• Ben Erickson

Justice League

Justice League is the fifth installment of the DC Extended Universe (DCEU), with composer Danny Elfman joining the team. Junkie XL was formerly scheduled to score the film. However, once Zack Snyder left the set under tragic circumstances, Joss Whedon made the decision to bring Elfman to the fold. Considering Elfman has scored more superhero films than most any other composer this was a sensible move on Whedon's part. A significant figure in Hollywood scoring since 1988, Elfman has also been a figure of controversy among musicians and film-goers alike. Never formally educated in a musical conservatory, the extent of his musical abilities have often been questioned as he is largely a self-taught composer. Elfman has always been candid about the contributions of his musical collaborators; namely, Steve Bartek and Shirley Walker. He also has an incredibly eclectic range of influences in his writing, from his time with Oingo Boingo, to African Highlife, to Golden Age film scoring. No doubt Elfman is an unconventional film composer, but the evidence of his consistency in style through well over twenty years of film scoring is undeniable. Up to this point, with exception to Wonder Woman, Hans Zimmer has been the overbearing presence involved in the musical persona of the DCEU. Before going on tour Zimmer made an announcement in 2016 that he was resigning from the "superhero business", leaving Junkie XL to continue his work. Of Zimmer's music only two cues were brought back in Justice League from previous DECU films. Wonder Woman's war cry emerges with reworked orchestration as she thrashes a few terrorists ("Wonder Woman Rescue"), and Zimmer's Krypton music from Man of Steel reverberates through the interior of the crash site as the team explores its hull. I was sorry not to hear anything of the Wonder Woman score in Justice League, but I will not miss the other music that was discarded in favour of Elfman's dynamic design. Part of this design was the restoration of his own 1989 Batman theme, from the same film that gave him and his directing partner Tim Burton their celebrity status. Elfman's original score has gone down as his greatest achievement to date, with a theme comparable only to John Williams' 1978 Superman. Amusingly, and to the delight of many, Elfman decided to bring Williams' Superman theme into Justice League as well. Many staunch film music fans have been waiting a long time for an alliance of these two momentous themes, but it is unusual that they should come together now in this series. Not to say it was a poor choice by any means. To the contrary, by way of character association it is outstanding. I am merely remarking on the musical cross-pollination that now exists between decades of films that, while harbouring the same beloved characters, have no bearing on each other with regards to narrative continuity. Let us hope that the new portrayal of Batman and Superman, as established by the DCEU, can live up to these equally beloved themes. Turning to the new theme for Justice League, sorry to say, but at first hearing it comes off as a less-developed version of Alan Silvestri's theme for Marvel's The Avengers ("Justice League Theme - Logos"). This may have been influenced by Elfman's work on Avengers: Age of Ultron, where he produced his own variant of Silvestri's theme. Regardless, this was not his most circumspect instance of self-appropriation. The theme returns in the cues "Justice League United" and "The Final Battle", both of which are quite self-explanatory per their narrative bearing. Alternatively, the "Hero's Theme" is a much more authentic musical figure, wrought as a syncopated ostinato pattern in the double bass. The "Hero's Theme" cue itself does not make it into the film, but the ostinato appears to great effect in the "The Tunnel Fight" sequence. Not every character in the film is given a theme, but this was not for lack of trying. Both Cyborg and Flash have musical ideas associated with their characters. The music for Cyborg elicits a brooding, stirring meditation as he considers his newly discovered gifts with fear and wonder ("Enter Cyborg"). The music for Flash on the other hand is more directly related to his abilities. Any time Barry enters the Speed Force the orchestra enters a rising and falling string texture with dashing flute staccati and bellowing brass, evolved from a more recognizable Elfman motif first written for Ang Lee's 2003 Hulk ("The Tunnel Fight", "Spark of the Flash", and "Friends and Foes"). The original motif is a six-note descending figure set in the strings with similarly deep-set, powerful brass beneath, heard as Steppenwolf arrives on Themyscira through the Boom Tube. Though the music is hardly discernible amidst the sound effects, the motif can be heard clearly at the beginning of "The Amazon Mother Box" cue in the soundtrack album. Steppenwolf himself is characterized by an apocalyptic, escalating dominance, bolstered by chorus and mounting textures in the orchestra ("The Story of Steppenwolf"). Foreboding, epic music such as this is anything but uncommon in big blockbusters today. Suffice to say there was a missed opportunity to include "Born To Be Wild". The music, following Steppenwolf's defeat, moves into a more introspective setting as the old alliances dissolve and the Mother Boxes are taken into hiding. Adversely, the action cues in Justice League are breathtaking. Between "The Amazon Mother Box", "The Tunnel Fight", and "The Final Battle", what sounds like a chaotic mess of sound is actually an incredible organization of the extensive assortment of thematic material with raw ingenuity and suspense. With reference to the latter two, be sure to experience the full cues used in the film, included as bonus tracks on the soundtrack album.

As discussed above, both the original Batman and Superman themes are revived in the score. The Batman theme is alluded to several times ("Batman on the Roof", "Then There Were Three", and "Bruce and Diana"), with one identical cue from the original 1989 score erupting through the orchestra as the Batmobile emerges from the ruined Batwing ("The Final Battle"). The Superman theme is used more sparingly, never given a full treatment and only appearing twice in the film. The theme takes on a dark guise at Superman's resurrection when the confused Kryptonian clashes with the rest of the team ("Friends and Foes"). The second appearance is a more classic rendition, arriving promptly at the hour of need to wallop Steppenwolf ("The Final Battle"). It is intriguing to consider how well the original themes compliment one another. Williams' Superman theme is set in a major key, with marching triplet rhythms that propel bold, typified leaps in the trumpet and provoke an altogether heroic quality. Conversely, the Batman theme is a five-note melody of comparatively limited range, set in the minor mode with somber orchestration. The Batman theme is given the advantage as it is much more rhythmically and harmonically flexible, manifesting in various melodic permutations against the relatively stable Superman theme and reflective of Batman's flexible morals against Superman's resolute morality. The "Anti-Hero's Theme" cue is confusing, both for its title and its narrative function. Elfman wrote the track titles to discern the themes he had written for himself ("The Justice League Theme - Logos", "Hero's Theme", and "Anti-Hero's Theme"), but they are no help in identifying the music among listeners. Furthermore, an anti-hero is a protagonist lacking the conventional qualities of a hero, and within the context of Justice League, the only character aligned with this definition is Batman, yet the music is never related back to him in the film. Ultimately, the number of themes relating to the team as a whole are too complex for the scope of this film as they convolute the intended musical associations, and though I can appreciate that Elfman probably made the safe choice to write too much rather than too little, in this case, less would have been more. Despite this, or perhaps in lieu of it, the Justice League score is loaded with fantastic music, the familiar themes least of all. Though I would not have looked for a musical revival in this film, I am glad that Elfman brought back the old themes. They should be celebrated as superior musical properties, and what better way to do just that than with Justice League? Zero points for originality, but all points go toward his creative integration of the new and the old. Maybe it is too much to hope that Elfman will bring back Williams' Krypton theme as well. Regardless, it is thrilling to think he might take up scoring more of the DCEU films.