Soundtrack Saturday: Iconic Batman Themes from Danny Elfman to Hans Zimmer
Ahoy Collider readers, and welcome to Soundtrack Saturday. This is a new recurring feature you’ll see here on Collider from time to time in which we take an opportunity to highlight memorable scores and soundtracks from the world of film and television. We love celebrating actors and directors as much as anyone, but we’re also big fans of every aspect of filmmaking, so the aim of Soundtrack Saturday is to spread the love to the composers that provide crucial and sometimes iconic soundtracks to a wide range of films.
For this edition of Soundtrack Saturday, I’ve chosen to take a look back at the varying Batman themes over the years now that Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is finally in theaters. The tone and approach to scoring Batman has changed a lot since the caped crusader’s big screen debut in 1966’s Batman: The Movie, so let’s take a trip down memory lane.
‘Batman: The Movie’ – Neal Hefti
When it comes to Batman, a few themes immediately come to mind, but Neal Hefti’s incredibly catchy “Batman Theme” is towards the top. The song made its debut on Batman: The Series before also popping up in the Adam West and Burt Ward-fronted feature film adaptation Batman: The Movie in 1966, just after the first season of the show aired. It’s perfectly in tune with the campy, silly vibe of the show and film, and remains a delight to this day.
‘Batman’ and ‘Batman Returns’ – Danny Elfman
Oingo Boingo artist Danny Elfman was still new to the world of film composition when Tim Burton enlisted him for his feature debut Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, and when Burton was tasked with bringing Batman to the big screen for the first time since the 1966 film, he brought Elfman along with him. Elfman’s theme for 1989’s Batman is at once heroic, dark, and theatrical, which is right in line with Burton’s approach to the character. While Elfman’s score for Batman gets a bit muddled with the inclusion of original songs from Prince, his work really shines in the superior sequel Batman Returns. Carnival-inspired sounds imbue Elfman’s work on the Penguin sequences, while his theme for Catwoman is downright terrifying and tragic. The score for Batman Returns is dynamic, fun, creepy, and wild, and it has solidified its place in history as one of the all-time great superhero movie soundtracks.
‘Batman Forever’ and ‘Batman & Robin’ – Elliot Goldenthal
Somewhat terrified by just how dark Batman Returns got, Warner Bros. went a different direction with the sequel Batman Forever, and director Joel Schumacher’s colorful and more kid-friendly approach was accompanied by a more traditional and bombastic score from Elliot Goldenthal. It’s actually a really solid piece of work that compliments the film nicely, with a triumphant Batman theme to boot. Goldenthal’s score for Batman & Robin was a little less inspired, and more of a rehash of his work on Batman Forever than something wholly different, but it suits the larger-than-life tone of the film regardless.
‘Batman Begins’ – Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard
For the gritty reboot Batman Begins, the approach to the score is the same as Christopher Nolan’s credo for the entire film, which is essentially something much more grounded, more real, and unlike any other Batman we’ve seen before. The result is a collaboration between Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard that lacks much melody but is propulsive and memorable all the same. The Batman theme itself is driving and feels like a train that speeding towards sunlight, evoking the journey of Bruce Wayne from selfish and moody young man to the heroic Batman. You can hear much of Howard’s work in the more dramatic scenes while Zimmer takes the lead on the action-oriented sequences, and the result is something that’s both sweeping and thrilling, marking a promising start to a fruitful collaboration.
‘The Dark Knight’ – Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard
Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard returned to compose the score for Christopher Nolan’s sequel The Dark Knight, and similar to how the introduction of new villains revitalized Danny Elfman’s prior work, the introduction of The Joker and Two-Face to the ensemble proved mighty enticing. Zimmer took lead on the Joker’s theme, crafting one of the more terrifying and disturbing themes in recent memory mostly using only two notes. Howard’s more orchestral sensibilities, meanwhile, serve the duality and tragedy of Harvey Dent/Two-Face’s journey perfectly.
The Dark Knight Rises
For the final entry in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, James Newton Howard did not return, with Hans Zimmer flying solo on the scoring front. In keeping with The Dark Knight Rises being the weakest entry in the trilogy, this is also Zimmer’s least memorable work, but it’s solid nonetheless. His drum-centric theme for Bane is positively massive, evoking the “strength in numbers” aspect of Tom Hardy’s character, while Zimmer’s playful Catwoman theme is a welcome reprieve from the sometimes punishingly propulsive score overall. And the Batman Begins theme gets a triumphant, somewhat tragic punch-up to send Nolan’s Batman off once and for all.
‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’ – Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL
Following up his work with Zack Snyder on Man of Steel, composer Hans Zimmer returned to compose the score for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but in an effort to not repeat himself where Batman is concerned, Zimmer enlisted collaborator Junkie XL to join him as co-composer. Much like the film itself, the score is very loud and messy with not much going on beneath the surface. The electronic focus results in something quite a bit less human than Zimmer’s work on Man of Steel, but that Wonder Woman theme is undeniably gnarly.