Monday, February 16, 2015

Evolution of a Bat: The Film Music of Batman from 1989-2012

By Bennett Dobbins

Batman. If you’re like most genre fans, that name probably stirs up images of a caped crusader battling a clown prince of crime (along with a slew of other memorable characters) with some seriously cool gadgets/vehicles. It might also bring to mind dark, brooding and yet heroic music. But which music? Is it the brass and timpani laden fanfare of Tim Burton’s 1989 flick or the driving, string ostinato propulsion of the Nolan trilogy?

Throughout the years Batman has received many incarnations ranging from the lighthearted camp of the 60’s TV show to the more grounded-in-reality vibe of the Dark Knight trilogy. Along with each variant, a different approach has been taken with the music for our favorite Bat. This article will give a brief (or not so brief) runthrough of the different musical approaches to the character along with any relevant tidbits about said music or films.

Note: This article will only cover the cinematic incarnations of Batman with the starting point being 1989 to present.

The Danny Elfman Era (1989-1992)

When director Tim Burton was brought onboard for the Warner Bro. revival of Batman in the late 80’s, Burton asked his friend Danny Elfman to score the film. Elfman’s approach was to take the Gothic nature of the story and Burton’s production design and transfer that to his music. The end result would go on to be considered by many fans to be the sound for the Caped Crusader for years to come.

Elfman’s approach echoes the work of his hero, the legendary Bernard Herrmann (Vertigo, Psycho, North by Northwest), in its rising and falling structure as well as residing in the minor key… save for the last two notes. The theme is surprisingly versatile, appearing in various guises throughout the score, sometimes in full statements while also being fragmented for the more conversation heavy moments.

With the success of Batman, Burton returned to direct a sequel and was given free reign to do as he wished. The end result was the freakishly entertaining Batman Returns in 1992… which did not perform as well at the box office as its predecessor, with most of the blame residing with Burton’s much bleaker and more bizarre tone. Returning to Batman, along with most of the crew from the previous film, was Elfman continuing to expand his music for Gotham City.

Because of the wealth of new villainous characters (Catwoman, Penguin, Max Shreck), the Batman theme itself does not receive as many variants as in the first film. That said, Elfman does add his trademark “la la la” choir to the theme during the opening credits which is a treat for any Batman/Elfman fan.

Unfortunately, Returns would be the last time Elfman would score Bat’s as the franchise would take a major left turn in the following sequels of the 90’s, eventually getting a gritty reboot in the mid 2000’s. Still, Elfman’s work for Gotham will always remain a high point for both the franchise and composer.

The Shirley Walker… one (or The Black Sheep of the Family) (1993)

In 1992 one of the greatest serialized cartoons ever made debuted, Batman: The Animated Series. Following the success of the show, a straight-to-video movie was produced titled Mask of the Phantasm… which was changed to a theatrical release at the eleventh hour and thus bombed at the box office. Fortunately the film has found cult status in the years since and is rightfully considered a hidden gem.

Composing duties for Phantasm went to veteran composer Shirley Walker, a natural fit given her involvement with The Animated Series. Walker’s Batman theme is carried over from the TV show, just boosted to truly Gothic levels with a full adult choir. While not as memorable as Elfman’s theme, Walker delivers a stirring and slightly tragic theme for the Dark Knight fitting the character like a glove.

The Elliot Goldenthal Era (or WHAT THE HECK?!?!?) (1995-1997)

With the studio deeming Burton’s approach to Batman Returns too bleak and scary, Warner Bro. turned to a completely different director… Joel Schumacher, the guy that brought you The Lost Boys and later Gerard Butler’s Phantom of the Opera. With a new director came a new approach to… well, everything. Out with the Gothic Gotham and in with bright neon colors! Out with vaguely realistic characters and in with camp, camp, camp!!

For the musical approach, Schumacher turned to up-and-coming composer Elliot Goldenthal for scoring duties. Best known for his work on Interview with the Vampire the year before, Goldenthal approached the Cape Crusader with his usual experimental, avant-garde stylings fully intact. The end result was as zany and bizarre as Schumacher’s trippy vision of Gotham City with one caveat… Goldenthal’s Batman theme was actually really good.

