A Brief Musical History of Batman
It's that ever-fascinating time again: the interstitial period between two eras of Batmen. As Christian Bale takes his leave and we welcome Ben Affleck to the cowl, it's a strange time for the Dark Knight. We've seen the way Bale and director Christopher Nolan portrayed him so darkly, and it's tough to imagine Affleck pulling that off. But if not that, then what? What will Batman's aesthetic be in the era of Affleck?
I'm not getting my hopes up, nor am I willing to speculate too much with the upcoming Superman vs. Batman movie so far away yet, but does feel like a good time to look back on the past aesthetics of the Caped Crusader. That includes the music which surrounds him.
Perhaps no superhero has been so inextricably connected to music, apart from Iron Man's built-in Black Sabbath connection. Batman exists in a league of his own, attracting the attention of major recording artists and composers alike. With that in mind, let's look back on some past eras of Bat-music.
The '60s: The "Na-Na-Na" Era Sure, Superman's "it's a bird, it's a plane" deal was part of a theme song, but does anybody remember the music? No, they remember the phrase. The first superhero to acquire his own dedicated theme song in such a way was the Bat, with the campy '60s theme to his campy '60s TV show.
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In a way, this iconic music has become almost as ubiquitous as the Bat himself. Hum it to yourself in public and I guarantee everyone in the room will know what you're humming, even if they hardly watched an episode of the TV show.
And need we even mention the other iconic musical moment of the '60s series, the Batusi?
The '80s: Prince, Baby The '70s were virtually an extension of the '60s for Batman in mainstream media, but something dark was happening in the comic books. Hollywood would only take notice of that toward the end of the '80s, when they recruited director Tim Burton to launch a grim and gritty revival of the film series.
Of course, Burton's take was more gothic than dark, and was campy as hell in its own ways. For instance, the soundtrack by pop superstar Prince lent itself perfectly to scenes of the Joker defacing art galleries, but certainly today comes off more as kitsch than anything else.
Don't get me wrong: I love the soundtrack, and I love Prince. But Prince was always a strange choice for Batman, and one only Tim Burton could have made up.
The '90s (Part One): A Soundtrack the Kids Will Love The first Batman film of the '90s, Burton's Batman Returns, went in the dark direction originally promised of the Batman revival, but Hollywood hated it. It didn't even have a hit soundtrack! They fixed that right away by replacing Michael Keaton as Batman, replacing Tim Burton as director, changing the tone to be more light-hearted, and making a soundtrack chock full of pop hits written by major recording artists for the new Batman Forever.
That meant a soundtrack with songs by U2, Method Man, and, of course, the amazing love ballad "Kiss from a Rose" by Seal, which ended up winning three Grammys. It was everything the studio could have hoped for and more.
As a personal aside, it was also the author's introduction to most of the artists on the soundtrack and one of my earliest musical memories as a kid. In its own way, it set the tone for a lot of my future musical taste.
More Bat-eras on the next page.
The '90s (Part Two): Back to the Camp But it couldn't last. The studios wanted more, so we got Batman and Robin, featuring a new, more attractive Batman in George Clooney, more star power in Uma Thurman, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Alicia Silverstone, more camp, and more pop hits on the soundtrack.
Today the main thing worth remembering is the amazing contribution by Smashing Pumpkins. Tapping into some of the sheer rock power of songs like "Zero" and "Bullet with Butterfly Wings," Billy Corgan crafted "The End is the Beginning Is the End," one of the most badass Batman themes ever.
The slower version of "Beginning" is awesome too, and made a comeback as one of the songs used for the Watchmen film in 2009. These songs were probably the only good things to come of Batman and Robin, aside from Mr. Freeze's puns.
'00s: The Epic Zimmer Scores After losing its way with Batman and Robin, Hollywood realized it needed to find its way back to the dark with Batman. Enter Christopher Nolan, whose vision crafted the latest three Batman films, as well as the Superman reboot Man of Steel. That vision extended to the music, which eschewed pop, rock and hip-hop artists in favor of Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer (The Lion King, Gladiator).
Zimmer's score and its influence on Batman's aesthetic today is incalculable. Truly Nolan could never have sold his idea of Batman to the public without Zimmer's epic, crushingly dark, and overwhelmingly powerful music to accompany the action onscreen.
Not only did his score inform the future of Batman in a large way, it also ended up paving the way for the modern action movie score in general. That's a pretty big accomplishment, but no real surprise considering the immense acclaim for the Nolan films.
So what will the new Affleck Batman sound like? Who knows? One thing is for sure, it will end up playing a large part in the overall aesthetic of his interpretation, not only in how we see him on the screen, but how we look at this upcoming era of Batman for years to come.
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