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JUSTICE LEAGUE – Danny Elfman

November 21, 2017 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The competing comic book franchises of DC and Marvel have arguably hit peak saturation point. Between them they have released 22 movies – 17 from Marvel dating back to Iron Man in 2008, and 5 from DC beginning with Man of Steel in 2013 – and there have been five this year alone: Guardians of the Galaxy 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, Wonder Woman, and now Justice League. This latter film is a direct sequel to 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and sees the Batman and Wonder Woman attempting to put together a team of similar super heroes in order to combat the existential threat posed by a powerful alien/god named Steppenwolf, who wants to destroy the Earth in the aftermath of Superman’s death. The film stars Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Jason Momoa, Ezra Miller, and Ray Fisher as the five members of the Justice League – Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, The Flash, and Cyborg – with support from Amy Adams, Diane Lane, Connie Nielsen, and J. K. Simmons, among a large ensemble cast.

Much has been made of the post production problems associated with Justice League, the most significant of which involved director Zach Snyder leaving the project following the death of his daughter, and him being replaced by Avengers director Joss Whedon; significant re-shoots were undertaken by Whedon, resulting in a large proportion of the film changing in the months leading up to its release. Speaking from my own point of view, I found the first two entries into the DC Extended Universe to be joyless affairs which fundamentally altered the nature of the two main characters – Batman and Superman – beyond what I was willing to accept. Wonder Woman went some way to redressing the balance, and I was hoping that Whedon’s presence might continue the trend set by Patty Jenkins, but unfortunately Justice League puts it all right back to square one. It’s a film that clearly wanted to re-capture some of the fun and camaraderie in Marvel’s Avengers films, but it fails on nearly all counts.

The screenplay somehow manages to be both confusing and overly simplistic, offering only the most basic back-stories for Aquaman and Cyborg, and giving the Steppenwolf no clear justification for his actions other than ‘he’s just evil’ and ‘he wants these three boxes,’ which of course are not Infinity Stones in any way shape or form. Virtually all the attempts at humor fall completely flat with the exception of the scenes involving Ezra Miller’s jittery millennial Flash, who is pretty much the lone bright spark of personality in an otherwise charisma-free film experience. Worst of all are the action sequences; my God, the action sequences. It’s as if the filmmakers had a list of super hero movie clichés and were checking them off one by one. Big blue light from the sky: check. Faceless hordes of flying things emerging from the light: check. Big bad monster dude growling at everyone: check. Endless repetitive scenes of characters being hurled through buildings, slammed into walls, or smashed into floors: check. The visual effects animators must have invested heavily in their ‘crumbling masonry’ software, and are clearly squeezing it for every last drop. I know some people live and die by these films, and see all sorts of social and philosophical commentary in the writing, and I’m happy that people get a lot out of them, but they’re not for me. I always go into the cinema hopeful that things will be better, and I’m always disappointed. I find them visually ugly, tonally inconsistent, narratively weak, and – worst of all – boring.

Musically, the DC films have also been somewhat controversial. Whereas Marvel have used a litany of different composers to bring their stories to life, the DC films prior to this one had been under the auspices of one man: Hans Zimmer, who scored Man of Steel himself, co-scored Batman v Superman with Tom Holkenborg, and handed the reigns to long-time Remote Control mainstay Rupert Gregson-Williams on Wonder Woman. My issues with the music in both Man of Steel and Batman v Superman are well documented – and I’m not going to repeat my arguments here – and although I enjoyed Wonder Woman quite a bit, I was anticipating Zimmer and Holkenborg to return for Justice League. In June 2016 Holkenborg was originally announced as the composer, but then in June 2017 came the shock announcement that he was being replaced by Danny Elfman.

Elfman is a composer steeped in super-hero heritage; his scores over the years include not only the 1989 Batman and its sequel Batman Returns, but also the 1990s Flash TV series, the 2002 Spider-Man movie and its first sequel, the first Hulk movie in 2003, half of Avengers: Age of Ultron in 2015, and even Darkman and Dick Tracy if you’re being generous with your super-criteria. It was clear that Elfman would bring a classic super-hero sound to the film – something which some felt had been lacking – but then Elfman declared that not only would he abandon most of the themes that Zimmer and Holkenborg had written for the first two films in the franchise, but that he would be bringing back his own 1989 Batman theme, and John Williams’s original 1978 Superman theme. And then all hell broke loose.