Carrying over the basic rising and falling structure of Elfman’s theme, Goldenthal reworks his theme into a melodramatic fanfare for the titular hero complete with a cymbal crash crescendo at the end. While the rest of Batman Forever is headscrachingly schizophrenic in its musical approach, the Batman theme remains one of its few bright spots. Well, except for those wailing horns at the end…

With Schumacher’s return for the now rightfully infamous Batman & Robin, Goldenthal again returned to Gotham City. Toning down the wild experimentation of the prior outing, the score to Batman & Robin is… actually… O.K. As with Elfman and his sequel score, Goldenthal doesn’t do nearly as much with his Bat’s theme as in the previous score. That said, and despite the truly horrendous nature of the films, Goldenthal’s attempt at Batman rests comfortably alongside Elfman’s… just maybe a few rows down.

The Hans Zimmer Era (and James Newton Howard, too!) (2005-2012)

After the abysmal commercial and critical reaction to Batman & Robin, Warner shelved any ideas on continuing the Batman series for nearly a decade. Enter a young British director by the name of Christopher Nolan and a screenwriter named David S. Goyer. Taking inspiration from the Batman: Year One graphic novel, Nolan and Goyer created a much more grounded, real world Batman for the new millennium. Two sequels and billions of dollars later, Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy is rightfully considered one of the greatest modern superhero series to date.

Along for the ride was mega composer Hans Zimmer… oh, and James Newton Howard. While both composers collaborated endlessly on Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, the overall mood and direction was undeniably Zimmer. In the end Howard would depart for the final installment, The Dark Knight Rises, while Zimmer continued to craft his vision of Gotham.

The Batman specific material for Nolan’s films was handled by Zimmer and has caused some confusion among fans as to what is the “real” theme for Batman in the trilogy. At the onset of Batman Begins (both film and album) Zimmer introduces a rising two-note motif on brass that reappears constantly throughout the trilogy. This “main motif” has been wrongly associated with being the Batman theme, when in fact the true theme for the Dark Knight is only fully revealed in The Dark Knight.

First heard during the track “Lasiurus” on the Begins album (the Bruce/Ducard training montage), the Batman theme doesn’t fully assert itself until The Dark Knight and then mostly during the emotional finale. The theme was originally intended to appear during the Batpod/Joker chase sequence earlier in Knight, but was scrapped in favor of no music. The Dark Knight theme can be heard in full at 2:10 in “Like a Dog Chasing Cars” on the Dark Knight album.

As for the themes use in Rises, well, Zimmer doesn’t do much with it and mostly focuses on the new villain material (see a pattern here?). That said, the Dark Knight theme does make some token appearances throughout the score, though the two-note motif once again appears more often and thus adds to the understandable musical confusion.

Closing Remarks:

As you can tell, Batman has had a long and storied history when it comes to both his theatrical presentation as well as his musical accompaniment on the silver screen. Even this is only the beginning, as I haven’t even mentioned the plethora of animated series, direct-to-video films, video games and even older representation of the character via film and music. But, that’s a different article for another time. In closing, I hope you enjoyed this read and maybe… just maybe… have learned a little something new about our favorite Dark Knight.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

About Bennett Dobbins

Looking back, I guess I really didn't have a choice but to be a "geek" of some kind (which is perfectly fine by me). My father bestowed upon me my love of music at an early age while my mother encouraged my love of stories, the fantastical and of course movies. Well, they both encouraged my love of movies, for which I will be eternally grateful.

I currently reside in the Southern United States somewhere between Mississippi and Georgia in a relatively small town with your usual small town suspects. Currently living life and blogging away about my first True Love: film scores. (shameless self promotion here:

Other unrepentant geeking includes: Films (all kinds), Marvel Cinematic Universe, Lord of the Rings, The Beatles, David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Star Wars, Godzilla, Arrow, The Flash, etc.


Post a Comment