Upon its release last year much was made of DC’s latest ensemble opus Justice League. The fact that it pairs Ben Affleck’s Batman with Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and The Flash (Ezra Miller) for the first time, that it’s helmed by Joss Whedon, a late replacement for Zack Snyder, and that it continues to generate an enormous amount of controversy over its extensively reported production woes. The end result is a movie that falls in the tonal cracks between humorous irreverence and the gloomy, overbearing DC Extended Universe wrongs that plagued the likes of Batman v Superman.
Then we come to the score by genre veteran Danny Elfman. No stranger to a comic book movie as we’re about to discover, the lauded composer interweaves both his original 1989 Batman theme and John Williams’ original 1978 Superman theme into the fabric of the music to give the DCEU an energetic yet nostalgic kick in the pants.
Regardless of what you think of Justice League as a film, you simply cannot argue with Elfman’s back catalogue in this area. Here’s why he’s the indisputed king of the comic book score…
By the time Elfman got round to scoring Tim Burton’s revolutionary Gothic blockbuster he was already established through his Oingo Boingo work and wacky efforts like Beetlejuice. But it was the portentous grandeur of his first Dark Knight score that announced him to the wider world whilst singlehandedly turning the genre inside out, musically speaking.
Draping everything in an irresistibly moody sheen courtesy of the propulsive Batman theme (conjured by Elfman on a plane flight and hummed into a dictaphone), the score also has the decency to send itself up via the Joker’s material. It was immediately revolutionary, sending out a powerful message that comic book heroes deserved gravitas in their music, its use of organ, brass, timpani and choir thunderously exciting. Credit much also go to late conductor Shirley Walker (who worked on the animated movies): her robust interpretations give Elfman’s compositions richly entertaining life.
Composed in the immediate aftermath of the extraordinary Batman, it’s perhaps inevitable that this score harbours many of the latter’s instrumental and rhythmic trademarks. Even so Elfman’s work for Sam Raimi’s tongue-in-cheek original story takes as its cue the somewhat grislier underpinnings (Liam Neeson’s scientist seeking revenge on those who disfigured him), ramping up the off-kilter percussion and brassy stabs that mesh perfectly with Raimi’s kinetic style.
“It was an enormous relief writing long, extended musical sequences, something which is very rare in modern films. No reason to hold back on this one”, said Elfman of the score.
Dick Tracy (1990)
By this stage Elfman was on a roll, the hottest young composer in Hollywood and whose comic book scoring abilities were very much in demand. Hollywood legend Warren Beatty then came calling with his lavish, all-star but bloated attempt to translate the legendary 1930s comic strip to the screen.
Madonna’s presence and Al Pacino’s overracting aside, the project did allow Elfman to vary up his palette, vigorously embracing the era of big band swing and jazz while also featuring many of the explosive action sequences heard in the earlier scores. It’s a fine, underrated example of Elfman’s ability to both work within, and adjust the parameters of, a particular genre.
Batman Returns (1992)
Elfman’s original Batman score was arguably the most important genre work since John Williams’ Superman, but Tim Burton’s 1992 follow-up movie required a very different musical approach.
Far darker, more grotesque and wintry than its predecessor (as per Burton’s wishes), Returns is also imbued with a sense of melancholy tragedy towards Danny DeVito’s Penguin character in particular, and this is Elfman’s launching pad. Extensively deploying the haunting, cooing choir and moving strings as heard in his masterpiece Edward Scissorhands (although there is also plenty of action), this has a claim to being the saddest, most heartbreaking comic book score ever.
Men In Black (1997)
By the mid-90s Elfman’s sound had matured and attained deeper complexity. The rhythmic intricacies of scores like Mission: Impossible and Dead Presidents fed directly into the more tongue-in-cheek Men In Black, an Oscar-nominated score (the composer’s first) that forgoes the more grandiose, romantic nature of Elfman’s earlier works in favour of richer instrumental nuance.
From the fiendish, dancing strings of the famous main title to the brutally intense orchestral/electronic crossover of the action sequences, there’s no denying that Elfman was advancing his musical language whilst also getting beneath the offbeat skin of this witty comic book adaptation, drawn from Lowell Cunnigham and Sandy Carruthers’ series.
A best-of-both-worlds score that combines Elfman’s expansive early-90s heroism with his later, more modernistic tendencies, Spider-Man remains for many the definitive wall-crawler soundtrack. This, despite the fact that James Horner, Hans Zimmer and Michael Giacchino have all had a go at the character.
