Batman: tracing the evolution of the character through the movie soundtracks

The release of The Batman is imminent (IMAX previews are tonight), and with it comes a brand new soundtrack from composer Michael Giacchino. His ability to assimilate the tone of Robert Pattinson's Dark Knight is arrestingly moody, aided and abetted by a host of themes for the film's rich supporting cast. (Click here to read The Batman soundtrack breakdown.)

Of course, Batman has always been treated to a diverse and multifaceted approach, from a wide range of talented composers. In fact, his musical heritage stretches back more than 50 years. While we anticipate the arrival of The Batman on the big screen, here's how the character has evolved via the medium of the soundtrack.


1. Nelson Riddle – Batman: The Movie (1966)

In the annals of the Batman soundtrack canon, Nelson Riddle is certainly overlooked. The noted composer, arranger and bandleader was famed during the 1950s and 1960s for his collaborations with the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra. However, Riddle really hit the pop culture big time when he was enlisted to provide the groovy, swinging undertone to Adam West's campy Batman TV series. Riddle composed two seasons of the show, working with the original theme composed by Neal Hefti, and was then enlisted to score Batman: The Movie.

The infamously pantomimic film is now widely regarded as "that weird one from 1966", but it still retains a naff charm. Amidst all the loose-fitting spandex and cringey Bat puns, Riddle's score gives the project a lot of comedic, knowing oomph, utilising big band brass arrangements and bossa nova instrumentals to accentuate the inherent absurdity. By becoming the first composer to score a live-action Batman movie, Riddle made history, although the score couldn't match the prestige of his eventual Oscar-winning triumph with 1974's The Great Gatsby.



2. Danny Elfman – Batman and Batman Returns (1989 and 1992)

If John Williams set the template for the modern superhero score with Superman (1978), then Danny Elfman reinvented said template with the first of his two Batman scores. Tim Burton's movies walk the finest of lines between dramatic seriousness and Gothic pastiche camp, and this directly informs the tone of Elfman's trendsetting music.

As with all great superhero scores, it's anchored in the terrific, contradictory theme for Batman himself (played in this incarnation by Michael Keaton). Conjured by Elfman on a TransAtlantic flight (he was compelled to hum into a dictaphone), the score is broodingly Gothic yet also underpinned with the slight oompah absurdity present in Elfman and Burton's previous collaboration, Beetlejuice (1998). Elfman is, therefore, able to suggest both the menace of Batman and his essentially outsized, outlandish nature in one fell swoop, defining the tone of his later superhero scores (1990's Darkman et al) as well as those from Elfman's Hollywood brethren (Jerry Goldsmith's The Shadow from 1994).

Burton's wintry and morbid Batman Returns compelled Elfman to draw on a thematic base that was at once more melancholic and more experimental. Edward Scissorhands-style choral arrangements capture the inherent sadness of Danny DeVito's grotesque Penguin while keening, microtonal strings approximate a wailing cat in Catwoman's (Michelle Pfeiffer) theme. Once again, the Batman theme is at the centre, adding to a richly thematic experience that builds on the groundbreaking success of its predecessor.



3. Shirley Walker – Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)

The precision-tooled brilliance of Elfman's two Batman scores owed a lot to the delicacy and insight of conductor Shirley Walker. She was able to translate many of Elfman's audacious ideas into practical considerations, working with a large orchestra to ensure that tempo, pitch and nuance approximated the feel of the Batman. (Orchestrator Steve Bartek also deserves his share of the credit.)

The acclaimed 1993 animation Batman: Mask of the Phantasm was, therefore, well-positioned to benefit from Walker's insight. Having honed Elfman's scores, she then went solo to bring this Kevin Conroy-voiced adventure to the screen. The arrestingly dark nature of the score, one that has an appreciable thematic basis, can easily stand with Elfman's more vaunted efforts, and in the process, Walker became the first woman in Hollywood to score a superhero movie.



4. Elliot Goldenthal – Batman Forever and Batman & Robin (1995 and 1997)

Out went Tim Burton, in came director Joel Schumacher who was tasked by Warner Bros to reinvent Batman as a more family-friendly proposition. The two ensuing movies, Batman Forever and Batman & Robin, were widely pilloried (the latter film especially) for enveloping audiences in a neon-lit, rubber-nippled nightmare. But there are many positive qualities to Schumacher's movies, the scores especially, which came from experimental composer Elliot Goldenthal.

The latter had burst onto the scene in 1992 with his uncompromising score for David Fincher's Alien 3, which mixed moving string arias with disturbingly discordant passages that blurred the lines between music and objective sound. Goldenthal's eccentric touches are present in both of the Batman scores, which perhaps owe more of a debt to Nelson Riddle in their knowingly raucous arrangements for wailing horns and experimental trumpets. 

There's also plenty of kitsch scientific theremin flourishes for characters including Jim Carrey's Riddler. But the real show-stopper is the rollicking main Batman theme, applied to both Val Kilmer and George Clooney's interpretation of the character. Far more strident and tongue in cheek than Danny Elfman's relatively more propulsive theme, in Goldenthal's words, it was designed to ape the kind of theme than an eight-year-old would conjure when playing with Batman toys. In that sense, the composer nailed the aesthetic of Schumacher's movies.



5. Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard – Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises (2005, 2008 and 2012)

The Batman franchise was run into the ground after Batman & Robin, which, in hindsight, only serves to make Christopher Nolan's eventual reinvention all the more miraculous. The filmmaker, famed for imploding our temporal understanding and immersing us in moody psychological landscapes, reimagined Batman as an embodiment of fear, aided by Christian Bale's moody central performance.

