Trial: What is the best superhero musical theme of the DCEU?

*Trials is a weekly series in which two writers tackle a proposed question or task. After they’ve written their opening statements, the writers will offer rebuttal arguments against the other’s and for their own, and a third writer will come in to make the verdict.*

This week’s question: What is the best superhero musical theme of the DCEU?

Writers: Harrison Tunggal and Kyle Kizu
Judge: Sanjay Nimmagudda

*Warning: Potential spoilers for ‘Man of Steel’ and for ‘Wonder Woman.’*

Warner Bros./Courtesy

Harrison’s argument:

As this video explains, Wonder Woman’s theme (AKA “Is She with You – Wonder Woman’s Theme”) by Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL is basically a Led Zeppelin song — driven by a killer riff bound to become permanently lodged inside your brain, but in a good, “Kashmir” sort of way. The Wonder Woman theme accomplishes what any superhero score should — it represents the character. Wonder Woman is capable and incisive when necessary, a quality brought out by Tina Guo’s razor sharp electric cello riff. As DC overlord Geoff Johns said, Wonder Woman is the best fighter in the DC Universe, and her musical theme reflects this assertion. Simply put, her theme is badassery distilled in sonic form.

When Wonder Woman saves Batfleck in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and the cello riff kicks in, the audience can’t help but feel a jolt of adrenaline. The tune is used to similar effect when Wonder Woman takes out a room full of German soldiers in her solo film, Wonder Woman. In this sense, the Wonder Woman theme functions as an element of a film’s set piece — just as CGI (for the sake of this argument) contributes to the design of a set piece, so too does use of the Wonder Woman theme immediately raise the stakes of any conflict. Every time that Wonder Woman’s theme is used, it’s a jolting and exciting moment, one filled with the thrills that superhero films thrive on.

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Of greater import, is the type of jolt that audiences feel when Wonder Woman’s theme is used. I’ll preface this by saying that other superhero themes are undoubtedly effective — John Williams’ Superman theme sounds hopeful, and Hans Zimmer’s Batman theme from The Dark Knight Trilogy is darkly pragmatic; both tunes capture the essence of the heroes they represent. But these superhero themes are merely effective, while the Wonder Woman theme is also affective. For the first time, a superhero theme sounds like a call to action. Wonder Woman’s theme is empowering, a source of energy that films featuring her draw on. It’s energy that is communicated to anyone listening to her theme.

Wonder Woman’s theme represents the character’s warrior persona, but the theme goes further, representing all facets of the character. Wonder Woman’s mantra is “It’s not about deserve. It’s about what you believe. And I believe in love.” The compassion that drives Wonder Woman is inherent in her theme — as “Is She with You” trades biting cello riffs for contemplative string melodies, the song invokes Wonder Woman’s great capacity for love, not just fighting. This sentiment is taken a step further in Rupert Gregson-Williams’ score for Wonder Woman, which alters the implied darkness of “Is She with You” to become a score driven by warmth and idealism.

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Additionally, Wonder Woman’s theme is a landmark in film scores, just as Gal Gadot’s portrayal of the character is a landmark in cinema itself. We’ve heard Superman, Batman and Spider-Man represented through music before. But as an introduction to a new character, Wonder Woman’s theme is as significant as Gal Gadot’s performance.

If nothing else, Wonder Woman’s theme is hugely listenable as an individual track. In particular, Tina Guo’s metal cover of the theme will turn your daily walk to (insert something mundane here) into a heroic march into battle.

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Kyle’s argument:

It’s a bit unclear what the specific Superman theme in Man of Steel is, but all signs point to “What Are You Going to Do When You Are Not Saving the World?” as the heart of the score’s character. Once that logistical step is taken, though, it’s difficult to think of any other theme as better. This one is just too moving on every level.

Hans Zimmer had an absolutely enormous task ahead of him in crafting an original theme for Superman. That of the 1978 film is iconic, injected into the veins of the character. But the choice to leave it behind was a smart one; it would be almost too camp in a contemporary film with the tone that Man of Steel aims for.

In brilliant manner, however, Zimmer actually doesn’t wholly deviate from that ‘78 theme. He takes the specifics notes of it, and leaves behind its aged sense of melody to adapt them for our contemporary understanding of it.

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Zimmer is often at his best when at his most minimal. The end of “Time” from Inception is all that’s needed to make that case. With “What Are You Going to Do,” Zimmer starts with soft and gentle singular piano notes. It echoes the thematic structure of the film; at the beginning of the film, Clark Kent struggles with his strength, with holding so much power despite the gentleness of his core.

The film is all about Clark finding the synthesis of power and gentleness/kindness in a world that isn’t so kind. That synthesis begins with the introduction of the drums and the whirling strings as the piano notes become more forceful. Here, Zimmer’s adaptation of the classic notes find the same kind of awe-striking build and progression of the original. For about a minute and a half, the track almost feels like it’s searching — just as Clark in the middle of the film, despite coming upon his suit and past, is still searching for what it means to be Superman.

