Home > Reviews > THE BATMAN – Michael Giacchino

THE BATMAN – Michael Giacchino

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

When Warner Brothers announced that there was going to be yet another Batman reboot movie, with a sixth actor donning the famous black cowl, I admit I initially rolled my eyes. How many more different versions of this story do we need? How could they possibly differentiate it from the character portrayals by Michael Keaton, Christian Bale, and most recently Ben Affleck, among all the others? I was getting bat fatigue, and went into this with somewhat low expectations, despite the caliber of the actors and filmmakers involved. Well, I’m very happy to eat my words because Matt Reeves’s The Batman, starring Robert Pattinson and Zoe Kravitz, is excellent: the caped crusader re-imagined as a film noir antihero. It’s important to remember that the media behemoth we know now as DC actually began as Detective Comics, and that the character was originally that – the world’s greatest detective. The Batman is very much a return to those roots, pitting the character as an ally to the Gotham City police, helping to solve the murders of several local politicians and public figures in increasingly disturbing ways.

I’m not going to go much into the plot of the film, because a story like this works better if you go in without any spoiler knowledge, but I will say that the film is steeped in Batman lore. Pattinson plays Batman and his reclusive alter-ego Bruce Wayne, and Kravitz plays Selina Kyle who moonlights as the seductive Catwoman; they are ably supported by Paul Dano as the evil Riddler, Jeffrey Wright as the upstanding Gotham police chief Jim Gordon, Andy Serkis as Batman’s long-serving butler Alfred, John Turturro as local mob boss Carmine Falcone, and an unrecognizable Colin Farrell as Falcone’s ambitious chief lieutenant, who is nicknamed Penguin. The difference, really, is one of tone and style.

This film’s Gotham City is a rain-sodden exploration of urban and social decay, trash-strewn and graffiti-daubed and bathed in blood red neon, with a city hall full of corruption. Pattinson’s portrayal of Wayne makes him a sullen, withdrawn grown up emo kid, brilliant and strong but damaged goods; his Batman oscillates between calculating intellect and sometimes shocking violence – at times he feels like a 40s gumshoe, an updated variant on Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade, while at others he almost feels like Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver, cruising the streets late at night ready to serve justice to the city he both loves and hates. The use of voice-over narration adds to that whole mood. Meanwhile, the actual plot, and especially the way it approaches the Riddler character, felt very much like a David Fincher film – perhaps Seven crossed with Zodiac – with Jim Gordon’s world weary veteran cop complementing Batman’s eager youngster as they work together to solve the puzzles and stop a psychopath.

The final element that adds so much to the overall atmosphere of the film is its score, by Michael Giacchino. This is the fifth film that he has scored for director Reeves, after Cloverfield, Let Me In, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and War for the Planet of the Apes, and so his hiring makes sense from an ‘enduring relationship’ standpoint, but again when I first heard that he had been hired I wondered how he could possibly come up with something new. The Batman scores by Danny Elfman and Hans Zimmer are especially beloved in film music circles, and the fact that Giacchino simultaneously has his hand in so many other massive franchises – Star Wars, Star Trek, Jurassic Park, and several Marvel characters – left me wondering what he could bring to the table that hadn’t been heard before. Well, against all expectation, Giacchino somehow managed to do just that: come up with an identity for Batman that has a number of respectful allusions to the things that Elfman and Zimmer and even Elliot Goldenthal did before him, while creating something fresh and invigorating, with a theme that is somehow already approaching iconic status.

Giacchino’s score is dark, sometimes unremittingly bleak, and sometimes oppressively brutal, but also has glimmers of romance and optimism peeking through the shade. The music recognizes the duality of the Batman character by scoring the two sides of him differently: the music for Bruce Wayne – and, by extension, Gotham itself – is classically elegant, but jaded, acknowledging the opulence and richness of Gotham’s past, but tempering that with the contemporary decay, while ALSO looking forward to a post-corruption city and the promise of what both Bruce and Gotham could be if they exorcised their current demons. However, when it relates to Bruce as Batman, the music is powerful but mysterious, lurking in the shadows and at the periphery of everything, until it emerges fully and becomes almost crushingly overwhelming, a four-note battering ram of vengeance and anger. The things Giacchino does with these four notes are brilliant – but I’ll get to that shortly.

