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Justice League
  • Composed by Danny Elfman
  • WaterTower / 2017 / 101m

The films in this DC series have been generally disliked by audiences and critics so far but have made a lot of money, so on they go, with the big one bringing the characters together having arrived in the form of Justice League.  Based on a true story, the film sees the Canadian rock band Steppenwolf – whose 1968 single “Born to be Wild” is as iconic as they come – trying to destroy our heroes, including Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman.  Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill and Gal Gadot reprise their roles as those three, with able support coming from Connie Nielson, playing a motion-capture hippo.  Despite making some attempt to shake off the total energy-sucking misery that has seemed to be this series of films’ main purpose so far, it still hasn’t been particularly well-received by either audiences or critics (but will make a lot of money).

When director Zack Snyder had to leave the film in tragic circumstances, Joss Whedon – who directed the film that brought the rival series of characters together in The Avengers – stepped in to handle substantial reshoots and all of the post-production.  One of his first acts was to replace “composer” Junkie XL with the veteran Danny Elfman, who has forgotten more about scoring comic-book films than most film composers will ever know.  When Elfman started talking about reusing the classic themes for these characters – in particular his for Batman and John Williams’s for Superman – there was naturally much excitement in the film music community.

Danny Elfman

He does use those themes – more on that, later.  The most significant new theme here is presented in the early cue “Hero’s Theme”.  It lives up to its name and its presentation in that cue – recorded especially for the album – is particularly satisfying.  If there’s something that seems very familiar about it, it’s almost certainly reminding you of Jerry Goldsmith’s The Shadow (if you’re a Golden Ager, then possibly instead it is reminding you of Franz Waxman’s Prince Valiant) – it’s only for a few notes but I just can’t get away from the resemblance whenever I hear it.  But hey, at least the Shadow is a character with some DC connections – imagine if Elfman had used something which resembled a Marvel theme!

OK, you don’t have to imagine it, because he did – the very brief opening “The Justice League Theme – Logos” is for the most part a fairly generic-sounding theme but then right at the end, it too takes on a rather familiar guise, ending pretty much like Alan Silvestri’s The Avengers and perhaps even more like Danny Elfman’s own variant/offshoot from it for Age of Ultron, where he was brought in much later in the day by Whedon to complete the score.  It gets its most significant airing in “Justice League United” late in the score.  There isn’t a particularly strong theme for the villain Steppenwolf, but there is a somewhat gothic sound associated with the character which receives its strongest outing in “The Story of Steppenwolf”.  There are no themes obviously associated with most of the other characters, either – Cyborg, Flash (for whom Elfman wrote a theme previously, of course), Aquaman, Bananaman or anyone else.

Of the returning themes for characters from previous incarnations, the first to appear on the album in any extended form is Hans Zimmer’s theme for Wonder Woman, in “Wonder Woman Rescue”.  It first appeared as an oasis of quality in the otherwise-execrable score for Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice – here it’s turned into something that sounds different, the full orchestra making it sound dynamic and exciting but it doesn’t quite have the quirk of the original, unusual arrangement.  That said, in this form it fits in much more naturally with Elfman’s score although it only appears rather briefly (the rest of the track is a very fine piece of action music).  Composer Pinar Toprak is credited with additional music and has hinted on social media that she handled scenes including Wonder Woman – if she did this piece then it’s a credit to her for writing something not only so good, but also so in keeping with Elfman’s style (otherwise if Elfman wrote this one himself – then it’s a credit to him instead!)

All the pre-release musical attention was focused on the use of Elfman’s own Batman theme (with the composer’s assertion when asked if he would also be using Zimmer’s Batman theme that “no, there’s only Batman’s theme” seeming to be a somewhat amusing retort to Zimmer’s own assertion that Elfman’s theme was too happy a few years ago) and Williams’s for Superman.  In truth, they appear only very briefly, on the album at least.  There are in fact various allusions to Batman’s theme that never quite turn into it, but only a small number of direct quotes – the opening of the otherwise-unremarkable “Then There Were Three”, very brief bursts at various points in “The Tunnel Fight”, most fully in “The Final Battle”.  If there was something a little controversial about Elfman’s comment that there’s only one Batman theme (his tongue was obviously firmly in his cheek, but I would imagine most people would probably still go to the Neal Hefti theme before anything else) there would surely not have been anything controversial had he said it about Superman – and sure enough, there it is in “Friends and Foes”, albeit (to use the most populous word in this review once more) briefly.  It does crop up later too in “The Final Battle”.

