Exploring the music of the Batman movies

Michael Keaton as Batman
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From “dinner dinner dinner dinner” to “DAAH da-daa daa”, the musical identities of Batman are manifold: we explore how different composers have approached the Dark Knight.

As the largely positive reviews for Matt Reeves’ The Batman popped up online earlier this week, we were reminded that this is only the first of two Batman movies out in cinemas in 2022, as both Michael Keaton and Ben Affleck are back as the caped crusader in The Flash later on this year. We’re not yet at the Teen Titans Go! To The Movies stage of lining up to watch a movie called “Batman Again”, but it can’t be far off.

But for all the complaints that the multitudes of Batman adaptations are a bit one-note in their grim and gritty approach these days, the actual history of film adaptations over the last half-century or so have veered between light and dark, lighter and darker still, then none-more-dark, then – – hey, who turned out the lights??? But if all else fails, the music is pretty good at helping you tell these movies apart.

Common across most of the reviews of The Batman, whether ecstatic or “big and bold, but…” (read Simon’s review here), is an appreciation of Michael Giacchino’s score for the movie. In the run-up to the release, Warner Bros’ record label WaterTower Music has released a couple of cuts online, including the title character’s new “DAAH da-daa daa” motif and new themes for Catwoman and The Riddler, to give us a preview of how different this one will sound.

So, before we see how Giacchino’s score (and the Nirvana needle-drop that Robert Pattinson’s Angry Young Batman reportedly plays on repeat) distinguishes the new film, let’s take a look back at the past lives of Batman in the movies through their scores and source music.

Neal Hefti and Nelson Riddle

How does Batman’s mam call him to dinner? Well, Batman’s mam is dead, and it’s a whole thing but it barely ever comes up so we’ll forgive the perennial joke about the classic “dinner dinner dinner dinner” theme song. Starring Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward as Robin, the Batman series ran from 1966 to 1968 and boasted one of TV’s catchiest theme songs.

Creating the sound that would define Batman on screen for a decade or two at least, composer Neal Hefti gives us an iconic guitar riff that echoes the spy thrillers and surf movies of the time. The lyrics are not complicated, ranging from “Batman!” to “Na na na na na na na na na na na na na, Batman!” so everyone can and generally does sing along with the eight-voice chorus. This includes bands like The Who, The Kinks, and The Jam, who have all covered the song over the years.

While Hefti propelled this not-so-Dark Knight into the TV theme tune hall of fame, the bulk of the composing on the series itself was done by Nelson Riddle, who made his name as a conductor and arranger for Frank Sinatra’s albums at Capitol Records. When producers 20th Century Fox were persuaded to greenlight a feature-film spin-off to promote the show during its first season, they went and made the first-ever feature-length Batman movie. Riddle did the honours with the music for this too, starting with a slightly grander, instrumental take on the opening titles and then liberally quoting the motif throughout the rest of the score.

True to the style of the series, his gloriously tongue-in-cheek score splits the difference between John Barry’s James Bond scores and instrumental surf music. Look, if you can’t put a suspenseful cue over a scene of Batman repeatedly punching a shark in the head while Robin climbs down a rope ladder to hand him the Shark-Repellent Bat Spray, where can you put it? Remember, camp is only a bad thing if you’re unaware of it and from its music down, this take on Batman is always knowingly hilarious, much to the chagrin of people who take the character more seriously.

Danny Elfman

With Batman’s camp cred so firmly established in pop culture, it took rights-holders Michael E. Uslan and Benjamin Melniker a long time to get a more serious take greenlit. And with that in mind, the making of the 1989 film must have looked like a series of weird hires. They get the Beetlejuice guy to direct it, and then he picks the far less obvious one out of the two main guys who were in Beetlejuice to play the lead role, and he brings back the composer too.

All of these choices turned out to be so right, but Tim Burton still had a battle making the case for Danny Elfman to compose the Batman score. At the time, notoriously eccentric producer Jon Peters originally wanted to leverage Prince’s exclusive deal with Warner Bros Records and also bring in Michael Jackson to collaborate on the soundtrack, then hire a composer who would adapt their songs into the rest of the score. Neither Burton nor Elfman liked that concept much.