The score’s four main recurring themes are best heard in the suites that conclude the album, so it actually makes more sense to listen to them first, before starting on the score proper, so that you can recognize them more clearly. “The Batman” explores the themes for Batman and Bruce Wayne/Gotham, as described above, and the four-note Batman motif is the first thing you hear, on deeply sonorous pianos. After around thirty seconds the Bruce Wayne/Gotham theme emerges on rich, elegant strings, bringing a strong emotional quality to the piece, and as the theme develops it gradually grows to embrace the full orchestra, and when it does it’s just outstanding.

“The Riddler” is the theme for Paul Dano’s character, the main antagonist of the story, who is about as far away from Jim Carrey and Frank Gorshin as it is possible to be. In fact, a lot of what this character says and does struck me as an intentional reference to ‘Q’ and the Q-Anon online conspiracy theory movement, but I’m not going to go into that any further to avoid spoilers. Musically, the Riddler theme is a lot more classical than one might expect. Giacchino clearly took a musical cue from Franz Schubert’s 1825 composition “Ave Maria,” which is a plot point within the film; the famous Schubert melody was then altered and skewed slightly to form a new musical motif for the character – initially it’s quite beautiful, almost angelic, especially when it is performed by a wordless soprano with accompaniment from chimes and soft strings. But as it develops it becomes darker, more tortured, and defaced by agitated slithering strings, before finally exploding into a huge, aggressive, dominant variation for powerful horns, massive string phrases, and moments of shrieking dissonance, hinting at his madness and dangerousness.

Finally, the theme for Zoe Kravitz’s “Catwoman” is all John Barry, sexy and sultry and wonderfully enticing. It has the same unmistakable quality that Barry brought to his femme fatale characters and his film noirs – there are echoes of Body Heat, perhaps Hammett, perhaps The Specialist, perhaps Jagged Edge, things like that – and it moves seductively between pianos and silky strings, backed by plucked basses and harps. It has a smoky, jazzy flavor that is immediately captivating, while the mewling purr in the phrasing of the violins is just delicious. It perfectly illustrates the sexual tension that exists between Batman and Catwoman, and is one of the best new things Giacchino has written in some time.

The rest of the score is built around these four ideas, all blended together to create a series of cues that embrace the mystery at the heart of the story, the atmosphere of fear created by the Riddler’s actions, and the romantic relationship between Batman and Catwoman, and which then occasionally bursts out into ferocious, tremendously entertaining action sequences. What’s clever about what Giacchino does with the Batman motif especially is how he is able to alter its demeanor with nothing more than changes of orchestration. One of the big things about this Batman is how his very presence is supposed to be threatening to the criminals of Gotham; they think they see him lurking in every shadowy doorway, ready to strike, and Giacchino illustrates this concept by having the four-note motif literally everywhere.

It appears in almost every cue in some form or another, its presence looming large over the score like the character’s presence looms large over the city. Sometimes it’s subtle, almost subliminal, a soft timpani rhythm. Sometimes it’s loud, screaming in your face, a cacophony of horns. But most often it simply has a presence, underpinning everything the film does and that the character does within it. It gets arranged for an electric guitar (sometimes backed by ticking metallic percussion), for pianos and keyboards, for rhythmic strings, and more, but no matter what the score does, no matter what is happening on screen, the four-note motif is never far away. In many cues (“Can’t Fight City Halloween,” “It’s Raining Vengeance,” “Crossing the Feline”) it is the music’s main anchor, while in others (“Penguin of Guilt”) it is mostly background suspense, reminding the listener and the viewer that the dark knight is ever present.

