With the impending release of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, I decided to look into the history of these two titans of comic books on the silver screen and the music that accompanied them through the years. As the title suggests, this was meant to be brief. But with 14 scores to consider, it inevitably became so long that we broke it into two parts. Still, I liked the title too much to change it. Part 2 can be found at the end of this segment. Now let us spin our Time-Turners, rev our DeLoreans, and jump into whatever machine they use in Terminator and head back to the 70s, where it all began.
|Vikram's Recommendation: 1998 Varese re-release|
The first film to successfully adapt a comic book to the big screen, Richard Donner’s Superman introduced many of the concepts and imagery we still associate with the hero today. From the dashing and witty Christopher Reeve as the titular hero, to Superman’s arc as a Christ allegory, to the nutty schemes of the evil and pileously challenged Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman), and the origin story that is now par for the course in every superhero film, Superman brought the iconic character to life and paved the way for the present-day glut of comic book movies. In adapting such a beloved American icon, the production team and Donner spared no expense, hiring Mario Puzo (The Godfather and The Godfather Part II) to pen the script, star actors Hackman and Marlon Brando (Jor-El), and employing a variety of models, green-screen, matte paintings, and the most advanced technology of the ‘70s for the visual effects. Acclaimed composer Jerry Goldsmith (The Omen, Patton, Planet of the Apes) was set to reunite with Donner to write the score, but scheduling conflicts led to the hiring of John Williams, fresh off a pair of Oscar wins for Jaws and Star Wars and well on his way to becoming the most prolific composer of his (our?) time.
Williams’ greatest contribution to the film was the Superman March, comprised of three distinct portions. First is the opening brass fanfare, which frequently heralds the Kryptonian’s arrival and, in its softer renditions, foreshadow young Clark’s destiny. This is followed by a galloping ostinato in the bass region, which is an effective method of building anticipation. In the concert arrangement, this ostinato culminates in the reveal of Superman’s main theme, a melody that somehow is even more heroic than the two thematic ideas that precede it, and turns up to celebrate Kal-El’s triumphs. The genius of Williams’ march is his ability to weave each of the three melodies into the score interchangeably and prevent any single idea from growing stale (much like I’m trying to do with the different names for Superman in this paragraph). The Man of Steel doesn’t appear in full costume until well over an hour into the film, and thus Williams holds off on giving us the main theme (apart from the opening credits) until “The Helicopter Sequence,” where the fanfare and ostinato propel the action until our hero saves the day, finally unleashing a victorious blast of the main theme.
Williams’ score is hardly a one-theme pony, however. The “March of the Villains,” while perhaps a little too campy in tone, opens with the same interval as the Superman fanfare, tying Kal-El and Lex Luthor into a close bond as arch-enemies. A number of themes are introduced in the opening scenes on Krypton, the highlight of which comes immediately after the opening credits. The motif, almost entirely open fourths and fifths on brass, builds to reveal Superman’s home planet before an awe-inspiring conclusion straight out of (Richard) Strauss’s playbook. An identity for General Zod is also established, setting up his villainous role in the sequel. Clark’s childhood with the Kents is given a noble, pastoral motif representing the down to earth, quiet Americana strength of his Kansan parents. (Full disclosure: writer is from Kansas.) However, the theme that stands above the rest alongside Williams’ primary march is the love theme for Lois and Superman. A heartwarming melody, it rises and falls with elegance and multiple key shifts and forms the foundation for another centerpiece of the score, “The Flying Sequence.”
Many people associate John Williams with (among many other things) overtly American music, and Superman is the textbook example of the composer’s bright and patriotic music. Between the brass fanfares, chiming bells, rousing percussion, and exuberant strings, few scores if any quite epitomize “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” as well as this one. Several releases of the score are available. The 2000 complete recording set from Rhino Records showcases the full 149 minute score, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra in two discs. However, my personal recommendation is for the 1998 Varese re-recording. Conducted by John Debney, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra packages the highlights of the film in a leaner 82 minute product with superb sound quality. Do note, however, that both products have slightly similar covers.
|Film Score Monthly's "Superman: The Music" Compilation|
Superman II (1980) – Ken Thorne
Although much of Superman II was filmed concurrently with the first film, disputes between director Richard Donner and the studio resulted in his firing. Richard Lester took over and reshot much of the film, in which Lois Lane discovers Superman’s true identity, Superman gives up his powers to be with Lois, General Zod breaks free of the Phantom Zone and wreaks havoc on Earth, and Lex Luthor plays all sides for his own gain. Despite the production conflicts, Superman II still turned out to be an entertaining, thought occasionally silly, romp.
