It is impossible to approach Hans Zimmer’s score for Man of Steel, the latest film featuring the messianic superhero Superman, without immediately hearing the opening bars of John Williams’ triumphant theme for the red-caped hero as heard in the 1978 film, Superman: The Movie. For many, William’s noble and resplendent score for director Richard Donner’s superb big screen adventure featuring the dual lives of Clark Kent and his hidden Superman identity, is often cited by film score fans as his greatest accomplishment (right behind his Star Wars scores). To attempt to compete with that would be a fool’s errand. Even composer John Ottman, working with Bryan Singer for the near-miss adventure in 2006’s Superman Returns, crafted a score so reverential to William’s work that his own thematic capability seemed hijacked.
So how should one approach Zimmer’s unique score, which has been purposefully crafted to walk a sonically different path to William’s grand accomplishment? With open ears…and patience.
Man of Steel
Release Company: Water Tower Music Classics
Catalog ID: NLIN39426
Film Year: 2013
Running Time: Disc One: 56:56. Disc Two 58:01
Number of Discs: 2
Edition: Deluxe Limited Edition
Composer(s): Hans Zimmer
Release Date: June 11, 2013
Review Date: June 15, 2013
3.5 / 5
Following the destruction of their home planet of Krypton, Jor-el and Faora-Ul send their baby on a one-way journey to a small planet called earth to survive. Young Kal-el is dispatched to safety, crash landing on a Kansas farm, where he is found by two humans who love and raise him, protecting him as he grows up and displays unusual powers. Kal-el, now known as Clark Kent, matures to be conflicted by the powers he possesses and of being from a world he does not know. He is a troubled soul seeking to understand his place in a world where he is unique. When others of his kind arrive on earth in search of him, he must decide if he is to reveal to the world what he is capable of and if he, with his morals and great power, will become earth’s protector.
Written by David S. Goyer from a story co-conceived by Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins), Man of Steel updates the world’s greatest comic book superhero origins for today’s world, a place of far greater cynicism and suspicion than even the world of 1978 when Christopher Reeve first donned the red and blue outfit. The film is directed by Zack Snyder whose success and appreciation by the film going community has seesawed from the highs of his Dawn of the Dead remake and 300 to the lows of his widely disappointing Sucker Punch. By all accounts, Man of Steel is a formidable visual spectacle and tonally much darker than any iteration of Superman on the big or small screen. Director of the Dark Knight trilogy, Christopher Nolan, was handed the keys of Superman by Warner Bros. due to his remarkable reinvention of the Batman story and he chose Snyder to direct and insisted upon Hans Zimmer to score. Nolan, having worked with Zimmer on all three Batman features and the highly successful Inception, has a fondness for ambient thematic scores and so Zimmer not only was tasked with coping with the inevitable comparisons with John Williams but with expectations that his score for Superman not betray the hopefulness of the character, fit the vision of the director and producers, while matching a grittier and more realistic take on this superhero. No easy feat.
The score begins with “Look to the Stars”, a modest introduction of the main theme that begins atmospherically before building toward a near-crescendo. It isn’t until “What are you going to do when you are not saving the world”, the final track, that Zimmer’s theme is given full space to soar, beginning with soft vocals by Hilda Örvarsdóttir, warmed by the tender piano, before exploding. Until then, the score is a mix of synth-driven underscore for several of the films enormous set-pieces, a tender piano motif filled with a contemplative air, and elaborate and pounding drum forces in addition to Zimmer’s signature synth sound.
The track “Launch” offer motifs among simmering choir voices and darting string sections with what also sounds like electric guitar, before settling into a little bit of Gladiator territory. “Launch” segues firmly into a drum-laden, propulsive and highly-addictive track called “Ignition” that is over all too quickly. “This is Clark Kent” is a lighter, softer piece, entirely more lightly expressive than Zimmer has produced in some time, that evolves into a variation of the Man of Steel theme (as one might expect from a track called “This is Clark Kent”) tailored towards the close with a dreamlike synth and percussive punches.
Man of Steel shares similar DNA to the scores Zimmer crafted for the three Batman films (two of which he co-composed with James Newton-Howard), but here Zimmer allows himself a little more room to play, stretching beyond simple persuasive ambient sound struck by ostinatos – phrases repeated – though that is still very much a foundational element of several pieces. Echoes of Zimmer’s score for the 1997 film The Peacemaker are clearly evident in several tracks, particularly in electronic strings, and the drum patterns are familiar as well, though the cumulative effect of multiple drummers and their tools played in unison here creates a deeper, crisper, and more satisfying effect.
