How Was Batman Changed by an Oscar-Winning Movie – and Which One Was It?

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Today, we look at how a surprising early 1980s hit comedy film eventually changed Batman forever.

This is Foggy Ruins of Time, a feature that provides the cultural context behind certain comic book characters/behaviors. You know, the sort of then-topical references that have faded into the “foggy ruins of time.” To wit, twenty years from now, a college senior watching episodes of “Seinfeld” will likely miss a lot of the then-topical pop culture humor (like the very specific references in “The Understudy” to the Nancy Kerrigan/Tonya Harding scandal).

I was writing recently about how a funny thing over the years is how often a major change will occur in a comic book and we will all just accept it as if it was always like that. That’s a rarity, of course, as A. people love to complain about pretty much any change a lot, let alone major ones and B. comic book changes will almost always revert to the status quo over time, so you really have to stand out to be a change that will simply be adopted as a regular part of a comic book status quo. One of those changes that I mentioned at the time (among Dick Grayson becoming Nightwing and Daredevil’s ninja background) was Frank Miller’s revamping of the relationship between Batman and Alfred Pennyworth and its origin came from an unusual place.

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One of the most acclaimed Shakespearean actors of the 20th Century was Sir John Gielgud. He was a contemporary (and artistic rival) to Sir Laurence Olivier and the two men became almost the symbols of Shakespeare in the 20th Century on the stage. The difference between the two, though, was that Olivier also became a film star, something that mostly eluded Gielgud. Also, while Shakespeare never stopped being popular, after the 1950s, more modern plays became a bigger deal in England and the United States and while Gielgud was still acclaimed (he was knighted all the way back in 1953), he was starting to become sort of a novelty act. He could still do Shakespeare better than most anyone, but finding projects that fit his skill set was difficult, especially because, as noted, he never quite broke out as a film actor (while he obviously DID work, of course).

Oddly enough, it was when he became older that more film roles started to open up for him. Not lead roles, of course, but at least they were roles and in 1981, he was cast as the acerbic butler to Dudley Moore’s eccentric socialite in the surprise hit film, Arthur (about a flighty British drunk who is set to inherit his family fortune when he falls in love with a working class New York City waitress). Gielgud’s Hobson vacillated brilliantly between being sarcastic and nurturing…

The movie was not only a commercial smash, but Gielgud then won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor (the movie was also well-remembered for its Christopher Cross soundtrack, as Cross won the Academy Award for Best Original Song for “Arthur’s Theme,” which he performed for the movie and co-wrote with Burt Bacharach, Carole Bayer Sager and Peter Allen. In 1981, Cross won the Grammy for Best Albm, Best Record, Best Song and Best New Artist. A year later, he won an Oscar for “Arthur’s Theme.” That’s a heck of a way to start a career, huh?). He was suddenly highly in demand again, as a whole new generation “discovered” him for the first time. In 1985, Gielgud reflected on the change in his career, “That film ‘discovered’ me all over again. Now I’m being offered more work than I can possibly handle. And it seems there’s more to come.”

One of those later projects won Gielgud an Emmy in 1991, making him one of the first actors to complete an EGOT (he had won a Grammy for a cast album and he had won multiple Tonys over the years).

Okay, so what does this have to do with Batman?

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Alfred had been a regular presence in the Batman titles for decades, but it was not until Frank Miller in the Dark Knight Returns (Miller worked with inker Klaus Janson and colorist Lynn Varley on the project) that it was established in the comics that Alfred was already the Wayne butler when Bruce Wayne was a child and thus, he now was basically a surrogate father figure for young Bruce and, of course, he was now sarcastic. Essentially, Miller just took the Hobson character from Arthur and simply made that Alfred Pennyworth…

This new, sassy/sarcastic take on Alfred was quite unusual, but it worked really well…

Soon after this, Miller was brought on to do the new origin for Batman in the wake of Crisis on Infinite Earths and he really leaned into this new approach to Alfred as the butler took on a larger role in the setup of Batman’s origin in Batman: Year One (by Miller, David Mazzucchelli and Richmond Lewis) and the droll Hobson-like dialogue was excellent…

Like Arthur/Hobson, the sarcasm clearly hid a true love and concern for the surrogate son…

and so a new approach was solidified and soon copied by everyone else…

It is now hard to imagine Alfred Pennyworth being anything BUT the surrogate father to Bruce Wayne/Batman, assisting him as he makes droll quips and yet that was not at all the setup for Alfred before Miller and Miller was clearly working from the blueprint left for him with Hobson in Arthur.

Really, it is kind of cool to see how such major changes to characters that EVERYONE embraces (I did a recent poll asking which Batman supporting character or villain would be missed the most if they were suddenly gone for five years and Alfred easily won the poll) and it all comes down to just how much everyone loved Gielgud as Hobson (rarely do silly romantic comedies win Academy Awards).

If anyone else has any suggestions for Foggy Ruins of Time, feel free to e-mail me at brianc@cbr.com

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