The Riddler’s theme gets several ominous outings, notably in cues like “Mayoral Ducting,” “Moving in for the Gil,” and “World’s Worst Translator,” where it often combines with eerie, keening orchestral textures to give the whole thing the feel of a horror movie. There’s also an unusual vocal sound, sort of a cross between growling and Tuvan throat-singing, that crops up in cues like “Collar ID,” and adds another tonal dimension to the Riddler’s musical identity. Elsewhere, Catwoman’s sly theme features prominently in cues such as “Don’t Be Voyeur With Me,” and “Meow and You and Everyone We Know,” with the latter especially being the score’s gorgeous romantic highlight. I love how Giacchino plays the Riddler theme and the Catwoman theme off against each other in the unnerving “Gannika Girl,” and then later in “Hoarding School,” where all three themes come together in a single piece, as Batman and Catwoman follow the Riddler’s clues to an abandoned orphanage, and uncover some terrible hidden secrets.

“Funeral and Far Between” offers the score’s first real statement of the lush Bruce Wayne/Gotham theme, and then in the brilliant “Riddles, Riddles Everywhere” Giacchino plays both Batman themes simultaneously to excellent effect. In the subsequent “For All Your Pennyworth” the Wayne/Gotham theme overflows with anguish and sorrow, and is probably the score’s emotionally devastating high point – you can feel the pain and the pathos that stems from Bruce’s discoveries about his past, how those things relate to what’s going on with the Riddler, and especially his relationship with Alfred, who is essentially his surrogate father.

The first big action sequence is “Escaped Crusader,” which starts slowly, but gradually adopts a clearly Zimmer-esque tone via the use of a bombastic action ostinato that comes directly from the Dark Knight school of Batman scoring. The subsequent “Highway to the Anger Zone,” which underscores the phenomenal Batman-Penguin car chase sequence, is brilliant, full of dense and complicated orchestrations, pulsating rhythmic ideas, and some of the score’s most rousing flashes of the Batman motif. Some of the phrasing of the brass in this cue especially appears to be an homage to Elliot Goldenthal’s work on Batman Forever and Batman & Robin, as well as the more flamboyant parts of scores like Interview with the Vampire – it’s just remarkable.

The final couple of minutes of “Are You a Kenzie or a Can’t-zie?” are rather intense, as are the subsequent “An Im-purr-fect Murder,” which impresses with its tick-tock percussion and clever interplay between both the Batman motif and Catwoman’s theme, and “The Great Pumpkin Pie,” which is nervous and restless and makes great use of a whole host of tremolo strings and creepy allusions to the Riddler’s theme. The action finale of the score begins in “A Flood of Terrors” and then climaxes in the brilliant 2-part 11-minute “A Bat in the Rafters,” which opens with an enormous gothic version of the Riddler theme that writhes in torment, and then features rousing settings of all the main themes. The use of the Batman motif at the beginning of “Part 2” is the score’s one big hero moment, and Giacchino’s action writing over the next five minutes is just tremendous – fierce, vibrant, creative, sometimes dissonant and difficult, sometimes sweepingly emotional, but never anything less than thoroughly entertaining. The statement of Catwoman’s theme towards the end of the piece is enormously effective in context, and sounds wonderful.

Both “The Bat’s True Calling” and “All’s Well That Ends Farewell” have a sense of relief and resolution, which is achieved by placing the Wayne/Gotham theme at the forefront. It is here that Bruce finally answers the promise of his family’s legacy and dedicates himself to actually serving the people of Gotham as Batman, rather than just meting out his own version of brutal justice, while at the same time coming to terms with his affection for Selina/Catwoman. The final performance, where the strings are bolstered by a warm horn countermelody and harp glissandi, is outstanding. And then, if that were not enough, the final piece on the album is the 12-minute “Sonata in Darkness,” a superb performance of all four main themes for solo piano performed by the virtuoso pianist Gloria Cheng, a major chunk of which is heard during the end credits. Classical experts tell me that the piece is not strictly in sonata form – I wouldn’t know, to be honest – but I also honestly don’t care. When was the last time a composer arranged his own orchestral score for solo piano and actually put it in the film, especially a super hero action film? It’s brilliant.