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And then the track explodes into wonder that even Wonder Woman’s theme can’t quite match. It’s fascinating what Zimmer does with layers. The layering, in terms of what instruments are being used, where they’re being used and how, is very similar to his work on The Dark Knight Trilogy, but the distinction is in tone. Zimmer is a master of tone and despite this track holding the same kind of bombast that much of his previous work does, there’s an unmissable, undoubtable sense of hope in “What Are You Going to Do.”

Yet, the track does not end with just two minutes of hopeful bombast. Somehow, Zimmer dives back to a sort of humble quietude before exploding yet again.

On purely a musical level, Superman’s theme is magnificent. It’s informed, in every sense, by character and, thus, is able to feed back into how character is shaped in the film.

That Zimmer’s work has become so utterly adored and embraced as this generation’s Superman theme — despite the film’s mediocre reception — is yet another testament to how well-executed and brilliant of a theme it is.

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Harrison’s rebuttal:

Kyle, there’s no doubt that Hans Zimmer’s Superman theme is one of the great film scores of all time. The fact that his score can compete with the original John Williams theme is a huge testament to how well the new Superman theme represents the character. To my great surprise, the Superman theme does not actually give the listener the power of flight.

But Zimmer had a template to work from. He had a goal, to make music that embodies hope, but that goal was set by John Williams. In other words, a good Superman score had been done before. You even mention the fact that Zimmer took specific notes from Williams’ theme. While the Wonder Woman theme takes a page from Led Zeppelin, choosing the rock and roll aesthetic of that band was an original interpretation of the character, whereas the Superman theme was less distinctly an original interpretation. In short, it’s easier to choose John Williams as the template for a score, than it is to take Led Zeppelin as inspiration, and forge a new path for Wonder Woman.

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Through crafting the Wonder Woman theme, Zimmer, Junkie XL and Tina Guo were treading new ground, and in doing so, all three artists made a contribution to the very character of Wonder Woman. Hans Zimmer redefined Superman, but that pales in comparison to doing the act of initial defining, which he, Junkie XL and Tina Guo did with the Wonder Woman theme. The character of Wonder Woman isn’t the same anymore, because of their work on her theme. There’s no way a comic book reader will open the pages of a Wonder Woman story, and not mentally hear her theme.

And while both the Superman theme and the Wonder Woman theme perfectly encapsulate their respective characters, the Wonder Woman theme has proven more malleable, and adaptable to various films. The Wonder Woman theme, biting and incisive in Batman v Superman was modified to reflect the more compassionate character we met in Wonder Woman. The essence of the theme remains the same, but structurally speaking, it can be modified to fit different films. In Justice League, Danny Elfman tweaks the theme — instead of an electric cello, the theme’s riff is played on horns, reflecting the epicness of the Justice League.

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In contrast, the Superman theme has proven less adaptable. It really only works in the context of Zimmer’s bombast. The fact that Elfman would turn to Williams’ original Superman theme for Justice League illustrates this fact — the sweeping majesty of Zimmer’s Superman theme has yet to work effectively in a non-Zack Snyder film.

Finally, I take issue with the need to stray from the “camp” of the Williams score. There’s nothing wrong with campiness, especially when it’s sincere, and if there’s one thing that’s essential to Superman, it’s that he’s a sincere, saving-cats-from-trees kinda guy. The Zimmer score might convey hope, but I would argue that before being a symbol of hope, Superman is primarily an emblem of goodness. In essence, Superman’s hopefulness stems from his capacity for being indiscriminately good, and that’s a concept that the Williams score captures more effectively.

Most importantly though, the Superman theme lacks the affect of the Wonder Woman theme. At the end of the day, the Wonder Woman theme is a source of empowerment. And while the character of Superman might have been a similar well of empowerment in the past, Wonder Woman has arguably become this generation’s Superman. It’s only fitting that her theme surpasses Superman’s.

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Kyle’s rebuttal:

Harrison, you mention how Zimmer had a template, but that’s not any sort of knock. If anything, it’s a testament to the fact that Zimmer had to follow something so iconic — a daunting task — and still made something both informed by the original, but also distinctly its own. Most don’t even realize that it takes notes from the ’78 version, but everyone feels a renewed, modern sense of Superman. That’s a great achievement, not a knock in any way.

The Wonder Woman theme is, undoubtedly, awesome, but in it lies plenty of issues. You argue for its badassery. I can’t say anything against that. But I can say that the theme does less character work than you give it credit for.

Firstly, the theme uses the Man of Steel score. Between 3:25 and 4:10, there is a literal lift of Superman’s theme. Any sense of hope that “Is She with You?” builds for Wonder Woman’s character is marred by the fact that the only soft moment in the track is wholly define by Superman’s music. There’s no other sense of quietude that is its own.

