I Believe That a Man Can Fly Once More: Zimmer’s Man of Steel Score

By Michael Harris

This summer there are a number of big tent pole, studio films that execs and fanboys alike are looking forward to (for very different reasons, of course).  From Star Trek Into Darkness and Pacific Rim to Elysium and World War Z, it looks to be a blockbuster summer.  But the one film that possibly has the largest amount of expectations and questions surrounding it is Man of Steel, the Zack Snyder directed and Christopher Nolan produced Superman reboot that was this summer’s giant unknown commodity.  While the Nolan pedigree made many people hopeful for a Dark Knight style take on the Last Son of Krypton, having Snyder direct was a bit of a gamble after the mess that was Watchmen.  Yes, it would be visually stunning, but could Snyder handle it?  Early review have suggested yes.

But what about the music?  When Snyder was first announced, many lamented that it meant Tyler Bates handling the score, but Nolan’s role as Executive Producer and co-writer meant that the door was open for someone else, namely Hans Zimmer (though this was also a cause for  concern to many).  What would Zimmer do with the classic “Superman March” by John Williams?  As it turns out, not much at all, at least not directly (I’ll get to that in a minute).  Zimmer’s Man of Steel score is about as far as film music can get from the style of Williams, but I think that is okay.  This is not your father’s Superman and it should not have your father’s Superman music. (For more on this, see Brad Fowler’s post discussing this debate.)  So what is the music like?

First, it is fairly typical Zimmer, with not so much melody as “melodic textures”.[1]  And while it is “typical Zimmer” in that he uses a lot of big drums, guitars, strings, and everything is amped up to 11, making good use of his custom made digital instruments, Man of Steel feels somewhat different in that it is a synthesis of everything Zimmer has been doing for the last ten or so years, which may seem odd to say, but follow me.[2]

Imagine if you took Zimmer’s work on the Pirates of the Caribbean films, combined it with the Dark Knight scores, throw in Inception, and also reach deep into his back catalog for scores like Crimson Tide and The Lion King.  Doing with will give you an idea of what Man of Steel sounds like.  It’s ALMOST as if this is the score Zimmer was always meant to write, and everything before was just a prologue.[3]  And as a bonus, there are also hints of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score for The Social Network at times.  When Zimmer combines his string pad textures with soft, solo piano, as during the track “What Are You Going to Do When You Are Not Saving the World?,” the resemblance is uncanny.

I would like to spend just a little time discussing this final track on the first disc of the set.  It is seems as if it is the final track of the film (the title probably quoting the last line of the film as Superman flies off), and it sums up all the material that has come before in the score.  The Superman “theme” seems to consist of the most heroic musical material one can use.  Key of C with copious open fifths, fourths, and major thirds (C-G-F-C-E), which, for those complaining about no Williams, is basically cribbing a page from the Williams playbook.  The original “Superman March” begins with G-G-C-G-G-C-G-C, G-G-C-G-G-E-D-D, and so on and so forth, and Williams’ main melody is C-C-G-G-A-G-F-G, and so on.  Same basic materials, same basic interval and pitch class set.  “Where is Williams’ theme you cry?”  It’s built into the very fabric of the score!

After the quiet opening of the closing cue, it builds with Hans’ “flying” motif, featuring just about everything he could throw into his mixing board: lots of guitars, drums, horns, strings, layering it until it seems to want to blow out your speakers.  This motif is built upon the opening fifth of the Superman “theme,” and then moving to a sixth, fourth, etc. but never actually playing an octave.  Sure the seventh (B) moves to the C above, but it never reaches for and plays an actual ascending octave.  We can seek to attain perfection, but must never reach it.  As the horns take over this melody, they finally throw in Williams’ favorite chromatic mediant note (Ab) just to make sure they use every note that Johnny did.[4]

The way Zimmer builds this cue to dizzying heights is astonishing and reminds me that while Hans may have created the film scoring equivalent of the Motown/Factory/Interchangeable parts system, the man has serious chops.  Man of Steel is quickly becoming one of my favorite scores of recent years.

As a final note, do yourself a favor and buy the two-disc version either on iTunes on in a physical copy.  The second disc has Hans’ original thirty minute sketchbook of ideas, which if his collaboration with Snyder was like that with Christopher Nolan before, he actually wrote prior to filming and gave to Zack to listen to.  It features all his original ideas and basically served as the temp track for editing before Hans finalized all the cues.  It’s great to hear Zimmer’s mind at work in such a manner.

In short, I’m finally excited about seeing Man of Steel.  After all the trailers not really making me eager to see the film, listening to Zimmer’s score has me shaking with anticipation at Superman’s return to the silver screen.

[1] A term I picked up from a paper given by Carter John Rice at the Music and the Moving Image conference a few weeks ago.

[2] A “hyperorchestra” is related to Baudrillard’s ideas of hyperreality, which is another idea I picked up at MaMI 2013, this time in a paper by Sergi Casanelles.

[3] Okay, I know this is a positivist/teleological view, bad historian, BAD!  But I’m just going to say it, because Zimmer really did empty out his bag of tricks for this score.  It’s not like I believe it to be the actual case.  It’s called journalistic license!

[4] You too can write like John Williams and use flat three and flat six!

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