Williams chose not to return due to “scheduling conflicts.” What a flake! There’s no way that the two films he scored instead (The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark) make up for the unwritten masterpiece that Superman II would surely have been. Instead, the job went to British composer Ken Thorne, who had worked with Lester on previous projects and was personally recommended by Williams. Given that the film picks up essentially where the first one ended, while continuing the Zod subplot established at the outset of Superman, Thorne made ample use of Williams’ various themes. In fact, given the opening is a retelling of Zod’s sentencing, Thorne recreates the music from that scene as well, giving us a reintroduction to the Krypton motif and Zod’s eerie theme before reprising the Superman march for the opening credits.
With the lighter tone of the sequel, the music is a little brighter, as shown by the more prominent role of Lex Luthor’s theme and a stronger presence from the violins. While occasionally a little too grating on my ears, they do provide a terrific performance in “Suspecting Lois Takes the Plunge.” Thorne also mutates the Krypton theme into a minor key when Clark deals with giving up and regaining his powers, and he offers some interesting counterpoint between the Superman ostinato and his B theme during the battle in Metropolis.
|Film Score Monthly's "Superman: The Music" Compilation|
Superman III (1983) – Ken Thorne
The subtle shift made in Superman II towards the comedic side with the hiring of Richard Lester became more pronounced when he returned to helm Superman III, made most obvious by the casting of comedy legend Richard Pryor in a primary supporting role. However, critics and audiences reacted negatively to the film, in part because of Pryor’s role, in part because of a ludicrous plot. In summary, Richard Pryor plays a computer genius, who is hired to help a rich megalomaniac (who isn’t Lex Luthor) become more rich and powerful. When Superman thwarts their first attempt, Pryor synthesizes Kryptonite which, instead of killing Kal-El, makes him really depressed and bitter. Superman then goes about straightening the Leaning Tower of Pisa, causing an oil rig spill, and getting drunk in public. This culminates in the mean Superman fighting good Clark Kent in a junkyard, which is quite unintentionally hilarious. Seriously, look this clip up; it is both an emblem of how ridiculous this film is, and is surprisingly a showcase for Christopher Reeve’s acting abilities.
Ken Thorne returned to write the music again, though his effort was not a solo one. Several songs were composed and written by Italian composer Giorgio Moroder, who, in an ironic twist, won an Academy Award for Best Original Score in 1979 for the film Midnight Express, defeating, among other nominees, John Williams’ own Superman score. The Moroder songs feature heavy application of the stereotypical 80s synthy pop sound, dating the songs rather heavily, especially prevalent in the “Love Theme,” which is based around a very repetitive, very familiar chord progression. As with Thorne’s previous effort for the franchise, the complete soundtrack for Superman III (both score and songs) is available only as part of the 8 disc box set, though the original 37 minute release is available digitally, which regrettably features Moroder’s all synth arrangement of Williams’ Superman March, a truly hideous abomination that may be a violation of the Geneva Conventions. I promise I don’t hate synths, but this arrangement causes me nothing but pain.
While he naturally brings back the main theme, Thorne steps out of Williams’ shadow more for this entry, establishing a more nimble, fast-paced tone immediately in “The Streets of Metropolis.” For Pryor’s character, several methods of slapstick music are applied, including the bumbling oboe and the flighty waltz. Near the end, some exotic percussion and electronic zapping are utilized for the Clark vs. Superman fight. However, Thorne still mostly resides in a similar instrumental palette as Williams, though with a greater emphasis on the treble region. Interestingly, several passages remind a bit of Williams’ action music in the Star Wars trilogy.