Fortunately, inspiration struck for Elfman while he was on a Transatlantic flight back from the London set of the movie. In a 2021 interview on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, Elfman describes suddenly coming up with the theme, and running backwards and forwards to the loo to record phrases as he came up with them, much to the confusion of the flight attendants.

It may not have been ideal timing for him, but that’s how we got one of the great superhero movie themes; a swooping adventure theme sounds like Batman the same way as Williams’ Superman march sounds like Superman. Understandably, it was playing this title theme for Peters that persuaded him Burton had the right composer for the job, though even Elfman didn’t expect Warner Bros to release the score as an album in its own right alongside the main soundtrack by Prince, which went ahead without Jackson’s input.

Most famously slung across a garden at zombies in Shaun Of The Dead, the Batman soundtrack was Prince’s 11th studio album, and it gave him something of a commercial revival in the US. With various tracks featuring dialogue samples of Keaton from an early cut of the film, as well as the inevitable homage to Hefti’s theme in “Batdance”, the double-platinum album was one part of a multi-pronged merchandise blitz that accompanied the film’s release in summer 1989.

Elsewhere, Elfman won a Grammy Award for “The Batman Theme”, but the whole score is terrific from start to finish. It’s 180 degrees different from the campier style of the 1960s series and it’s just as good when it’s being a muscular action score as it is when it’s revelling in mystery.

Like the best scores, it peaks right at the climax with the “Finale” cue, which more than does what it says on the tin – mounting in triumph as the film pans upwards through Gotham City to find Batman standing guard on a parapet. And right before the credits, after the cue crescendos, there’s that five-note motif reminding us that although this battle is won, our hero has more work to do and there will be more adventures to come.

It’s a big part of what makes that ending so satisfying and emotional, and yes, Elfman duly returned to score the sequel in 1992. Right from the off, his score for Batman Returns with a more sophisticated arrangement of that main theme that serves as an overture for the different orchestral tones given to Batman and new adversaries Catwoman and the Penguin throughout the film – brass, woodwind, and strings, respectively – and also adds some choral flourishes.

He also co-wrote the big theme song release for this one with Siouxsie And The Banshees. “Face To Face”  is a suitably cracked ballad for the romance between Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle. We hear it in the film right after an Elfman-orchestrated accordion version of “Super Freak” by Rick James, in the scene at Max Schreck’s charity ball.

Like the films themselves, the Batman Returns score matures a lot of what we got on the first go around and goes harder and more complex with it too. Elfman’s work on these two Batman movies was as influential as any comic-book movie score since Superman, but the most immediate show of that was on Batman: The Animated Series

Shirley Walker

Many blockbuster movies got animated TV spin-offs in the 1990s, but few were as successful and distinctive as Batman: The Animated Series in 1992. Shirley Walker, who was Elfman’s conductor and arranger on the Batman scores and various other projects, became one of the lead composers on the series, which struck out in its own iconic way with its “dark deco” style and brilliant storytelling, as well as its music.

Originally commissioned as a direct-to-video movie after the first season of the TV series, Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm is a full-length animated feature that wound up in cinemas a year after Batman Returns. Walker composed the score for the film, which adapts her Elfman-inspired theme song (used from Season 2 onwards) and like Batman Returns, it’s a more sophisticated piece of work than the source material.

One of the things that puts Mask Of The Phantasm up among the very best Batman films yet produced is that it’s doing stuff no other film ever does. It’s a tragic love story that sees Bruce Wayne reminiscing on a doomed romance with Andrea Beaumont, back before he donned the pointy-eared cowl and committed to his mission for justice.

Walker creates a “First Love” theme for Bruce and Andrea and then cleverly rearranges it for “The Birth Of Batman” elsewhere in the film, underlining this brand-new wrinkle in the by-now familiar origin story.

She also had a little fun with it too though – the ominous Latin-sounding choral lyrics you can hear in the track embedded above are actually the names of producers and music department crewmembers on the movie, sang backwards.

