By Charlie Brigden
Amazing! Terrible! These are almost always the two terms most used when a new Hans Zimmer score is released. With the film score community seemingly split down the middle in regards to the composer’s talent and methods, a new Hansy album provokes fiery debate without fail. But this is no ordinary score, this is MAN OF STEEL. This is Superman. An American icon, and one with the kind of musical heritage and association that makes this a challenge to not only produce a great score, but to win hearts and minds. Let battle commence.
Of course, we cannot go any further without mentioning the elephant in the room. John Williams. Regarded as the greatest film composer ever, his theme for Krypton’s last son – as heard in Richard Donner’s 1978 adaptation SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE and its sequels – is indelibly linked with the character, with a level of musical identification rarely seen of. But it’s not just the theme, the score itself for Donner’s original film is a powerhouse, and the kind of score that a lot of composers would be either be giddy with glee or scared to hell to follow. But let’s leave this for now – we shall not mention John Williams again. Okay, that’s a complete lie, but we’ll at least save him for the finale.
Zimmer’s approach can be compared at times to that of his work with Christopher Nolan on the Dark Knight trilogy – instead of starting with a complete theme (as was the case with Danny Elfman’s BATMAN), he stripped it down and started developing it as Batman began his crusade against crime. While Batman’s theme didn’t really get anywhere across three movies (he didn’t earn it apparently), Superman’s theme is at least unleashed in full by the close of the album. Well, the first disc at least. Using two simple notes as a jumping off point, it builds and develops across the record until its climactic explosion where you finally hear it in its splendour, just like in that trailer. Batman’s theme never really had any kind of resolution, it was always left out there, even over the final shot of THE DARK KNIGHT RISES.
Obviously Batman and Superman are two very different characters, both striving for a similar goal with varying strategies and methods. Batman exists in the shadows, his music coloured by his ambiguity. When he performs heroics, his music is quite militaristic, something you’d imagine scoring a Call of Duty video game. I was always struck by a certain musical decision in BATMAN BEGINS. It was a scene which I saw as a personification of Christopher Nolan’s take on the character, and especially how it was set aside from Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher’s, a take perfectly illustrated in a moment of musical subversion. The funny thing is, at first I was let down by it.
It’s when Batman has taken out Carmine Falcone’s goons at the Gotham docks. Commissioner Gordon has found Falcone tied to a GCPD spotlight, creating a bat-symbol in the sky, and Batman sits atop a skyscraper as the camera pans across, the music swelling and swelling and… nothing. Just the two Bat-notes and then silence. It suits the character to a tee, and while Superman is happy to put himself out there as a beacon of hope, Batman prefers to stay under the cover of darkness.
It’s worth mentioning that the album is not in chronological order, with the penultimate track ‘Flight’ – which first features the main theme in its “full-on” mode – actually coming in the middle section of the film. It’s an odd choice really, I understand where Zimmer is coming from with the development and the finale where Superman finally arises as a complete hero, but as a listening experience it feels underplayed, especially as the final tracks don’t have enough meat on them to give the record a satisfactory conclusion.
Also, there’s the drums. Oh, the drums. You may have heard that Zimmer has assembled a celebrity percussion section for the score, featuring such notable musicians as Pharrell Williams (N*E*R*D, Zimmer’s DESPICABLE ME), Danny Carey (Tool), Josh Freese (Nine Inch Nails) and Jason Bonham (son of Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham). I don’t know whether or not this was an attempt to create a kind of percussion super-group, or for PR purposes. If it’s for the former, I don’t really understand why as the drum patterns in the score are pretty simple. Don’t get me wrong, they do sound quite good at times but they are overused, both in the album and the score as in the film.
Okay, I’m done ragging on it for a while. Something that actually surprised me, especially after hearing some other opinions on the soundtrack grapevine, is that I actually like MAN OF STEEL quite a bit. It has – I hate this word and it’s overuse, but it deserves its use here – an epic sound to it, one that befits the recreation of a mythology. The album begins with a swirling and ethereal feel that immediately puts you into the heart of an alien civilisation, and imbues that atmosphere with a human quality from those two simple notes via solo piano and a wonderful female voice that creates a kind of lullabye for the travelling Kal-El (in ‘Goodbye My Son’).
As it moves we start a further development of the theme in various iterations, with a sense of mourning (‘Krypton’s Last’), threat (the mammoth ‘Terraforming’, which features a grand male wordless choir that turns hopelessness into optimism), mystery (‘I Have So Many Questions’, which features the lullabye with a beautiful string counterpart), and tenderness (‘Tornado’ and its delicate piano). And then there is the finale, the awkwardly-named ‘What Are You Going To Do When You Are Not Saving The World?’ that features Superman’s theme unleashed. It’s a glorious moment, Kal-El’s moment in the sun, and while I really wish it was part of a longer suite to finish off the record, it’s still the best moment on there and one of the greatest pieces Hans Zimmer has ever composed.
The deluxe edition of the score – which comes in a nifty digipak – comes with an extra disc containing seven tracks. Six of these are extra tracks from the film, but the seventh is an interesting extra called ‘Hans’ Original Sketchbook, which acts as an example of the kind of experimenting and writing that Zimmer used while composing the score. It’s an intriguing listen (and goes on for twenty-eight minutes) and I would like to see more of this kind of thing from other composers. The other big extra from the DE is a code for use with the Z+ app which allows you to listen to the score in DTS Headphone:X surround sound. I have to say, I’m not convinced. It sounded a bit murky, and I wanted to go back to the normal two-channels not long after starting.
So. It’s not John Williams, and it was never going to be. Frankly, Hans Zimmer doesn’t have the ability to be able to write music like Williams can. But after letting Johnny go, Zimmer’s new music for Superman is at times breathtaking and inspiring. It does have its shortfalls, notably the overuse of drums and the occasional fall into the dull Batmanesque string patterns, and the album program has an odd feel with its steady building and quick denouement, but the music is worth it and programmable CD players are a wonderful thing. It may take a while, but in the end MAN OF STEEL soars.
MAN OF STEEL is out now from Sony Classical
*Note: The score I have given MAN OF STEEL is on its own merits and does not relate to how I feel about it in comparison to John Williams’ score for SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE. So there.