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987) – Alexander Courage/John Williams
Following the financial failure of Superman III, the franchise was sold to Cannon Films, who financed a fourth installment on a shoestring budget. The plot is sparked when a young boy writes Superman a letter (how does Superman get mail? Does he have a PO Box? Does the USPS deliver to the Fortress of Solitude?) asking him to rid the world of nuclear weapons, which Superman decides to do unilaterally. Lex Luthor, out of prison again, uses the opportunity to create a supervillain equal in power to Superman. Superman and “Nuclear Man” (I promise, I didn’t make this up) fight each other on the moon (honestly!) before Superman throws Nuclear Man into a nuclear power plant, destroying him and providing clean power for the entire country (Look, either this is the actual plot, or the editors of Wikipedia are trolling us all).
Critical thrashing and public apathy sunk the film, effectively killing the franchise for 20 years and ending Christopher Reeve’s stint as Superman on a sour note. As with many terrible films throughout history, the score for the film far exceeds the quality of the movie. Hired for the job was Alexander Courage, best known for writing the original Star Trek TV theme, who was also a frequent orchestrator for John Williams. The maestro wrote a few new themes for The Quest for Peace, leaving Courage to arrange and integrate them in with the stalwart Williams themes. Courage wrote over 100 minutes of music, but last minute editing to the film (there was actually a FIRST Nuclear Man!) cut the film down to only 90 minutes, disrupting much of Courage’s narrative development. The score failed to get a release alongside the film, and Courage’s full score did not see the light of day until the 2008 box set devoted two CDs of music to it, revealing a strong effort from Courage.
Several new motifs are introduced, including a sultry melody for Lacy, Clark’s new romantic interest, as well as a campy, electronically enhanced theme that primarily alternates between the same 4th interval as Luthor’s March of the Villains, a fitting choice given how Luthor is Nuclear Man’s maker. Despite the intelligence behind the theme’s conception, it can’t be taken seriously. It appears Courage understood that Williams’ ideas for the original were the best tools available to him, and embraced those fully, resulting in one of the standout tracks, “United Nations/Net Man,” where Courage offers the treat of hearing both Superman’s theme and the Love theme in counterpoint while slowly building to a majestic conclusion. Additionally, a number of the action cues are adept in their blending of the older motifs in with the new, particularly when Courage replaces Nuclear Man’s electronic edge with a stronger bass presence to make the theme stomp with a little more menace. Over the course of the score, I started to really appreciate just how difficult following in Williams’ footsteps is for any composer, even for Courage, who knew Williams’ compositional style as well as anyone. This score is the hidden gem of the Superman franchise, bested only once before and only once since.
|1989 Warner Brothers Records release|
Batman (1989) – Danny Elfman
While the Superman franchise was in its death throes, Warner Bros. began revving up bringing the Caped Crusader to the big screen. The 1960s TV show and film starring Adam West had established a campy, comedic tone for Batman, though Frank Miller’s dark and cynical 1986 graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns became one of the defining depictions of Batman. The pivot back to treating Bruce Wayne and Gotham as “serious” storytelling continued with Tim Burton’s Batman. Prior to the film’s release, Batman enthusiasts expressed doubts about Burton, who to that point had directed only Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice. Even more savage were critics of the casting of Michael Keaton as Batman. Both got the last laugh, with Batman becoming the smash hit of the summer and Keaton recognized to this day as one of the better portrayals of Gotham’s tortured protector.
