BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE – Hans Zimmer and Tom Holkenborg
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
In an attempt to compete with Marvel and their cadre of interlocking super-hero pictures, DC Comics have begun to develop their own version of a cinematic universe. It began with Man of Steel in 2013, director Zack Snyder’s re-imagining of the Superman story, and continues with this second film, which sees the introduction of Batman and several other DC characters into a single, shared story space, setting up what will eventually become the Justice League. Rather than continuing Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice takes yet another fresh look at Gotham’s cowl-wearing warrior, replacing Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne with Ben Affleck and Michael Caine’s Alfred with Jeremy Irons. The film inserts Wayne into the immediate aftermath of the finale of Man of Steel by having him witness the conclusive fight between Superman (Henry Cavill) and General Zod over Metropolis, and the devastation that accompanied it, from the ground. Jump forward 18 months, and Wayne has committed himself to exposing Superman as an unstoppable threat to humanity. Meanwhile, Superman’s alter-ego, newspaperman Clark Kent, has become concerned with Batman’s personal brand of vigilante justice in nearby Gotham, and resolves to expose him. However, unbeknownst to either Kent or Wayne, their mutual plans are being manipulated by technology mogul Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), who has megalomaniacal tendencies of his own, and wants both Batman and Superman out of his way.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a deeply frustrating film. Parts of it are very, very good: the more intellectual aspect which explores the deeper implications of what would occur if a being such as Superman were to appear in our real world; the depiction of the political exploitation of Superman; the relationships between Superman and his girlfriend/colleague Lois Lane (Amy Adams), and between Superman and his parents (Diane Lane and Kevin Costner). However, much of the good these aspects do are undone by Jesse Eisenberg’s utterly awful depiction of Lex Luthor, who comes across as a deranged variation on Steve Jobs, Ben Affleck’s charisma-free performance as Batman, and the utterly mind-numbing third act which yet again resorts to endless fight sequences between CGI characters, who are constantly being thrown through buildings. I’ve had enough shots of crumbling masonry and exploding office skyscrapers to last me a lifetime.
It’s also doesn’t help that, yet again, the tone of the film is entirely joyless; Zack Snyder seems to be making it his personal mission to suck all the fun out of the super-hero genre. While Batman has always been something of a nihilistic vigilante, Superman’s entire purpose was always to be a beacon of light and hope, representing the best of humanity, standing for truth, justice, and the American way. Henry Cavill’s performance, as it was in Man of Steel, is sulky and bitter, never once appearing as inspirational. As a viewer, I actually found myself partially agreeing with Wayne, Luthor, and Holly Hunter’s character Senator Finch, who felt that a man with Superman’s power is an existential threat to humanity. Piss him off and he’ll level a city block. You know a film’s tone is all wrong when the super villain’s objective actually seems reasonable, if not the manner in which he tries to achieve it.
I’ve gone into all this plot exposition because my feelings about the film mirror almost exactly my feelings about the score, by Hans Zimmer and Tom Holkenborg, in that there are periods of real, clear excellence, and several good recurring themes, buried beneath a whole load of soul-crushing electronic awfulness. It’s pretty common knowledge that I didn’t care for the score for Man of Steel, but at least Zimmer did craft a new identity for Superman, vastly different from John Williams’s iconic theme, and that identity rightfully carries over to Batman v Superman – thematic consistency for the win! Zimmer’s somewhat unique challenge here was to come up with a new musical identity for Batman that didn’t simply repeat the music he wrote for Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. I can’t think of another instance in film music history where the same composer has had to write two different scores for different depictions of the same character, and so Zimmer’s solution was to bring in his collaborator-du-jour Tom Holkenborg, using his alter-ego name Junkie XL, to help craft Batman’s musical identity.
The end result is actually a three-pronged musical depiction of Batman’s personality that somehow manages to completely separate itself from the Nolan sound. The Batman persona is represented less with a theme but more with a rhythmic identity, a six-note repeated percussive ostinato which is the very first thing you hear in the first cue, “Beautiful Lie”. The second idea is more to do with Bruce Wayne than Batman, and is a four-note idea that moves between strings, brass, and choir, and has some general similarities to the theme Zimmer wrote for the 2002 remake of the horror movie The Ring. Less brutal than the Batman ostinato, the Wayne motif has a sense of purposeful melancholy, if that’s an actual thing, and tries to speak to his determination to bring his own brand of justice to the city. The third Batman idea is related to Bruce Wayne’s memories of the murder of his parents, and specifically his love for his mother, Martha. It appears as a lonely-sounding trumpet solo that many have compared to Jerry Goldsmith’s main theme from his score for Alien, and that’s not too far off the mark.