Walker went on to score Superman: The Animated Series and Batman Beyond too, along with film projects like the first three Final Destination movies. She sadly passed away in 2006, but her tremendous Batman scores, especially on Mask Of The Phantasm, have been cited as a big influence on Giacchino’s work on The Batman too.

Elliot Goldenthal

Back on the live-action side of things, Tim Burton and Michael Keaton didn’t return for 1995’s Batman Forever, and neither did Danny Elfman. Best known these days for his frequent collaborations with Julie Taymor, Michael Mann, and Neil Jordan, Goldenthal came to the Bat-franchise highly acclaimed off the back of his experimental score for 1992’s Alien 3.

Although both of the trailers for Joel Schumacher’s Batman movies use Elfman’s 1989 theme, the director asked composer Elliot Goldenthal to create original compositions rather than reference the scores of the two Burton movies. Where earlier scores had been completed during shooting or close to the end of post-production, Goldenthal wrote his Batman Forever score before the film was even shot.

It’s not a total departure, but it’s a grander, more bombastic score – subtlety goes out of the window around this point in the series, and Goldenthal’s scores for this film and Batman & Robin are similarly extravagant. Zany brass crescendos are here to stay!

Forever’s main title and fanfare overshoots in out-pomping Elfman’s, embellishing the point with horns, choral voices, and various dissonant clanging noises. This new motif is then reiterated in just about every cue in the score, as if to hammer it home, but it’s always cleverly interwoven with the various motifs for new characters Two-Face, The Riddler, and Robin. The score climaxes with the final shot of the heroes running in silhouette from the Bat signal, which is repeated in Batman & Robin with Batgirl joining the dynamic duo.

But in a return to the commercial crossover of Batman, the soundtrack album was where it was at for Batman Forever. Producer Peter MacGregor Scott wanted the movie to be more “pop” after Batman Returns, and the resulting album of bangers, ranging from U2’s “Hold Me Thrill Me Kiss Me Kill Me” to Seal’s “Kiss From A Rose”, went double-platinum as well.

A couple of years later, Batman & Robin had another platinum soundtrack album, despite the negative reception for the film itself. Although Goldenthal’s work on this one was never officially released, (perhaps cos it repeats an awful lot of Forever’s score) it’s a film that leans more on its score than source music. Its Grammy-winning lead single, Smashing Pumpkins’ “The End Is the Beginning Is the End”, only appears over the end credits.

Funnily enough, the Pumpkins track enjoyed a surge in popularity after featuring in the first teaser trailer for Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, in its remixed form, “The Beginning Is The End Is The Beginning”. But we’re getting to the slower and mopier version of things in good time.

Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard

In another case of musicians moving up in the Bat-franchise, Hans Zimmer played synthesizers on the score of Mask Of The Phantasm. When Christopher Nolan came to work on Batman Begins, Zimmer and James Newton Howard agreed to provide the music for a new take on Batman, having long planned to collaborate on a film score.

Reportedly, Zimmer concentrated on the action music while Howard composed the score for the more dramatic scenes. Each cue is named after a different genus of bat, with “Molossus” as the action theme that plays throughout the movie and both of its sequels. Here as in other parts of the score, the main Batman motif is a rising two-note chord, usually accompanied by strings, a repeated phrase intended to show Bruce Wayne’s mounting pain and guilt.

Zimmer and Howard similarly divided duties on the score for The Dark Knight, with the former creating another two-note motif for the Joker, using razor blades on string instruments to make that iconic buzzing noise, while the latter directly went the other way on his themes for Harvey Dent, aka Two-Face.

Howard didn’t return for The Dark Knight Rises, whose score is solely credited to Zimmer. Like its predecessors, the third instalment continues the mix of electronic and orchestral music that’s now become all but standardised in big movies because of how many of them use Zimmer and his Remote Control team.

The Rises score does introduce one great new motif, centred around the chant “deshi basara“, that Zimmer claims means “rise up” in an unspecified Arabic dialect. This appears in various permutations throughout the score and to achieve the effect of thousands of voices singing it, Warner Bros posted an online campaign to crowdsource recordings of the chant. Fans from more than 107 countries answered the open casting call and their vocals feature on the score and in the film.

