Danny Elfman made the controversial decision of bringing back classic versions of the Batman and Superman themes in Justice League's soundtrack. And, catchy as they are, this scoring choice just doesn't work.
In June of this year, it was announced that legendary composer Elfman had replaced Junkie XL as the composer for the DCEU team-up. While this was a tad surprising, it wasn't totally unexpected. Elfman has a long history with Batman and it pales in comparison to the long list of production issues that plagued the movie. What was interesting about the move, though, was Elfman stating he was going to reference his classic Batman themes and the John Williams Superman score in the film, playing into the historical legacy behind the production. Rather than granting a sense of heft to proceedings, however, the references actually felt like soulless pandering – one of the broader criticisms widely held about the DC blockbuster as a whole.
In order to discuss this, we've got to understand how the mentality of Warner Bros. shifted during the making of Justice League. The sequel had begun pre-production before last year's Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice had opened, with the plan being to have director Zack Snyder deliver a two-part team-up straight on-the-trot from the versus. There's a lot of reasoning behind this, but the biggest, really, is that DC/WB wanted to gain ground on the ever-moving freight train that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe as fast as possible. It all seemed locked and moving ahead nicely. Then the reviews came out.
There's no need to talk about why Batman v Superman didn't land with a significant portion of its audience – that well has been well and truly drained – the important part is that it didn't. Warner Bros. had assigned however many hundreds of millions to a director whose approach was disconcerting to many of their fans to make another two whole movies. The intervening year-and-a-half would see report after report about how there were big changes happening on the set of Justice League (now one picture instead of two) and executives were all a-flurry to make a movie that was decidedly not like Snyder's previous work.
Among these alterations were extensive re-shoots, completed by Avengers-helmsman Joss Whedon, an unspecified number of re-writes, and, yes, the bringing in of Danny Elfman to replace Junkie XL. Altogether, this was a more-or-less complete 180° from whatever Justice League was originally intended to be, with different sets of eyes and ears from some of the industry's best. And anybody who've seen the finished product can tell you, Justice League looks and feels like something that's been taken apart and stitched back together more than once by more than one set of hands. Warner Bros. wanted us all to really like this one, and they went to lengths to do it.
Bringing in Elfman to assist on the score is a good move on that front, all things considered; after all, he'd already done the music for Batman, Batman Returns and Batman: The Animated Series. The problem is that reusing some of Elfman's Batman work and a piece from Donner's Superman within the frankensteined Justice League is the wrong kind of old reliable.
Those scores, that music, it's iconic. They're part of the DC canon in their own right, indelible parts of movie and TV history and responsible for countless fond memories. They captured in musical form what made these characters great: the dark, noir-ish drama of Batman prowling Gotham's streets and the magnificence of Superman overseeing the ever-bustling Metropolis. Invoking these works isn't something that should be done lightly. They represent DC's biggest and best at the height of their powers and anything referencing them better come with an iteration that truly stands up to such a comparison.
Justice League is not that. It should be, but it's not. And direct conflation between the DC cinematic universe and the Batman and Superman adaptations of old is deeply arrogant and presumptuous. The audience are who ultimately decide something's worthiness, not studios. Regardless of whose decision it was – Elfman shouldered the idea in the press but there's little chance it was totally his call - invoking this nostalgia is yet another indicator of them trying to achieve what's been done so successfully by other studios without putting in the work. They want to remind us of the Batman and Superman we love while having a Batman and Superman we don't up on-screen in the hopes one will supersede the other. It's insulting to both those creators and the ones currently looking to make their mark.
Look at Wonder Woman's theme from Batman v Superman – a primal, percussive siren's call that thematically fit this universe and the character. WB should have worked to achieve that with the rest of the League and given each of them something that fits who they are to this franchise. A good theme can do a lot of work to win over fans unsure about what they're seeing. Imagine this older Bruce Wayne with a gloomy, electronic hum akin to something from Perturbator that reflected his obsessive, workmanlike relationship with the cowl. Or perhaps Superman had a theme that was the same tune done with a measure in major and a measure in minor, so as to show both his hope and his doubts about donning the cape in this world (or, you know, reuse Hans Zimmer's awesome Man of Steel score). If we'd had music that accentuated who they are and helped us connect with them, rather than the movie trying to sell us on glories old, we mightn't dislike them as much as in previous installments.
Warner Bros. desperately wanted us to like Justice League. Unfortunately, box office returns and general consensus isn't on their side. It's a shame, but the League will endure, as will the DC cinematic universe. Whatever choices the studio make in regrouping and moving forward, they should consider leaving out any of the in-movie grovelings in favor of letting new work stand by its own merit, for good or ill.
- Aquaman (2018) release date: Dec 21, 2018
- Wonder Woman 2 (2019) release date: Nov 01, 2019
- Shazam! (2019) release date: Apr 05, 2019