The Scoring Session - Man of Steel / Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

The Scoring Session


Man of Steel/Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice

Welcome to a special Justice League themed edition of The Scoring Session. In this run up to the release of the historic first theatrical appearance of the most iconic Superhero Team in comic books we’re going to take a look at the work Hans Zimmer did in establishing themes for Henry Cavill’s Superman and others in the DCEU...


It is no mistake that when this column began we dove straight in with John Williams’ Superman: The Movie Score – that work is one of the most iconic pieces of cinema score ever created, arguably second only to Williams’ work on Star Wars.  Prior to Man of Steel, only four composers had tackled a feature length version of Superman and all of them had been follow ups to Williams’ 1978 work.  Ken Thorne was hired to re-orchestrate Williams’ Superman: The Movie score for Superman II and Superman III, Alexander Courage came on board to do the same for Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, and John Ottman delivered a Williams retread for 2006’s Superman Returns.  Each of these movies was a sequel to the Donner film from 1978, so it made sense to continue using the iconic score, but Man of Steel would be a departure from Donner’s Superman world.

Academy Award winning composer Hans Zimmer was brought in to score Zack Snyder’s Superman origin film: Man of Steel – and both men sought to differentiate themselves from what had come before.  Snyder deviates from the primary colors and “aw shucks” attitude of the 70’s take on the hero by attempting to ground this films Clark Kent in a modern realism.  Zimmer, on the other hand, goes for a much bolder reinterpretation by jettisoning the traditional orchestra in favor of “uniquely American” instruments to score the film for the “uniquely American” superhero.  Zimmer brings to his orchestra some of the most renowned Steel Guitar players in the world to create a non-traditional string section made almost entirely of steel guitar.

Zimmer in his scoring ethos postulated that Superman is a man of action, and that action is best typified by strong percussion rather than more traditional lyrical orchestration.  To achieve the kind of rich percussion he imagined for the film Zimmer hired 12 of the leading drummers on the planet (including Sheila E., Pharrell Williams, Jason Bonham, etc.) to record a nine-hour session of nothing but the drum score for the film which is a sort of duel between two distinct percussive motifs: One drum motif that belongs to Zod and one that belongs to Clark Kent. Often in the film, the percussive motif used at any given moment is an indicator of whether the prime mover in the sequence is Clark or Zod.

The film opens with the birth of Kal-El happening as tied to the opening credits, and the score begins with a muted form of the Clark drum motif that grows louder until we realize it isn’t a drum providing percussion, it is the quickening heartbeat of the baby Kal-El.  It is here in this brief birth sequence that we get our first taste of the piano and string riff that will eventually become the Man of Steel Superman theme.  From this brief introduction we are immediately thrust into a meeting of the Kryptonian council where we get our first glimpse at what Zimmer’s percussive based score is attempting to accomplish.  There is no drum backing the music of the Kryptonian Council, any percussion in this largely string and synth piece is provided by bass strings – even when Zod and his army arrive to disband the council there is still no drum driven track.  It is not until Zod actively turns on Jor-El and orders him to be arrested that we are introduced to the incredibly chaotic drum motif associated with Zod.  This particular motif will be the driving percussive motif from this moment onward until Krypton is destroyed.

Uniquely “alien sounding” string and orchestral motifs will define Jor-El and Lara, but nothing in the opening of the film can escape the overarching power of Zod’s drumbeat of action.  During this part of the film any percussion associated with Jor-El or Kal-El himself is specifically done through the use of strings.  Zod and his followers are launched into the Phantom Zone and Krypton explodes, and we eschew the traditional Rocket crash and kindly adoptive family finding the baby Kal-El to jump directly to an adult Clark Kent serving as a fisherman.  Fisherman Clark is on a quest to piece together the entirety of his identity – and much like Williams, Zimmer has broken the eventual Superman theme into components that Clark will collect throughout the film.  First up is the Clark Kent drum motif which we are introduced to when Clark rushes over to a flaming oil rig to save men who are doomed unless Clark intervenes.

In flashback form we are introduced to young Clark Kent struggling with his powers manifesting in the middle of a class session, his hearing and x-ray vision both happening to him seemingly for the very first time.  Through this excellent scene we see a young Clark Kent who is scared of his powers, and the grounding influence that will shape him into the hero he will become.  As with all modern interpretations it is Martha and Jonathan Kent that give Clark his moral strength of character, and we see that as Martha walks Clark through his crisis.  It is in this moment when Martha calms her son that we are given the subtle piano motif piece that will eventually join the drums from the oil rig scene to form the overall Superman theme.  Here it is a slow solitary piano piece that shows us how Clark feels separated from humanity – but in time it will become the central piece of the theme for the Man of Steel.

