Shortly before the weekend, director Matt Reeves unveiled the full musical theme for The Batman. While it’s been heard in thunderous snippets in recent trailers, the full piece itself from the film’s composer Michael Giacchino is a blast. For as “dark and broody” as people have been calling Robert Pattinson’s upcoming take on the Dark Knight, it’s a not as dour as you’d think, exuding a light and a little bit of yearning that also feels plucked right out of Batman: The Animated Series. It reminds you that not only is Giacchino one of the best composers we have today, but also how good character-specific musical themes can be when they’re allowed to actually exist.
Back when genre fare was relatively new and getting off the ground, it felt like you could easily identify a character theme. Several of them can be attributed to heavy hitters like Danny Elfman and John Williams, the latter of whom just never seems to miss. Williams has a great resume under his belt, from Indiana Jones and Superman to Jurassic Park and even Harry Potter. Alan Silvestri is also in the same sphere, even if it feels like his Avengers theme is frequently cut off at the knees before it can build up its grand triumph. It only really hits during the credits of Endgame, because it’s played as a celebration of the original cast and isn’t fighting to get noticed as the heroes stand in action movies poses. In recent years, there’ve been great compositions from Ramin Djawadi, Bear McCreary, and Natalie Holt. But by and large, character themes and even just strong musical themes in general feel like an afterthought.
It’s especially true in the case of superhero movies. Outside of maybe Captain America and Ant-Man’s music from respective composers Henry Jackman and Christophe Beck, Marvel films don’t really have themes, and Thor and the Guardians rather famously rely on on 70s and 80s rock to stand in as replacements. And while I won’t turn down a good single from a rock band or pop star every now and again like the Venom 2 song that I listened to so much during 2021, these bombastic superhero movies can’t just keep coasting on needle drops and hoping fans will make their scenes “epic” in overedited videos on Twitter and YouTube.
Which isn’t to say that there are no good themes out there today. Ludwig Göransson has done great work in recent years, most notably with Star Wars. The themes to The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett are iconic in their own right, and he deserves props for showing restraint in choosing to let his work speak for itself instead of relying on the franchise’s old music to guide him. As much as it runs hot and cold for people, I’ve come to really like Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL’s theme for Wonder Woman, mainly because it’s just Tina Guo losing her goddamn mind on that electric cello. (Ancient Lamentation Music is, in addition to being a great meme, way more distinct than it should be.) And as has been said numerous times, Daniel Pemberton killed it for Into the Spider-Verse’s score, giving us something that we never really got before in a superhero movie.
For sci-fi and fantasy, the music is just as important as its visuals, even if you don’t fully realise it at the moment.