WARNING: The following contains spoilers for director Todd Phillips' Joker, in theaters now.
Joker chronicles the transformation of Joaquin Phoenix's Arthur Fleck from a troubled, struggling comedian into the Clown Prince of Crime, and the chaos he brings to Gotham City During his descent into madness, Arthur has his earliest encounters with iconic characters and locations from the Batman mythos, including Arkham Asylum and the Gotham City Police Department.
But one of the most intense meetings occurs when Arthur goes to Wayne Manor, where he not only interacts with a young Bruce Wayne, but also has an extended confrontation with the family's trusted butler, Alfred Pennyworth, played by Douglas Hodge.
The Clown & The Kid
After opening and reading one of the letters that his mother wrote to Thomas Wayne, Arthur learns the Wayne family patriarch may be his biological father. Determined to speak with the mayoral candidate, Arthur goes to Wayne Manor, where he doesn't find Thomas but instead sees Bruce (Dante Pereira-Olson) playing outside. Transfixed by the child that could be his brother, Arthur performs a comedy routine for him, and attempts to force the boy to smile, as shown in the trailer.
At that point, Alfred rushes out, pulls Bruce away, and orders Arthur to leave. When he learns who Arthur is, a flash of recognition crosses Alfred's face, and the butler's tone becomes more cautious. Arthur tries to convince Alfred to take him to Thomas, but the butler refuses.
Alfred informs Arthur that his mother was institutionalized after becoming obsessed with Thomas. He even inadvertently reveals that Arthur was adopted by Penny Fleck, so she isn't his birth mother. Furious, Alfred attacks him through the gates to Wayne Manor, and tries to choke him. When Alfred breaks free, Arthur flees back to Gotham.
Alfred has been confronted by Joker before, across comics, film and television, leading to similar moments where the butler had to deal with the villain's unpredictability.
In an episode of the 1966 Batman TV series, Joker comes to Wayne Manor with a gun and a hostage, and threatens to fire if he isn't allowed to rob the mansion; Alfred reluctantly allows him inside. Instilling Joker with a false sense of security, Alfred gets the drop on him and, even beats him in a brief fencing duel that sends the Joker running. In The Dark Knight, Alfred was the first one to fully understand Joker, summing up his motivations with, "Some men just want to watch the world burn."
Things didn't go nearly as well for Alfred in DC's New 52 era, however, during which the two meet during the "Death of the Family" storyline. After proving he knows where the Batcve is by swimming into it, the Joker quickly moves into the darkness. Alfred is forced into the kind of situation so many criminals have been in with Batman: exploring a dark room with a fearsome figure hiding in the shadows. Unfortunately for Alfred, the Joker gets the jump on him and lops off one his hands with a butcher knife. That left Alfred traumatizedm and, in Batman & Robin, he had dreams about murdering Joker.
Will That Be All, Sir?
The scene between Arthur and Alfred in Joker, while sharing a similar tension, has an additional layer of conflict: Because this is a confrontation occurring when Bruce is still young, Alfred's instincts aren't merely to protect himself, but also the boy.
Yet, he also seems genuinely concerned to see Arthur. Aware of the childhood that Arthur doesn't seem to remember, Alfred becomes much more cautious; he has an awareness of the potential for violence, long before Arthur lashes out.
There's another potential wrinkle as well: There are enough pieces of evidence to suggest Arthur isn't wrong to suspect he's actually a Wayne. If that's true, it's conceivable the Wayne family would have been powerful enough to hide a potential public embarrassment like Arthur. Alfred's concern takes on an additional face, particularly because the confrontation is unfolding in front of Bruce. The moment makes the most out of Alfred's lone speaking scene, and continues a history of pure tension between him and the Joker.
Directed by Todd Phillips, Joker stars Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Bill Camp, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Glenn Fleshler, Douglas Hodge, Marc Maron, Josh Pais and Shea Whigham