Is it the music that makes Superman soar? We explore the stories behind the scores, how they’ve changed, and how they’ve stayed the same.
There are more superhero movies coming out in 2022 than in any other single year in Hollywood history, but truly iconic superhero music is still thin on the ground. Alan Silvestri’s Avengers theme may be the hummable high-bar as far as the Marvel Cinematic Universe goes, but it’s DC’s Superman who has the gold standard of hero themes to date.
That’s been a double-edged sword at times, with different cinematic takes on the hero using the same John Williams motifs from 1978 to somewhat diminished effect through the 1980s and even as late as 2006. Whether you love or hate the more recent movies, most would agree that Hans Zimmer’s take sets out in a credible new direction.
Where small-screen re-imaginings have given the character a wider range of themes by different composers, (from Shirley Walker to Jay Gruska, Remy Zero to Laszlo Bane – wait, scratch Scrubs) the music in the movies has only subtly evolved over time. You might argue that the scores have only moved as far as the films to which they’re attached. After all, Superman is Superman – once you’ve set up how he sounds, how much does he really change?
Looking at both score and source music, here’s a brief history of the Man of Steel’s musical accompaniment in his big-screen adventures, covering the long-lasting impact of a definitive superhero theme and the more recent efforts to distinguish a new identity.
What’s to say about Williams’ music for Superman that hasn’t already been said? When bringing Superman from comic to screen, the late, great Richard Donner’s watchword was “verisimilitude”, and his goal was to marry realistic special effects with emotional heft and humour, and a music score to match.
Williams came to the project shortly after winning his third Oscar (for scoring a little film called Star Wars) replacing Jerry Goldsmith, who had scored The Omen for Donner but dropped out due to scheduling conflicts.
In his definitive fanfare for Christopher Reeve’s Superman, he piles on all of the epic wonder and emotion that Donner wanted, building in power throughout, plus loads of bits where you can sing the title of the movie along with it. Forget believing a man can fly – Williams makes believe a horn can sing the word “Superman”.
Alongside the hero’s fanfare, there are motifs for Krypton, Lex Luthor, and the love story with Lois Lane, both of which pop up in the main title theme as prologue and interlude respectively. Playing over the galaxy-spanning titles, it’s the perfect overture for Donner’s film.
There are also lyrics for that love theme, written by Williams’ long-time collaborator Leslie Bricusse, as an original song for a flying scene with Superman and Lois. Donner disliked the song, “Can You Read My Mind?”, and had Lois Lane actor Margot Kidder do some of the lyrics in voiceover instead – it’s not the film’s strongest moment. Maureen McGovern had a top-5 hit in the US singles chart with her version of the song in 1979.
There are other source music bits in the first film too, including “Rock Around The Clock” by Bill Haley & His Comets and “Only You” by The Platters, both of which pop up during the scenes featuring a teenaged Clark Kent in 1950s Smallville.
We also hear 1977’s “Give A Little Bit” by Supertramp on Lois’ car radio towards the start of the film’s third act, not only giving us a “super” connection on the soundtrack but also lending a contemporary touch – we’ll come back to that…
As we’ve detailed on the Film Stories website before, the back-to-back production of Superman and Superman II did not go as planned. Due to irreconcilable differences between Donner and producers Pierre Spengler and Ilya and Alexander Salkind, the director was let go during a break in production between the two films. Donner only got to complete his cut of the sequel as a straight-to-DVD release in 2006.
Read more – Revisiting Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut
Richard Lester was hired to complete the film. Reshooting enough of what Donner had made to earn a sole credit, he brought a more comedic approach to Superman II. Williams was among those who had a creative difference of opinion with the new director and Lester’s regular collaborator Ken Thorne replaced him as the composer.
Following Williams much as Lester followed Donner, Thorne wrote minimal original music for Superman II and was briefed to adapt themes and motifs from the first instalment. It’s most definitely an adaptation of the themes for returning characters like Luthor and General Zod, so there’s a lot of Williams in his score. At Lester’s instruction, Thorne also wrote a soundalike version of Average White Band’s “Pick Up The Pieces”, which wound up appearing in the film in its original form as source music anyway.
Budget problems and issues surrounding Donner’s departure had delayed the sequel’s completion, and Thorne had just six weeks in which to write the score. Furthermore, where Superman’s epic music was recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra, Superman II made do with contract players in Wembley’s CTS Studios, and the same went for the next two films in the series.
Lester got to start fresh on the next Superman sequel, and Thorne also returned. With a freer hand and a different creative brief, the composer wrote The Streets Of Metropolis to accompany the chaotic opening sequence, which was itself a departure from the grand journey through space in the previous title sequences.