I mentioned earlier that some of the brass phrasing in the action music seems to be an intentional homage to Elliot Goldenthal, and that one of the ostinatos in “Escaped Crusader” was clearly inspired by Hans Zimmer, but that’s not the only piece of Batman history to make it into the score. In fact, much of the orchestration seems to have been inspired by Danny Elfman’s Batman scores, especially in the way he uses tubular bells and anvils as part of the percussion, and in the prominent placement of harps and occasional church organs. There’s also one moment in the film where I clearly heard a rhythmic callback to Hans Zimmer’s ‘deshi basara’ chant from The Dark Knight Rises, but sadly this piece does not appear to be on the soundtrack album. Mostly, I love the fact that Giacchino clearly recognizes the musical heritage of the Batman franchise, and ensured that he at least paid some sort of homage to it in his own score.

Michael Giacchino’s score for The Batman surpassed my expectations in almost every way. Having been exposed to the new Batman motif through the film’s entire marketing campaign, it is now firmly ingrained in my subconscious, but the amount of emotional depth and textural variation he was able to bring to these four notes is seriously impressive. The Catwoman theme is a jazzy and seductive delight, one of his best character identities. The Gotham/Wayne theme has just the right amount of brooding angst and rich opulence, and the Riddler theme is very clever in the way it acknowledges its religioso classical originals, before sending them all the way to the lunatic asylum. While Danny Elfman’s original two Michael Keaton Batman scores remain my personal gold standard, and while I have grown to appreciate Hans Zimmer’s Christian Bale Batman scores as the years have passed, Michael Giacchino’s score for the Caped Crusader has instantly placed itself in the upper echelons of Batman music, and I hope he gets the opportunity to explore this sonic world in future films, as the final scene suggests he might…

Buy the Batman soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Can’t Fight City Halloween (4:04)
  • Mayoral Ducting (2:34)
  • It’s Raining Vengeance (4:31)
  • Don’t Be Voyeur With Me (2:38)
  • Crossing the Feline (1:46)
  • Gannika Girl (2:30)
  • Moving in for the Gil (4:23)
  • Funeral and Far Between (1:45)
  • Collar ID (1:15)
  • Escaped Crusader (2:44)
  • Penguin of Guilt (3:44)
  • Highway to the Anger Zone (5:19)
  • World’s Worst Translator (3:34)
  • Riddles, Riddles Everywhere (1:54)
  • Meow and You and Everyone We Know (5:18)
  • For All Your Pennyworth (2:38)
  • Are You a Kenzie or a Can’t-zie? (5:45)
  • An Im-purr-fect Murder (3:48)
  • The Great Pumpkin Pie (2:22)
  • Hoarding School (4:55)
  • A Flood of Terrors (4:29)
  • A Bat in the Rafters, Pt. 1 (4:33)
  • A Bat in the Rafters, Pt. 2 (6:42)
  • The Bat’s True Calling (3:05)
  • All’s Well That Ends Farewell (2:41)
  • The Batman (6:47)
  • The Riddler (5:01)
  • Catwoman (3:03)
  • Sonata in Darkness (performed by Gloria Cheng) (12:11)

Running Time: 116 minutes 12 seconds

Watertower Music (2021)

Music composed by Michael Giacchino. Conducted by Ludwig Wicki, Cliff Masterson and Jeff Kryka. Orchestrations by Jeff Kryka, Mick Giacchino and Curtis Green. Additional music by Paul Apelgren and Mick Giacchino. Recorded and mixed by Peter Cobbin and Kirstie Whalley. Edited by Paul Apelgren and Joe E. Rand. Album produced by Michael Giacchino.

  1. Gerard E Beaubrun
    April 7, 2022 at 1:28 pm

    Beautifully written. I enjoyed your piece on the Catwoman theme

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