Comic Strip Heroes: Music from Gotham City and Beyond

City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra

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Comic Strip Heroes: Music from Gotham City and Beyond Review

by William Ruhlmann

The summer of 2006, like many a warm vacation season before it, witnessed an influx of caped and costumed crime fighters with supernatural powers at the multiplexes of America and the world. Reynold da Silva's Silva Screen Records, which specializes in newly made recordings of film scores, picked this season to assemble and release Comic Strip Heroes, subtitled "Music from Gotham City and Beyond." As he often does, da Silva enlisted the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra (with the participation of the orchestra's choir and the Crouch End Festival Chorus to lend open-vowel sounds here and there) to present new versions of music heard in earlier movies based on comic books, dating back to 1978's Superman and up to 2005's Fantastic Four and Batman Begins. Writing for such cartoon-based epics clearly liberates Hollywood composers to come up with stirring themes and troubling passages meant to accompany the outsized struggles. Of course, the tone of these films has changed over the years, and the music has adapted to those changes. The most heroic of the hero anthems must be John Williams' main theme for Superman, which brooks no undertones. On the other hand, James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer find much darker and more complex emotions at work in Batman Begins, and they respond with music that takes a romantic turn reminiscent of Beethoven or Mahler. Among the more recent cues, John Ottman's main titles for Fantastic Four, with their Wagnerian sweep, are closest to Williams' simplicity, while Danny Elfman's 1989 Batman suite, like much of this composer's music for films, has elements of parody and pastiche, as if he's making fun of traditional movie music while re-creating its effects, a tone that is in keeping with director Tim Burton's wildly imaginative, but also somewhat tongue-in-cheek cinematic vision. Also something of a joke is Michael Giacchino's music for The Incredibles, which borrows heavily from the James Bond scores of John Barry and Henry Mancini's playful film and TV themes of the '60s. Dig those crazy bongos! Annotator Glen Aitken begins an interesting essay on the historical and economic context in which the early superheroes were born (not every set of liner notes quotes "the great economist J.M. Keynes"!), but never finishes it. Just as interesting as talking about how Superman and Batman came to save us in the Great Depression might be a discussion of why these sorts of films have been so popular from the late '70s on.

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