Williams’ unmistakable fanfare makes it into this main title, but it’s a zanier, more comedic track, and the same goes for the rest of Superman III. You will believe Richard Pryor can fall off a skyscraper wearing skis and a tablecloth cape and land in the street below unharmed.
While Superman III puts more 1950s source music into its Smallville high-school reunion, (namely, The Beatles’ cover of Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” and The Penguins’ “Earth Angel”) there was an emerging trend for 1980s movies to have an original soundtrack album and it didn’t go unnoticed.
To that end, the producers got themselves quite the coup in getting Italian music producer and composer Giorgio Moroder to contribute original songs and music for a potential Superman III soundtrack release, the same year as he was working on music for Flashdance and Scarface. Incidentally, Moroder had beaten Williams’ Superman music to an Oscar in 1979 with his score for Midnight Express.
Most notably, he created the melody for a new love theme for Clark Kent and his childhood crush Lana Lang, which Thorne duly adapted into his score. Moroder also provided four original songs, which were used minimally as source music, as well as a synthesized arrangement of that Williams fanfare to reflect the video-game – sorry, er, advanced missile system that Superman weathers in the film’s exciting climax.
In the end, the songs Moroder produced for the film – Marshall Crenshaw’s “Rock On”, Chaka Khan’s “No See, No Cry”, and Roger Miller’s “They Won’t Get Me” – made it onto Side B of the combined score-and-soundtrack album but were only used minimally in the film itself.
John Williams Returns (Sort Of)
Both the scale and budget of the Superman sequels shrank as the series went on. But even as the series fell into the hands of the notorious Cannon Group, Williams contributed new music to the series for the first time since the original, composing three new themes for Superman IV: The Quest For Peace.
These themes were “Someone Like You”, (for Clark’s new love interest Lacy Warfield) “Jeremy’s Theme”, (for the boy who writes to Superman appealing for him to rid the world of nuclear weapons) and “Nuclear Man Theme” (for the film’s notoriously naff villain).
Star Trek theme composer Alexander Courage was tasked with arranging these new themes along with Williams’ existing motifs from Superman – Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane and Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor were back in the picture and so too were their motifs from the earlier films.
As with Moroder’s songs for the third film, there was a soundtrack release lined up. This time, Paul Fishman – of the Birmingham new-wave band Re-Flex, no less – wrote eight songs for the film, some of which were meant to be featured in a sequence where Lacy takes Clark to a disco.
This scene was part of the 45 minutes of footage that was hacked out of Superman IV after a disastrous test screening of the film and Courage had to re-record the entire score to match the brutally shortened cut.
Consequently, the planned soundtrack release with Courage’s 100-minute score and Fishman’s songs was cancelled. However, the album was released more than 30 years later by La-La Land Records as part of a 2008 boxset comprising music from the first four films.
John Ottman (John Williams Still Doesn’t Return)
Coming after a long and fruitless attempt to reinvent the franchise for the 1990s, Superman Returns went faster than a speeding bullet in the other direction, giving us one of the earliest modern instances of a nostalgia-driven “legacyquel”. As well as positioning itself as an alternate sequel to Superman II, the film set out its stall musically in the excellent teaser trailer by using Williams’ Krypton theme.
In harkening back to the Donner film, director Bryan Singer wanted Williams to score Superman Returns. Funnily enough, Donner also wanted Williams to score his 2006 cut of Superman II, but Williams had an exceptionally busy 2005, scoring Star Wars Episode III, Memoirs Of A Geisha, War Of The Worlds, and Munich in quick succession, and declined both offers.
John Ottman, who had superhero scoring experience from Singer’s X-Men 2 and 2005’s Fantastic Four, was signed up to compose the score for Superman Returns instead and like Thorne and Courage before him, he was briefed to reuse the motifs from 1978. His arrangements are nice and bombastic, and it was a thrill to hear them in the cinema again back in 2006, but the score’s familiarity goes to one of the film’s many failures.
Singer seems to think that the 1978 film wasn’t meant to be set in the 1970s, without Supertramp or even any 1950s needle-drops for context. For instance, the production design of the Daily Planet office is a half-remembered Art Deco monument out of the earliest comics, whereas Donner made it look more like All The President’s Men. And so it goes that the source music here is largely classical and instrumental stuff (most notably Heart And Soul, a piano lesson standard) that goes with the attempted timelessness of the rest of the film.
(If it were up to me, I’m not sure I’d look at this muddy, problematic treatment of stuff from the 1970s and 1980s and say, “That’s the guy I want to direct Bohemian Rhapsody”, but that’s a music-related rant for another time.)
