On the eve of the release of Batman: Arkham City (which the Kotaku staff gave a unanimous "yes" in last week's gut check), I thought it would be fun to take a look back at the various Batman themes we've had over the years, and see how the motifs and melodies that summon the caped crusader have changed over time.
Something I noticed, which I'll come back to as we go, is how more than most superheroes, Batman has a "vibe" that almost all of his various music captures. Some combination of swelling pads, specific chord progressions, string patterns, and brass, an agreed-upon template that Batman music must match. More than anything else, Batman music sounds like "Superhero Music," moreso perhaps than any of the themes given to other characters, even those with actual super powers.
Anyhow, let's jump in.
First up, the original classic theme. The original "na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na Batman!" theme is the most famous, and probably the least associated with what we think of when we think of "Batman" these days. Listening to it again, I'm struck by how funky it is… these days, Batman is associated more with french horns and euphoniums, flat sixths and skittering strings and woodwinds. Who would have thought that his first theme was shaggy 60's electric guitar?
Danny Elfman's Theme from Tim Burton's Batman Remains the most Iconic of all the Batman themes. There's just no denying it - the five-note motif still defines the Bat, no matter how many times Hans Zimmer wants to pound out cool quasi-techno beats and driving electronic sounds. This is some of Danny Elfman's most iconic work (which is saying something), the height of the period in the late 80's and early 90's, before he became a more flexible but perhaps less enjoyably idiosyncratic composer. (Take, for example, his recent-er work on Milk. Nary a woodwind run to be heard!). I really like Christopher Nolan's Batman films, but their music will never match the grandeur of Elfman's themes from Burton's first two films.
The opening to Batman: The Animated Series will always have a special place in my heart. I remember when this show came on… when I watched animated treatments of my favorite comics and movies, there was always this worry about authenticity? I don't know if that makes sense, but there was a fine line between a cheesy kid-oriented cash-in on cooler, more mature source material. Batman: The Animated Series most certainly wasn't that, and these credits proved it. Batman punched a guy! And threw batarangs! (I always did wonder why the bank robbers blew up the front of the bank, but no one ever said that Gotham City criminals were subtle.) But as cool as the whole thing was, it was the music that sealed it. This might be my favorite version of Elfman's theme, come to think of it. (Sorry the quality is jank, it's surprisingly difficult to find a TAS opening cinematic that embeds.)
I actually never watched Batman Beyond, but I hear tell that it was really cool. This theme music is such a departure for Batman music that it almost doesn't belong here… except well, it's the music from a Batman show, so here it is! More Nü-Metal than orchestra, it sets the tone for a Batman show that is utterly unlike any other Batman show before it. Which is appropriate, I suppose.
Batman: The Brave and the Bold is another Batman show that I missed, but enough of you have immediately called for its inclusion that I shall do as you wish! Here it is, the theme from Brave and the Bold.
Hans Zimmer's Theme from Batman Begins is at once familiar and new. I'm just… I'm not a huge fan of Zimmer's work in general. He scores so many big movies, but I find his music boring and oppressive, and a bit amelodic? What can I say, I'm a melody guy. I think that the tricks he pulled off in Inception were really neat, and he does a great job of contributing to the atmosphere of a film. But as standalone pieces of music, I've never found his stuff too inspiring (It could be said that film music stands to support the film, and so this is perfectly okay). I feel similarly about his score for The Dark Knight, which echoes Elfman's general tonalities and harmonies with none of the bold melodies and orchestral flourishes. That said, the music fits perfectly with the more grounded, dark, and gritty Batman of Nolan's films. Elfman's melodies conjure a comic hero to the silver screen; Zimmer's dirges summon dread and anger, a film hero who grapples with his demons, real and imagined.
The theme from Batman: Arkham Asylum grew on me over time, and now I adore it. Again, Nick Arundel and Ron Fish's score conjures some of the tonalities and vibe of Elfman's 1989 score, but put their own spin on it. The wandering, reedy theme that plays throughout Arkham Asylum is reprised in many different ways through the game, from a haunting Bassoon to the sampled, crushingly low brass and strings. It has become iconic for me in the same way as Elfman's score, and in a way that Zimmer's music is not. Put another way, I can hum you the Arkham Asylum theme, but I cannot hum the theme to…
Zimmer's theme to The Dark Knight was more crashing sturm und drang. Again, simply a matter of taste, but the music is so much more about tone and energy than it is about melody. If anything, it's even more atmospheric and non-melodic than the score from its predecessor. And again, it fits the film in question, even if it doesn't linger in the memory for long after the film. I listen to this and I think "Well, that sounds like Batman, but I couldn't say what it's from."
I haven't spent long parsing the themes from Batman: Arkham City, but the music is neat, and fits the game. Arundel and Fish return to their composing duties, and they have shifted their focus from the wandering, creepy melody of Arkham Asylum to a much more driving, epic feeling theme. Melody takes a backseat to momentum, and all of their music crashes forwards, much like the game's twisting, breathless plot. As themes go, it's not the most memorable, but as soundtracks go, the music for Arkham City is some of the best Batman music I've heard. Also, fun side note: the string line in this traces the same four-note motif as "Making Christmas" from Danny Elfman's soundtrack to The Nightmare Before Christmas. Second fun fact: That motif is in fact lifted from "The Carol of the Bells," stretched out and made more sinsiter. Music!
And that's that! I've always liked how no matter the composer, the medium, or the canon in question, there is a certain -ness to Batman music that is always there. And when I listen to them all in a row, I'd say we can thank Danny Elfman for it. Thanks, Danny!