’s easy to miss with Batman because Batman relies on technology. But the fantasy of Batman is not just having access to his wealth or his wonderful toys. It’s grounded in his character as a hero. And, as you say, I feel like his character kind of disappears.

AM: It’s a good point of comparison that you brought up Superman because it’s believable that he could fly a bomb out to sea and prevent it from causing problems, or that it just wouldn’t, because Superman’s powers are pretty much endless and any world that contains the possibility of him can also absorb a lot more reality-bending. Besides, he usually flies it out into space so it’s less of a concern.

CB: Who gives a crap about space people? The idea of Superman as reality-bending is really interesting. Basically, any reality that has Superman in it, is different from our own. If Superman were part of our reality, our reality would be different. It’s obvious, but I think maybe it’s obvious in the same way that realism is not real or reality–something obvious that people often forget.

AM: I think that realism is best served in fantasy-based narratives by rigorously maintaining the consistency and integrity of the laws of that specific universe. My favorites are ones where everything resonates as emotionally believable around an accepted set of fantastical elements, but it only works if it’s consistent. If an element violates its own universal rules or requires too much exposition to make it work, my brain kicks in and I stop engaging with the narrative and start trying to make everything fit intellectually. It’s a difficult balance to strike, especially with something as modern day archetypal and fantastic as Superman.

CB: Emotional believability is central. To return to the cartoonish, in Superman Confidential (2006), a young Superman flies into a volcano, not knowing if he can survive it. He doesn’t die, but his responses are believable. I don’t need to know how his powers work to believe them. I accept them and their constraints as long as Superman and his world operate within them. If Batman flew into a volcano in a realistic world, there will be a exposition about the technology that allows him to survive if it’s to be believable at all. Chances are something will snag. Which is why Batman usually has different problems and different solutions than Superman.

AM: As you said, the point of Batman is that he is human and that he has to work within the constraints of reality and mortality. As soon as he becomes immortal or untouchable in some way, he ceases to be the thing he represents. Admittedly, it’s the constraints of a reality involving the best technology billions of dollars can buy when spent on James Bond-style gadgetry, but that conceit is also fundamental to the Batman universe so any capability he can gain through technology which can be explained by “he spent a shit ton of money on it and it works” is also acceptable.

CB: Exactly, I accept that. But I don’t like losing Batman in all his technology. When I was little, I didn’t like Batman on SuperFriends, because I felt like he relied on gadgets to keep up with his super-powered friends and he’s weakened when his access to technology is what defines him. It’s like trying to fix fantasy by turning it into science fiction, and, at worst, technobabbling* science fiction.

AM: I think that’s why the whole Dark Knight version of Batman hasn’t been as interesting to me. I always felt like it was fighting with itself a little bit. Batman is the most realistic of the famous superheroes in a way, but he really does seem more James Bond to me than Batman in this series.  It just seemed like the writers lost the ability to see what really made sense in their enthusiasm for the dramatic ending and the poetic twist; like they said “you know what would be a really good ending to a movie?” rather than “What Would Batman Do?”

CB: That poetic twist felt incredibly heavy-handed. You know how I talk about the mysterious helmeted motorcyclist who turns out to be a woman or the way that so many scripts use pointedly gendered language to have a huge twist that the antagonist was a woman all the time? I felt hit over the head by TDKR‘s reveal. Talia might as well have taken off a motorcycle helmet and shaken her hair out.

AM: But isn’t it still always a surprise when it’s a girl? Isn’t she eternally believable as the superhero groupie? Apparently the movie industry thinks the boys and their pants never see it coming.

CB: A lot of TDKR felt like it was pushed along to hit particular moments. It kind of bothered me. I still have tonal trouble with the story of the mercenary, the prince and the child who escaped the prison—and then Bruce Wayne’s re-enactment of Bane’s broken back and Talia’s leap of faith—or maybe “fear of death.” I like them fine, but they are almost fairy tale elements in a realistic movie.

AM: My wife did bring up his broken back as another unrealistic thing – how recovery by being hoisted up doesn’t work that way – but it didn’t bother me too much. It reminded me of A Fistful of Dollars, when Clint Eastwood nearly gets himself killed and has to endure a painful recovery and learn to shoot again before he can go back to town and take care of business. It could have been interesting to show the reality/price/heroism of Batman taking on a problem that would be not very dangerous and just another day at the office for Superman, but somehow it just seemed like he got the usual blockbuster ending. That seems like a third factor in this, the conventions that are just like every other blockbuster movie. For instance, the long farewell while the timer is ticking followed by the miraculous escape.

