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Where Have All the Hero Themes Gone?

Frank Lehman Jan 3, 2018 7:00 AM

On Saturday, Raleigh's Meymandi Concert Hall will be filled with the sounds of some of the most famous characters in musical culture—not Beethoven and Brahms, for a change, but Superman, Batman, and Captain Jack Sparrow. Led by Wesley Schulz, the North Carolina Symphony begins its Young People's Concert Series with a new "Heroes and Villains" program. The event will showcase music for good guys, bad guys, and the eternally entertaining struggle between them.

The program promises some guaranteed crowd-pleasers. With excerpts from Superman and the Harry Potter films, plus a rousing overture for the 1984 Olympics, there will be plenty of music by John Williams, the eighty-five-year-old dean of American film composition (and maybe—with apologies to purists—plain old composition). Danny Elfman, Michael Giacchino, and Klaus Badelt also feature prominently, and the great Jerry Goldsmith gets his due as well with his rip-roaring score for the otherwise forgettable Supergirl movie. And the program isn't just Hollywood heroics either; two warhorses from the original nineteenth-century purveyors of pop musical mythology—Rossini and Wagner—make an appearance too.

The program is heavy on iconic "classics," even if a lot of those classics are actually pretty recent. The newest selection is Giacchino's suite for The Incredibles, a brilliant pastiche of the 1960s spy-chic musical aesthetic, restored for 2004 audiences. Still, anyone younger than fourteen years old couldn't have seen or heard it in theaters.

Given that there's no shortage of superhero blockbusters from the past five years to draw music from, one might wonder why there's nothing featured from the true film-musical cutting edge. Especially with cinematic mammoths like the Marvel Cinematic Universe and DC Films churning out film after film, this absence may seem, at first, like a missed opportunity to excite the young concert-going crowd. Where are all the big new hero themes?

The cost of securing performance rights to major cinematic properties is one cause. A deeper reason has to do with large-scale shifts in the expectations of film audiences toward both music and narrative. Big, memorable musical themes for characters—heroes, villains, and otherwise—have fallen out of favor over the past two decades. Instead, film scores have focused on mood, texture, and ambience. At the same time, attitudes toward heroism in the movies have also changed. Most superhero films today feature very little actual heroism: super-powered characters are largely self-involved, too busy battling one another or incomprehensible alien menaces to be bothered with traditionally heroic activities like rescuing bystanders, performing impossible deeds, or generally just inspiring humanity.

We can observe the changing approach to "scoring" heroism in the Harry Potter series of films. The inaugural Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001) has the most overt, unabashed hero music of the franchise, with bright fanfares for victory on the Quidditch pitch and sparkling, warm music for Harry's personal journey. By the time John Williams contributed his final soundtrack to the series (2004's The Prisoner of Azkaban), very little of that initial geniality remained. Once the non-Williams soundtracks begin with the fourth movie, almost all shades of the old, extroverted Harry-as-hero music were gone.

Badelt's music for the first Pirates of the Caribbean offers another good case study in the evolving attitude toward heroics. Earlier models of pirate-adventure music, like Williams's score for 1992's Hook or John Debney's for 1995's Cutthroat Island used the glittering, brassy idioms established by Erich Wolfgang Korngold back in the 1940s, when he scored famous swashbucklers featuring Errol Flynn. (Korngold's own brash pirate music was ultimately based on hero themes by Wagner.)

But when Badelt approached the project, he eschewed most of the markers of this supposedly old-fashioned sound, tossing out the self-congratulatory fanfares and broad major-mode themes in favor of a more minor, more aggressive, power-anthem sort of pirate music. Ultimately, Badelt's music is no more or less effective than Williams's or Korngold's, but it does sound decidedly less gallant than previous musical imaginings of the genre.

Many people mistake Badelt's score for Pirates as being composed by a much better known name in Hollywood: Hans Zimmer. Zimmer did indeed contribute heavily to the franchise, but even if he hadn't been involved as a compositional ghostwriter, the Pirates scores bear all the hallmarks of the Zimmer approach to heroism. In an academic essay I wrote on how Zimmer tries to capture the epic in his music, I speculated that the current trend toward dark, gritty understatement in today's heroic themes owes to his outsize influence.

Famously, Zimmer's motif for Batman in Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy consisted of just two notes, a minor third apart—a startling contrast to the elaborate gothicism of Danny Elfman's motif for the Caped Crusader, and an even further departure from the heart-on-sleeve extroversion of Williams's Superman march. The motif for Christian Bale's interpretation of the Dark Knight is so dark that it could easily have substituted as a villain theme; in fact, Zimmer's motifs for villains like Bane and the Joker are similarly spare and minimal.

Zimmer seems to equate musical minimalism with cinematic realism, favoring the appearance of psychological complexity over the sort of musical memorability that might leave filmgoers humming after leaving the theater. He discards the extravagance of previous archetypes in favor of an ominous, humorless sort of reluctant heroism. His score for 2016's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was bleak and oppressive, sounding more like it came from a horror film than a superhero movie. When Danny Elfman arrived to provide a score to its 2017 sequel, Justice League, fans chafed at the uncomfortable blend of old-school heroic thematicism with the Zimmeresque minimalist touch.

This dark new angle on the heroic composition carries over even to the comparatively more colorful Marvel franchise. Themes are in short supply here, and even Captain America—the most "heroic" of the heroes—loses his brassy, traditional leitmotif after The First Avenger. But while hero themes are in short supply, other musical ideas are rising to the challenge. Chord progressions, for example, are more likely to signify heroism today than a few decades ago: the ubiquitous C minor-A flat major-F major progression, for example, underlies a number of scores, including Man of Steel, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Avengers, Fantastic Four, and even Rey in Star Wars.

Though they're a little more abstract, heroic chord progressions are just as capable of getting our hopes up and our fists pumping. Just don't expect to be humming them after leaving a cinemaplex or a concert hall. For sweeping heroics, you simply can't beat the classics.