Music in Film: Man Of Steel soundtrack review

Feature Ivan Radford 2 Jul 2013 - 06:47

Hans Zimmer brought together a symphony of drums and a hint of John Williams for his Man Of Steel soundtrack. Ivan has a listen...

Is it a BRRRMMMM? Is it a plane? Hans Zimmer’s Man Of Steel soundtrack is so loud it could probably be mistaken for either.

You don’t notice it at first: the film starts off with a gentle synth. Some brass enters, accompanied by a faintly other-worldly vocalist. The strings whip us away with threatening fast-paced noises.

Then, they happen.

The drums. So many drums.

“Someone else might wonder one day what 12 of the best drummers in the world would sound like all playing simultaneously in a space designed for a symphony orchestra – using not only rock drum kits but tympani and field drums as well. But such a person would likely be neither inclined (nor able) to pick up the phone and make it happen,” writes co-producer Peter Asher in the album’s liner notes. “Hans is the only person I know who would actually make those bets: and then win.”

I agree with all of that, except for the last part. 12 drummers drumming? It’s certainly something. Such is the level of the drumming drummers that the Man Of Steel soundtrack can be divided into two halves: the parts with the drums and the parts where your ears are recovering from the parts with the drums.

It’s a very Hans Zimmer approach to the whole scenario, one that sadly sees much of the Man Of Steel score descend into Dark Knight territory. The film itself is loud, almost overpowering in its relentless punch-up between percussionists. On tracks such as Oil Rig you can practically hear Zack Snyder shouting “Can we have MORE drums?” before deciding to bring in one massive drum and have Superman and Zod smash each other’s heads into it.

Away from the big screen, though, it’s another matter. Listen carefully and you hear something different: a hint of John Williams.

Hans has spoken a lot about how intimidating he found working on Man Of Steel given the status of Williams’ original theme. The composer produced an instant classic with his hallmark perfect fifth, a fanfare that carries all the hope and American pride of Copland’s Common Man. So iconic is that tune that Bryan Singer’s underrated reboot, Superman Returns, simply asked John Ottman to update Williams’ work. The result was a new yet old homage/remix that touched up the first theme, gave it a lick of acoustic paint and even found time to insert the Krypton theme into Ottman’s romantic moments.

Zimmer and Snyder, though, were more ambitious. They wanted a complete break from the past. A new start for a new Superman.

But Clark Kent’s identity still has to continue. Just like the colours of the costume, there’s a tradition that must, in some essence, carry on. How do you manage to invent a new sound for Superman without losing a sense of who the character is, or what he stands for?

The answer came in the trailer for the film: two notes, a rising jump on a piano over seven semitones. A perfect fifth. For Zimmer, a man who loves his minor thirds, it’s a huge departure from the norm. In fact, he’s gone and borrowed Williams’ signature interval, without knowing it or not.

The next two notes? A fourth, introducing hints of that Copland vibe Superman has always been associated with. The theme grows in confidence, lowering to a major third until the leaps become bigger: a sixth, a seventh and, finally, up a full octave, a moving climax that captures that same sense of flight Williams did all those years ago. A major theme with simple modulations and played out on horns? This isn’t Zimmer doing his own thing: this is Zimmer paying tribute to Williams.

As if to prove it, someone has even remixed the two themes together. It’s no coincidence they’re so well matched:

There you have it. New theme. Old values. Job done.


Zimmer even reworks that theme into a minor key for If You Love These People, using violins to drive a sad rendition of Kal-El’s soaring signature. This then scales upwards to combine with General Zod’s theme, a descending minor string riff, to form Terraforming, a big, epic action moment.

All of which, unfortunately, can be easily lost when those drums return. Offbeat dotted quavers overlap with triplets to form a wildly complex series of bangs and booms. Taken separately from the action on screen, you start to notice the intricacies on display. It turns out there are drums, drums, drums and drums – not just DRUMS, as the movie leads your ears to believe. In isolation from Snyder’s smorgasbord of excess, the percussion is so exciting you’ll soon be standing up on the bus shouting “Release the world machine”.

