Strings and Horns: How John Williams Could Have Helped The DCEU


There’s no denying it: John Williams is one of the greatest composers who ever lived. The fact that he’s created more memorable movie tunes than almost anyone else alive or dead is testament to his power as a creator of thematic material, something I believe missing from many of today’s blockbuster releases. Among his many graceful motifs, one of the most enduring is his themes for Richard Donner’s 1978 film, Superman, the first big-screen, big-budget extravaganza that swept audiences away with the adventures of the Man Of Steel. The theme, reused for no fewer than four sequels (including Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, albeit seconded by composer-in-residence John Ottman, who reworked many of Williams’ iconic elements into the new film) has become as synonymous with the character as the big S or Lex Luthor.

So when Zack Snyder announced that his reboot of DC Comics’ on-screen franchise properties, beginning with 2013’s Man Of Steel, would not reuse the classic themes, many fans felt dubious that replacement composer Hans Zimmer, who had worked wonders with Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight saga, would be able to achieve a similar memorable sound. After all, Zimmer’s music tended to atmospheric, while Williams was definitely more melodic.

The end result of Man Of Steel, with Snyder’s now lamentable grimdark aesthetic and the character’s pummelling into melancholic oblivion by emotionally constipated moral and ethical contrivance, left as much to admire as it did to disappoint. Critics of the film cited the depressing nature of a “realistic” Superman inhabiting our increasingly darker world, while fans applauded the large-scale action, even if it lacked emotional weight. One of the elements rising above much of the controversy was Zimmer’s score, a pulsating, moving, uplifting electronic-slash-percussive thing that fit the reboot’s slash-and-burn modernism. Frankly, it’s one of my favourite overall scores in recent years, and one I still listen to regularly.

But what if? What if Snyder had turned to John Williams to reprise his music and themes for the new Superman? It struck me that a quick re-edit of Snyder’s action sequences set to the original Superman theme might give the film’s sense of darker, muted heroism a more uplifting vibrancy: so I decided to test that theory out.

A quick search online will uncover many videos where people have combined Snyder’s visuals with Williams’ themes, to great success. Instead of cutting a “trailer”, however, I’ve tried to keep three of the film’s most memorable moments intact as where possible. They include the “First Flight” sequence (which, after Superman takes off, plays out without me cutting it at all), and several rescues of Lois Lane. What surprised me as I put this clip together is just how easily Snyder’s edits themselves fit into Williams music (the track is lifted from Ottman’s Superman Returns Soundtrack recording). The zooms, action beats, and musical cues are more-or-less as Snyder made them (with two exceptions, where I’ve judiciously cut brief moments out) and they highlight how easily Snyder could have dropped the Williams Score into the film.

This isn’t to disparage Zimmer at all, because I think his score suits the mood Snyder was aiming at. With Williams’ music in place, though, the film takes on an entirely different feel, I think you’ll agree. Does it work better? That’s for you to decide, naturally: one can only fantasise about the music Williams might have cooked up for Batman V Superman… or even Justice League.

Watch the Clip below, then continue the discussion after that!



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5 thoughts on “Strings and Horns: How John Williams Could Have Helped The DCEU

  1. John Williams' score actually fits in perfectly with that moment where Superman first flies. I just had an enourmous wave of nostalgia hit me. I loved the score for Man of Steel but I had a friend point out to me that Zimmer returns to the same well a few too many times. I have to agree. He does the same in The Dark Knight Rises, feels like he's just playing one tune over and over again. A good tune though.

    I don't think Elfman's score quite fits in with that action scene from Dawn of Justice. Feels like Elfman's score was made to coincide with Batman's punches – those awesome BAM! moments in the comics.

    1. I agree, I don't think the Batman score suited BVS that well, it felt too *thin* if that's the right word to describe it. But Williams' Superman score is superb against Snyder's visuals (IMO, of course). The first flight sequence is note for note, beat for beat, untouched opposite the music, and to a frame it works brilliantly.

      I get that Snyder wanted to distance his approach to the "classic" films starring Reeve, but I think the music, much like the Harry Potter or Star Wars themes, could interchange between characters/arcs and still have that instantly identifiable, almost unqualifiable emotional resonance.

      If Snyder had any sense, he's sneak a small hint of the five-note melodic hook into Justice League for when Superman comes back to life. You know, because how cool would that be!

  2. It actually surprised me how perfect it went with Superman flying for the first time. That was spot on and such a great match I couldn't help but smile in the way the '78 Superman did. I didn't think it fit with the destruction at all though. I like in Red Letter Media's review they said shouting "9/11" at the "Superman!" bit of the music would be much more appropriate…

    1. LOL Yeah, RLM nailed that.

      You're right about the destruction – I think Williams' themes suit the euphoric moments, such as "first flight" and the rescue sequences (saving Lois each time) but less so the outright destruction. It wouldn't surprise me if Snyder had temp-edited that first flight sequence to Williams score, because it fits superbly well. I guess 4/4 time works well with modern editing techniques? LOL

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