- By James Southall
The most-hyped film of the year is finally here – after months of publicity, Zack Snyder’s Superman rebootMan of Steel has been released (to fairly lukewarm reviews, it has to be said). Henry Cavill takes on the most iconic of comic book roles, his jaw appropriately chiselled, and he’ll be hoping it leads to a rather more successful career than that enjoyed by his predecessor in the role, Brandon Routh (who!?) from the little-liked 2006 Superman Returns. One rather suspects that it will.
For what it’s worth – in other words, not much – I enjoyed the film for what it was. It’s a fairly straightforward good guy / bad guy thing – as it should be – and my fears from the early reviews that it would take itself too seriously were unfounded. There’s certainly a good sense of fun, a good spectacle to the action sequences, and Cavill acquits himself well. Think too much about it and holes soon appear, but that’s not unexpected, and as a piece of entertainment I thought it served its purpose.
Given the involvement of Christopher Nolan as the film’s producer, Hans Zimmer’s announcement as the film’s composer came as no surprise - while Snyder had worked with Tyler Bates on most of his previous films, it seemed likely that someone a bit higher-profile would be chosen. While I didn’t think his music for Nolan’s Batman films was terrible, it did seem rather a missed opportunity – they were good films, one of them bordering on great, and the relentlessly grim music didn’t particularly damage them but there was an opportunity there to write something very special. However, this time it’s Superman – it was hard to imagine the music could possibly come out so relentlessly joyless, so my hopes were high for something of the quality and creativity shown in the composer’sInception – while the composer has undoubtedly been stuck in a bit of a rut since then, indeed going through the weakest period of his career, it was natural to assume a bit of brightness and optimism at least in the music for Man of Steel.
Wisely, Zimmer avoids any attempt to reference or ape any Superman music which has gone before. Sadly, that’s where the wisdom ends. The problems here are endless, but one rises above all others – the music is completely devoid of any even remote sense of fun. It’s humourless, grim, bleak, meant to be incredibly serious but compositionally so simplistic that in fact it’s impossible to take seriously at all. Zimmer recently stated that he deliberately writes simple music because he feels that’s the best way of establishing an emotional connection – but I really don’t see what emotions he is attempting to connect with through this music. There’s no inherent problem with simple music – but simplicity itself is not enough to establish an emotional connection. There’s good simple music and bad simple music, just as there’s good complex music and bad complex music. This is really, really bad simple music, puerile and banal throughout. If you were a youngster back in the 1990s who quite enjoyed Media Ventures film scores, then I imagine the music you might write for some sort of school project might sound something like this. My friend said that this makes Zimmer’s Broken Arrow score sound like Hugo Friedhofer’s Broken Arrow, and that seems pretty apt. Zimmer’s music has always been simple, but he seems to be going simpler and simpler in recent years, stripping so much away that actually there’s nothing left. Social media reaction to the score has been and will no doubt continue to be as if people are witnessing some sort of musical miracle; I can’t help but think what they’re actually hearing is the emperor’s new clothes.
As the hype surrounding the film and score grew in the weeks before its release, various tracks were “leaked” onto various websites’ promotional pieces. I listened to a few of these and genuinely believed (and hoped) that at least some of them must be a joke, perhaps a fan-made thing that had somehow mistakenly been taken seriously. This surely – surely – couldn’t be a professional film composer’s music for a $200m blockbuster. Turns out the joke was on me – on all of us – because it is. (And don’t call me Shirley.) Not only does the music sound amateurish, it also sounds remarkably cheap – it’s written for orchestra but I don’t really know why, because barely anything in here sounds anything other than synthetic, with keyboards either doubling or replacing the orchestral recording most of the time. Even the much-vaunted group of 16 celebrity percussionists who bang away on their drums from time to time somehow manage to sound synthetic in places. Again – it’s the no-budget high school approximation of a big-budget film score, which is an extraordinary failure given that there have presumably been very few films ever made with higher music budgets than Man of Steel.
The music mostly sounds like castoffs from other Zimmer scores, some recent and some more distant – the male choir that was a hallmark of many of his earlier action scores, the HORN OF DOOM that by now just sounds like self-parody, the cello action ostinato that you hear everywhere, some synth brass that could be from one of his adventures with Jack Sparrow. But they really are like castoffs – like music that might have been improvised in early drafts of those scores but understandably discarded – a feeling only increased by the fact that it all sounds like the synth mockups of cues rather than the actual recordings intended for the film.