While the plot of the film is a little thin, there’s much to love about Batman. Anton Furst’s design of Gotham City is impressively menacing, Jack Nicholson plays a terrific foil to Keaton as the Joker, and, most importantly to this article, Danny Elfman’s score is magnificent. The young composer had successfully transitioned from lead singer of Oingo Boingo to full time film scoring, but it was Batman, his third collaboration with Burton, that vaulted him to the ranks of Hollywood’s best. It’s hilarious to look back and think that producers were hesitant about Elfman and were going to rely more heavily on the songs Prince wrote for his concurrent Batman album before Elfman played them some samples. Even funnier is that some critics at the time assumed Elfman’s orchestrators had written most of the score, given how terrific the music is. Anchoring the soundtrack is a killer main theme for the hero, a 5 (sometimes 6, sometimes 4) note motif that splendidly characterizes Batman. First heard over the opening titles in “The Batman Theme,” it flies between mystery, awe, militaristic aggression, and grandeur—all in 160 seconds. Elfman works the theme out throughout the score, giving it a slow, powerful buildup in “Charge of the Batmobile,” tweaking it into a tender moment of introspection in “Flowers,” and blasting it in fanfare mode during the action sequences, frequently changing the rhythm and passing it between virtually every section of the orchestra. To cap it off is the modulation to the major key in “Finale,” celebrating the Caped Crusader’s triumphant victory as the Bat-Signal is lit and we see him watch over the city. The only real knock I can make against this theme is that it’s a note-for-note lift from Bernard Herrmann’s Journey to the Center of the Earth.
|2010 La-La-Land Records re-release|
Batman Returns (1992) – Danny Elfman
With the smashing success of Batman, Warner Bros. grew confident enough to grant Burton greater creative control over the sequel. What resulted was a push into darker, more psychological territory. The two primary villains, Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) and The Penguin (Danny DeVito), are largely sympathetic, transformed into monsters by society, begging the question of who really are the monsters in our world. The movie’s tone was so dark and cold that some of the sets were famously refrigerated to keep the live penguins comfortable. Batman Returns garnered generally positive reviews, though slightly lower box office returns.
Elfman scaled back the heroics for this effort, complementing Burton’s greater focus on Batman’s adversaries. Penguin’s theme is a lament in the tenor and bass region, led by the harp and wind section, accompanied at times by a distinctly Elfman-esque female choir. Catwoman is treated primarily with grating violin glissandi (one can almost hear the mewling of a feline), with an additional descending melody as equally lamentable as and a little more heart-wrenching than Penguin’s. The blending and interplay between these themes and Batman’s theme lends the third act a great dramatic and narrative heft. On paper, Elfman gets everything right. His new themes epitomize the damaged souls of the central characters and they mingle well with each other and are properly developed over the course of the score. The film is less brashly action packed and more melancholy than its predecessor with the added weight of the Christmastime setting, all of which Elfman expertly accentuates.
|1993 Reprise release|
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993) – Shirley Walker
Success breeds success, and out of the success of Burton’s Batman films grew Batman: The Animated Series, which ran for three years in the early ‘90s. The show was praised for its dark tone, animation, and storytelling, and inspired a theatrical film set in the same universe. In it, Batman (voice of Kevin Conroy) must stop a mysterious killer who dresses like him, all while confronting an old flame (Dana Delany) and his perpetual nemesis the Joker (Mark Hamill – yes, that Mark Hamill). Lending her music to the film was Shirley Walker, who was the primary contributor to the music of The Animated Series and played an instrumental role as orchestrator for Elfman’s Batman. Needless to say, Walker was the most qualified composer for the job, and she doesn’t disappoint, crafting a score that, while distinctly different in style to the other Bat-scores, still captures the essence of the Dark Knight.
Batman is represented with a rising theme that sometimes continues its heroic ascent, but sometimes falls back down, reemphasizing the duality of Batman and Bruce Wayne. In either incarnation, it remains firmly in the bass region, just as Gotham’s hero uses the shadows of his city to aid him. Walker also boosts the operatic, larger than life aspect of the proceedings with a full choir, vaguely reminiscent of both Basil Poledouris’ The Hunt for Red October and Elfman’s cooing choir from Batman Returns. The choir is heard prominently in “Main Title” and reveals a more sensitive side in “First Love” and “The Birth of Batman.” The centerpiece of the score is “The Big Chase,” which rapidly twists its way through a variety of tempos and rhythms, even giving the militaristic snare of Batman a few rips for good measure. The original score release is available digitally and contains about half an hour of Walker’s score. An expanded release from La-La Land Records was printed in 2009, but is sadly out of stock and very difficult to find. Even on its abridged release, Walker’s Mask of the Phantasm score is quite excellent and while it may not offer any hair-raising moments on par with anything from Elfman’s original, provides plenty to enjoy.