But just as it lets you appreciate the deceptively deep texture of the score, the CD also reveals how similar a lot of it is. DNA, Goodbye My Son, Krypton’s Last, You Die Or I Do, I Will Find Him and other tracks all have more than a hint of Batman about them: while Zimmer has created a fantastic new theme, his love of ambient soundscapes is hard to shake off. The Deluxe Edition of the soundtrack? More of the same, with General Zod’s theme and Arcade offering 14 whole minutes of highly familiar work.

Would it help if he toned down the synth for once and left the sound of his real orchestra untampered with? Perhaps, but the second disc on the Deluxe Edition also reminds you how hands-on Hans can be in his workshop of helpers and toys: a 28-minute track dubbed his “Original Sketchbook” is essentially half an hour of him twiddling knobs to try out different noises. Turn the volume up with some headphones on and it’s surprisingly absorbing stuff – maybe even more so if you take advantage of the Deluxe Edition’s “Z+ App” to download it in DTS Headphone: X Surround Sound.

The standout track on the whole score, though, is undoubtedly Earth. A companion to that first trailer piece (disc one’s climax, What Are You Going To Do When You Are Not Saving The World?), it’s an astonishingly delicate version of the main tune, a piano-led track that sounds almost like Chariots Of Fire mixed with more than a dash of quaint guitar and synth-ed celesta. Those troublesome drums, meanwhile, are relegated from clashing noises to subtle background beats.

It’s a glorious demonstration of just how emotional Zimmer’s Man Of Steel theme is; like Christopher Reeve's face supposedly inserted into a single frame, it’s a glimpse of John Williams streamed through a digital lens. There’s even a hint of Krypton’s theme in the music’s long sustained suspensions.

In the cinema, Superman’s new bombastic sound doesn’t always impress but listen carefully  (in DTS-branded surround sound) and there is greatness to be found in Zimmer’s latest work. It’s the definitive example of what’s best and worst about Hans’ prolific output. At times, Man Of Steel’s score isn’t a BRRRMMM; it’s plain beautiful. After all, who needs 12 drummers when you can have five simple notes?

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Disqus - noscript

Disagree about the drums, it was very exciting to have that in the theater when watching the movie. The five simple notes did the same too, both were important at least for me to enjoy the movie and have a great experience!

Superman needed a heroic, anthemic, hummable, recognisable leitmotif but he didn't get one. This was the complaint I heard from many viewers upon leaving my sitting of the film. Maybe they could have used Williams' original fanfare, but I understand why they didn't - but couldn't he have been given a more iconic theme that captured Superman's the spirit of adventure and derring-do?

The music was superb. Always been a fan of Zimmer, so much so we used his music in our movie making efforts as kids. It did not need the Williams superman music, but it was a slow build up, the music in full effect at the start, strong and powerful on Krypton for Jor El, then back to the soft rendition for youthful Kal El. Only to finish on the mighty powerful tones towards the end of the movie. It was a score fitting of the spectacle that was on the big screen.

I really wanted to hate the theme, but I still couldn't resist checking out the official previews on Youtube... and then slowly but surely it grew on me. It's still not the classic Williams, and never will be but it is still quite the inspiring tune.

I'm currently driving the rest of the office mad with the pounding drums coming from my office, but the more I hear it the more I find to like about it! Even the drums!!

Does anyone know the name of the song that plays on the Man of Steel when Clark is working as a lumberjack? The track has a really nice guitar string and it sounded like it had vocals as well. I cant find it on the official Hans Zimmer soundtrack.

It's 'Seasons' by Chris Cornell

I'll be honest, I loved this film and I thought the music was the best thing about it, except for maybe Mr Cavill himself.

The call for a heroic theme... hrm... maybe all Dark Knight Rises needed was an updated version of the 1960 TV Show theme and it would have been a better film for it...

The music of our super-heroes, caped crusaders and avenging park attendants has moved on, just like the films themselves. I think Williams fan-fare would just be weirdly out of place in a superman film today.

