Soundtrack review: Justice League (Danny Elfman – 2017)
“Justice League” is an upcoming American superhero film based on the DC Comics superhero team of the same name, consisting of Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg. Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, the film is intended to be the fifth instalment in the DC Extended Universe (DCEU). The film is directed by Zack Snyder with a screenplay by Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon, from a story by Terrio and Snyder, and features an ensemble cast that includes Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Connie Nielsen, and J. K. Simmons. In Justice League, the superhero team forms to honour Superman following his death and to save the planet from the catastrophic threat of Steppenwolf and his army of Parademons. After directing two superhero masterpieces like the first two Avengers movies Joss Whedon stepped in to finish the similar DC Universe movie and, as a Whedon worshiper and considering how great “Wonder woman” was I can’t wait to see this one.
Except the unforeseen and tragic director change wasn’t the only surprise or shakeup of this project; the composer selection created quite the controversy long before the score was written or released. Everybody (including me) expected Junkie XL to score this movie once Hans Zimmer announced that he was getting out of the superhero game; after all there were Tom’s themes as well in “Man of steel” and “Batman vs Superman” and “Wonder woman” too considering the main theme. But all of a sudden he was unceremoniously kicked off the project and it was as disappointing a news for me as it was a reason to rejoice for many others who are quite dismissive with Tom Holkenborg’s music.
Then came the announcement of the new composer and it was my turn to turn into exactly the bitter critics or fans that scowled before as my initial reaction was of complete disappointment and even frustration upon reading that Danny Elfman was going to write the music; I remember I had a similar reaction when I saw his name suddenly added above Brian Tyler’s in the second Avengers movie (again, Joss) but that score turned out to be OK. I felt Elfman wasn’t epic enough or couldn’t write epic enough to match what “Justice league” needs and considering his output in the last few years, outside of his comfort zone his music has been quite forgettable. Don’t get me wrong, Elfman is the God of dark fantasy film music, there is hardly any other composer that’s a match for him in that genre but when the story is different something seems to be missing.
With all these doubts of mine that were already building up, reading Danny’s statements just before releasing the score didn’t help one bit; he said that he will be using his “Batman” theme because that’s the only true Batman theme that exists. I found these words to be arrogant and disrespectful considering the magnitude and quality of Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard’s “Dark knight” scores. Not at all classy from Elfman. Then there is the actual use of Elfman’s “Batman” theme and, for that matter, John Williams “Superman” theme, iconic, legendary and unforgettable as they both are, in this instalment in the current DC Universe when we have, you know, themes already established and beloved for Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman. It’s also surprising since in his Avengers score Danny Elfman kept true to Alan Sivestri’s main theme; thankfully Danny Elfman kept the WW theme in his own electric cello less version in “Wonder woman rescue”. It was my single point of emotional contact with this score. My frustration comes mostly from the fact that contrary to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, DC actually had the chance to build a musical universe for their stories that’s even more coherent than the movie universe itself by keeping it consistent. Now with Snyder, Hans and Tom gone, the musical identity of the DCEU vanished as well and I don’t think the nostalgia for the old school themes will be able to compensate for this.
I felt the need to write this long intro because it’s quite rare that I go into listening to a score with so much baggage before actually hearing one single note or motif. I will try to cast all these shadows out and focus on the music itself and I am reviewing “Justice league” before seeing the movie since it won’t fit with the characters I’ve grown to love anyway if I won’t hear the “Man of steel” theme or the new Batman theme from “BvS”. This is a movie that’s made to be part of a larger picture and enjoyed as such with connections with previous stories so don’t expect me to be excited for a score that’s meant to be treated completely separate.
This contradiction is what gave me extremely mixed feelings once the score was over. As a standalone composition, and I mean completely standalone, unrelated to the cinematic universe it’s part of, “Justice league” sounds quite nice and checks enough marks needed to make a balls to the walls action score enjoyable and exciting. The opening fanfare goes toe to toe with the Marvel one that Michael Guacchino wrote. I like the freshness of “Hero’s theme” even if it lacks a clear identity and I enjoyed “Anti-hero’s theme” even more because of the extra power and darkness. These are proper superhero action themes, exciting and loud and the latter has a hint of the depth Zimmer and Junkie’s music had. The bad guy theme, “The story of Steppenwolf” is one of the best and more epic Danny Elfman cues of the past 25 years, at least the first half of it; and this is one of the complaints I have with “Justice League”: just as a lot of later Marvel scores, especially those written by Henry Jackman, quite often a cue might start on a thunderous adrenaline raising tone making me think I was in for a full explosive cue like for example the “Squirrel formation” theme that Steve Jablonsky wrote for the latest Turtles movie, and then suddenly lose all steam and fizzle before it’s over. I am bothered a bit my cues when I need to adjust the volume mid cue because of the uneven tone. Same with “Aquaman on Atlantis”, theoretically a new theme for a new character, that starts with a spectacular stride and just loses steam midway though when the music goes quiet.
