×

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.”

More Film

  • Rooftop Films Announces Filmmakers Fund Grant

    Rooftop Films Announces Filmmakers Fund Grant Winners

    Swedish documentary filmmaker Anastasia Kirillova and “Negative Space” co-directors Ru Kuwahata and Max Porter are among the filmmakers who will receive grants from Rooftop Films to help complete their upcoming projects. Kirilova will be awarded $20,000 to finish her film, “In the Shadows of Love,” while collaborators Kuwahata and Porter will receive $10,000 for “Dandelion [...]

  • Jim Gianopulos

    Paramount Chief Jim Gianopulos Unveils Diversity Initiative

    Paramount Pictures chairman and CEO Jim Gianopulos has announced that all studio productions will be required to complete a plan to enhance diversity. Wednesday’s reveal follows Paramount’s commitment to participating in Time’s Up and Annenberg Inclusion Initiative’s 4% Challenge. The name is derived from women having directed only 4% of the country’s top grossing movies [...]

  • Leave No Trace

    Oscar Analysts Are Sincere -- but Often Totally Wrong

    With Oscars arriving Feb. 24, we can expect multiple “who will win/who should win” columns. There will also be a flurry of post-show analyses about the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and why members voted the way they did. Since AMPAS never releases polls or voting tallies, these pundits will never be contradicted [...]

  • Oscar OScars Placeholder

    On Eve of Oscars, Variety’s Film Experts Answer Three Pressing Questions

    We continue to live in a divided world, with the current political landscape in the United States a seemingly endless hotbed of tumult and acrimony. Issues of racism, bigotry, diversity and gender equality drive the creative players as well, with Oscar-nominated films parlaying said themes into compelling, thought-provoking cinema. To analyze 2018 in big-screen entertainment, [...]

  • Karl Lagerfeld'Lagerfeld Confidential' Photocall at the

    Karl Lagerfeld Remembered at Costume Designers Guild Awards

    The death of fashion and costume designer Karl Lagerfeld cast somewhat of a shadow over the usually jubilant Costume Designers Guild Awards — the only award show where clothes literally steal the spotlight away from actors — which was held at the Beverly Hilton on Tuesday night. Here it was obvious that Lagerfeld’s impact on [...]

  • 'Captain Marvel' First Reactions: Early Reviews

    'Captain Marvel' First Reactions: 'The MCU Feels More Complete'

    “Captain Marvel” is soaring following advanced press screenings on Tuesday. Reactions from early showings have hit Twitter, and audiences are keen on Marvel’s first female-led standalone movie. Critics are praising Brie Larson’s performance as Carol Danvers, the nostalgic ’90s setting, and the cosmic sci-fi elements. Goose, Danvers’ cat, is also getting a lot of attention from [...]

  • Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and Astrid (America

    Box Office: 'How to Train Your Dragon 3' Flying to $40 Million-Plus Debut

    Universal and DreamWorks’ “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” will soar to the top of the domestic box office when it debuts this weekend in over 4,000 North American theaters. The studio anticipates an opening around $40 million, which would fall just short of the debut of its predecessors, 2010’s “How to Train [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content