There is one spoiler for Justice League below, though you can likely already guess it if you’ve even glanced at the cast list for the film.
Justice League is a surprisingly minor trifle of a superhero film. For a movie that brings together the biggest names in DC’s arsenal, plus Cyborg, you’d think it would be more memorable. Instead, it feels like the result of too many cooks, the product of a studio so gun-shy from the critical lambasting of Batman V Superman (and Suicide Squad) that it focus-grouped Zack Snyder’s project into a lukewarm hash, both inoffensively agreeable and bombastically over the top in equal measure, like a Juggalo-themed episode of The Big Bang Theory.
Nowhere is that sense of haphazard assembly more evident than in Danny Elfman’s score. The composer attempted a soundtrack that stitched together multiple influences from superhero movies past, all while creating a mélange of orchestral themes for the various heroes, none of which really lands with any force. There’s a brief moment early on when Wonder Woman is reintroduced, and the riff from Hans Zimmer’s theme (created with Junkie XL and cellist Tina Guo) appears, but it’s a fleeting one. Similarly, there are nods to John William’s iconic Superman theme, albeit in a subtler way, threaded into the music cues when Henry Cavill’s Man of Steel reenters the picture.
But the most noteworthy musical moment in the film comes from Elfman pilfering earlier and better superhero scoring work from a far more personal source—himself. In at least two sequences of Batman-centric action from Justice League, Elfman recycles his iconic theme from the 1989 Tim Burton film, openly transitioning from the strange fusion of his melting-pot compositional strategy (just listen to his “Hero’s Theme,” a weirdly forgettable attempt to combine the sounds of those previous DC film themes into a unified whole) to outright homage, bringing that melody to the fore. It stands out both times, mostly because it calls attention to how uninspired everything surrounding it comes across. Elfman, it seems, needed to go back almost 30 years in order to pull up a musical theme that connects with the audience. His original Batman music far outstrips anything he does here.
I’m far from the first person to call attention to the listless and uninspiring state of superhero movie scores. Despite the societal juggernauts of Marvel and DC—the way our popular culture, especially the cinematic culture, is so dominated by these comic book behemoths—the orchestral scores have thus far been largely forgettable during an era when they should seemingly be ascendant. Indeed, to gain any traction whatsoever, superhero films have had to turn to gimmicks, like Guardians Of The Galaxy’s “mixtape” of old pop songs, Tarantino-style, to gain listeners’ attention. Arguably the closest any of the current crop of these pictures has come to a recognizable and enduring theme is Alan Silvestri’s for The Avengers: a straightforward melody hearkening back to the time when such films had a clear melody that called attention to itself, rather than the “background music” vibe that dominates so much current scoring.
So why do so many superhero films suffer from such lackluster scores? YouTuber Every Frame A Painting makes a very simple argument: Everyone is playing it safe. Just as the Marvel movies have a house style visually and narratively, so too do they maintain an aural one. “What you see is what you get,” the argument goes, with no surprises or unexpected variations in the musical accompaniment. A scene is sad, or funny, or intense? The companion score will deliver a predictable cue to match the surface feeling. When these studios are gambling hundreds of millions of dollars in years’ earnings on just a couple of films, no one has an incentive to push boundaries.
The other main argument offered is the poisonous influence of temp tracks. Since the move to digital made it so much easier to simply lay down temporary music, something the director feels is a good match to the film they’re shaping, the pernicious effect of pre-existing music has leeched into the vast majority of scores. Directors slap a prior score or theme over a scene they feel conveys a similar tone, then instruct the composer to give them something like that. It’s why the big names among contemporary producers have had such an outsized influence compared to their forebears: Williams, Silvestri, Clint Mansell, Hans Zimmer, and others have had their music from earlier films slapped on countless recent movies as temp tracks, only to see the finished product be little more than a blatant imitation of their work. (Perhaps this is a good moment to ask America’s directors to please, please stop ladling Mansell’s famed “Lux Aeterna” from Requiem For A Dream over every portentous scene in their films.)
Or perhaps it’s just because orchestral scores are in a creative rut across the board. As The A.V. Club’s own Sean O’Neal has argued, a lot of the most creative work being done these days is via synths and more experimental composers—think of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s superb work in Arrival or Mica Levi’s haunting sounds from Under The Skin. This isn’t to say that Marvel should be recruiting The Leftovers’ Max Richter to score Infinity Wars, but, well, maybe they should. Thor: Ragnarok recognized this problem and, as Film School Rejects notes, brought in ex-Devo member and frequent Wes Anderson collaborator Mark Mothersbaugh to add some electronic funk to the traditional brass-and-string swoons.
If the usual lineup of go-to composers doesn’t seem to be turning out the memorable material that will connect people emotionally to these properties, and giving them noteworthy themes that will function as mnemonic tools for the rest of their lives, it might be time to get outside the comfort zone of diminishing returns. Even that instantly recognizable Wonder Woman theme is less a melody than a rhythm, a riff. Maybe it’s time for these heroes to be saved from their own orchestral scores.