The Batman Theme (If There Ever Was One)

The Batman Theme (If There Ever Was One)

Well-known film composer Danny Elfman recently sat down for an interview with Spanish website Reporte Indigo. They spoke with him about the score for the up and coming Justice League film. Elfman was given the task of scoring the film after Junkie XL dropped out; Junkie XL had originally worked with Hans Zimmer on Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Hans Zimmer made it clear he was retiring from doing superhero music after the film, and with Junkie XL out of the picture it appears it was time to backtrack towards one of the original superhero composers. Eflman is best known for his score for Tim Burton’s Batman films, as well as many other well-known hits such as Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2 and many more.

It's not uncommon to mix in old themes under a new composer. For example, the Wonder Woman film still retained her theme “Is She With You” under cellist Tina Guo from the Batman v. Superman score, even though the Wonder Woman score was completed by Rupert-Gregson Williams. For example, think of how the Halloween franchise has always carried that classic John Carpenter theme from 1978, even though he has not worked on any of the films since the third installment in '82. With all of this said, people have been curious if Elfman would be doing the same thing with Justice League. Elfman clearly stated he will not be using the Batman score from Hans Zimmer. Right away he is already mistaken, given that the Batman theme known as “Men Are Still Good” from the last film was done by Junkie XL. Zimmer did not want to redefine Batman, after already coming up with a sound under Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy; hence why he reached out to another composer. Unfortunately, Elfman is ready to congratulate himself stating, “You’ll hear Batman’s theme. Batman has only had one theme…” and he is of course referring to himself. Can somebody say inflated ego?

  Composer Hans Zimmer

Composer Hans Zimmer

The notion that Batman has only one theme is a rather selfish statement on his behalf. Granted, long before Elfman, people would sing Neal Hefti’s Batman theme from the old television show starring Adam West. In fact, people still do, as it is used from time to time. I recall going to a LEGO Batman event prior to the release of The LEGO Batman Movie and they were playing the old sixties Batman theme as people lined up for pictures with Batman. Batman would go on to have other themes under Shirley Walker for the animated series, Elliot Goldenthal’s gallant theme for the Schumacher films, to Hans Zimmer’s theme debuting in Batman Begins. Let us not forget the various Batman themes in animated films and video games as well.

Now one cannot deny Elfman’s score has had the most exposure. Prior to his work, Batman was well known from the theme of the sixties, which solidified Batman in a go-go world of camp, bams, and pows. It was cute, it was memorable, it was and entertaining. But if you wanted the Dark Knight detective, then you did not want this playing while he pulverizes criminals. Tim Burton brought Batman into this realistic, dark, gothic life and urban setting, which he was almost always meant for, and helping him along the way was Danny Elfman’s score. Elfman would follow suit again with Batman Returns and his work was an influence on Shirley Walker’s music for the animated series. Many a Batman fan prior to 1989 always wanted their favorite hero taken seriously and Elfman was a piece of the delivery process to them. Present Batman fans at the time were solidified and new fans were created as well. Together, these fans would unfurl the Batman banner as the bombastic Elfman score poured out from their speakers. This theme for Batman would go on to be the sound for Batman into the nineties. Hans Zimmer’s score was never overly-criticized but many Bat-fans prior to 2005 still preferred Elfman. And that’s perfectly fine.  

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Personally I have nothing against the Elfman score. I grew up on it and it's fine. The theme is extremely memorable, atmospheric, ominous, and heroic. But there are a few problems. One, Elfman’s sound is extremely familiar, especially when under Tim Burton’s films. A lot of the times you need not read the credits, but just listen to the music in the background. It starts to feel like if you heard one Elfman score, then you heard them all.

The second issue is that Elfman’s score has been overplayed to death. As I mentioned earlier, it shaped the sound of Batman since 1989. They play the entire score from the first Batman film in the LEGO Batman video-game, to the point you need not even own the soundtrack. They added a few tunes, but the LEGO Batman videogame series would continue to use the old score. The song is so memorable and hummable (is that even a word?) that almost anyone can re-create it, including artists on YouTube. The familiar can become distracting and down-right annoying. It is true that we should not fix what is not broken, but do you still hear us recycling a particular sound for Dracula? Of course not, given there are so many kinds of Dracula films. The same should go for Batman.

The Batman of Tim Burton captured this Golden Age pulpy style of character like The Shadow or The Phantom. You could see elements of film noir, goth, and German expressionism mixed in there. Could you imagine Junkie XL’s heavy, industrial like theme play over Batman ascending the bell tower in 1989? What if Elliot Goldenthal’s horns started to play as Michael Keaton holds the crook over the roof? Both of these scenarios would sound awkward. At the same time, Elfman’s theme would horribly clash as Snyder has Batman mowing people down in his fatigues in the desert. Art is subjective and so is the character of Batman. We have seen Batman the camp hero, Batman the lone wolf, Batman the tortured soul, Batman the awkward father figure, Batman the authoritarian, and now it looks like it will be Batman the leader and team captain. Can you humbly and honestly tell me that one theme can sum up all of those different interpretations of one hero?

On top of that, music itself changes. New genres are created, some genres are redefined. New artists come and go constantly retuning our music. Some forms of music can even signify a particular place or time. For instance, Neal Hefti’s Batman theme reeks of the sixties, and Christopher Drake’s had eighties sound vibes for The Dark Knight Returns. 

Music is far from remaining static. In the end, it sounds Elfman is trying to say his music for the theme for Batman is completely and utterly objective.

I beg to differ. 

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Skyler Sneathen is a happily married man with a kitty cat for a kid. He's going to school to be a high school social studies teacher and also loves comics and nerdom. 
 

Follow Skyler on Twitter @SkylerSneathen.