MAN OF STEEL – Hans Zimmer
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
Before I begin this review of Man of Steel, let me make one or two things perfectly clear. I do not hate Hans Zimmer, or his music. I’ve met him on a couple of occasions, and he’s an extremely nice and friendly man. As a composer, I think he’s very talented. He was a genuinely groundbreaking artist when he first emerged on the scene in the late 1980s, and broke the film music mould when he wrote scores like Black Rain, Backdraft and Crimson Tide. I absolutely adore many of his works, ranging from A League of Their Own to The Prince of Egypt, The Last Samurai and Pearl Harbor. I think Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End is a masterpiece, and close to being the best score of his entire career. I have a few issues with the way his Remote Control organization has come to dominate the mainstream Hollywood film scoring world, but I admire him as a shrewd businessman, and he did help launch the careers of John Powell and Harry Gregson-Williams among others, which is praise-worthy in itself. Having said that, I think Man of Steel is a colossal failure of both musical ingenuity and conceptual approach.
After the success of The Dark Knight trilogy, rebooting Superman was almost an inevitability, as was the involvement of director/producer Christopher Nolan and writer David Goyer. In Man of Steel, director Zach Snyder gives us a Superman for the new millennium, imbued with the same aesthetic as Christian Bale’s brooding Batman. The original identity that creators Joe Schuster and Jerry Siegel originally gave Superman in 1938 – that of an infallible, just, noble, patriotic super hero – has been largely abandoned. Instead, he is a more angst-ridden, tormented alien soul, stranded on Earth, haunted by the reality of his super powers, and in no way sure of his place in the world or his role within it. This modern obsession with making the unreal more real, darker, and more conflicted worked with Batman: he was always a more shadowy figure, lurking on the edge of society and doing the dirty work that others would not. Superman, however, is supposed to a beacon of hope: morally forthright, acting as a guiding light to whom the people of Earth can look for honesty and truth. This is not the Superman we see in Man of Steel.
The film itself is a bit of a mess, a combination of hard science fiction and endlessly repetitive action sequences interspersed with a few genuinely effective moments of pathos and emotion, most of which take place during Superman’s childhood in Kansas. English actor Henry Cavill plays the titular role, sent to Earth by his father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) from his dying home world, Krypton, after a simultaneous ecological disaster/military coup dooms the planet. 33 years later, the boy has grown up to become Clark Kent, a drifter and outcast who has enormous super powers that he does not understand and, occasionally, cannot control. However, things change when Zod (Michael Shannon), the Kryptonian General who led the coup, returns from exile and threatens the people of Earth unless the son of Jor-El reveals himself to them. Aided by tenacious journalist Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and members of a distrusting US military, Clark must accept his identity and make a difficult choice: whether to aid Zod in his quest to find a new home world for what remains of the population of Krypton, or save his adopted planet from a terrible fate.
Man of Steel does ask some interesting questions about identity and heritage, and the nature of super powers and what the discovery of their existence would mean in a real-world sense, which are explored mainly though the flashback sequences involving Diane Lane and an unexpectedly outstanding Kevin Costner as Clark’s parents. However, this more cerebral approach is wholly abandoned in the film’s second half, which quickly disintegrates into a series of seemingly endless fight sequences between CGI super heroes, during which people are constantly thrown through buildings, demolishing huge swathes of cities, killing thousands, and which are as boring as they are repetitive. The design and CGI effects are astonishingly good, but this cannot overcome the film’s massive shortcomings, a great deal of which are to do with the moral ambiguity shown by several of the lead characters, and the almost complete absence of any semblance of fun or humor. This Superman is grim, deadly serious, and at times quite brutal, and for me represents an astonishing miscalculation on the part of the filmmakers in terms of what Superman is, and what he represents.
Clearly, this new-style Superman is mirrored by its score, which is generally as grim, serious and brutal as the film itself. I suppose, in one respect, Zimmer has to score the film he is given. This is not the Superman of your father, with Christopher Reeve wearing the red cape, Richard Donner filming the action and John Williams wielding the baton, and that has to be acknowledged. In fact, probably the biggest thing that Man of Steel has going for it is the fact that it sounds nothing like the 1978 Superman score, and has no trace of John Williams’s classic theme. Trying to fit the square peg of Williams’s heroic, patriotic Americana march into this film’s round hole would have been absolutely the wrong approach, and one has to at least admire the fact that Zimmer tried to come up with a brand new way of scoring the character. However, having said that, the music and the film are inseparable, and for me the music mirrors the problems that film has. Not only that, the score is irredeemably simple from a purely compositional standpoint, and has so little emotional content that it barely connects with its audience.