Speaking from my own point of view, Elfman’s decisions left me feeling conflicted. On the one hand, in sheer musical terms, I love Danny Elfman’s Batman theme, and I love John Williams’s Superman theme. I think the music these two men wrote for their versions of Batman and Superman is superior to that which Zimmer and Holkenborg wrote, in every way that a piece of music can be superior. The idea of hearing these classic themes again blasting from a cinema screen filled me with excitement. But then it occurred to me that this was music written for their versions of Batman and Superman, and I began to have second thoughts. In my review of Zimmer’s score I wrote that “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.” I still feel that way.

The Superman as played by Henry Cavill is a fundamentally different version of the character from the one played by Christopher Reeve, in tone, in approach, in personality, everything. Similarly, Ben Affleck’s Batman is different from Michael Keaton’s Batman, just as Val Kilmer’s was different, George Clooney’s was different, Christian Bale’s was different – even Adam West’s. Elfman did not use Neal Hefti’s 1960s Batman theme in his score because Tim Burton’s directorial style was so markedly different. Elliot Goldenthal did not use Elfman’s themes in his Batman scores, and neither did Zimmer in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Of course, Affleck’s Batman is closer to Keaton’s Batman than Keaton was to West, but it’s still a different portrayal, and as much as I didn’t care for what Zimmer was doing, and as much as I love Elfman and Williams’s music as pure music, I have come to the conclusion that Elfman has in some way undermined what Zimmer, Holkenborg, and Gregson-Williams were trying to do in terms of bringing a musical continuity to the DC Universe. Marvel had been rightly criticized for not having a strong recurring musical identity across their franchise, and DC seemed to have a much better grasp of that across their three movies to date. I didn’t like the music on purely musical terms, but I had to admire their planning and foresight. Elfman has sort of ruined all that now, and it’s a shame.

Ironically, in the final cut of the film, the statements of Elfman’s Batman theme and Williams’s Superman theme are almost inaudible underneath all the overwhelming sound effects, which possibly renders the entire point (and my previous three paragraphs) moot. In fact, the score as heard in the film is mixed incredibly low, meaning that all the detail in Elfman’s score is lost beneath an endless battery of explosions. The album, however, is another matter entirely. Setting aside my misgivings about thematic continuity, the actual music itself is absolutely superb, a wonderfully bold and creative super-hero action score that can stand with some of the best efforts in the genre.

Elfman’s score is strongly leitmotivic. There are themes for each of the six members of the Justice League – Williams’s Superman theme, Elfman’s 1989 Batman theme, Zimmer’s Wonder Woman theme, a new theme for Aquaman, a new theme for Flash, and a new theme for Cyborg – plus an overarching Justice League theme, an associated Justice League Hero theme, a theme for the villainous Steppenwolf, and even a love theme for Clark Kent and Lois Lane. It was recorded for a full orchestra and choir in London under the baton of conductor Rick Wentworth, and it sounds absolutely massive. Each of these ten themes gets moments in the sun, but it is in the detail where Elfman’s score truly excels: the contrapuntal writing which pits themes against one another, the depth of the orchestration which rivals some of his career best, and the ferocity and energy in the action music.

The first two cues on the album present concert versions of the two main new themes in succession. “The Justice League Theme” is a broadly heroic piece that emerges from a solo trumpet, picks up some woodwind arpeggios to give it a magical feel, and eventually turns into a rousing fanfare for the full orchestra and choir. Many people have observed that the final few notes of the theme are quite similar to the theme Alan Silvestri wrote for The Avengers, and which Elfman modified into his theme for Avengers: Age of Ultron, and it’s true, there are resemblances, but to me this feels like a simple reflection of Elfman’s contemporary super hero style than anything more nefarious. The online accusations of him intentionally ‘sneaking in’ a reference to Marvel in order to undermine a DC product are ridiculous, especially considering that Elfman is steeped in DC lore.