And where’s the theme? People will claim there are themes here, and they’d be right, but they’re not themes in the traditional sense. How can you possibly have a Superman film and not give him a soaring theme? OK, I get it – the recent Batman films were deadly serious, ultra-realistic portrayals of a vigilante dressed as a bat. You couldn’t possibly put a melody in there – no way. Not one that anyone might actually become attached to – oh no. But this is Superman! He flies around in a pair of tights with his underpants on the outside. If you can’t give Superman a proper theme – one the audience can hum on their way from the cinema, one kids in 30 years will have as their ringtones – well, let’s all give up now. I’ve come back to the same point – there’s just no fun here, none at all.
The album opens with “Look to the Stars”, which under an electronic soundscape introduces the “main theme”, a series of widely-spaced progressions that slowly builds in volume up to a brief burst of fairly generic action. ”Oil Rig” is the first of the glum action tracks: an array of drummers bangs incessantly away before the HORN OF DOOM signals something really bad is happening. ”Sent Here for a Reason” introduces a piano variation on the main theme which is reasonably attractive at first glance, but there’s no meat on the bone – it’s too simple to leave an impression – and then when a bass guitar takes up the theme, we really are back to Broken Arrow. I guess it’s tracks like this that are meant to be the ones with some semblance of hope or heroism, but I don’t get any of that from it.
“DNA” is another relentlessly dark action piece, the stolen bassline from Once Upon a Time in the West the only ingredient of quality; otherwise it’s like an early draft of “The Kraken” from Pirates of the Caribbean, at least until Broken Arrow takes over again. The female vocal in “Goodbye My Son” has a certain innocence to it, like a lullaby, but is spoiled by the 90s Media Ventures slow-mo action which emerges over it, and the trite cliché of the cello ostinato. The HORN OF DOOM is back in “If You Love These People”, as well as some synthy percussion and an electric guitar, for a cheap action track that again rolls out every cliché in the book. At least in “Krypton’s Last” there’s what sounds like an attempt to inject a bit of – gasp – emotion, but the violin solo passes before it’s had chance to leave any injection at all, and we’re back into silly overblown power anthem territory before you know it.
“Terraforming” is based around a rhythmic pattern with synth brass eventually laid on top – one of the easiest tricks in the film composer’s book when they’re trying to find some energy for a scene, but not when it’s as tired and hackneyed as done here – and then what can only be described as some sort of rumbling, growling extreme fart noises ushering in a new passage of dull “action”. It keeps pounding pointlessly away for almost ten minutes – and there’s no respite in sight, because “Tornado” picks up where it left off, yet more miserable joyless bass-laden action music, this time with a highly-irritating synth effect fluttering around it like a pesky insect you want to swat. No insects in “You Die or I Do”, but it’s hardly less irritating, with its simplistic blaring synth-laden brass and percussion on top of the familiar string ostinato – again it’s more like listening to a child’s music project than a professional film composer’s film score. ”Launch” is even sillier, with the electric guitar adding a new layer of dumbness.
“Ignition” brings back all the drummers, who pound away like nobody’s business – the same rhythms they pound away whenever else they appear – before they give it a rest again. Can’t quite understand what the point is. ”I Will Find Him” continues the unstructured mess, as various ideas heard earlier in the score are combined together one after the other – we’re approaching the end of the score and nothing so far has been developed, only ever restated, which again emphasises the lowest common denominator approach Zimmer was clearly aiming for (and hitting). Still, there is in this track for the first time something slightly more exciting about the action material, the sense for the first time that there is more to it than just being loud and obnoxious. ”This is Clark Kent” also has an element of quality, the piano theme getting its most pleasant airing. Finally, we’re in a sequence of tracks that doesn’t sound amateurish. Admittedly, “I Have So Many Questions” briefly bucks that trend, with an extended set of variations on the over-simplistic “mystery theme” or whatever you might call it dragging the pace right down, but it livens up again in “Flight”, one of the pre-release tracks that had people dancing in the streets with joy. The main theme slowly builds, ultimately reaching a frenzied orgy of guitar, synth brass and percussion that is still a bag of cheap tricks, but at least isn’t awful. The finale cue, “What Are You Going to Do When You Are Not Saving the World?” is actually a long way from being awful – it’s too little too late, but it does earn the album an extra star from me, it’s so much better than anything else here – it’s this score’s equivalent of Inception‘s “Time” or The Da Vinci Code‘s “Chevaliers de Sangreal”, and while it’s certainly not as good as either of them, it does have a high guilty pleasure value to it, thanks in no small part to it actually not being completely bleak and miserable.