There’s some cracking action music here – “The Amazon Mother Box” (presumably a new product from the global retail giant) opens with a descending figure that’s a familiar Elfman trademark from numerous previous scores (I most associate it with his Planet of the Apes) and goes off into very large action territory for orchestra and choir.  “Aquaman in Atlantis” is also very good – there are some strident, heroic bursts of brass; the choir gets up towards apocalyptic levels.

Two action cues stand above everything else, though – each appears in abbreviated form during the main body of the album before appearing in extended form in the bonus section at the end – and for once I unequivocally recommend getting rid of the short ones and reprogramming the longer ones in their place.  “The Tunnel Fight” and “The Final Battle” are both absolute belters, the former eleven minutes, the latter thirteen.  They’re humungous pieces in all respects, packing so much in – Elfman’s action music, particularly in recent years, can appear somewhat chaotic but there is clear structure here even as the pieces trawl across so much ground, the former offering up numerous little bursts of Batman’s and The Shadow’s themes in between the manic action.

Particularly later on the album, there is a couple of really nice softer tracks to break up the action.  “Home” is a charming piece for piano and strings, delicate and emotional; and later “A New Hope” is even better, with some excellent heroic material being presented in a more sweeping, soaring way than in the action cues.  The score reaches a conclusion with the terrific “Anti-Hero’s Theme”, which does include the Steppenwolf material but also reprises material from “Hero’s Theme” and the main Justice League theme.

While some people were disappointed that the musical style of the previous films in this series was being abandoned, most like me were overjoyed at the prospect, particularly with Danny Elfman seeming to be so keen to pay fan service in a different way by bringing back the considerably superior themes associated with these characters from the past.  In truth though, that aspect was overhyped (they only make cameo appearances) and Justice League plays much like one of the modern Marvel scores.  While it’s the best DC score by some margin, in truth there is no cue here as memorable as the finale from Man of Steel or Wonder Woman’s introduction in Batman vs Superman – two scores that may have missed the mark as a whole but did have those specific wonderful moments.  The familiarity of the “new” themes in this score does have to count as a demerit against them.  Having said that, the two lengthy action tracks offer 25 minutes of five-star material, and add to that “Hero’s Theme”, “The Story of Steppenwolf”, “Home”, “A New Hope” and “Anti-Hero’s Theme” and you have a truly wonderful 40-minute playlist.  We’re probably still searching for the first great score in the DC Extended Universe, but at least we have taken a big step in the right direction here (albeit probably a temporary one – I guess you-know-who will be back before long).

Rating:
*** 1/2
Batman / Superman / Wonder Woman / Aquaman / Elfman

See also:
Man of Steel Hans Zimmer
Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice Hans Zimmer and Tom Holkenborg
Suicide Squad Steven Price
Wonder Woman Rupert Gregson-Williams

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  1. Paul McGuire (Reply) on Saturday 18 November, 2017 at 00:40

    If the two long action tracks are the highlight I won’t bother listening to the rest of the score. They have nothing on the action music from Wolfman. There were snippets where I heard some wolfman but nothing very memorable. Good action music needs big themes and all I heard were short motifs.

  2. Shaun (Reply) on Sunday 19 November, 2017 at 00:19

    Film scores evolve over time. Right now it seems to be moving towards sound design and less about melody and progression as witnessed in Arrival or more recently in Dunkirk. It might be just “noise” to some but there’s no denying its effectiveness.

    In this however, it feels like we’re taken back in time when soundtracks were all about the orchestra especially with John Williams’ Superman and Elfman’s own Batman theme. Elfman thinks it’s bullshit to start from scratch everytime there’s a reboot, so he uses the old themes. Now I wouldn’t have a problem with it if there weren’t themes already established but there are. Justice League isn’t even a reboot, Man of Steel is and Zimmer decided to keep the universes separate so he didn’t use Williams’ theme. Blatantly ignoring that and saying your very own Batman theme is THE Batman theme… I mean, wow. This means the continuity in terms of music is gone and that used to be DC’s strongest point, until now.