I'm not asking for the actual Williams theme itself to be reinstated - just something that future generations will hear and say "Ah - that's Superman" just as we did with music like Indiana Jones, Batman, Star Wars, Star Trek, Spider-Man, The Hulk, The A-Team, Knight Rider etc - a lot of film music these days just seems to blend into the background and doesn't become a 'character' in the film.

Man of Steel was very much - "You WILL feel excited because there are BIG DRUMS! Now you must feel sad because of the quiet piano."

I couldn't remember a single note of the MOS score within 2 minutes of the film ending - unlike Captain America where I found myself whistling his theme music in the car on the way home.

You know if the makers of this film purposely put little tributes to the Reeve's movies in it..that is the music and CR's face..I think that is pure class and the best tribute that you could do..Bravo!

On the flip side, I remember the music very well from MoS. The music is there to take you on the journey and not become a character in the film while not distracting you from the movie. Captain America though was a pretty poor movie and if the music is what you took from that, perhaps it was the best part?

It's a case of different strokes then - I really like Cap's movie and, while I didn't actively dislike MoS and was entertained for the most part, I often couldn't engage with those characters (aside from Costner) and it felt like it degenerated into a video game beat-em-up at then end, whereas Cap felt like an old school family fantasy adventure throughout.

Perhaps it is because I was so familiar with Superman's past incarnations and back story but, aside from a few specifics of his origin I'd never really been into Cap before.

Agree to disagree, I agree on that :) Nice to have a civil and engaging discussion from different view points. With Captain America I felt the fantasy element went way too far, a history of WWII with technology so advanced would have changed the future completely, but that is a discussion for movie threads, not the score.

For my movie release, we spent more money on the score than anything else... aah, low budget madness!

Nice article but I think you're underrating the drums. The 12/8 rhythm coupled with some nice hemiolas and drum fills(including snare drums,hit-hats,cymbals etc.) is certainly a novelty for Zimmer.
Also, the two note phrases are for Superman not Kal-El. Kal-El has his own theme which is heard in the beginning of Krypton's Last, Goodbye my Son, 2nd part of Flight and during This is Clark Kent.

"The 12/8 rhythm coupled with some nice hemiolas and drum fills(including snare drums,hit-hats,cymbals etc.) is certainly a novelty for Zimmer."

Thanks for parroting my thoughts on the rhythms of Man of Steel.

- Prometheus from JWFan.

parroting what? Who are you?

I loved this score - and that's coming from someone who is a die-hard over the original John Williams Superman theme and Krypton theme. I thought it was less triumphalist and gave the movie more emotional depth, Krypton felt a much more mysterious place, loved it! The simplicity of the theme was important a tonic to dominant (followed by a tonic to submediant) - deep powerful and very fitting! Aside from this 'Man of Steel' was the Superman film I've waited my whole life to see!

I love Hans Zimmer. There's no denying he is a musical genius as all of his previous work on films such as Gladiator, the Thin Red Line and the Lion King will clearly indicate. This soundtrack, however, was some of his weakest work to date. There's no denying there are good tracks to be found (my favorites being Flight, What Are You Going to Do When You Are Not Saving the World?, Man of Steel: Hans' Original Sketchbook and Earth), but I completely agree that the rest of the soundtrack is DRUMS. Just DRUMS. But every once in a while (and by that, I mean literally on every track), you can hear some piano keys when something emotional is meant to happen during the film.

I agree with Paul. After watching the movie I couldnt remember a single note from the film. I think John Williams theme was much better and more moving. I can listen to that musical score today and get goosebumps from it. To me Zimmer uses too much percussion. There were a few scenes in the film I thought he could have used more of an upbeat music.The music from the third trailer where the new score was introduced was pretty good and I think he should have used that more in the film instead of at the end. Me and my wife saw this on dvd and we were both not impressed with the movie. We thought it was a cacophonous mess..looked too much like transformers.

I agree with Paul. Alot of the people upon leaving the theater, complained that the music was underwhelming and was kinda dull. Im not a big fan of Hans Zimmer, I think he uses too much percussion at times.

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