Zimmer has said in interviews (and I’m paraphrasing here) that he wanted his music to capture the essence of middle America; the simplicity of life in Kansas, the white picket fences and the uncomplicated family oriented folk that Superman grew up amongst, and lives to protect. I can absolutely understand that approach, and in many ways it’s a good one, but the problem comes through the fact that Zimmer has taken the essence of Superman and stripped it down so far, made it so simple and uncomplicated, that it’s wholly unfulfilling, on both emotional and musical terms. Zimmer’s theme for Superman is a two-note ascending motif (which reminds me of the first two notes of Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man – possibly intentional?), and it’s all over the score, but for the vast majority of the score’s running time it is left in such an undeveloped state that it’s almost impossible to connect with. I have no problem with simplicity in itself; the most simple musical phrases can be perfect and beautiful, and have been on many occasions, but for film music to work there still has to be an emotional connection between composer, film and audience, and for me a theme with such brevity and so little growth offers me nothing to latch onto.
This economy of emotion has become a running trend in Zimmer’s work over the last couple of years, a sort of Zimmer minimalism which takes tiny fragments of a phrase and repeats them over and over, the prime examples being Batman’s theme in Batman Begins, the Joker’s theme in The Dark Knight, as well as large parts of Inception. Zimmer’s enormous influence in this regard has seen this style spill over into other films by other composers, resulting in a film music trend, in Hollywood at least, that celebrates a lack of emotional content and strong, memorable themes as showing maturity and not spoon-feeding an audience in terms of what they are supposed to think and feel. As someone who grew up listening to and loving the work of Williams and Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner and John Barry, and many others, this attitude is the absolute antithesis of what I feel film music should aspire to be, and when the most successful films in Hollywood each year are usually scored by Zimmer, someone who currently works for or with Zimmer, or someone who used to work for Zimmer, it pains me because I can’t see an end to the cycle. The more successful the film is, the more the studios will want to emulate the sound that film has, the more composers will be asked to sound like Zimmer, and so on and so on.
But, back to Man of Steel. The main two-note theme is heard frequently throughout the score – it’s virtually the first thing you hear, in “Look to the Stars”, for tuned timpanis and bass guitar – and it’s pleasant enough, but it simply never goes anywhere. It sounds the same at the beginning of the movie as it does in the middle of the movie as it does at the end of the movie, giving the whole score a sense of stagnancy. The only real changes it undergoes are in orchestration, or in key. It reappears in “Sent Here For a Reason” on a solo piano, the first of several statements in this manner, which usually accompany a Clark Kent Kansas childhood flashback sequence, and are actually quite pretty. The very end of “Tornado” and “This is Clark Kent” feature similar performances, but when the lead instrument for the motif switches to electric guitar, the music becomes heavily reminiscent of Zimmer’s 1995 score Broken Arrow, albeit without Duane Eddy’s spirited performances bringing a spark to the proceedings. It all sounds very much like an oddly unfinished chord, the base of a piece of music to which someone forgot to add the interesting thematic layer. It just sits there, listlessly, providing a texture, but not much else.
The tension/drama music which typifies cues such as “DNA” and “Launch” employs the same basic rhythmic cello ostinatos that dominated The Dark Knight, Inception, The Da Vinci Code, and dozens of other scores by other composers, a cliché that has become tiresome over the last few years. The action music, in cues such as “Oil Rig”, “Tornado”, “You Die or I Do” and “Ignition”, is actually quite obnoxious, featuring a gang of “celebrity drummers” bashing away on a number of enormous drums for anywhere between thirty seconds and three minutes, accompanied by Mel Wesson’s patented electronic sound design washes, and an occasional interlude by a huge bank of horns all playing the same note simultaneously, over and over.
The 9-minute “Terraforming” is perhaps the nadir of all this, with endlessly repeated percussion loops and blasting brass whole notes that are gradually joined by squealing, grating electronic “enhancements” that actually cause distortion in the speakers at their higher registers, such is their hideousness. One can only imagine that Zimmer took a listen to the eardrum-pummeling sampled MRI machine that Steve Jablonsky used in Battleship and wanted to top it in terms of headache-inducing chaos. Worse still, some of the percussion rhythms actually seem to be quite badly executed, never coming together as a coherent pattern. It’s just messy and noisy, and poor from a purely compositional standpoint. Zimmer’s action music used to be so rich, so powerful, so full of life and energy, that it makes you desperately nostalgic for scores like The Peacemaker, or Drop Zone, or Point of No Return, which were chock-full of interesting rhythmic ideas and clever touches in terms of pacing and tempo.
Every now and again, a piece of music does pique the interest briefly, reminding the listener what a good composer Zimmer can be when he wants to be. The middle section of “Krypton’s Last” has an unexpectedly beautiful violin solo that is quite touching. Similarly, parts of “I Have So Many Questions” feature a solo cello and wordless vocal combination that is very soothing. The vocally-inflected “Goodbye My Son”, as well as the last minute or so of the aforementioned “Terraforming”, has a quite nice timbre to it that reminds me of the processed vocal work in The Peacemaker back in 1997, but this brief nostalgic flashback only raises the interest briefly, before it’s back to the familiar sound of churning cellos, electric guitars, and rock percussion.