These musical ideas for Batman/Bruce Wayne form the cornerstone of most of the score’s thematic content. Performances of the Wayne theme appear in several cues, most notably towards the end of “Their War Here,” and towards the end of “Black and Blue”. Similarly, the trumpet theme – what I’m going to call the ‘Martha’s Memory’ theme – has several moments of prominence, at the end of “Beautiful Lie,” at the beginning of “New Rules” where it is underpinned by a grim performance of the Batman ostinato, and most pertinently at the end of “Black and Blue,” where it underpins the turning point of the conflict in the film: those who have seen the film will understand the significance here. Meanwhile, the Batman ostinato generally finds itself underpinning the score’s many action sequences. There are several blatantly obvious statements of the rhythm – in “Do You Bleed,” for example, and in parts of “Black and Blue” – but it’s also interesting that a lot of the action music tends to be built around repeated clusters of six notes, which clearly allude to Batman while not directly stating the actual rhythmic progression.
The second new theme is the theme for Lex Luthor, a spiky, vaguely comical piece for low, rumbling pianos and prancing pseudo-classical strings that has echoes of both Pirates of the Caribbean, and Sherlock Holmes, via Bear McCreary’s theme for the TV series Black Sails, or something from early in Danny Elfman’s career. Luthor’s theme first appears in “The Red Capes Are Coming” as a slew of off-kilter rhythms and highly processed contrasting piano and string scales, and re-appears later in “Problems Up Here,” and it certainly captures the jittery, ADD tics that Jesse Eisenberg lays onto his version of the megalomaniacal supervillain. However, the problem I have with it is the same one I have with Eisenberg’s character choices: it just doesn’t seem especially menacing to me. Lex Luthor has never really had a theme before – even John Williams’s “March of the Villains” from the original Superman seemed more aimed at Ned Beatty’s Otis than Gene Hackman – and, for me, any music representing him really has to do him justice, represent his gravitas and genuine malevolence. The Luthor theme here doesn’t really do much to convince viewers that this bratty little kid, an Elon Musk wannabe with even worse social skills, could be the threat he is in Superman’s world.
The last new theme is the theme for Wonder Woman, Diana Prince (Gael Gadot), who moves around the periphery of the story for most of the film without revealing her identity, but appears in full regalia during the climactic battle. The cue that features her theme, “Is She With You?”, is probably the best one on the album, and her theme is great: an array of massive drums twinned with the hard rock inflections of Tina Guo’s electric cello, which then switches to strings to play the actual melodic line. It’s fun, edgy, and in-your-face, with a palpable ‘don’t fuck with me’ attitude, and I’m very much looking forward to hearing it as the centerpiece of the Wonder Woman movie, due for release in 2017.
And, finally, Zimmer revisits Superman’s two main themes from Man of Steel, notably the 2-note motif that represents the wholesomeness of Clark Kent and his white-picket-fence home in Kansas, and the more heroic ‘Flight’ theme that represents the noble aspects of the Superman character in full. Somewhat surprisingly, Superman’s music seems to be a little under-represented, both in the film and within the meat of the score. It is prominent in “Day of the Dead,” which showcases a soft and gentle statement of the Kent theme before being picked up by electric guitars and brasses and gradually segueing into a subtle variation on the Flight theme. It also appears in the conclusive “This Is My World,” which begins in reflective mood, but also embraces some unexpectedly strong moments of tragedy, almost coming close to the choral devastation that followed Mufasa’s death in the score for The Lion King. I’ve spoken about the overly-simple nature of these themes before, and how much I personally feel they reveal the fundamental flaws in Snyder’s depiction of the Superman character overall, but I’m not going to go into that again here – they are what they are, and I have to accept that they are going to part of the DC world going forward.
As you can see, Batman v Superman does not lack for thematic content, and this is something that I have to wholeheartedly congratulate Zimmer and Holkenborg on. Having recognizable leitmotivic ideas to represent the characters is something I have always advocated, especially in films like this, and even if you don’t actually like the themes, you can’t deny that Zimmer and Holkenborg have really made a strong effort to try to give each character a musical identity that carries through the score. This aspect alone is, for me, the main reason Batman v Superman is a significantly superior score to Man of Steel; you can see that Zimmer and Holkenborg actually worked hard on developing musical architecture for the score, and it makes the whole thing more intellectually appealing, at least to me, as a result.
However, that’s not to say that everything about the score works, because it absolutely doesn’t. One of the great missed opportunities of the score is the frustrating lack of conflict between Batman’s musical identity and Superman’s musical identity. You would think that, in a film that is literally called Batman v Superman, there would be ample room for contrapuntal writing, pitting Batman’s six notes and Superman’s two notes against each other during the mano-a-mano slugfests, but for some reason this doesn’t happen. Instead, the two superhero fight sequences, “Do You Bleed?” and “Black and Blue,” pound away relentlessly for more than 10 minutes, and too often degenerate into exercises of percussive tedium and electronic horror. As we learned in scores like Mad Max: Fury Road and Deadpool, when in doubt, throw drums and electronics at it.
