It’s 2003. I’m watching Terminator 3, a sequel to one of my favorite films of all time. Arnold hasn’t been the Arnold of old – undisputed box office king, lovably limited thespian – in ages, but my Terminator 2 love compelled me. So, there I am looking up at the film’s unexpected camp, casual sexism, and Arnold’s increasingly weathered appearance, all of which should be enough to give me pause. Yet all I can think about is the music, or, more accurately, the lack of music.
Where’s the dundun-dun-dundun? Where’s the Brad Fiedel score I had heard hundreds of times before I even knew Brad Fiedel’s name? Is Terminator 3 really a Terminator movie if doesn’t have the actual Terminator theme?
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was witnessing what has turned into nearly two decades worth of hand-wringing over the following question: when you reboot a franchise should you also reboot the accompanying musical themes the fans know and love from the older movies you’re updating?
ELFMAN AND JUSTICE LEAGUE
Danny Elfman leans toward the “old hits” approach, as you can see in this clearly familiar-sounding Justice League clip:
Yes, that’s Elfman’s own Batman theme from 1989 playing underneath this 2017 movie. It’s Justice League’s most overt reference to Elfman’s classic Batman motif, but it’s hardly the only one. The theme pops back up, sometimes subtly, other times not so subtly, throughout the entire movie. Justice League spoiler Elfman even works in one quick homage to John Williams’ Superman theme for Henry Cavill’s resurrected Big Blue Boyscout.
“The beauty of Justice League,” Wired argued, “is that you can hear an internet commenter suggesting everything that comes up on screen,” and in this case you hear it on the soundtrack as well. For years, fans have campaigned for any new Batman movie to stop fiddling around with new atmospheric music and simply re-use the Elfman score which has become synonymous with the character, first through the Tim Burton movies then Batman: The Animated Series then the Joel Schumacher movies (which were scored by Elliot Goldenthal) and all the way up to the Lego Batman video games.
All it took to make it happen was actually hiring Elfman again after Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL begged off of Justice League. Elfman figured there’d be no harm in referencing his own material from ‘89 since nothing has risen to replace it, telling an interviewer, “No, you will not hear a new theme for Batman [in Justice League]. You will hear Batman’s theme for Batman. Batman has only ever had one theme. Hans has done some very wonderful driving, rhythmic stuff, but there’s only ever been one theme.”
The “driving, rhythmic stuff” Zimmer did for The Dark Knight trilogy, composed in open defiance of the genre’s more orchestral tradition first established by Williams on Superman and followed by Elfman on Batman:
Not everyone has been happy with Elfman’s decision. Some fans would have been more interested to hear what Junkie Xl would have done with it. Others listened to JL’s soundtrack and complained there isn’t enough of the familiar ‘89 theme in there.
Elfman, however, thinks this is something which should have happened ages ago, telling THR:
“The whole concept that every time a superhero franchise is rebooted with a new director, then you have to start the music from scratch is a bullshit idea. It’s only for the ego of the director or the composer. They need to learn the incredible lesson that Star Wars and James Bond have known for ages, which is that keeping these musical connections alive is incredibly satisfying for the people who see those films. There’s like four different Spider-Man themes at this point, and as a result, he doesn’t have a recognizable sound.”
WHY THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY WENT A DIFFERENT DIRECTION
Christopher Nolan disagreed. Dropping Elfman’s score and going a different direction with 2005’s Batman Begins fit the film’s new aesthetic for the franchise and overall effort to break from the past. Nolan’s chosen composers, Zimmer and James Newton Howard, produced a more synth-driven sound which upended Elfman and Goldenthal’s preferences for rousing hero themes and relatedly consistent subthemes for the love interest and villains. The duo continued forging their new symphonic path for the franchise on The Dark Knight, and after Zimmer handled Dark Knight Rises on his own he produced a score for Man of Steel which similarly ignored anything that had been done in the past.
WHY SUPERMAN RETURNS STUCK WITH JOHN WILLIAMS
Contrast that with Superman Returns, which came out a year after Batman Begins and went a completely different route with its score and storyline. Rather than start completely over the way Nolan had with Batman, Bryan Singer and company decided to revisit Superman’s greatest hits and simply make a direct sequel to Superman II. It only made sense, then, to re-use John Williams’ iconic score via an updated arrangement from John Ottman.
“It takes a really careful and intellectual understanding of the previous material to actually pull off a successful balance between the old and the new,” FilmTracks argued, “John Ottman managed to produce such an intelligent event for Superman Returns.”