The same can be said for the “Hero’s Theme,” which the observant will notice bears more than a passing resemblance to the theme from Jerry Goldsmith’s 1997 super hero score The Shadow. Again, I’m sure this is a complete accident, a simple repetition of a common chord progression, but accusations of laziness have been thrown Elfman’s way which, as anyone who knows how hard a film composer works to get every note perfectly accurate can attest, is patently ludicrous. The Hero theme is nevertheless a cracker; four ascending brass whole notes that emerge from out of a six-note ostinato passed from growling basses to cellos to glockenspiel in dramatic fashion, and which are eventually taken up by the full orchestra.

The score begins in earnest in “Batman on the Roof,” where Elfman re-introduces his music from the 1989 Batman. What’s interesting about how Elfman does it is how restrained it is; he doesn’t go for broke with an enormous statement right out of the gate – instead he hints at it, dances around it, using the same brooding strings, the dark brasses, the mysterious marimbas, but only ever really presenting the chord progressions, never the actual melody. Listen to the brass progression at 1:00: it’s tantalizing stuff, but it never directly leads into the theme, making the listener wait on tenterhooks for the payoff. This musical tease continues in several cues, all of which feature the chords, but it is not until “Then There Were Three” that the first recognizable appearance of the classic Batman theme.

By far the most recognizable piece of music to emerge from the first three DCEU films is Wonder Woman’s theme, usually rendered as a primal war cry via Tina Guo’s roaring electric cello. The most prominent appearance of her theme in this score comes in “Wonder Woman Rescue,” a cracking action cue which underscores the scene where Diana rescues a bank full of hostages being threatened by a group of terrorists led, oddly, by Roose Bolton from Game of Thrones. The whole piece is filled with an updated variant on the quirky action writing Elfman used in scores like Batman Returns, with call-and-response brass parts and spiky rhythmic ideas, until a ballsy fully orchestral arrangement of the Wonder Woman theme erupts at 1:19. The internet scuttlebutt seems to indicate that this arrangement was not by Elfman but by Turkish composer Pinar Toprak, and if that is actually the case then I’m delighted. I had wanted a female composer to score the Wonder Woman movie in the first place, and Toprak was at the top of my personal shortlist; although this doesn’t make up for her being overlooked for that job, or for her being unceremoniously and unforgivably dumped off Geostorm earlier this year, it’s a step in the right direction. The brass-and-guitar performance of the theme at 2:18 is especially outstanding. Just as a side note, wouldn’t it have been something if, in recognition of it being ‘original theme,’ Elfman had used Charlie Fox’s Wonder Woman TV theme instead of Zimmer’s theme? But, I digress…

The theme for Cyborg is surprisingly restrained, hinting at the sense of isolation and loss the character feels. In “Enter Cyborg” his theme is heard softly, with prominent pianos, strings, harp, and cool woodwinds. There’s both a 3-note ‘Sad Cyborg’ motif heard at 0:04, and a more determined-sounding 6-note extrapolation which first appears at 1:07; it is this latter idea which tends to accompany Cyborg’s moments of heroism in the action cues. Later, in “Cyborg Meets Diana,” Cyborg’s theme appears as a duet for solo cello and piano, but is arranged with a little bit of a quirky vibe, with harp glissandi, pizzicato effects, and synth pulses coming into play. Cleverly, Elfman sneaks in what appears to be an almost unrecognizable statement of the Wonder Woman ostinato at 2:18, performed by a soft, slow harp.

Less impressive are the themes for Aquaman and The Flash. Aquaman’s theme appears for the first time, naturally, in “Aquaman in Atlantis,” an epic and exciting action track full of swooping strings and resounding choral outbursts, and bearing a suitably apocalyptic tone. The cue is built mostly around variations and deconstructions of Aquaman’s 8-note theme, but the whole thing is curiously intangible and difficult to identify, like a drop in a bucket of water. The same can be said of the theme for The Flash, which again appears prominently in cues like “Spark of The Flash,” but is again not really distinct enough to be truly memorable. The Flash theme has some tonal similarities to Blake Neely’s theme for the current popular TV show, rather than to his own 1990s TV Flash theme, with pulsating flute scales and rhythmic choppy strings, but it doesn’t get a real ‘hero moment’ in the same way that the Batman or Wonder Woman themes do, and I’m hoping that they are more clearly developed in those characters’ forthcoming standalone films.