To give the score its fair dues, the score does contain two fairly good cues: the conclusive pair, “Flight” and “What Are You Going to Do When You Are Not Saving the World?”. Here, and only here, does Zimmer’s two note theme show any sign of development of heroic intent. “Flight” is out of order (the cue actually occurs about half way through the film, when Clark accepts his identity and learns to fly for the first time), but does have a sense of grandeur to it that is quite welcome, although the electric guitar chords are a little grating at times. “What Are You Going to Do When You Are Not Saving the World?” is, by a long margin, the best cue on the album, for the one simple reason that Zimmer finally allows his two-note theme a little room to breathe and grow, building over the course of five and a half minutes with increasingly optimistic progressions, until it finally emerges into the one, true, heroic anthemic statement of hope and glory in the entire score. However, these two halfway decent cues come too little too late, and are not enough to salvage the rest of the score from its pit of disappointment.
The score concludes with a gargantuan 28-minute piece called “Man of Steel (Hans’ Original Sketchbook)”, the original suite of music which Zimmer wrote on his computer outlining his thematic ideas and textural choices, and from which his team of composers, arrangers and orchestrators formed the actual meat of the score. It’s interesting that Zimmer would actually include this sketchbook cue on the album, as in the past Zimmer has been somewhat reluctant to admit that he actually works this way, but you can certainly hear the genesis of all the ideas in this piece. I do wonder just who will listen to this cue more than once, however, considering that it is essentially little more than a synth mockup of the score without any context, cue breaks, or live instruments.
This review is of the standard release of the score; a longer “special edition” of the score also exists, which comes presented in a natty metallic box, and features six additional cues – “Are You Listening, Clark?”, “General Zod”, “You Led Us Here”, “This is Madness!”, “Earth” and “Arcade”, four of which feature additional music by the Dutch composer/musician Tom Holkenborg AKA Junkie XL. These cues present, by and large, more of the same, except that the electronic/synthetic element is much more prominent in Holkenborg’s cues.
So, here’s the bottom line. I understand that Man of Steel is a different film than the original Superman and its sequels, and as much as I dislike the changes made to the nature of Superman, and as much as I feel that these changes represent a gross miscalculation on the part of the filmmakers, I acknowledge that these changes were made, and that as a result Zimmer’s score had to change too. A John Williams-style score would not have been appropriate for this film, and so the fact that Zimmer chose to go in a different direction was entirely the right decision. What disappoints me more than anything is the lack of emotional content resulting from the decision to strip down the thematic content to its absolute bare bones, as well as the apparent lack of ambition inherent in the failure to create a new and interesting sonic world for Superman to inhabit. Superman is THE iconic American super-hero, a beacon of light and hope and justice for the world. For him to be saddled with witless percussion, such predictable string writing, and such a simplistic and repetitive thematic statement is disappointing in the extreme.
Buy the Man of Steel soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Look to the Stars (2:54)
- Oil Rig (1:31)
- Sent Here for a Reason (3:46)
- DNA (3:18)
- Goodbye My Son (1:57)
- If You Love These People (3:03)
- Krypton’s Last (1:58)
- Terraforming (9:46)
- Tornado (2:47)
- You Die or I Do (3:04)
- Launch (2:29)
- Ignition (1:12)
- I Will Find Him (2:47)
- This is Clark Kent (3:36)
- I Have So Many Questions (3:21)
- Flight (4:09)
- What Are You Going to Do When You Are Not Saving the World? (5:26)
- Man of Steel (Hans’ Original Sketchbook) (28:11)
- Are You Listening, Clark? (2:48) – Deluxe Edition Bonus Track
- General Zod (7:21) – Deluxe Edition Bonus Track
- You Led Us Here (2:59) – Deluxe Edition Bonus Track
- This Is Madness (3:48) – Deluxe Edition Bonus Track
- Earth (6:11) – Deluxe Edition Bonus Track
- Arcade (7:25) – Deluxe Edition Bonus Track
Running Time: 86 minutes 08 seconds – Regular Edition
Running Time: 118 minutes 22 seconds – Deluxe Edition
WaterTower Music WTM39424 (2013) – Regular Edition
WaterTower Music WTM39426 (2013) – Deluxe Edition
Music composed by Hans Zimmer. Conducted by Nick Glennie-Smith. Orchestrations by Bruce Fowler, Walter Fowler, Kevin Kaska, Yvonne Suzette Moriarty, Rick Giovinazzo, Geoff Stradling and Carl Rydlund. Additional music by Mel Wesson, Tom Holkenborg, Atli Örvarsson, Steve Mazzaro and Andrew Kawczynski. Featured musical soloists Ryeland Allison, George Doering, Bryce Jacobs and Martin Tillman. Special vocal performances by Lisa Gerrard. Recorded and mixed by Alan Meyerson. Edited by Melissa Muik. Album produced by Hans Zimmer, Stephen Lipson and Peter Asher.