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Secondly, her theme isn’t malleable because it had to be adjusted for. Gal Gadot, herself, says that Batman v Superman got the character of Wonder Woman wrong. So, the character work that the theme does in that movie is off. Wonder Woman had to course correct. This sense of unending goodness in her character is more defined by Patty Jenkins’ direction and Gadot’s performance in her solo film than it is by the track that’s based in a movie where Wonder Woman gives up on mankind — something we now know she would never do.

Wonder Woman’s theme may be what people think of, but that’s only because no one had done it before. It’s easily possible that, hypothetically, another composer’s theme would be what people think of — because it’s the first.

It’s also arguably only so memorable because of its badassery. Plus, memorability does not mean superior. The feat of creating something that’s iconic on its own despite something so iconic coming before it is greater than creating a badass start. One can look to the rest of each character’s scores as evidence. I remember nothing of the rest of Gregson-Williams’ score other than a general notion of goodness. With Man of Steel’s score, I remember distinct tracks.

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Since we haven’t seen Justice League yet, you can’t genuinely leverage it. Wonder Woman’s theme may be adapted, but we don’t really know how it functions in the film — perhaps poorly. The same goes for Elfman’s choice use the ’78 theme. He actually says he’s using it for a rather dark moment, and we don’t know how much Superman is in the movie and what exact Superman we’re getting (black suit or not), so we don’t know what the function is. We can’t make arguments based on what we don’t know.

I also think you misunderstand how I talk about “camp.” There’s nothing wrong with “camp.” But to think that it’s negative to stray from it for this new film — a film entirely different in tone both as a story, but also musically in that we literally don’t think in the same ways of melody anymore — doesn’t make sense to me. Zimmer did necessary work to modernize Superman and you even say that the score is one of the best of all time.

Finally, Wonder Woman may be this generation’s Superman. But that’s only true if we’re talking about the films. Man of Steel’s score perfectly evokes a contemporary sense of Superman. The movie might fall short elsewhere, but that doesn’t take away from the work that the theme does. So listen to it and adore it, even if they didn’t love the film. While Wonder Woman is a better film, Zimmer’s Superman theme transcends film.

Sanjay’s ruling:

Wow. First of all, I applaud both Kyle and Harrison for two holistic arguments that truly elevate the discourse surrounding movie scores to an extremely thought-provoking level. Harry, your assertions in exploring the malleability and nigh ubiquitous nature of “Is She with You?” is inspiring. Kyle, the depths to which you explore Zimmer’s intricacy in crafting a new theme for an iconic character is revering. If I could, I would call this a tie based solely on the eloquent, scrupulous analysis of these two tracks by the both of you, but in reading your rebuttals to one another and subsequently re-reading your original arguments, I think I’ve made a decision – albeit begrudgingly.

Harry, you mention how Wonder Woman’s theme is overtly affective. It impacts how the character’s perceived not only in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but also in the likes of her comic series, future movies and so on. You also mention that the song is not merely a song but rather a capsule that encompasses melodic allusions, character motivations and qualities as well. While I wholly agree with you on those points, I do have to concede that Kyle’s argument that creating a theme for a hitherto unseen character on film, while undoubtedly momentous, is a less daunting task than re-defining a cultural icon auditorily.

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Why do I say this? Well as Kyle points out, in creating Superman’s new theme in Man of Steel, Zimmer was fighting an uphill battle. John Williams’ uplifting score from Superman ‘78 is deeply engrained in the cinematic and generalized cultural zeitgeist. Zimmer was always going to face the court of comparative public opinion, so he had to craft something both inherently, emotionally familiar yet distinctly different in execution so as to not do a disservice to the Last Son of Krypton while not simply riffing of his compositional predecessor. That’s a daunting task and seems much more likely to fail than establishing the tonal (pun intended) status quo for the Pride of the Amazons.

While I do not refute, at all, the waves “Is She With You?” has made since first appearing in 2016, and the detail that went into composing such an elegantly powerful song for the fictional embodiment of those qualities, I have to side with Kyle in that “What Are You Going to Do When You Are Not Saving the World?” (I’ve always thought that it should be ‘You’re,’ sue me) accomplishes all that and more, at least in my opinion, in spite of what came before it. It’s played over the end credits of the film, without even a glance at the character it encapsulates, and still manages to contribute the persona of Superman. I’m going to give this one to Kyle, but let’s be real here, both themes are always an auditory cue that something insanely badass is about to happen onscreen.

 

Do you agree with Sanjay’s verdict? Or would you have picked a different DCEU theme? Sound off in the comments.

Staff records:

Harrison Tunggal: 3-2

Levi Hill: 1-0

Kyle Kizu: 1-2

Sanjay Nimmagudda: 0-1

 

Featured image via Warner Bros.

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