Another major new theme in the score is for the primary antagonist, Steppenwolf, and his quest to obtain the three ‘mother boxes’ at the center of the plot. As an ancient being with enormous power and near-immortality, Steppenwolf’s theme has an appropriately dark and epic sound; cues like “The Story of Steppenwolf,” “The Amazon Mother Box,” the aforementioned “Aquaman in Atlantis,” and the concert arrangement “Anti Hero’s Theme” feature the Steppenwolf material prominently, as well as explosions of menacing choral ideas, imposing brass clusters, and even a contrapuntal rendering of the Batman ascending motif in that final piece. Meanwhile, the maguffin mother boxes have their own little motif, a descending figure for strings that has appeared in several Elfman action scores (most notably Hulk and Planet of the Apes), which first appears at the very beginning of “The Amazon Mother Box,” and again later in “Spark of the Flash,” and “Friends and Foes,” among others.

The score’s final new theme is the Clark and Lois Love Theme, a wholesome piece for acoustic guitar and solo piano which Elfman uses to illustrate the feelings the reunited lovers have for each other. It first appears at the end of “Friends and Foes” on romantic but slightly bittersweet strings, before receiving a fuller statement in the lovely “Home,” the musical embodiment of a Kansas cornfield. This cue also makes some subtle allusions to Zimmer’s Clark Kent theme from Man of Steel, just to prove that Elfman did not abandon Zimmer’s musical concepts entirely. There are a couple of other moments of downtime too – “The World Needs Superman” features soft, slow, introspective solo horns and strings, while “Bruce and Diana” features intimate pianos, strings, and horns, with more allusions to the Batman chord progressions.

However, beyond these notable thematic statements, the rest of the score is built around large-scale action sequences, most of which are mightily impressive. Despite having penned large amounts of battle music over the course of his career, the action music in Justice League feels especially accomplished. The two most notable elements to me here are the density and quality of the orchestrations, and the thematic interplay that weaves through each cue, following the ebbs and flows, the beats and rests, in a way that feels completely organic and natural rather than mickey-mousey. From an orchestration point of view, the amount of mileage Elfman gets out of the ensemble is enormously impressive. There are many moments where every single person is there, fortissimo to the max, but there are also tiny moments of instrumental clarity and precision that ring out: the anvil in “The Tunnel Fight,” the harp textures in “Justice League United,” the balalaika in “The Final Battle.”

Thematically, the action sequences are beautifully complicated. It would have been so easy for Elfman to simply resort to cello ostinatos and pounding drums for these sequences, but instead he treats them as miniature Wagnerian symphonies, with themes leading into one another, and playing off each other contrapuntally, telling the story of the action as it unfolds. There are so many superb moments, but the most important is probably the return of John Williams’s Superman material in “Friends and Foes.” Much like he does with the Batman material, Elfman uses the Superman theme sparingly, and in unusual ways. The first statements of the theme are unexpectedly dark, played in a minor key and surrounded by aggressive brass triplets, choppy strings, and a brooding choir, which hint at Superman’s confusion and anger following his resurrection. Hearing the iconic Superman Theme rendered in such a way feels a little jarring, but it’s tonally right for the moment, and proves that Elfman was actually thinking about the best way to use it, rather than just slapping it everywhere for fan service.

The two most significant action set pieces are “The Tunnel Fight” and “The Final Battle,” both of which are absolutely monumental. The soundtrack provides two versions of both cues, shorter versions lasting for six minutes each, and then longer versions which run for 11 and 13 minutes respectively. I recommend the longer versions in order to fully appreciate the scope of them, because Elfman really pulls out all the stops. The orchestra is massive, the writing is creative and energetic, the percussion ideas are filled with constant fluid pattern changes, and there are dozens of thematic hits following each of the characters as their super powers shine. In “The Tunnel Battle” alone there are moments where he plays the Steppenwolf theme underpinned by both the Batman chord progressions and the Wonder Woman ostinato, when he gives us flashes of both the Justice League theme and Hero theme, where he plays the main Batman motif and the Wonder Woman ostinato simultaneously as they work together, and then offers a huge heroic statement of the Aquaman theme as the old fish whisperer appears to hold back a tidal wave.