Yeah, but Superman Returns, a far superior film than people give it credit for, still isn’t as good as Superman II, both in my own opinion and according to the various review aggregators (RT, MetaCritic). Does dropping an iconic old score like that into a belated sequel which fails to measure up to its predecessors somehow cheapen the experience? There, you can forgive it because, for better or worse, that film was trying to play in the same universe Richard Donner created in the 70s. The music matches the sensibility of their movie. Putting Williams’ score into Man of Steel, though, would make no sense.
IS IT EVEN BLADE RUNNER WITHOUT VANGELIS?
Thus, maybe this has to be judged on a case by case basis. So, what do you do, if anything, with Jerry Goldsmith’s Alien and Star Trek themes in Alien: Covenant and the J.J. Abrams Star Trek? Do you at least consider the possibility of reusing Elfman’s Spider-Man themes from the Sam Raimi trilogy in the Andrew Garfield movies? Will anyone even notice if you almost entirely drop Patrick Doyle and Brian Tyler’s Thor themes from Thor: Ragnarok in favor of something more electronica?
Furthermore, is there any possible way to do a Halloween movie without John Carpenter’s music or a Blade Runner movie without Vangelis’ haunting compositions? The answer is no. Blade Runner: 2049 reportedly tried before director Denis Villeneuve, going through multiple composers, realized his film needed to share the same sonic language as Ridley Scott’s original and decided to steer the soundtrack back to something more akin to Vangelis’ work. And Blumhouse has enlisted Carpenter to supply the music, some old, some new, for its forthcoming Halloween requel.
THE CURRENT MASTER OF MELDING THE OLD AND THE NEW
Interviewed by The Frame earlier this year while two of his movies, Spider-Man: Homecoming and War for the Planet of the Apes, were sitting comfortably atop the box office, Michael Giacchino admitted, “It’s weird to actually be in a situation where you look around, and that’s really all that’s being made around you, are these giant, sort of recreations of our past, in a way, or things we grew up with.”
His love for all those things he grew up on shows in the sheer number of reboots and remakes he’s been tasked with scoring, from Star Trek to The Force Awakens to Mission: Impossible. The internet briefly lost its mind when Giacchino released this Homecoming teaser only to later realize it was but an easter egg and not the true, new Spider-Man theme he’d composed for the film:
But unlike some composers who claim to not even listen to the scores which predate their involvement with a rebooted franchise Giacchino is always fully aware of the history he’s inheriting, sometimes even in ways the average viewer will never notice. For example, he reused some of the same exact instruments from the 1968 Planet of the Apes scoring sessions for his prequel films Dawn of and War for the Planet of the Apes.
Other times, his nods toward history are more obvious, such as the way his otherwise original Jurassic World score builds to a reprise of the John Williams Jurassic Park theme. He did the same thing years earlier with a Star Trek theme that is entirely his own until it gives way to an homage to Goldsmith’s more famous work:
To be fair, Giacchino isn’t just the master of reboots, though. His opening music for Up still draws tears. But the industry knows he’s the guy to call for a score that walks the perfect balance between past and future. That’s an ability which is in high demand in a Hollywood era where everything old becomes new again. And again. And again. And…well, you get the idea.
In his downtime, Giacchino does worry what this says about the industry:
“When I think back to those days when I was sitting in the backyard with my action figures and comics and now I’m working on Spider-Man and Doctor Strange, and in some ways it’s literally just a blown-up version of what I did as a kid — creating new adventures and things with these characters. I used to do that all the time, used to love doing that. But then every once in a while I start thinking like, well, but what about the new stuff, too? I would love to still see some new ideas and new characters.”
How about new ideas with old characters?
AND BACK TO TERMINATOR
Director Jonathan Mostow and composer Marco Beltrami chose to create an entirely new soundtrack for Terminator 3 because Brad Fiedel’s electronic score, though memorable, always had its weak spots, and the franchise had never attempted something with a full orchestra before. What they created is a pleasantly passable B-movie with a killer ending and entirely unmemorable musical score that only gives way to the familiar at the very end when an oddly lifeless 100-person orchestra recording of the dundun-dun-dundun theme plays over the credits.
Terminator: Salvation and Genisys, reacting to the negative fan response to Terminator 3, slapped Fiedel’s beloved musical motif all over the damn place, yet Terminator 3 is the better movie. Similarly, Justice League drops old Elfman and Williams scores on us, but the Dark Knight trilogy and even Man of Steel are better movies.
A film’s score is only effective if it can conjure the right emotions we’re supposed to be feeling based on what’s happening on screen. The inclusion of an older musical score might sometimes take us out of that or enhance it, but either way if the emotions aren’t there in the script and in the performances there’s only so much the music can do to compensate for that.
Or am I just massively overthinking Elfman’s little Batman easter eggs in Justice League? Let me know in the comments.