Elfman’s surgingly dramatic characteristics, burgeoning strings and brass giving way to spine-tingling choir, capture the nobility of Tobey Maguire’s Spidey while the plethora of romantic and villainous material envelop the listener in waves of popcorn awe. In his first superhero movie with Sam Raimi since Darkman, the composer reminded us of his singular abilities in the genre.
Perhaps the least-lauded of Elfman’s comic book soundtracks, Hulk was mired in a controversial music situation. Elfman was in fact drafted in to work with director Ang Lee after original choice Mychael Danna’s score was rejected by the studio (to think what that would have sounded like). Just as the film itself suffers an identity crisis, flip-flopping between camp and brooding earnestness, so too does the score struggle to stand out amidst Elfman’s bolder efforts.
Nevertheless with its eerie, duduk-led main theme (I assume this was a holdover from Danna’s work) and array of complexities (listen to those synths darting around as if mirroring the transition between comic book panels) there’s just enough colour in the score to make it a solid, effective listen.
Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Both Sam Raimi and Danny Elfman nearly came to blows over the score for the Spider-Man sequel, the latter claiming the director resembled a pod-person by the end of the arduous scoring process (“the worst film experience I’ve had in 20 years”).
While Elfman’s Spidey theme and accompanying orchestral textures reached new-found levels of grandeur and operatic intensity, Raimi’s love of temp track music by Christopher Young angered Elfman so much that he insisted Young score certain scenes instead. And that’s exactly what happened (Young also scored the third movie). Nevertheless, in the eyes of many viewers it’s Elfman’s music that acts as the pulsating, profound heart of the webslinger.
Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)
Marco Beltrami scored the first of Guillermo Del Toro’s Hellboy movies to excellent effect, but when it came to the second the director wanted to honor a long-held wish to work with Danny Elfman. Fortunately the composer was available and conjured a richly textured score resplendent in all the Elfmanisms we’ve come to expect: busy, bristling action material, ever-present choir and an unashamedly rousing central theme.
As with many of Elfman’s more recent efforts the real beauty of score resides in the intimate nuances between the louder moments, the interplay between chimes and choir glistening like the Golden Army of the title.
Much of Elfman’s comic book work resides in fantastical landscapes or characters that are relatively family-friendly. This ultra-violent offering by contrast is far more adult-themed in its lurid and confrontational story, an adaptation of Mark Millar’s comic book by director Timur Bekmabetov. James McAvoy is the bullet-bending super-assassin whose road to discovery allows Elfman to unleash a far more contemporary-sounding action score, one with an abundance of guitar licks, ethnic instrumentation and orchestra-shredding set-pieces.
He also returned to his rock and roll roots, the self-penned The Little Things his first movie song in quite some time. It’s yet another example of Elfman redefining an entire genre.
Avengers: Age Of Ultron (2015)
Joss Whedon confessed he experienced burnout with his second (and, to date, final) Marvel movie; on the scoring stage it was just as complex. Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World‘s Brian Tyler was drafted to deliver another rousing score and there’s no denying he succeeded.
Howevever, late in post-production Elfman was called on to craft a brand new Avengers hybrid theme, one using Alan Silvestri’s original theme as a basis. It’s an odd situation whereby the second composer overshadows the one originally hired, Elfman’s spectacularly thrilling New Avengers theme clad in his richly nostalgic, brass and choir hallmarks as the piece ushers our superhero ensemble into a new age.
Justice League (2017)
Superhero soundtracks have fluctuated wildly in both approach and quality between the 1980s and now. From Elfman’s lavishly orchestral approach with the first Batman to Hans Zimmer’s controversially murky and bombastic works on the Dark Knight and Batman v Superman movies, there’s always been a tussle between the thematic and atmospheric needs of such music. It therefore makes sense for Elfman to bridge the divide and Justice League allows him to do so. Irrespective of its flaws the movie is an encapsulation of DC superhero history, allowing the composer to re-introduce both the original Batman and Superman themes whilst also re-orchestrating additional DC material like Zimmer’s Wonder Woman theme, in the process leavening the contemporary with the traditional.
The future of the DCEU is currently in crisis, at the mercy of a radical recalibration that’s struggling to balance noisy bloat with a sense of fun. We can but hope Elfman remains at the centre of such changes moving forward.