Overall there is relatively little by way of dissonance in the score, and while the theme is not highly developed, it is strongly presented and evocative of the Kryptonian superhero in a distinctly different way than Williams’ theme written over 35 years ago. Williams’ theme announced Superman as the inevitable hero we would celebrate. Zimmer’s theme seems to establish itself as a musical accompaniment to the uncertain making of a superhero, mirroring how the Clark Kent struggles with his identity and only truly comes to realize his rightful role on the planet at the denouement. Laced with an incredibly rich percussive power, the swelling theme is less a noble statement on the savior and more an intimate sense of Kal-el becoming the being that will dedicate himself to protecting earth. Zimmer has demonstrated an ability in his scoring career not only to embrace bombast but to distill his work into more dramatically sweeping pieces, most notably in his scores for The Da Vinci Code (with the track “Chevaliers De Sangreal”) and the incredible The Thin Red Line. The score here is structured around the simple central theme and the piano refrain, offering tempered variations that one would hope to see greatly expanded if he returns to score the near-certain sequel.
The limited deluxe edition also comes with a second disc containing bonus tracks and a 28 minute sketchbook track of Zimmer’s early ideas that laid the foundation for what would ultimately become the film’s score. Performed entirely by Zimmer himself, the root origination of all the major elements of the soundtrack are present, including the strong presence of percussion, though in its more electronic form. The sketchbook is an interesting idea though will likely get less spins among fans than the album proper.
The additional tracks included have some interesting moments though none rival the tracks contained on the master album. Additionally, this release comes with the ability to each track in DTS Headphone: X, which is designed to reproduce a “cinematic multi-speaker surround sound experience using only the user's headphones.” The download works simply enough and despite a few sputters in the quality (as the downloads were underway), the effect is rather good.
1. Look to the Stars
2. Oil Rig
3. Sent Here For a Reason
5. Goodbye My Son
6. If You Love These People
7. Krypton's Last
10. You Die or I Do
13. I Will Find Him
14. This Is Clark Kent
15. I Have So Many Questions
17. What Are You Going To Do When You Are Not Saving The World?
1. Man of Steel (Han's Original Sketchbook)
2. Are You Listening, Clark?
3. General Zod
4. You Led Us Here
5. This Is Madness!
As with the film itself what you get out of the score for Man of Steel will, in many cases, depend upon what you bring to the listening experience. Fans of Zimmer’s work will undoubtedly enjoy his work here, savoring the swelling nature of his powerhouse theme (despite a fully realized version appearing just once on the main release) and delighting in the percussion-heavy action underscoring. Zimmer detractors will undoubtedly dismiss his works as less than a shadow of William’s exemplary score, lamenting a lack of a fully realized theme, and complaining that it is nothing more than a ‘wall of sound’.
The reality of this scores success lies somewhere in-between. Some of the synth work betrays the organic nature of the rest of the score, particularly when partnered with the fine drum work from talents such as Trevor Lawrence Jr., Toss Panos and Curt Bisquera. Man of Steel is also a simple score, forgoing layers of instruments locked in glorious dance (à la John Williams) for a more direct route to try and trigger an emotional reaction. Both are perfectly acceptable approaches to scoring though in the many divided opinions of Hans Zimmer’s work, some on the film score fan community will likely be irked by the outcome. A shame as the end result is quite good, especially given the pressures and expectations. But it’s also a little disappointing. It takes a few listens for the details of this score to breathe properly, but even then there is too little variation in the scoring approach or in the instrumentation to be wholly satisfying on its own. The presentation of the score leaves a little to be desired. The track order provides a choppy listening experience and even the sound quality on the track “Terraforming” is questionable.
Zimmer is described by Peter Asher in the liner notes as a man who would rather “fiddle with the EQ and compression on each kick drum for a few days than actually get to composing.” It’s that idea which appears to drive his detractors. Personally speaking, as a fan of a range of composers including Miklos Rosza, Bernard Herrmann, John Williams, Georges Delerue, John Barry, Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, Jerry Fielding, Marco Beltrami, Ryan Shore… the list goes on, I enjoy the work of Hans Zimmer. His influence on film music, like it or not, has been considerable. I sometimes wonder if the issue most have with Zimmer is not his scores per se but the proliferation in popularity (among studios) of his approach. Regardless, Zimmer has his strengths and his weaknesses and his score for Man of Steel demonstrates both. It’s a good score and while direct comparison with William’s Superman score and theme are unfair (we live in a different world to when Donner’s Superman opened), it seems at this early stage that the slow-burn theme for 2013’s Man of Steel won’t be whistled nearly as much 35 years from now.