CB: And solve that problem without killing. I would really like that. It reminded me a little more of Tony Stark’s recuperation in the cave in Iron Man, but this Bruce Wayne reminded me of Tony Stark. Though, now I wish the ending were more like The Fistful of Dollars. ** I prefer the silent understandings of Westerns to a hero cast into a massive oubliette who finds a wise, though cowardly man, who helps him find his way again. Batman would push himself till his body was ruined and he needed a Wayne Industries mech suit or hung from a rope to heal his back. Batman would sacrifice his life for Gotham City. But even though I can rationalize those things in the film, I still felt like I was watching a movie about someone other than Batman.


*whether “technobabble” is understood as “technical jargon,” “deliberately mystifying obscurantism,” or “bullshit.”

**yes, we’ve both seen Yojimbo and really like it.


Carol Borden and alex MacFadyen like this job–They like it!

7 replies »

  1. If what you were looking for was consistency given the constraints previously employed, you got that with Alfred. Don’t forget, he raised Bruce. They have much more of a relationship than we’re ever allowed to see. That’s clear to us in both the first and second movies. So Bruce knows when Alfred’s being dramatic (‘You can use the Rolls”), and when he’s being serious (“I kept hoping I’d see you”).

    There are lots of ways to be a family. Sometimes you have to talk, or shout. Sometimes you have to do what someone else has told you he wants.


  2. As for Talia, I’d call that archetype rather than poetic twist. It’s built right in to the structure of the Dark Hero story. The second the camera focussed* on her face I thought ‘Villian’, and I’m far from alone.

    Nothing wrong with playing to archetype — so long as it’s well done. If you don’t think it was well done, that’s something else entirely.

    *Focused? They both look wrong.


  3. i’m not surprised that you knew she was the villain because you are a smarty pants and a smart reader. I wouldn’t be surprised if you could tell not just from lighting, but from narrative necessity–have to get back to ra’s al-ghul somehow, but ra’s is dead and nolan’s batman doesn’t have, for lack of a better word, fantastic elements like the lazarus pits that let comics and animation ra’s al-ghul be immortal.

    i’m not going to speak for alex, but for me i think there are a couple of things included in “poetic twist”: the revelation that talia is the child who escaped the prison not bane (which i see the poetic element); that talia is ra’s al-ghul’s daughter; and that talia is the behind the whole scheme. i think the revelation that talia was the head villain and that talia was the child and not bane was were intended to be twists. i think it was not smoothly accomplished. mostly i think it was hasty and so felt thrown in when it’s supposed to be something that ties back to the first film and teaches us about the cycle of violence and vengeance and parent-killing in the creation of villains and heroes.

    talia as The Dark and Vengeful Queen of fairy tales and romances fits in well with the rest of her fairy tale story. but again, that fairy tale just didn’t feel well-integrated into the grainy blue-filtered, gritty realistic part of the story. i would’ve preferred if the whole movie were fairy tale because i think that the gritty realism was what caused the trouble in the first place. like i said, i think superheroes stories as a genre are fantasy and fantasy elements work very well within them.

    with alfred, neither of the previous two movies threw me out, so i was trying to address only The Dark Knight Rises and figure out why it did.

    i do understand why bruce appeared at the cafe rather than at home. but i also think it is an incredibly cruel thing to have let alfred not only believe that he was dead till his summer vacation, but to let alfred believe that he had failed bruce and bruce’s parents. and this would all be fine with me if TDKR were completely melodrama. i would LOVE Douglas Sirk’s Batman, with rock hudson as batman. but again, that melodrama only becomes pickable to me because, unlike in say, Magnificent Obsession, there is a problem in the tonal–and cinematographic–shift between that epilog and the gritty realistic fight to save gotham. the shift just didn’t work for me. it feels chunky, not smooth.

    anyway, thank you so much for the thoughtful and thought-provoking comments, chris. it is a pleasure to ponder them. i hope i don’t come across as argumentative. after all, this article is about sharing the experience of the film. i am just hoping to be a little more clear about what gave me trouble in trying to engage with the film.


  4. Sometimes I forget that other people might not automatically go into archetype shorthand when it comes to visuals. Me, I take all the shortcuts I can get.

    And I am with you on the cruel — I also thought Bruce was a bastard for letting Alfred suffer for so long. Then again, cruel fits in so well to fairy tales: red hot iron shoes; barrels full of nails rolled down hills; needless grief… it’s still part of the pattern. Just a bit less bloody.


  5. chris, i love your fairy tale batman and now i want to see it so bad.

    i love shorthands. i like muscial cue shorthand, too. i enjoyed both Contact and Universal Soldier ’cause it was so easy to know everything that was going to happen before it did. “oh, the alien’s going to appear in the form of her father to avoid frightening her.”


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