By Karol Krok
Superman might be as well one of the most difficult and challenging concepts to realise on big screen. His stoic and, in most people’s opinion, quite uninteresting demeanor, simple code of ethics, the physical invulnerability – all of those things stand in the way of compelling drama. Besides, pretty much every new generation has quite drastically different ideas of what he should be – War World II propaganda-like early incarnations, more colourful Golden Age, Richard Donner’s films, the John Byrne mid-80’s revamp, gritty Zack Snyder interpretation. It seems like he’s changing constantly. And yet, strangely enough, always remains the same.
Bryan Singer’s 2006 take on the character wasn’t exactly a soaring success. While far from financial and critical disaster, it failed to grab the audiences and start a new series. A lot of good elements are in place – the interesting timeless art deco production design, a genius of casting Kevin Spacey and Parker Posey as villains, Brandon Routh looked the part, some nice special effects work, the refreshingly relaxed pacing – certainly an indication that it wasn’t just a quick attempt to cash in on a popular property.
John Ottman’s score will probably remain one of the few elements from Superman Returns that people will take away from it and enjoy long after the film itself disappears from memory. While no John Williams’ in brilliant orchestrations and probably lacking certain, almost Goldsmith-like, excitement of Alexander Courage’s very overlooked Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, it is nevertheless a work of someone who clearly cares for this material. From the outset it becomes fairly obvious the composer took every opportunity to inject his music with tons of references to the original score, being that themes or certain passages that recall 1978 score (of which the action material in ‘Kitty Decoy’ is a fine example).
Pretty much every single theme of John Williams’ gets some sort of reprise. The main march section itself doesn’t make an appearance within main body of this score (not counting the titles). Nevertheless, the amazing B-section fanfare creeps in most cues, in one way or another, and is in fact Superman Returns’ main thematic idea. Apart from that, lot of material connected to Clark’s heritage is brought back. The revelation of Fortress of Solitude sequence early on is scored with the appropriately grand statement of Krypton theme while the counterpoint of Superman ostinato rhythm against lovely Smallville theme in presents an early highlight in ‘Memories’.. Lois Lane’s love theme returns as well, although I’m not sure if I like some of the harmonic changes made to its grander statements. One the other hand, the fragile introduction in ‘Things Have Changed’ is absolutely delightful.
John has also provided us with some his own new material. What he calls a Superman personal theme addresses a side of character previously unseen. It is a longing and emotional piece that often accompanies Clark at moments of solitude. It gets its cathartic climactic statement in ‘Power of the Sun’ when Superman recharges his powers before going back to battle. One of the favourite moments is a scene in which Lois Lane leaves the hospital at the end and Ottman treats us to a combo of love and personal themes, wrapped up gracefully with yet another appearance of Smallville melody (as heard in I Wanted You To Know). This probably one of the best treatments of Williams’ material ever, apart from what Alexander Courage did in his 1987 entry. Last but not least, there is a fun motif written for Lex Luthor which apparently arrived quite late in the scoring process. A nice and memorable idea arguably represents this villain better than the infamous ‘March of the Villains’. In yet another great musical juxtaposition, Superman’s ostinato in ‘Saving the World’ scene is concluded by Lex’s theme, instead of familiar heroic fanfare the audience expects.
The score seems to be a love letter not only to Williams’ output but also to many other legendary composers’. There are certain passages that seem to recall James Horner’s Brainstrom, especially the choral section in ‘How Could You Leave Us?’. Interestingly, the music from that score made an appearance in the trailer for Superman Returns, so that reference is probably intentional. Jerry Goldsmith’s Capricorn One percussive effects also receive a nod in ‘Bank Job’ and ‘Saving Superman’.
There are quite a few action set-pieces composed for this film. The plane sequence is one element that pretty much everybody liked. The music is appropriately animated and energetic, if somewhat less coherent in its composition. Same goes for ‘Metropolis Mayhem’. It’s safe to say, while all those cues are exciting and serve the picture well, it is the emotional and comedic material that ultimately really makes the score endearing. John Ottman has always been great at quirky and fun – dating back to the scores like Goodbye Lover and Incognito. And it is at such material in this score that shines the brightest – moments like ‘Supermania’, ‘Like Sea Monkeys’ or ‘Little Secrets’.
One previously unheard track that needs a special mention is the infamous ‘Return to Krypton’ sequence that was deleted from theatrical cut. Unfortunately, this cue was never recorded with live orchestra but synthesised demo presented on the new expanded album is evocative enough and we get a pretty good idea of what it would have sounded like in its finished form. Probably more ethereal and s-f than any other material, this piece recalls some Gustav Holst textures from ‘Neptune’. Overall, its a surprise highlight
Superman Returns was available for the past 7 years as a 55-minute album, presenting the score out of order and omitting several notable cues. While a strong disc, it failed to encompass everything John Ottman was trying to achieve within his work. Thus, the new 2 disc limited edition from La-La Land Records, arriving just in time for the character’s 75th birthday celebration, is most welcome. Many shorter cues are joined together to create much better musical flow (although it is also sure to upset some fans) and the album ends with a great hidden joke, something the music label is now famous for. Dan Goldwasser produced the set and was also responsible for the look. Along with Jim Titus’ work, his Warm Butter Design creates some of the smartest looking releases in the business and it’s a pure joy to look at. The veteran Jeff Bond provides detailed notes for reading pleasure. Overall, it makes for a fine addition to Film Score Monthly’s own superb Blue Box set. Finally, after many years, all of John Williams’ inspired super-legacy can now be enjoyed in its entirety.
Superman Returns is out now from Warner Bros. (the original album) and La-La Land Records (the expanded edition)