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The Changing Soundscape of Superhero Movies

With the Man of Steel, Iron Man and Wolverine waiting in the wings, composers stray from tradition while maintaining the genre’s spirit

You’ve known them for years, maybe all your life: the great comicbook movie and TV themes. John Williams’ soaring brass flourishes for Superman, Danny Elfman’s brooding Gothic fanfare for “Batman,” even the silly Spider-Man title song from the TV series that was so catchy it wound up in the first three Spidey movies.

Once upon a time, superhero movies demanded big orchestras and heroic musical signatures. The concept dates back to the Max Fleischer “Superman” cartoons of the 1940s, carried on in the “Adventures of Superman” series of the ’50s.

But in the 21st century, do big-budget comicbook movies still require the same treatment? More to the point, do audiences demand it? Is it a risky strategy to depart from the decades-old musical traditions of DC and Marvel heroes?

“The risk is to do the same thing again,” says Hans Zimmer, composer of “Man of Steel,” one of three superhero movies in the pipeline for spring and summer. “You take far less risk by trying something new. You still stay in the confines of certain storytelling: Yes, heroic things happen. Yes, you have to find a human element and a sense of awe. Yes, you’re gonna have a bad guy. In that respect, you know what to write.”

Zimmer had already been down the comicbook road with three “Batman” movies, but those required a dark, minimalist musical style that reflected the complex psychology of the “Dark Knight” and the villains (Joker, Two-Face, Bane) he battled. This one — a reboot of the venerable Superman franchise, directed by Zack Snyder of “300” and “Watchmen” fame — was different.

“If Batman is the way the world sees America, Superman is the way America sees itself,” Zimmer says. The score, he thought, should “celebrate everything that is good about America,” and he began to focus on the heartland where Clark Kent grew up, searching for a sound palette that might be the basis for a fresh approach.

He came up with eight pedal-steel guitar players and a 12-person drum circle. “I wanted to create a tone that wasn’t necessarily what you expected,” says Zimmer in what may be the understatement of the year. “I was lacking notes, but I wasn’t lacking ideas about the sonic landscape.”

 

As usual with Zimmer, conceiving that “sonic landscape” was only the foundation. Musical experiments, sampling, and layering the various sections of the orchestra followed, all of it recorded in L.A. (“If you want to write about America, it’s only fair that you record it here”) He even had a bass pedal-steel guitar designed and built for the sessions.

There’s no real country twang in the music — at least in the excerpts previewed for Variety — but Zimmer believes he’s found an authentic American sound that’s far from Aaron Copland yet will still resonate with the mythology of the Midwestern Smallville.

Brian Tyler, on the other hand, went a more traditional route for “Iron Man 3.” The composer of “Fast and Furious” and “The Expendables” is the third maestro to tackle the “Iron Man” series. Early discussions with producer Kevin Feige and director Shane Black resulted in a plan, Tyler says, “to do something that is classic, along the lines of “Superman” or “Star Wars,” a theme that’s really singable but is done orchestrally with a lot of brass.”

Earlier “Iron Man” scores added electric guitar to suggest the brashness of Tony Stark, but “he’s now come into his own. He has a lot on his shoulders, especially after The Avengers; there is a heroism in him. But he also has this personality, like a little boy; he’s a wisecracker. It was a tall order,” Tyler says.

And, because all agreed that “really identifiable leitmotifs for characters” were necessary, there are secondary themes for villains Mandarin and Killian and even choir (with different tones depending on whether the scenes involve heroes or villains). “There’s a modern edge to the vibe,” Tyler adds, “but at its heart is a classic sound.”

 

To recapture the score’s bright, bold ambiance, Tyler recorded at Abbey Road with the 84-piece London Philharmonic (even tracking down the microphones that Williams used on the original “Star Wars” sessions there).

As for Marco Beltrami, who is just starting to write music for “The Wolverine” — the fifth cinema outing for Hugh Jackman as the mysterious, long-clawed “X-Men” character — he says “there are definitely expectations, just with the nature of the project. But it’s fun to play with those expectations.”

Even though the story takes place in Japan, “musically, it’s not going to be overtly Japanese because it could easily fall into cliche,” Beltrami says. He does plan on using traditional Japanese instruments (including the koto and massive taiko drums) but “in a non-traditional way,” he adds.

Director James Mangold (with whom Beltrami worked on “3:10 to Yuma,” which earned the composer his first Oscar nomination) “has made a real original movie here, so there is room for a less traditional score, less of a cookie-cutter musical orientation.” He will record in L.A. at the end of May.

“It’s a tricky business,” admits Paul Broucek, president of music for Warner Bros., which will release “Man of Steel” June 14. “You have to cleverly reinvent the genre. You have to give the audience enough so that it doesn’t feel that you’ve abandoned the whole thing — just done a fresh take on it. If it feels like something they expect, then they’ll trust you and allow you to take them someplace else they wouldn’t normally go.”

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