    Despite all that, I tried to keep an open mind and not judge the score until I’ve seen the movie. And now I’ve watched it and can conclude for myself that it really doesn’t go well along with Snyder’s visuals. I actually laughed out loud during “The Final Battle” when Superman punched Steppenwolf and Williams’ theme came on, it was that cheesy for me. The only memorable theme was Flash’s and the rest just felt like filler music, serving in the background. The fact that I somehow heard Avengers in “Justice League United” was really off putting. I don’t wanna say that it ruined the movie experience because that’s a little too harsh but it really did nothing for me. Elfman had done some great work in the past but that’s it, the past and seems like he’s still stuck in it.

    I’m gonna go listen to Flight by Hans to rinse the filler music away, sorry not sorry.

    • Edmund Meinerts (Reply) on Monday 20 November, 2017 at 11:29

      Ah, so orchestras are dated and old-fashioned now. Great.

      • Shaun (Reply) on Monday 20 November, 2017 at 23:00

        I love orchestra as much as the next guy. The instruments themselves are pretty much timeless. Thing is when it’s written and conducted in the manner we’ve heard so many times(Spiderman or any other Marvel movies), it gets old and becomes, for want of a better word, generic.

  3. James (Reply) on Sunday 19 November, 2017 at 02:15

    “I guess you-know-who will be back before long)”

    Who?

    I’m curious!

    Giacchino for Batman by Reeves? Or Otman?

  4. tiago (Reply) on Monday 20 November, 2017 at 01:21

    APPARENTLY, this is Junkie’s rejected theme for the movie, which he wrote before he got replaced by Elfman. If this is real, I imagine this is a preliminary version, because, well… It’s laughable. Not that different from the music from every blockbuster trailer.

    • James Southall (Reply) on Monday 20 November, 2017 at 23:01

      It’s pretty sad that if you told me that was by Junkie XL then I’d believe you, and if you told me it was a fake put together by an amateur then I’d believe you. Not a great state of affairs.

      • James (Reply) on Friday 24 November, 2017 at 00:10

        Fake. Confirmed;

  5. Stan (Reply) on Monday 20 November, 2017 at 10:05

    Elfman ruined the movie for me and I’m not afraid to say it either. The contemporary music don’t work in this day and age It downplayed ALL the action scenes. It acted as the anchor on a sinking ship….And Tiago, that is NOT junkie’s theme weirdo lol.

  6. T. Webb (Reply) on Monday 20 November, 2017 at 19:41

    FYI, Zimmer said in the last year that he’s done with comic book / superhero movies.

    Then again, Superman was killed off in the last film, and I think now he’s returned, so who knows…

  7. Timothy (Reply) on Tuesday 21 November, 2017 at 17:40

    Don’t underestimate the Junkie/Zimmer fanboys, James. They are a very bitter and vocal bunch. Even now, they are going through every YouTube copy of Elfman’s score, downvoting it, and commenting that it’s garbage.

    It looks like they’ve even found their way here.

    They think Tuesday and Black & Blue rank above William’s “The Planet Krypton” and Elfman’s “Finale” from the 1989 Batman.

    They probably also think that Iron Man 3 and the first Captain America’s soundtracks were generic garbage because they’re not “epic” and “raw emotion”.

    Honestly, I don’t understand them. I enjoy trailer music from the likes of Two Steps from Hell. I loved Tom’s work in Mad Max (seriously, can we stop calling him Junkie XL?). I was even a fan of the Man of Steel soundtrack, despite its lack of pacing, dynamics, and variation.

    But the BvS soundtrack was an unmemorable, noisy, brooding mess. There were a handful of okay moments, but overall, it took what was bad about MoS, and made it worse. And Tom’s Batman stuff just kind of sucked.

    Anyway, good (and funny) review. There’s definitely a lot of layer’s to Elfman’s work here, and I’ve gotten something new out of it with each listen.

    • Saint (Reply) on Wednesday 22 November, 2017 at 18:04

      I find it funny and sad, how you complain about the fanboys complaining, very pathetic behavior indeed. People wanted to have musical continuity in this supposed trilogy, Elfman talked too much and the end result is a score that is too dependent on nostalgia and frankly there is not even that much good new material, all the good bits are the Williams and his own stuff.

  8. MPC (Reply) on Wednesday 6 December, 2017 at 22:47

    I really enjoyed the score, it made the film fun. It’s refreshing to see an actual superhero score with identifiable themes and have Elfman use them at appropriate times. The action material is exciting and certainly more memorable than anything Tom Holkenborg (Junkie XL) would’ve written for the film.

    I hear a bit of Elfman’s Ultron style, but it feels less rushed.