Music

Justice League (Danny Elfman) – Film Score Review

When director Zack Snyder shocked the film community and announced he was departing the Justice League project in post production and that Avengers alum Joss Whedon would be taking his place at the helm, many were wondering just what the finished movie would become. Whedon is a decidedly different, lighter director than Snyder with polar opposite sensibilities when it comes to things like tone, humor, dialogue and music. Musically, DC’s Extended Universe (DCEU) has been largely steeped in the Hans Zimmer/Remote Control Productions sound and style, with an entire tapestry of themes for many major characters already in use across multiple films. So when Whedon and Co. announced that Danny Elfman, a very non-Remote Control composer, would be taking the helm, anticipation across the film music world became incredibly tense and palpable.

Beginning with Man of Steel in 2013, Hans Zimmer laid the groundwork for the sound and style that would eventually come to define the music for the DCEU. This was an electronic, simplistic, heavily-processed sound that was wholly and intentionally different from the largely symphonic sound that came to define the films of competitor Marvel’s Cinematic Universe (MCU). Also unlike the MCU, the DCEU’s musical sound remained consistent across films, creating a welcome sense of continuity that is incredibly rare within these huge franchises. The sound created by Zimmer in Man of Steel would be developed by composers like Junkie XL (JXL) and Steven Price in subsequent films before perhaps reaching its apex in 2016’s Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice (BVS). That score introduced a surprisingly poignant and dark theme for Batman and a great, kick-ass theme for Wonder Woman. That style and theme for Wonder Woman continued in the titular character’s film in 2017 with a highly regarded score by Rupert Gregson-Williams.

So the musical universe for the DCEU had thus far remained consistent and fans were confident that such would remain the same for Justice League. After all, reliable word was that composer JXL would be returning for this film. However, the announcement that Danny Elfman would be scoring the film split the film score community in two. On the one hand Elfman has proven himself to be a more-than-capable composer for superhero films, but on the other hand this would almost certainly mean that the musical sound and thematic continuity that set DCs films apart would be destroyed. This set the film score world alight as internet forums were lit with heated debate for the many months between the initial announcement and release.

Upon hearing the score, it becomes increasingly clear that those seeking musical continuity will ultimately be sorely disappointed since Elfman has seemingly thrown out every established theme save for one. Somewhat predictably, the musical sound of the previous films is also gone in favor of a more traditional symphonic sound ala The Avengers, which really should not come as a surprise given that both Whedon and Elfman have worked on the MCU in the past. It is unclear whether the responsibility for the lack of continuity in themes, tone, or style lies with the composer, director, or studio execs for whatever reason. Either way, the end result is certain to be polarizing.

Unfortunately, the similarity with the MCU does not end there as Elfman’s main ‘Hero’ theme for the Justice League has stoked some fires in the community. It is first heard in ‘Justice League Theme – Logos’ and then given an expanded suite treatment in ‘Hero’s Theme’. One of the first things an astute listener will notice is just how very, very similar it sounds to Alan Silvestri’s main theme for the Avengers, which Elfman himself utilized spectacularly to form his very own New Avengers theme in 2015’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron. Quite why Elfman would go this route is indeed puzzling since these films need musical themes that set them apart from the MCU, not remind you of them.

Beyond that one caveat, the theme is admittedly more than serviceable and does its job well, popping up all over the score with bold heroism and Elfman’s signature compositional flair. While similar to the Avengers’ theme, Elfman has imbued his new theme with a somewhat darker edge, appropriately never fully giving it the high-flying upbeat treatment afforded to the Avengers and keeping things mostly in the lower registers of the orchestra. When the theme does go full-bore heroic, the results are thoroughly spine-tingling. Its huge statements in the two action set-pieces ‘The Tunnel Fight’ and ‘The Final Battle’ are simply stunning.

There were many who were wondering whether Elfman would bring back his iconic theme for Batman from the Burton films. In press interviews, Elfman confirmed not only that he would utilize his own Batman theme, but that he would also be resurrecting John Williams’ theme for Superman. And both of those themes are indeed present, but only in snippets here and there and never in full. Elfman plays around with the B-phrase of William’s Superman theme in dramatic fashion in ‘Friends and Foes’ and gives it a heroic, spectacular but brief statement in ‘The Final Battle’. Elfman’s old Batman theme is worked into the fabric of ‘Hero’s Theme’ and given brief workouts throughout the score. Its sudden, fast-paced, all-out horn treatment in ‘The Final Battle’ is simply spectacular and will prove a treat for nostalgic fans of the Burton films.

That said, it is somewhat disappointing that the themes are never quoted in full and thus never go beyond their nostalgic value and take on the status of a true thematic identity for the heroes. Elfman could very well have utilized those fun brief snippets and brought back Zimmer/JXL’s themes as fuller thematic identities for Superman and Batman to maintain continuity. Unfortunately he opted not to fully replace those thematic identities with anything. The issue of Elfman choosing not to bring back prior themes is only exacerbated by the sole cue on the album where he does bring back one theme. That cue, ‘Wonder Woman Rescue’, is one of the score’s singular highlights.