The aesthetic of Nolan's films, particularly the last two, owes more to the pragmatic, realistic sensibility of Michael Mann's classic crime thriller Heat. Nolan's relative air of verisimilitude fed directly into the scores by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, which ignored the so-called "bouncy" aspect of Elfman's work (Zimmer's words) in favour of a controversially "anti-heroic" theme, largely based around a nebulous, amorphous two-note Batman arrangement.

For all of Zimmer's memorable action set-pieces ('Molossus' from Batman Begins is a belter), it was his collaborator Newton Howard who did the humanising heavy-lifting. He composed the sensitive Bruce Wayne material for Batman Begins and also the noble-cum-corrupted Harvey Dent theme for The Dark Knight, before stepping away in The Dark Knight Rises. The ensuing Zimmer-only onslaught in the final Nolan film makes one lament Newton Howard's absence, as Nolan and Zimmer's penchant for noisy tonality and bombast spins out of control, despite the eerie choral Sanskrit chant for Tom Hardy's Bane.



6. Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL – Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

While Nolan's Dark Knight scores are unpalatable for some, at least there are intelligent thematic ideas in there. Sadly, director Zack Snyder played much more to the overbearing side of Zimmer's personality in his overcooked and overproduced Batman vs Superman. There is an aggressive, industrial aural onslaught in the movie that marks Ben Affleck's debut as Batman, although this undeniably fits the over-cranked visual aesthetic of the movie. Throw Mad Max: Fury Road composer Junkie XL in there as Zimmer's collaborator (Xl himself isn't exactly composer renowned for subtlety), and it's little wonder that Batman vs Superman assaults the ears as much as it arrests the eyes.

Even so, the score does debut the theme for Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman, which would eventually be reprised in the 2017 Wonder Woman movie score, composed by Rupert Gregson-Williams. After composing this score, Zimmer announced a hiatus from superhero movies, which he promptly shattered with his stirring and beautiful work on Wonder Woman 1984 (2020).



7. Lorne Balfe – The LEGO Batman Movie (2017)

"Quick, stop him before he starts singing!" No Batman score is as joyously self-aware as this one, a fourth-wall-breaking delight that mixes Lorne Balfe's varied orchestral arrangements with all manner of sly, winking songs. Balfe emerged from the Hans Zimmer stable as a composer immersed in the quasi orchestral/synthetic/processed sound of contemporary film music. But his work on LEGO Batman is much more fleet-footed and light, harnessing the nature of the quick-fire gags and Will Arnett's vocal performance to craft a score that's as warm as it is humorous.

Even so, it's the songs that tend to steal the show. The album begins with an absolute show-stopper, 'Who's the (Bat)man', performed by Fall Out Boy lead Patrick Stump and containing suitably nostalgic throwbacks to Neal Hefti's original Batman TV series theme. That's just one example of how jokes are studded throughout the film – even the music is in on the gag. And we have to give a shoutout to the glorious 'Gotham City Guys' from The LEGO Movie 2 (2019) as the evil Queen Watevra'wanabi (Tiffany Haddish) exploits Batman's bachelor status and plays him like a harp from hell (to quote Batman Returns). The quick-fire references to "George Clooney-level charm and Val Kilmer lips" absolutely slays us.



8. Danny Elfman/Junkie XL – Justice League and Justice League: The Snyder Cut (2017 and 2021)

An especially messy soundtrack situation played out during the production of Justice League. When the original director Zack Snyder was compelled to leave the movie, his replacement Joss Whedon sought the estimable Danny Elfman to musically bridge the divide between the movie's various heroes. This included statements of Elfman's original Batman theme, plus quotations of John Williams' Superman, nostalgic to be sure, but awkwardly ill-fitting with the movie's po-faced, granite-jawed, visually overbearing tone. No matter how brilliant Elfman's original Caped Crusader theme was, and still is, it simply doesn't go with Ben Affleck's iteration of the character.

Snyder then returned in 2021 to deliver his definitive 'Snyder Cut' and he returned to his Batman vs Superman collaborator Junkie XL to complete the score. Even if the ensuing soundtrack apes the grim, grinding tone of the earlier movie, one cannot fault its ability to match Snyder's vision, something that the earlier Elfman score, for all its compositional skill, fundamentally lacked.



9. Michael Giacchino – The Batman (2022)

Four notes are all Michael Giacchino needs to convey the essence of Robert Pattinson's haunted Caped Crusader. The malleability of said notes, be they introspective, fast-tempo or thunderingly brooding, communicates the multi-faceted complexities of the Batman character as he hits the mean streets of Gotham City in his second year. Far from being a simplistic construct, Giacchino's approach is able to suggest Batman's presence in a variety of contexts, and the bridging motif, a heart-rending elegy for strings, captures the essential loneliness of the vigilante lurking beneath the cowl.

Giacchino's richly thematic blend, a hallmark of his career familiar from the likes of Lost and Star Trek, grounds this new Batman movie in a genuine sense of character. Paul Dano's Riddler gets a creepy, child-like lullaby, keeping us off-balance as to the character's motives and intrinsic nature. The theme for Zoe Kravitz's Catwoman, meanwhile, assimilates the sultry tone of the late John Barry, slinking and gliding to suggest her ability to navigate Gotham's murky criminal underworld.

Batman's soundtracks now date back more than five decades, and it's a testament to Giacchino's skill that he can work within familiar dark parameters while finding new and intriguing things to say. It's a vital part of the film for communicating our understanding of The Batman, his allies and enemies.


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