Then, in “The Final Battle,” Elfman again gives each theme a moment in the spotlight, notably another performance of the Wonder Woman ostinato underneath the Batman theme, prominent statements of the Steppenwolf material and the Mother Box motif, a huge statement of the full Batman Theme at 1:15, a blast of the heroic Superman Fanfare at 2:48, a Russian variation on the Justice League theme for balalaika to represent the geographic location of the set-piece, and even a heroic version of Cyborg’s theme. It’s all just wonderful. The score finishes with “A New Hope,” beginning with a majestic, noble statement of the Justice League Theme for strings and an emotional choir, moving through variations for balalaika, guitars, and woodwinds, before a final refrain of the Batman theme on solo trumpet, swelling to a sweeping finish.

Despite all this purple prose and overt praise for the music as music, the complaints about the score, the lack of thematic consistency with the rest of the DC Expanded Universe, and the return of the ‘original’ Batman and Superman themes to Justice League, all remain legitimate concerns worthy of debate. Speaking personally, I have to admit I remain conflicted. On the one hand, as you can see, I think Elfman’s actual musical contribution to the film is superb on every technical and compositional level, and is the best score for a DC comic book film since Elliot Goldenthal’s Batman scores in the late 1990s – and I’m counting Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, and everything else, in that list. On the other hand, as I have already explained, the application of the 1978 and 1989 themes in this specific context feels tonally out of place, and stops the musical world building that Hans Zimmer was trying to achieve firmly in its tracks. It’s a peculiar thing, wishing that music I don’t like was in a film I don’t like, instead of music I love, in order to satisfy my intellectual preference for franchise-wide consistency, and I don’t quite know how to reconcile my feelings about it all. In the end, perhaps I should simply concentrate on the fact that Elfman wrote a truly spectacular action super hero score for Justice League, and allow myself to be satisfied with that.

Buy the Justice League soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Everybody Knows (written by Leonard Cohen and Sharon Robinson, performed by Sigrid) (4:25)
  • The Justice League Theme – Logos (0:48)
  • Hero’s Theme (4:17)
  • Batman on the Roof (2:34)
  • Enter Cyborg (2:00)
  • Wonder Woman Rescue (2:43)
  • Hippolyta’s Arrow (1:16)
  • The Story of Steppenwolf (2:59)
  • The Amazon Mother Box (4:33)
  • Cyborg Meets Diana (2:36)
  • Aquaman in Atlantis (2:39)
  • Then There Were Three (1:10)
  • The Tunnel Fight (6:24)
  • The World Needs Superman (1:00)
  • Spark of The Flash (2:18)
  • Friends and Foes (4:14)
  • Justice League United (1:24)
  • Home (3:24)
  • Bruce and Diana (1:06)
  • The Final Battle (6:14)
  • A New Hope (4:36)
  • Anti-Hero’s Theme (5:35)
  • Come Together (written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, performed by Gary Clark Jr. and Junkie XL) (3:13)
  • Icky Thump (written by Jack White, performed by The White Stripes) (4:14)
  • The Tunnel Fight (Full Length) (10:58) – Bonus
  • The Final Battle (Full Length) (12:57) – Bonus
  • Mother Russia (1:45) – Bonus

Running Time: 101 minutes 33 seconds

Watertower Music (2017)

Music composed by Danny Elfman. Conducted by Rick Wentworth. Orchestrations by Steve Bartek, Edgardo Simone, Dave Slonaker, Ed Trybek and Marc Mann. Batman theme written by Danny Elfman. Superman theme written by John Williams. Wonder Woman theme written by Hans Zimmer. Additional music by T. J. Lindgren, Geoff Zanelli and Pinar Toprak. Recorded and mixed by Peter Cobbin. Album produced by Danny Elfman.

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  1. MPC
    November 24, 2017 at 7:35 am

    Great review Jonathan! One moment in the film that’s not featured on the album is the fantastic music that plays after “Spark of the Flash”… the harmonious and slightly ominous choir burst as Superman is resurrected.

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