The Dark Knight Rises soundtrack has been released about a week early on Empire. While both Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard composed the last two film scores in the Batman trilogy, this time only Zimmer has written the album.
Zimmer is one of Hollywood’s most influential film score composers today. Known for incorporating electronics into film scores, he was a pioneer with Driving Miss Daisy. Now he works on mostly huge blockbuster films, including Pirates of the Caribbean, Inception, The Da Vinci Code, Gladiator, and all three of Christopher Nolan's Batman films. Most people don’t associate Zimmer with The Lion King, but he wrote that soundtrack, too, for which he won an Academy Award.
Zimmer is a machine. He pumps out multiple soundtracks a year, and they have similar strengths and weaknesses. His music is so accessible — he uses familiarly dramatic chord progressions that easily create a sense of heroicism and force. Yet here are 5 basic problems with his soundtracks:
1) So repetitive.
Zimmer doesn’t use many different themes and techniques in his Dark Knight Rises score. His motifs are extremely short and simple, so Zimmer repeats them everywhere. Sometimes he is able to play around with these themes in interesting ways, but often he just lets them chug through an entire song.
2) So ostinato.
Zimmer relies on deep, heavy, thumping beats that pulse constantly. Ostinato, or stubborn, is his primary rhythmic mood. While it evokes a sense of energy, determination, and ambition, the bullheaded tempo gets exhausting to listen to. Especially when the melodies on top are...
3) So simplistic.
Batman has a two-note theme, which swells from uncertainty into an expression of triumph or glory. In musical terms, the theme starts in D minor and moves to F major, with a rhythm pulsing underneath in an ostinato, or stubborn, way. While the theme can easily be transformed to fit various moods, I wish it were longer so it could be more elaborate and complex. Batman is a psychologically complex character who deserves more than two notes of simplistic triumph.
Zimmer's music doesn't feature many melodies, because it's meant to be atmospheric. Still, he could experiment more.
4) So D Minor.
There’s nothing wrong with D minor. Mozart’s Requiem, J.S. Bach’s The Art of Fugue, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 are all in D minor. Zimmer just uses this scale all the time, which makes a lot of his scores sound similar. Gladiator, The Dark Knight, Pirates of the Caribbean, and The Da Vinci Code are all in D minor.
5) So masculine.
Most of the soundtrack sounds like muscle, featuring punches and explosions in music form. The mood is fitting for a superhero movie, but it's everywhere, all the time. The insistence on strength ignores the chance to explore Batman’s complexities.
That said, a few tracks are pretty sweet. Here are the best:
“Gotham’s Reckoning”The third track introduces Batman’s villain Bane. The mysterious, eerie chromatic noodle at the beginning works to make us wonder what’s coming. When the stubborn rhythm returns, the horns blare with sharp, quick rhythms at unexpected moments not directly on the beat, which catches us off guard. Zimmer also incorporates dim chanting that creates an atmospheric, almost religious drama. Finally, Zimmer introduces Bane’s signature rhythm — two triplets, then two duples in a constant tempo. He writes variations on his theme in other tracks, but it’s best when it first appears; “The Fire Rises” feels cheap because it’s overly percussive and dissonant without actually feeling like we’re being challenged by a menacing outsider to Gotham. Bane feels too familiar.
“Mind if I Cut In?” The title suggests that this music plays when Bruce Wayne dances with Selina Kyle. First of all, props for starting with a lush cello melody. Zimmer also creatively incorporates some tambourine-like swoosh of clinking chains behind with a wandering piano melody. Only midway, does the melody land in D minor that’s heavy on the bass electronics, perhaps conveying that Bruce Wayne realizes something about Selina Kyle or that something clicks about what she’s telling him.
“Rise”Zimmer saved the best for last. It’s immediate in its energy while encompassing a range of moods featured on the whole soundtrack — from the aggressive rhythms to the soaring ethereal vocalizations to the glorious Batman theme. In this track, Zimmer actually extends themes past two-note progressions and allows them to develop.
Zimmer has a grandiose style very well suited to superhero blockbusters. He’s excellent at evoking power, strength, and drama in an atmospheric way. Yet a lot of his work on The Dark Knight Rises is not especially original or complex, which is a shame considering how psychologically complex Batman is himself.