Two versions of the album have been released, a regular and limited edition, both of which feature two discs, on the second of which is “Hans’s Original Sketchbook”, a piece of music that lasts almost half an hour and is apparently the suite Zimmer composed early on in the process and from which the composing team wrote the score. One thing that’s interesting is that even though it’s keyboard-only, it doesn’t sound too far from the sound of the final score. It does indeed feature most of the material heard through the score itself. I’m not entirely sure why it’s been made available – the cynic in me wonders whether it’s just an attempt to rebuff those who suggest Zimmer doesn’t always take the most active involvement in the creation of his scores – and it certainly does show that the score is fully-crafted from his own ideas.
But perhaps apart from a solitary listen for curiosity value, I wonder exactly who is ever going to listen to it – admittedly, the condensation of the better parts of the score into something a bit shorter does have some appeal, but you could paste it all together from the first disc if you were that way inclined. More likely, you’ll be listening to something else instead – something good.
The special edition – which comes in a very nice package, it must be said, so at least the purchasers of that album get something of quality (and if you discard the CDs it would make a useful storage container for perhaps some small mints) – also features the dubious bonus of another half-hour of score cues. ”Are You Listening, Clark?” features a dissonant soundscape which sounds a bit like the distorted whalesong emitted by the alien probe in Star Trek IV, before Spock realised you had to filter it as if heard underwater to hear the intended sound. ”General Zod” opens with some even stranger noises, this time resembling one of the songs Ross played on his keyboard in that episode of Friends, with the added bonus later on of one of Zimmer’s clichéd slow-build ostinato-based action – and then some incredibly earnest, melodramatic synthetic strings which are meant to signify events of great importance, no doubt, but sound like an amateur Zimmer-impersonator improvising on a keyboard. It sounds incredibly silly, again more like self-parody than anything, but at least it brings an unintentional but much-needed smile to the face.
“You Led Us Here” brings back the gloom and misery, darkly depressing choral fragments oohing and aahing over noodling keyboard patches. A lot of drums bang away, with no accompaniment, in the appropriately-named “This is Madness”. ”Earth” has a synthy version of the main motif, in what is presumably intended to be a more reflective setting, then the piano in an even more pared-down arrangement than usual, then that theme gets an odd, dated, flower power-style synth arrangement. A comically-ominous bass synth passage opens “Arcade”, which is the sort of thing you’d play to a young film composer if you were showing them the kind of cliché they should strive to avoid. But, unbelievably, it gets worse, as another ostinato pattern emerges and then – the HORN OF DOOM is back. If I hadn’t seen the film, I’d be convinced it was a joke. Then, at last, comes the best feature of the album – after two excruciating hours, there is finally some mercy. It’s over. There’s silence. The miserable, never-ending doom and gloom is at an end. And there was much rejoicing.
If the score on the album is poor, then at least one might think it might work in the film – but it doesn’t, not really. It only occasionally detracts from the experience – the ludicrous HORN OF DOOM will probably have people splitting their sides with laughter when they watch back in a few years, it’s so asinine and inane – but here you have something that, while clearly far from a masterpiece, should still have proved to be fertile ground for any competent film composer. Good versus evil; not just a hero that’s easy to latch on to but in terms of American popular culture, perhaps the hero that’s easy to latch onto; a nasty villain; a glamorous young woman – yes, fertile territory indeed. It fails on all counts, failing to bring any menace to the villain, any spunk to the hero – and not for the first time, watching the film it’s as if Zimmer thought every single moment was the moment, and by treating them as such, of course none of the music has an impact anywhere – coupled with the lack of development, the obvious restatement of material all over the place, it’s the musical equivalent of being bludgeoned to death. The film does actually have a few places where it stops to take a breath, but the music never allows it to. ”THIS IS SO IMPORTANT!” is the constant scream from the score. It could have been epic; instead (and I can’t believe I’m about to type these words) it’s an epic fail.
