Batman sure has changed since the candy-colored days of Bif! Bam! Pow! Gone are the comic book origins and the jazzy swing of Neal Hefti and Nelson Riddle. Gone also are the whimsy and the equally distinctive musical contributions of Danny Elfman and Elliot Goldenthal for their pairs of Batman films. Christopher Nolan’s Batman has always been adrift in a more dangerously realistic, post 9/11 vision of Gotham and his trilogy has explored far deeper issues than even the darkest of the earlier Caped Crusader incarnations could hint at. And with THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, those issues come to a head. Following TDK to the brink of nuclear destruction once again is Hans Zimmer, this time without co-composer James Newton Howard.
Even though Howard had his moments on BATMAN BEGINS and THE DARK KNIGHT, it has always been Zimmer’s sonic palette beating (literally and figuratively) at the heart of Nolan’s vision. The scores have been polarizing from the beginning (and this one is no exception if social media and message boards are any indication), but to argue whether Zimmer should have done something differently is moot by this point.
Out of the simplest of elements—short, repeated rhythmic, melodic and harmonic sequences, splashes of orchestral color, and a veritable arsenal of primal percussion—Zimmer created a complex and harsh sonic world by piling on the layers, cranking everything up, and then processing it within an inch of its life. The world of RISES is a bleak one and so is the musical palette. Zimmer continues to build on the musical landscape he created in the earlier films, stretching the melodic and harmonic elements to the nth degree.
The addition of two new villains required new themes for both. Tom Hardy’s menacing Bane gets a growling theme in the low brass that seems to reside in the sewers of Gotham, an ominous musical presence that never has to take center stage to be felt. A mysterious minor-key cello and piano theme hints at the darker secrets behind Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman in tracks like “Mind If I Cut In?”
Click Track: Mind If I Cut In?
Last fall, Zimmer made a big deal on social media inviting fans worldwide to join the chanting choir. Outside of providing color, the chanting doesn’t add much to the soundtrack, but it is effective in context of the film and makes for an interesting inclusion arising out of a major plot point. In “Born In Darkness,” pitches dip and bend in their Middle Eastern musical context, making for a logical progression on the electric glissando used for The Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT, once again using the device to depict the musical genesis of evil.
The score really excels, as does the film, in its action sequences. In tracks like “Gotham’s Reckoning,” “The Fire Rises” and “Imagine the Fire,” rhythm is key. Zimmer keeps the harmonic changes to a minimum and allows the excitement of the repeated rhythmic figures to take center stage. Backed by pounding percussion and belching brass, the music maintains interest by alternating through a series of heavier and lighter orchestrations.
Click Track: The Fire Rises
As to be expected, elements from Zimmer’s earlier work on BATMAN BEGINS and THE DARK KNIGHT are on display in RISES as well. And when those churning lower strings and the Batman theme rear their heads from the wreckage of “Despair,” the excitement generated by their familiarity is thrilling.
Much like Danny Elfman’s BATMAN in 1989, Zimmer’s musical vision of the Caped Crusader has changed superhero film music—for better or worse, depending on who you ask. If you’ve enjoyed Zimmer’s Bat-vision from the beginning, then you should be more than satisfied by THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. If not, you probably haven’t read this far anyway.