In fact, the only real contrapuntal interplay comes during “Is She With You?”, when Batman and Superman are no longer fighting against each other, but side by side. For a few bars, we hear the Superman Flight theme on brass underpinned by a variation on the 6-note Batman ostinato in the percussion, and it sounds sophisticated and intelligent and quite thrilling – an all-too-brief flash of the level of complexity the score could have had.
Another rather disappointing aspect of the score is, yet again, the terribly predictable and generic nature of too much of the action music. Everything from the chugga-chugga cellos, to the highly processed string writing which makes a live section sound like samples, to the relentlessly pounding all-star drum section I alluded to before, it all sounds like a dozen other action scores written by Remote Control composers over the last decade. I realize that this sound is de rigeur for tentpole super hero films at the moment, and that the Zimmer sound™ is something that producers and directors want to emulate in order to capture the same lightning-in-a-bottle as other successful films, but it’s way past the point now where these scores are all literally interchangeable, with no real difference in approach, orchestration, or tone. Remove the thematic presence and, hand on heart, I would not be able to tell you if this score was Man of Steel, or Captain America: Winter Soldier, or Mad Max: Fury Road, or Batman v Superman. This is what I mean when I say “generic” – the music from this film, and a dozen others, sounds so much like each other that it’s almost impossible to tell them apart, and I’m really really listening.
Finally, and worst of all, are the skull-crushing electronic sound design elements, as heard in cues like “Must There Be a Superman?”, parts of “New Rules,” most of the middle section of “Do You Bleed?”, and “Tuesday”. These cues are virtually unlistenable, hideous, cacophonous, eardrum-splitting walls of sound which are so nightmarish that it was all I could do not to reach for the off button. Occasionally, parts of these cues sound like Steve Jablonsky’s torturous experiments with MRI machines on Battleship, or even the score for Chappie – possibly the influence of additional composers Steve Mazzaro and Andrew Kawczynski coming to bear – but whoever is responsible for these auditory abominations should be banned from using synthesizers for the foreseeable future.
So, how to summarize all of this? I suppose I can really only echo what I said earlier in that there are moments of genuine excellence buried underneath too much orchestral and electronic sludge. Thematically, the score is an enormous step up from Man of Steel, and I cannot stress enough just how much I appreciate the obvious effort and intellectual application Zimmer and Holkenborg have brought to bear on the project, with at least three (or five, depending on how you count them) brand new themes joining the two Superman themes from Man of Steel. Unfortunately, the application of the themes is a little disappointing, and the generic orchestral writing and god-awful electronic sound design will undoubtedly drive too many listeners away before they get the chance to actually experience the thematic quality. Furthermore, the entire tone of the score retains the grim, colorless, joyless aspect that Zack Snyder has brought to the entire DC Cinematic Universe to date, and as such will fail to delight anyone who requires more uplifting heroism and buoyancy in their super hero scores – and that, for me, remains the hardest pill of them all to swallow.
Note: This review is of the standard edition soundtrack, which includes the aforementioned score cues and a 14-minute suite, “Men Are Still Good,” representing Zimmer’s initial development of the thematic ideas heard in the score. The deluxe edition includes five additional bonus cues, amounting to almost 20 minutes of extra music.
Buy the Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Beautiful Lie (3:47)
- Their War Here (4:34)
- The Red Capes Are Coming (3:32)
- Day of the Dead (4:01)
- Must There Be a Superman? (3:58)
- New Rules (4:02)
- Do You Bleed? (4:36)
- Problems Up Here (4:25)
- Black and Blue (8:30)
- Tuesday (4:00)
- Is She With You? (5:46)
- This Is My World (6:23)
- Men Are Still Good [The Batman Suite] (14:03)
- Blood of My Blood (4:25) — Deluxe Edition Bonus Track
- Vigilante (3:53) — Deluxe Edition Bonus Track
- May I Help You, Mr. Wayne? (3:27) — Deluxe Edition Bonus Track
- They Were Hunters (2:45) — Deluxe Edition Bonus Track
- Fight Night (4:20) — Deluxe Edition Bonus Track
Running Time: 71 minutes 35 seconds (Regular Release)
Running Time: 90 minutes 27 seconds (Deluxe Edition)
Watertower Music (2016)
Music composed by Hans Zimmer and Tom Holkenborg. Conducted by Nick Glennie-Smith. Orchestrations by Bruce Fowler, Walt Fowler, Yvonne Moriarty, Carl Rydlund and Kevin Kaska. Additional music by Steve Mazzaro, Andrew Kawczynski and Benjamin Wallfisch. Featured musical soloists Tima Guo and Ben Powell. Recorded and mixed by Alan Meyerson. Edited by Bob Badami. Album produced by Hans Zimmer and Tom Holkenborg.