Does it really matter? It’s easy to say that if film music has been dumbed down, then it’s because films have been dumbed down; and if films have been dumbed down, it’s because society’s dumbed down. (In fact it’s so easy to say that, I just did.) But who leads, who follows? I would have thought that any “artist” with any self-worth would strive to do his or her best possible work, not play down to the lowest common denominator, which is what Zimmer has done here. The easy riposte to that is that he needs to put food on his family’s table, therefore needs to do what he’s told to do by the filmmakers – but there would certainly have been a way of satisfying their needs without treating the audience like idiots, throwing an endless parade of cheap tricks in their direction. Sadly – and perhaps this invalidates my argument – those cheap tricks seem to have been lapped up like meaty bones by a dog, people seemingly salivating as they fall over each other in saying how “awesome” it is. While a few reviews of the film have criticised the music, notably that in Variety, more have described it as effective (or indeed “awesome”); and the vast majority of course haven’t mentioned it at all. So I must ask again – does it really matter? While the fact that the film will make a ton of money and the soundtrack album will top the charts suggests that no, it doesn’t, I couldn’t feel more strongly that it does. Sales figures don’t indicate quality – sometimes they just indicate that people are falling for the marketing – and who’s to say that with music that’s a little more, shall we say, “intellectual”, that Man of Steel wouldn’t end up with even higher box office, its soundtrack selling even more copies?
Zimmer’s whole ethos – the whole raison d’être of his Remote Control studio – is that one size fits all. His brand of film music is based on providing something that’s there – not something that makes an attempt to raise the film to a level it wouldn’t otherwise have occupied, like all the best film music has done, but just something that’s there. When he’s at his best, he certainly raises films up – Inception was no hotbed of complex composition, but it was a score that felt uniquely crafted to its film, one designed on that film’s nuances and needs – and here we are, hearing a retread of the same thing in a different film – not only does it fail to boost Man of Steel, it even cheapens the experience of watching or listening to Inception in future. One size does not fit all. Man of Steel – the film – may not have the ambition of Inception – but it still has its unique musical needs, and they’re just not satisfied. I’m not talking here about the exercise of a particular musical style by a composer – all good composers have their own distinctive styles. I’m not even talking about self-borrowing – hardly something to applaud, but it has always happened in film music and always will. What I’m talking about is this treatment of it almost as library music – “this is an action scene, so this is how it must sound” etc, regardless of context. Filmmakers don’t let their production designers or cinematographers behave like that, so why do they let their composers? It’s as if Hollywood has forgotten just what film music can do – what it’s there to do. What is the point of paying such a large sum of money on getting Hans Zimmer to assemble music like this, when they could just pull a few tracks of library music off the shelf which would do an equivalent job but be far cheaper? Film music isn’t supposed to just be there – it’s supposed to respond to the unique needs of the film and help to shape the audience’s response to it.
So – does it really matter? You bet it does. It matters to me, and it should matter to you. This trawl through the detritus of previous music, throwing it together to provide something that’s there – it matters. It’s not right. It shouldn’t happen. Just because it makes a ton of money, it doesn’t make it right and it certainly doesn’t make it good. Intellectually, this is scraping the barrel. The drive for simplicity has come at the cost of any depth whatsoever – film music doesn’t get more surface-level than this, more like wallpaper. It has no impact at all – it’s far too shallow to make any sort of dramatic impact on the film, and so hollow that there is no emotional connection – frankly it all seems pointless.
I am acutely aware that another thing that seems pointless is someone like me writing a review of an album like this – some people will buy it whatever I say, some people will avoid it whatever I say. True, too, that someone like me is hardly in a position to make a stand and have any bearing on anything. But surely the time has come for someone with more influence to take a step back, look at what film music – not all film music by any means, but an awful lot of mainstream Hollywood film music – has become and ask themselves whether things have really gone in the right direction.
Man of Steel is not the worst film score I’ve ever heard – it’s not even the worst of the year – but it’s surely one of the worst for an event film like this; and I can never remember having such a feeling of being treated like an idiot by a film score. It’s so disappointing that it aims so low, with seemingly so little ambition – and then doubly disappointing that it fails to meet even the most modest of targets it sets itself. Zimmer’s bag of tricks is sounding increasingly limited – I’ve got a reputation for some reason as a regular hater of his music, whereas in truth I’ve probably given him more positive reviews over the last couple of decades than any other regular reviewer of film music – but I have to say, on the evidence of the last few years, he really just doesn’t seem to have anything left to say. Some of the music here is borderline insulting in its simplicity and cheapness. And perhaps the biggest crime of all – it’s just so boring. There’s no sign of the composer’s popularity waning either within Hollywood or with his own, uniquely devoted and vocal group of fans, for whom the emperor’s new clothes seem a true delight; and as a long-time lover of film music, that’s pretty scary. Surely it’s time for someone else to have a turn now.