We continue the journey of our young Clark, but we jump forward in time to experience Clark as a pre-teen involved in a school bus crash. The bus he is on blows a tire and careens off of a bridge and into a lake. He cannot hide who he is and let his classmates die, so he does what Superman always does: he gets out of the bus and pushes it out of the lake it is slowly sinking into.  As the bus emerges from the water we are reintroduced to the piece that accompanied the birth of Kal-El at the beginning of the film – here presented as an elegiac string and horn motif that is now accompanied by the drums introduced at the oil rig.  The pieces of Superman are starting to come together, but it is still incomplete and out of balance: the drums rule the piece.  The young Pete Ross and his mother come to the Kent’s to discuss what happened afterwards, and Jonathan goes to discuss Clarks origins with him  - it is here that we get the piano piece from the previous flashback restated much more strongly as Clark becomes more comfortable with his powers and who he will become.

All the pieces of the theme finally come together in the Arctic when Jor-El tells Clark about his origins and gives him his Kryptonian costume.  Clark steps into the light for the first time with the S on his chest and all three pieces that make up his theme are joined together, but not in the exact configuration they will ultimately take.  From here onward the film will play out Clark’s Superman theme in many variations, each slightly different than the one before it.  As Clark works to discover who Superman is, the theme works to discover what it wants to be.

The final configuration of the theme, entitled “What are you going to do when you aren’t saving the world” on the score album, is not debuted in a heroic fight scene or a massive battle.  The theme arrives with a visit to Jonathan Kent’s grave and a flashback to a young Clark at play and his father watching proudly – and as Clark Kent makes his way to his first day at his new job at the Daily Planet we build to the ultimate reveal of the fully balanced theme.  We do not introduced the full throated Superman theme for Kal-El wearing his “S” and cape, but for Clark Kent wearing his glasses – having found the balance between his Kryptonian and Kansas origins and choosing to be the mild mannered reporter in Metropolis by day.

Sadly this complete theme does not appear in this form again.  Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice begins with an act that causes the people of Earth to question their decision in putting their trust in Superman, which in turn causes Superman to question his own place in the world all over again.  The net result of this is that throughout BvS we get various melancholic variations of the theme, but never a fully heroic statement of the theme.  The closest we get is the incredibly moving “You Are My World” piece when Clark tells Lois he loves her one last time before making the final sacrifice for the people of Earth by taking down the Doomsday creature created by Lex Luthor – the piece begins at its most melancholy and sad before swelling toward an elegiac statement of doomed heroism.

In Batman v. Superman Zimmer introduces three new themes on top of his Man of Steel Superman theme.  The first is the thematic statement for Lex Luthor, which is a fantastic reworking of the Man of Steel theme itself.  “The Red Capes Are Coming” is literally a reversal and perversion of the note structure of the MoS theme used to show that Lex is Clark’s equal and opposite.

For Batman and Wonder Woman, Zimmer had a different challenge than he was presented with in Man of Steel.  The first film is an origin film where Clark is built up to becoming Superman, but Batman and Wonder Woman arrive in BvS as fully formed incarnations of their four color characters.  Having scored the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight trilogy, Hans Zimmer had a wealth of material that he could have drawn from for the Batman side of the score – but Zimmer decided he wanted to differentiate Affleck’s Batman from Bale’s Batman.  Collaborating with Junkie XL Zimmer wrote a haunting piece that dances around a melody that is slowly collapsing in on itself.  Simple, single notes give us an almost icy heartbeat that builds up around the imagery of Bruce Wayne in the alley with his parents as they are cut down, and though stronger elements rise and fall around Batman this simple icy pulselike refrain never goes away.  We first see it in the flashback sequence to crime alley at the beginning of the film, and again as adult Bruce catches his first glimpse of Superman and Zod in the sky.  The broken melodic refrain is all the fear and helplessness of Bruce Wayne made manifest in that he cannot protect this world from Krpytonians anymore than he could protect his parents from their murderers.

Wonder Woman’s theme is given as much of a unique identity as Superman’s.  Clark’s themes were constructed out of steel guitar, synth and drums – while Diana’s are constructed out of electric guitars drums and cello’s.   Hers is a theme of strength and power that conveys she is a complete hero, not needing to get exorcise the demons of his rage like Bruce or come into his own like Clark – she is on the field from moment one: ready to fight.  Frankly of the three themes, the Wonder Woman theme is the most successful and most badass: the infectious rhythm pulls you in and raises your pulse as the infectious smile on Gadot’s face lets you know that you are allowed to enjoy her heroics just as much as she is.

With the big three placed on the board (even though one was very quickly removed) we are all set up for Justice League – which has been scored not by Hans Zimmer but by Danny Elfman.  Elfman elected to bring back classic themes from the older DC movies as well as themes created by Zimmer in both Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman.  The result is a score that includes John Williams’ Superman theme, Hans Zimmer’s Superman theme and Danny Elfman’s Batman theme from the 1989 Tim Burton film.  I look forward to sharing my thoughts on that score sometime after it becomes fully available, but for now I’ll leave you with a sneak peek featuring Elfman’s take on Williams’ Superman theme.

Thank you for joining us for this look at Hans Zimmer’s work leading up to Justice League.  Next month join us as we look at another John Williams classic score.  Join us in December when we celebrate the release of The Last Jedi by taking a deep dive into the score to The Empire Strikes Back