Notably for the Bat-franchise, there’s no source music or original songs in the Dark Knight trilogy or its marketing at all. As with various other scores by Zimmer and Remote Control, music was available to feature in the marketing and it’s a more up-tempo mix of “Molossus” that accompanies Batman Begins’ theatrical trailer.

Zimmer’s minimalist approach has its detractors as well as its fans, but have another listen to that theme – is it just us or do those strings sound a lot like “dinner dinner dinner dinner”? And does that make the pain-and-grief notes say “Baaaaaaaaaaaatmaaaaaaaaaaan”? Answers on a postcard…

Junkie XL

As mentioned in our previous piece on the music of the Superman movies, Zimmer felt he didn’t have any more ideas for Batman music and so after scoring Man Of Steel, he brought Tom “Junkie XL” Holkenborg in to collaborate on the score for Batman Vs Superman: Dawn Of Justice, primarily to work on themes for Ben Affleck’s new Batman.

Read more: Exploring the music of the Superman movies

Again, we’ve observed that Snyder’s film is more a Batman movie than a Superman one and the score follows suit. The Bat-motif that appears in “Men Are Still Good” (named for Bats’ final, resoundingly obvious line in the film, somehow marking the completion of his character arc) turns the cacophonous Zimmer formula up past 11.

Consisting of six percussive notes repeated with choral backing and ominous horns, it’s not unsuited to the noisy sturm und drang of Snyder’s deconstructed take on the character, but it’s all very single-minded. This sounds like a deliberate decision, suitable for a film where the world’s greatest tactician looks at a city-levelling punch-up between two superpowered aliens, sticks his quid on the pool table, and says “I’ll fight the winner”. The character is blinkered, the rest of us are just deafened.

In that context, the switch-up of Batman’s theme in the score for Zack Snyder’s Justice League, (“the book was closed on [his] tormented past”, now that he knows men ARE still good) feels like a natural development, and the less imposing, more hopeful new motif does stand out more in a film that has to devise themes for most of its six distinct heroes in the context of a four-hour opera.

To our ears though, both Batfleck themes sound a bit reminiscent of the more chaotic moments in Holkenborg’s (superb) Mad Max: Fury Road score, which speaks to some of the problems of keeping track of Batman in these movies, relative to the godly characters that surround him.

The LEGO movies


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All moodiness aside, let’s end on a lighter note before we all go see how Giacchino’s score speaks to RBattz. The Lego Movie straddles a lot of different parodies and Mark Mothersbaugh’s score follows suit. There’s a track simply titled “Batman” that accompanies the character’s first appearance, peppered with faint references to both Hefti and Elfman’s themes, in the same way as the very next track, “Middle Zealand”, apes Howard Shore’s music from The Lord Of The Rings.

But of course, LEGO Batman’s theme song, “Untitled Self-Portrait”, serves as a teen-angst mix for a more ridiculous version of the character. By the time of his spin-off, The LEGO Batman Movie, he’s developed more braggadocio, first claiming credit for writing Michael Jackson’s “Man In The Mirror” and launching into his own hype song, “Who’s The (Bat) Man?” shortly after.

Will Arnett provides vocals on both songs, ranting about what Batman is (“DARKNESS. NO PARENTS.”) and isn’t (“Who always pays his taxes? NOT BATMAN”) about, while Fall Out Boy’s Patrick Stump belts the “BATMAN” refrains on the latter. For the spin-off, Lorne Balfe joins Elfman, Zimmer, and Giacchino in the ranks of Bat-composers who’ve also scored Mission: Impossible movies.

It’s not what you always want from a Batman soundtrack, but The LEGO Batman Movie’s soundtrack is designed to capture the conflicting identities of the Dark Knight, with an action score that veers between dramatic and tongue-in-cheek, as well as a bunch of pop-music needle-drops.

On that score, it totally has the measure of everything we’ve discussed herein. And whether you think it’s a silly or very serious pursuit, the music of Batman is always music to punch sharks to…

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