The same point is made with most of the action themes from this score; I feel “The amazon mother box” is very representative: it’s great action, with horns and strings that on its own works well but it would work just as well in any number of movies, Marvel included. I turn the volume way up to a climatic battle piece like “The tunnel fight” and how could I not since the cue throws everything at me and riles me up and even makes me think of the way action music was being written in the explosive and bold 90s; I love both this cue and the extended version. I am being so obsessed with lineage and musical continuity because I love so much the past themes created by Hans Zimmer and Tom Holkenborg that I couldn’t wait to have theme explored further. I hear the echo of John Williams’ “Superman” theme at the beginning of “Friends of foes” and I wish it was the “Man of steel” theme instead. This is the new Superman, this is the Superman of this movie and the one who’s disappearance hit so hard at the end of the previous movie. I listen to “Justice League united” and it’s not as good as”Avengers unite” which Elfman nailed perfectly.
There’s hardly any DC or Justice League identity in this score and I am referring to the current incarnation of the universe; “Man Of Steel”, “Batman vs Superman” and even “Wonder woman” had created a coherent sound where themes and characters returned and cemented themselves and I feel like Danny Elfman’s “Justice league” score is a step back for Warner Bros and DC. It might be a bit unfair to the music since it is enjoyable but the burden of being part of a much bigger picture weights heavily. On any other day and on any other movie I would have probably enjoyed this score more but as someone who listened a lot and still listens often to themes like “What are you going to do when you are not saving the world”, “Beautiful lie” or the fantastic “This is my world”, the cue that played when Superman sacrificed himself at the end of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of justice” I can’t find the same resonance in Danny Elfman’s music. I feel that even if in the movie the Superman arc and the consequences of his death might be treated properly, musically all the emotional depth and impact of a cue like “This is my world” has been stripped and voided. There is hardly any emotion in “Justice League” and even if the action music is on par with what I expected and could wish for from the score of an ensemble superhero movie I want to hear emotion, I want to have catharsis or pain and Danny Elfman does not deliver that. Not even on cues like “Home” and “Bruce and Diana” which I guess would play as the emotional center of this score; I find them rather light for what this story needs. I can’t help but think of a smaller scale motif, the one used on “Man of steel” when the tornado happens or “Goodbye my son” from the same score and “Beautiful lie” from “BvS” and just wish to listen to those instead.
Danny Elfman’s “Justice League” is a dense and spectacular action score most of the time; I am definitely left with a few action pieces that I will come back to, ignore the label and just blast them full volume, also during my runs. With a movie like this everybody has his own emotional connection and expectations so those who frowned at the Zack Syder sound will welcome this score with open arms and ears. The same with people who are looking for a rather old school action score or fans of Danny Elfman; he did write one of his best scores of the past 20 years here, no complains there even if I still feel his “Avengers” collaboration with Brian Tyler was better. Setting my personal preferences for the music of Hans, Tom and their team aside I objectively needed more emotion in this score especially considering what the story includes; it’s heroes, heroes we love, heroes we grew up with, the biggest heroes in the universe and except “A new hope” I can’t think of another cue that made my heart beat faster and made me feel inspired and ready to save the world. Earlier this year we had Rupert Gregson Williams write a 9 minute piece in “Wonder woman” called “No man’s land” that still gives me goosebumps and I didn’t find anything similar in “Justice league”, that sublime combination of action and emotion that lives forever.
Going forward, this score could help shape up the sound of future films involving the new characters of Aquaman, The Flash or Cyborg. Wonder woman is safe since she was born with Hans and Tom and her theme is so infectiously spectacular and popular that I can’t imagine future composers discarding it. As far as Batman and Superman are concerned, their musical legacy is much greater and also richer and more conflicted and I think it was wrong both to ignore and consider as nonexistent what Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard spent ears crafting and also to tear down every emotional pillar that Zimmer and Holkenborg built for the man of steel since Henry Cavill took up the cape. As for Danny Elfman, arrogant and disrespectful comments aside he proved that he can deliver the pure epic action goods as well as anybody else and I look forward to more music like this from him and much less of his other 2017 tries.
Cue rating: 88 / 100
Total minutes of excellence: 63 / 90
Album excellence: 71%
The Justice League Theme – Logos
Wonder Woman Rescue
The Story of Steppenwolf
The Tunnel Fight
Friends and Foes
Justice League United
The Final Battle
A New Hope
The Tunnel Fight (Full Length Bonus Track)
The Final Battle (Full Length Bonus Track)