There are a few specific characteristics associated with the Batman mythos. Darkness. Brutality. Dead parents. Outlandishly costumed villains. And, of course, in the film and television realm, unforgettable music.
It’s not surprising that Batman has drawn such epic handiwork out of Hollywood’s composers. We’re talking about movies featuring a man who dresses up like a bat and pounds the tar out of bad guys. No wonder he inspires memorable music. He’s been glowering across our pop culture for 80 years, and still we can’t get enough of him.
At the same time, you can’t just create any old theme for him. He’s the goddamn Batman! There are similarities across the decades, rules about how Batman music is supposed to sound. Investigating those qualities can tell us more about Batman, about film music in general, and about how to be better humans. Don’t believe me? Let’s find out.
“Batman Theme,” from Batman (1966)
We all know this song. It’s goofy and fun, just like the TV series it came from. And like that series, it’s been on a roller-coaster ride of rejection and acceptance, facing outright disdain and ironic celebration through the years. The Who, Link Wray, The Jam, R.E.M., and the Flaming Lips have all covered it, and it’s been sampled or quoted by Eminem, Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent, Prince, Parliament, and, perhaps the biggest of them all, Fu-Schnickens Featuring Shaquille O’Neal.
Despite this impressive mindshare, none of the Batman-related shows that appeared after Batman ’66, such as Super Friends, the various Scooby-Doo crossover episodes, or 1977’s The New Adventures of Batman, used this theme. Mostly they relied on the usual 1960s style of cartoon music: a mishmash of funk, spy-movie jazz, and whatever else was lying around the Hanna-Barbera studio. Na-na na-na na-na na-na …
“The Batman Theme,” from Batman (1989)
Tim Burton brought Batman back with a bang at the end of the ’80s, in no small part thanks to his regular composer, Danny Elfman. This is the origin of so many of the elements that we expect a cinematic Batman theme to contain. The swelling dynamics (starting at 0:34 above). The driving pace with its martial triplet pattern (0:47). The full orchestra, especially those brooding French horns, trombones, and cellos. And Elfman’s signature five-note Batman motif.
Da-da-da-da-da! The entire opening theme is just variations on those five notes, played fast or slow, transposed up or down a few steps, and ornamented with trilling flutes (1:09) or insistent sixteenth notes like machine gun fire (2:26) and even a gong crash (2:30). Melodically, it’s not much different from the other work Elfman was producing around 1989, such as the themes to The Simpsons or Tales from the Crypt. They’re all basically noodling around a triad, throwing in a flatted fifth or a minor third depending on the mood.
Batman was supposed to be a summer tentpole flick, and Warner Bros. producer Jon Peters didn’t want to hire Elfman, best known back then as the frontman for Oingo Boingo who wrote weirdo scores to weirdo Tim Burton films, like Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice. But once Peters heard the opening theme, he not only agreed to hire Elfman, but made plans to release the film score as its own recording—a rare move in the ’80s. The record won a Grammy, nabbed an Oscar nomination, and charted at #30 on the Billboard 200.
If Elfman’s theme was to be so influential, it’s also interesting to see who influenced him. He’s mentioned Bernard Hermann several times in interviews, specifically that legendary composer’s work on the 1961 Ray Harryhausen showcase Mystery Island. Just the first two minutes of that film’s orchestral suite have all the same textural and dynamic elements as Elfman’s work.
In 1992’s Batman Returns, Danny Elfman’s Batman theme returns, and he also tries his hand at some more John Williams-esque thematic scoring, meaning Catwoman and Penguin both have their own musical themes that appear when they show up on screen. It’s a disappearing film score technique that we’ll see Elfman return to, again in the context of Batman, 25 years later.
That same year, Batman The Animated Series debuted, with its film noir/art deco visual aesthetic and slightly revised version of Elfman’s theme, by Elfman himself. Most notably, he added a secondary motif you can hear at 0:23 below, basically the same notes from the original moving in a downward motion instead of up.
Day-to-day scoring for the series was overseen by Shirley Walker, who had worked with Elfman on several previous projects. Walker was a rarity in those days, when Hollywood music was an old boys’ club (and remained that way well into the 21st Century). Per IMDB, she worked with two dozen other composers who put together the cues and themes that accompanied Batman on his jaunts around Gotham. The final season of BTAS changed its opening credits to use the theme song Walker had composed, and which she also used in 1993’s Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. It’s a significant variation on Elfman’s work that would itself become an iconic Batman theme.
Among the other composers Walker worked with on this series are three we’ll hear from again and again: Lolita Ritmanis, Michael McCuistion, and Kristopher Carter. The original BTAS ended in 1995, but was immediately followed in 1997-99 by The New Batman Adventures, then 1999-2001 by Batman Beyond, 2001-04 by Justice League, and 2004-06 by Justice League Unlimited. Let’s not forget Batman: The Brave and the Bold, as well as the TV movies Batman: The Killing Joke and Batman and Harley Quinn. Ritmanis, McCuistion, and Carter would compose music for all of those series.
In theaters, Batman Forever came out in 1995. Burton, Michael Keaton, and Elfman were all out, while Joel Schumacher and Elliot Goldenthal were in. (Also: Iceman.) Goldenthal was an interesting pick; while everyone else associated with this continuation of the Batman saga was chosen as a calculated effort to maximize box-office potential, he was a composer better known for his concert work and his interest in experimenting with unconventional techniques. Still, he had more film scores under his belt than Elfman did in 1989, including hits like Demolition Man and Interview with the Vampire, which got him an Oscar nod.
