Music Monday: A “Batman v Superman” Musical History

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With Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice hitting theaters over the weekend, many fans will be rushing to purchase the much-anticipated score from the film, written by Hollywood heavy-weight composers Hans Zimmer and Tom Holkenborg (Junkie XL). For the moment, the two most recognizable superheroes of American culture have the attention of society, and there is no better time to trace the musical history of these two cultural icons, for the musical evolution of Batman and Superman very much reflects the broader arc of Hollywood film scoring.

We begin not with a film theme, but rather the title music for the uproariously campy Batman television series that aired in the 1960s. The “Batman Theme” composed by jazz and big band musician Neal Hefti is unashamedly goofy but infectiously fun, just like the series that starred Adam West in the titular role, with a simple but catchy bass guitar riff punctuated by trumpets and an eight person chorus singing “Batman!”

By 1978 however, superheroes were making a move to be taken seriously as big-screen contenders, so when Richard Donner’s Superman starring Christopher Reeve hit theaters, it was accompanied by a thunderous, triumphant march by John Williams. Despite its lofty ambitions, the film still indulged in much of the campy fun the Batman series had been known for, so while Williams’ theme is bold and brash it is also undeniably fun, the orchestra pounding away in a heroic major key. Fresh off of incredible success with Star Wars, Williams’ “Prelude and Main Title March” echoes that earlier score before quickly bursting into what is perhaps the most iconic and popularly recognizable theme for a superhero to date.

Williams “Love Theme From Superman” develops the musical identity for Superman as he goes for a night-time fly through Metropolis with Lois Lane, flighty strings and dancing woodwinds, gaining confidence before bursting into a full and optimistic performance of the main theme.

In 1989, Tim Burton unleashed composer Danny Elfman on Batman for his own decidedly darker take on the campy superhero blockbuster. In “The Batman Theme” notice how Elfman opens with somber, subdued brass and woodwinds before crescendoing into a militaristic march that, while possessing the same old-school pizzazz as Williams’ Superman theme, is dark and menacing as befitting the Caped Crusader. Even Elfman’s “Love Theme” for the film is noticeably more subdued than Williams’ romantic material.

John Ottman, for Bryan Singer’s 2006 continuation of the Superman story, Superman Returns, attempted to echo the old-fashioned roots of Williams’ score while building his own unique and tender theme for Clark Kent’s inner life. In “Reprise/Fly Away” Ottman deftly merges his own themes with Williams’ original to craft a near seamless whole. Audiences, however, did not respond well to either the sequel or Ottman’s musical approach, and one wonders if Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins had spoiled the party.

Unlike Ottman, Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard eschewed the more traditional orchestral constructs of Elfman in their 2005 re-imagining of Batman’s musical identity. Clinging mainly to the darker tone that Elfman had introduced, Zimmer and Howard build a lush, romantic theme for Bruce Wayne on strings in “Eptesicus” before moving into their modern and minimalist theme for Batman himself: churning string ostinatos underscoring the now famous rising two-note brass motif. Intriguingly, this somber, brooding theme has far more structurally in common with the 1960s theme than anything Elfman composed, and their action material for Batman, featured here in “Like A Dog Chasing Cars,” would establish a methodology of minor-key string churning and deep brass for blockbusters and movie trailers that continues today.

In an unprecedented move, Zimmer was given the opportunity to score Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, making him the only major film composer to try his hand at both Batman and Superman. In the 2013 re-boot, Zimmer opted to abandon the old-fashioned sensibilities of Williams and attempt to forge a distinct musical identity. Fiercely loyal to his methodology, Zimmer’s score is far darker and more brutal overall than Williams’ original Superman score, but the inherent optimism of Superman as a narrative concept still clearly influenced the modern composer. There is a hint of playfulness and innocence to Zimmer’s main theme for Superman, as whistles and pedal steer guitars emerge from beneath militant drums and brass on both “Flight” and “What Are You Going To Do When You Are Not Saving The World?” while the orchestra builds to and flirts with a major key.

Finally, this brings us to Batman v Superman. When Zimmer was approached to score a second reboot of Batman, he asked Holkenborg, the electronic artist turned film composer who had aided in writing the percussion for Man of Steel, to compose a new theme for Batman. The foundation for this theme can be heard at the beginning of “Beautiful Lie” in the form of multiple brass blasts that yield to a further exploration of the theme by a piano and choir-boy. The theme itself receives a full performance towards the end of “Men Are Still Good – The Batman Suite” and is developed throughout.

Only time will tell if these most recent themes will live on in the popular consciousness to the same degree that Williams’ Superman theme has. With the Superman March, Williams crafted a piece that has become cultural shorthand for truth, justice and the American way. Zimmer and Howard, to a lesser degree, constructed their own theme for Batman that spoke to the same societal fears and tragedies that Nolan tapped into. It is for the audiences to decide if Zimmer and Holkenborg’s most recent efforts will capture society’s imagination or, like Ottman’s score, simply fade away.