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. Christopher Nolan’s Batman has always been adrift in a more dangerously realistic, post 9/11 vision of Gotham. This trilogy explored far deeper issues the darkest of the earlier Caped Crusader incarnations couldn’t even 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.
Howard had his moments on BATMAN BEGINS and THE DARK KNIGHT. But 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. 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, Zimmer created a complex and harsh sonic world. Short, repeated rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic sequences, splashes of orchestral color, and a veritable arsenal of primal percussion. Zimmer layered them all, crankedeverything up, and processed 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. But this time, he stretches the melodic and harmonic elements to the nth degree.
The addition of two new villains required new themes for both. Bane’s (Tom Hardy) growling theme in the low brass seems to reside in the sewers of Gotham. A mysterious minor-key cello and piano theme hints at the darker secrets behind Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman.
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, arising out of a major plot point. In “Born In Darkness,” pitches dip and bend in their Middle Eastern musical context to depict evil. It’s a logical progression from the electric glissando used for The Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT.
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 harmonic changes to a minimum and allows the repeated rhythmic figures to take center stage. Backed by pounding percussion and belching brass, the music alternates between heavier and lighter orchestrations.
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. Whether it’s for better or worse depends on who you ask. If you’ve enjoyed Zimmer’s Bat-vision from the beginning, you should be more than satisfied by THE DARK KNIGHT RISES. If not, you probably haven’t read this far anyway.