Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill aren’t the only ones with big shoes to fill in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. While the stars of the superhero smackdown look to put their own stamp on enduring characters previously played by such formidable actors as Christian Bale and Christopher Reeve, composers Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL face an equally daunting challenge.
In previous screen incarnations, Batman and Superman have been memorably backed by the music of Danny Elfman, John Williams, and even Zimmer himself (in both Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and BvS‘ predecessor, Man of Steel).
The task for Zimmer and Junkie XL, a.k.a. Tom Holkenborg, was to do something new while also doing justice to the characters’ rich histories.
“It comes with a certain responsibility because these characters are iconic,” Holkenborg says. “So many people grew up with the original comics or with the first movies or the TV series.”
Part of Zimmer’s strategy was enlisting Holkenborg, the Mad Max: Fury Road composer who had crafted some additional music for Man of Steel, to bring another perspective. “The original idea was I thought it would be good if Junkie had a go at the Batman stuff,” Zimmer says. “And then of course, what always happens when the two of us get into a room, we just started working on things together.”
The real key, Zimmer says, was to make the music personal.
“Find that little bit of Superman in yourself, or find that little bit of Batman in yourself,” Zimmer says. “I think on Man of Steel, I couldn’t have gone more in the opposite direction from John Williams. While I think the John Williams score underlines, in that fanfare, the Superman nature of [the character], I was trying to find the little boy being brought up in Kansas. I really see Superman’s greatest ambition in life to become as human as he possibly can.”
In Batman v Superman, Superman’s main theme “is on a little old beaten-up 19th-century upright piano, played with two fingers by me,” Zimmer says. “It’s incredibly simple, and weirdly, it sounds different when a good pianist plays — it doesn’t sound like Superman.”
As for the Batman music, Zimmer says it was important to “honor” the Nolan trilogy by doing something unique. Working with Holkenborg and director Zack Snyder, he was able to “tap into something much darker and more ambiguous.”
Holkenborg adds that Batman’s alter ego comes into play as well. “What became the theme for Bruce Wayne is also extremely recognizable and very emotional,” he says, “and it has this really brooding anger that sits underneath but is not quite coming out yet. [It has] a very simple trumpet line coming out on top. … There’s a lot of Bruce Wayne in this film, and a very troubled Bruce Wayne.”
Though Zimmer remains tight-lipped about the plot, he acknowledges that as the Batman-Superman dynamic evolves, so too does the music. “There’s a catalyst that unifies the two characters, or the sound of the two characters,” he says. “I don’t want to talk about the catalyst, but there is some architecture in the music that lets things converge in a suitable way.”
Of course, anyone who’s seen a trailer for the film knows Batman and Superman aren’t the only heroes at work. Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman gets in on the action, and her presence gave Zimmer and Holkenborg a welcome opportunity to broaden their palette, to “create music that has a more female perspective,” in Zimmer’s words.
They were in part inspired by the cellist Tina Guo, whom Zimmer describes as “very accomplished, very polite, very nice to work with and speak to — and then she picks up that electric cello and she turns into a banshee. She wields that cello like a sword. And it’s that transformation that I’ve seen her do many times, and I suddenly went, ‘This is it. Just unleash Tina.'”
Usually when it comes to superhero movies, “Everybody thinks it’s such a guy’s world,” Zimmer says. “Occasionally open the doors, see what happens, good things happen.”