The Wonder Woman theme first heard in BVS is undoubtedly a fan favorite and one of the most popular of the series. It is typically performed on an electric cello. The theme itself is great and serves as a spectacularly kick-ass calling card for the heroine, but is in general unmalleable and due to its structure unable to be further developed in the slightest. However, Elfman has turned this theme into a dazzling, orchestral tour-de-force in this one cue. It is such a shame that the composer only gave it the ‘Elfman’ treatment in this one track. Based on the magnificent ‘Wonder Woman Rescue’ one can only imagine what magic Elfman could have worked with the prior themes in the franchise. How amazing could he have made Zimmer’s Man of Steel theme had he given it a big, bold orchestral presence? And BVS’s brooding, dark Batman theme? Right up his alley. Indeed, this score could have been noticeably better and more potent had he done something with those themes, especially since he chose to not fully replace them.

Aside from the new ‘Hero’ theme, Elfman has introduced new smaller motifs for The Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg. The theme for the Flash is a flighty string affair heard most prominently in cues like ‘The Tunnel Fight’ and ‘Spark of the Flash’. It is memorable enough to keep you humming after the album concludes. The identity for Aquaman is less obvious but big, brassy and no less fun in cues like ‘Aquaman in Atlantis’. The identity for Steppenwolf, the film’s main villain, is introduced, naturally, in ‘The Story of Steppenwolf’. This theme is also a recognizable, memorable rising motif if not quite a barn-burner.

Its treatment in the afore-mentioned cue is distinctly, gloriously Elfman-esque, with the huge brass, strings, and choir all playing off each other creating that sound and style only Elfman can conjure. Incidentally, its treatment in ‘The Final Battle’ bonus track will remind listeners of portions of Christopher Young’s unreleased score for Spider-Man 3, specifically ‘Harry Attacks Peter’. There are also a few other new themes and motifs here and there that get a few moments to shine, like another theme for the Justice League that opens the soundtrack and a love theme for Clark and Lois which comes to the for in a few of the slower tracks on the album like the gorgeous ‘Home’.

When viewed on its own apart from any franchise involvement, the score is a near-complete success. Elfman has clearly gone back to his own drawing board and crafted some incredibly fun, thematic, raucous music while clearly having a blast doing so. It is impossible not to listen to such cues as ‘The Story of Steppenwolf’, ‘The Amazon Mother Box’, ‘Aquaman in Atlantis’, ‘Friends and Foes’, and the afore-mentioned battle cues and not be drawn in to the massive, gleeful thrills to be had with such colossal rhythmic action scoring. The composer also brings his dramatic chops in cues like ‘Bruce and Diana’ and ‘Home’, the latter of which is genuinely beautiful, moving and heart-wrenching.

If you’re a fan of symphonic action scoring, then Justice League is a nearly unmitigated triumph. Elfman really has brought his A-game in this regard. If you’re specifically a fan of Danny Elfman then you will also relish this score as he brings back moments from his glorious past and combines that with his more modern scoring sensibilities to produce a truly thrilling blockbuster score. Elfman takes his signature rhythmic action style and applies it once again to the superhero genre and the results are often undeniably breathtaking in scope and just plain old-fashioned, heart-pounding fun. Seriously, those two bonus battle cues on the second disc will rock your world. Elfman has not exhibited this much raw energy in quite some time. Indeed, this score has something for just about everybody and Elfman must be highly commended for what he was able to pull off here.

So there is something of a predicament in analyzing and rating Danny Elfman’s score for Justice League. Does one look at this score as part of the franchise to which belongs or as a single detached superhero action score all of its own? If it’s the former, then this score is surely a failure for reasons outlined above. However, if it’s the latter then the score is certainly a stunning success. Unfortunately it is all the more difficult to classify and analyze this score the latter when the composer himself opted to use a prior theme even if it was just for one cue. As such it was clearly meant to be part of the established musical universe. But given that, the score ends up disjointing the entire franchise in at least a thematic sense (in other secondary senses as well) and given the mouth-watering possibilities this reality can be seen as nothing but a disappointment.

The rebuttal of some will be to point to other long-standing cinematic franchises like the MCU or Star Trek as examples to make a point: continuity in franchises like these is impossible and has never been fully achieved. What makes what happened with Justice League all the more disappointing is the fact that WB/Snyder/Zimmer, et al. were actually giving it a good shot. As in the MCU, when dealing with continuity and natural progression in franchises not named Star Wars the music so often takes a back seat. This is why the approach of the DCEU was so refreshing (whether or not one agreed with or liked the sound and style of Zimmer/JXL), because the music was actually taken seriously and not put on the backburner as a second-tier issue.

And there is the conflict. As strong and fun as Elfman’s score is, because of it the musical DCEU is in danger of no longer being set apart, no longer unique. If studio heads continue in this direction musically, the DCEU will blend in and become just another one of the countless franchises out there with little musically to set it apart, and that is a real shame.

Justice League: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack is now available from WaterTower Music.

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