At least the composer understands the assignment. Where the film’s impression of Donner is unflattering, Ottman’s Williams-influenced score has some original motifs (like the new theme for Lex Luthor, and a nice one for Lois Lane’s family) that cut through the overawed nostalgic haze of the piece,. Whatever you think about the subsequent hard reboot, it does assert its own musical identity…
With all of that precedent, how the heck do you go about creating an all-new theme for Superman? Zack Snyder’s Man Of Steel is the first-ever live-action Superman film that doesn’t use any of Williams’ iconic music in its score. Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan produced this one and brought the mighty Hans Zimmer (of Going For Gold and “Doctor In Distress” fame) over with him.
Speaking to Total Film in 2012, Snyder explained that the approach was to act as if no Superman movie had ever been made, and that went for the score too.
He said: “We had to say this is a Superman movie for the first time and you can’t then go ‘Oh, now let’s steal a little music’… So, yes, it’s awesome music but Hans Zimmer is going to do something awesome.”
Let’s be fair – we’re all still singing “Superman” along with Williams’ horns, but this is a stonkingly good attempt at staking out new musical territory for the character, and it leaves no excuse for any future reboots not to start fresh as this does.
On the whole, Man Of Steel's score certainly fits in with Zimmer’s existing discography with its percussion-heavy fanfare, but it also comprises a more introspective motif for Henry Cavill’s Clark, (reflecting Snyder’s philosophical preoccupations about the character) as well as reinvented takes on Krypton, General Zod, and Lois Lane.
All of the best bits are comprised in the closing title theme, “What Are You Going To Do When You’re Not Saving The World?” Intentionally or not, ramping up from the quiet and contemplative bit to the loud, frantic bits is Man Of Steel to a tee – there’s not a whole lot of romance, but it’s all very exciting and overwhelming. Whatever your feelings on the film, it’s a persuasive run at a brand-new Superman theme.
Snyder is not especially known for his restraint with source music, but for Man Of Steel at least, Zimmer’s score leads with the odd snippet of Johnny Cash’s “Ring Of Fire” and Chris Cornell’s “Seasons” in there too. Unusually, the film also uses “The Long Walk”, a piece of Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders’ score from Oscar-winning war drama The Hurt Locker, as source music in the scene where Michael Shannon’s General Zod addresses Earth.
For the most part, the hopeful and exhilarating Man Of Steel motifs are underrepresented in the next film, Batman Vs Superman: Dawn Of Justice. Having composed three scores for Dark Knight movies already, Zimmer brought in Tom “Junkie XL” Holkenberg primarily to work on the Batman side of things, but the score wound up being a more even collaboration.
The result is frankly more a Batman score (with a side order of Wonder Woman!) than a Superman one. Echoing the Wrath Of Khan of it all, Snyder’s big source-music pull this time around gives Supes “The Traditional Lament For A Dead Alien Who Might Be Back In The Sequel”, aka Amazing Grace on the bagpipes.
When Zimmer moved on after Batman Vs Superman, Holkenberg was set to take on scoring duties for Justice League up until Snyder departed the project for personal reasons in 2017.
The muddled musical identity of Justice League’s theatrical cut is, again, a rant for another day. Composer Danny Elfman has since stated that he was told by director Joss Whedon to re-use Williams’ Superman theme and his own Batman theme as fan service, and the source music needle-drops range from Sigrid’s “Everybody Knows” to Gary Clark Jr’s closing-credits cover of The Beatles’ “Come Together”. It’s messily assembled, and the film’s not well liked either.
However, Holkenberg resumed composing duties on Zack Snyder’s director’s cut ahead of its streaming release in 2021. Discarding his previously scrapped work and starting from scratch, he described his work on the 242-minute cut as a “Mount Everest” of film scores.
Amongst the various returning and new themes for the other five characters in the titular League, Superman’s music this time around revives those Man Of Steel motifs, particularly in the grand character cues Superman Rising Part 1 and Part 2, which resurrect the introspective bits and the rapid percussive bits respectively.
Elsewhere in the film, it’s the full-length wholesale use of “Distant Sky” by Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds (“They told us our gods would outlive us, they lied…”) as source music over a scene of Lois Lane visiting Superman’s memorial that shows up Zack Snyder’s Justice League as an assembly cut made releasable.
Whatever the future holds for Superman on screen, it has to be said that those Zimmer motifs are thus far proving as versatile as Williams’ old familiars. However far this gnarly, violent, black-outfitted epic has travelled from Man Of Steel’s starting point, it goes to the point that Superman is pretty sturdy and reliable as is. When you compose music to represent truth, justice, and a better tomorrow, it doesn’t need that much updating or developing.
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