What’s most interesting to me about Goldenthal’s work, on the opening at least, is that while he progressed Elfman’s five-note theme into something a little more evolved, the overall contours that Danny created remain almost untouched. It’s the same tempo, the same up-and-down dynamics, the same slow crescendo to big horns, the same cymbals. He does bring in some interesting percussion work around 1:09, and the sounds are not recognizable to my ears as actual drums you might find in an orchestra – another trend in film scores that won’t fully manifest for another few years after this one.
I assume Goldenthal was told not to mess with success re: the opening theme, and he dutifully complied. (Though he did change the key from the symbolically appropriate B minor to C minor.) That’s fine by me; film scores are how a lot of classical composers pay the bills, from Philip Glass and John Corigliano to Johánn Johánnsson. But that’s not to say Goldenthal just sat on his hands for the rest of the movie. Frankly, his score is just as insane to listen to as the Schumacher movies are to watch. Everything is turned up to eleven, as seen below.
Schumacher almost did what the Joker never could. Fortunately for us, Christopher Nolan resuscitated the hero in 2005, and he brought BWAAAAM-meister Hans Zimmer along for the ride. I have complicated thoughts about Zimmer that I’ll save for a future write-up; for now it’s enough to say that by the time he got to work on Nolan’s Batman trilogy, Zimmer was well into the sound-design phase of his career as a composer.
By that I mean he largely eschews the more traditional techniques you’d hear in a John Williams or Danny Elfman score, in favor of creating a what is better described as a tapestry of rhythmic patterns, mostly using sounds created by synthesizers, to evoke certain moods. This is basically where film scoring is today; by comparison, music that consists of discernable melodies, performed by a full orchestra, is pretty old-fashioned. Zimmer has been at the forefront of this trend for a long time, but you see people like Marco Beltrami (Logan) and Tyler Bates (John Wick) there as well.
The point is that it’s hard to compare Zimmer’s scores for the Nolan Batman films to Elfman’s earlier work, simply because it’s not the same kind of music. It’s like comparing “Old Town Road” to “O Fortuna.” In the video above, from 2008’s The Dark Knight, you will hear at least two recognizable motifs that backstop key moments throughout the trilogy: the five-note pattern that begins at 0:13 and the dramatic, minor-third figure that starts crescendoing at 1:17 and fades out by 1:25. That second one is the cue Zimmer provided for Batman’s epic, world-saving reappearance in The Dark Knight Rises: two chords. (At 1:30 in the video below.)
Just as Nolan’s films wiped out whatever residue of Tim Burton’s style remained in the Batman franchise, Zimmer’s score erased Elfman’s music as well. The “darkness” was still there, which you can interpret however you like. But the strictly orchestral palette, the flutes, the trilling chimes, the theme-and-variation — those were all replaced in the Batman musical arsenal by overlapping rhythms and propulsive swells and fades. Look no further than the theme from Batman: Arkham City, the second installment of the Arkham video game series, from 2011. It’s basically Hans Zimmer lite.
Zimmer admitted he struggled to evolve the Caped Crusader’s music for 2016’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, even going so far as to threaten retirement from superhero movies. (This was later rescinded.) He chose not to re-use any themes from the Nolan films, since this is a different Batman, right? So Zimmer and trance DJ-turned-film composer Junkie XL came up with something bone-crunchingly operatic. BWAAAM.
I almost thought I heard a familiar theme in the Batman scenes during Suicide Squad, but it was just the main motif from that dumpster fire’s original score. However, it wouldn’t be long before I did hear something I recognized in the Batfleck universe: the triumphant return of Danny Elfman’s Batman theme.
Elfman himself scored the Justice League film, though they probably didn’t hire him based on his Batman pedigree alone. By this time, he’d scored dozens movies across all genres, including Avengers: Age of Ultron, Mission: Impossible, Fifty Shades of Grey, Nacho Libre, and still every Tim Burton movie. For Justice League, he borrowed John Williams’ Superman theme and Zimmer and Junkie’s Wonder Woman theme, to variously successful ends. But if I was excited to hear his Batman theme once again, that was just the beginning of the comeback: it also showed up in The Lego Movie 2, Teen Titans Go! To the Movies, the Batman: Arkham Knight game’s DLC, and several TV Lego Batman specials.
With all these appearances, it seems Elfman wins the Batman theme influence contest. His theme has survived the test of time, from its debut in 1989 to appearances as recent as this year.
But it might be Elfman’s stalwart colleague Walker whose presence in the world of Batman themes is the most outsized. Not only did her theme appear across hundreds of hours of TV shows, it got callbacks in series spanning decades, from Batman: The Animated Series in the 90s to Batman Beyond in the 2000s to 2017’s Batman and Harley Quinn, 11 years after her death, included by Carter, McCuistion, and Romanis as an homage to their mentor. And it’s Walker’s theme that seems the most likely precursor to Hans Zimmer protégé Lorne Balfe’s theme from The LEGO Batman Movie in 2017, and to the theme played on Teen Titans Go! whenever Batman appears.
And yet … is Walker’s Batman theme, from which these themes evolved, itself an evolution of Elfman’s? Or an original work all her own? I leave it to you to decide.
Tune in tomorrow for Part 2: Batman Rocks! Prince, The Edge, The Dum Dum Girls, and more. Same bat-time, same bat-channel.