'Man of Steel' Countdown: A Guide to Superman's Theme Music
By Jeffrey Taylor
This is going to be an interactive ride, so strap on some head phones or rev up your sub woofer because we’ve got some Superman music to talk about.
Before we begin, let’s get a taste of what we’re in store for with this mega trailer for the Superman DVD’s that were scheduled to come out right before Superman Returns hit theaters, and it's all to the tune of the John Williams theme.
Man of Steel
Hans Zimmer has been announced to score the Man of Steel film, which is due June 14, 2013. I first learned that Zack Snyder had Zimmer in mind back when I spent a day on the set last August. I’m not allowed to talk about it yet, but since this is already official, one of the other reporters asked Zack who he had in mind for the score and he responded “Hans … if he’s available.” Given the amount of additional time Snyder has to finalize the film, it certainly seemed likely that they could work it into Zimmer’s schedule. Plus, it’s a chance to top the classic John Williams music.
But what makes a Superman theme a real Superman theme? To answer that, we have to delve back into the history of Superman and hear what past versions have done. Some were amazing and others not so much, but these are the songs that go through a Superman fan’s mind when he or she thinks of the Man of Steel. Will Zimmer use past standards around his theme, or will he ignore it and fit the film as a standalone?
There have been a few hints and easter eggs already posted on the internet such as "Ezra's Mail Depot" in Downtown Smallville on the Plano IL set. It's an homage to Ezra Small, the founder of Smallville. This is just one of the many hidden details about past Superman ideas that will be in the film, so it's reasonable to expect that Zimmer may use certain aspects of past themes in his scoring, but it is certain that his take will still be different from anything we've heard before.
Fleischer Animated Shorts (1941-1943)
Although there was already music and merchandise about Superman, this was the first theme song ever produced outside of the initial comic book run for Superman. It introduced a major aspect of musicality that almost always goes hand in hand with Superman.
The listener can hear the words “Su-per-man” instrumentally in the main part of the theme.
Go back and listen again. Can you hear it?
We get an intro, then the theme, a secondary part of the march and a return the theme. When we get to the famous John Williams theme from the Christopher Reeve films, you’ll see how well it matches up with this, even though it probably wasn’t intentional. It’s just how good film composers work.
Although the radio series came first, it adapted this theme for the audio program. They initially began with the sound of wind as Superman would fly by, but after a few years, they took this theme and played it with an organ or a calliope.
Kirk Alyn Theatrical Serials (1948-1950)
This is an example of the Superman theme music from the second serial. You can still hear the lighter “Suuuu-per-maaan” echoed on specific moments against the bombastic adventure theme, which starts at about 50 seconds in. This version worked well for the theatrical serials of the 1940’s, but it still feels as though more thought was put into the theme from the upcoming TV series.
This was the first live-action Superman, even though when Kirk Alyn would prepare to fly, he would be replaced by a cartoon version. It was also the first live-action Lois Lane with Noel Niell who would return to replace Phyllis Coates after the first season of the George Reeves series.
George Reeves Adventures of Superman (1951-1957)
The George Reeves “Adventures of Superman” theme song still had the sound of “Su-per-man’s” name in the music, but it was more easily found in the ending. It continued to use both the wind sounds and the vocal pronouncements such as “Faster than a speeding bullet” that the radio show first used. This was a time when television was still taking many of its cues from radio, so it focused more on the announcer than the music itself.
Musical: It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman (1966)
The Superman musical, “It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman,” sometimes gets a bad rap because of this televised version from 1975, but the original cast recording with Bob Holiday from 1966 was much better. It has even experienced several stage revivals in the United States over the past few years. There’s no actual theme to work with, but as a musical, it bore mentioning.
The New Adventures of Superman - Filmation Cartoons (1966-196
Similar to the George Reeves series, this theme used the Superman catch phrases such as “Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.” But unlike the others where the sound of “Superman” is part of the instrumental music, this one actually had a small chorus sing his name.
The Christopher Reeve films (1978-1987)
John Williams managed to compose the single most definitive version of the Superman theme by paying homage to past versions, but creating something completely new and interesting. Of course he scored the whole film, so in some ways this piece was almost an overture. After the first minute of intro, there's a slow build with bass brass instruments and timpani, which pulls in the medium size brass until we hear that “Superman” explosion from the lead trumpet. Plus the flurries from the flutes give a feeling of Superman flying through the sky.
I dislike the scene in the film where Lois and Superman fly on their “date” around the middle of the film and Margot Kidder recites the "Can You Read My Mind?" lyrics that were originally going to be sung. But it’s mostly because the scene went on too long and not because of the music. A piece of that theme is also in the middle of the main opening piece as well, and it’s perfectly fitting. Williams was nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe, but won a Grammy for best original score.
Of all the Superman themes that have come before or came after this, it is still the one most people associate with the character and that fans almost universally praise as the best. However, Williams would not go on to compose the scores for the sequels. The music from each subsequent film was a bit different, but the main themes remained intact, despite a few changes in the order of the music. My personal favorite is actually from the end credits of Superman III.
The 1978 film’s teaser trailer didn’t have any of Williams’ score because he hadn’t been hired yet. When the Man of Steel teaser hits movie screens in a few weeks, it is unlikely that we will get a taste of Zimmer’s work, but that's just a matter of time.
That’s it for now. Next time, we’ll be taking a look at the theme music from Superman in the rest of the 1980’s and onward as well as what we might expect from Hans Zimmer. What are your favorite Superman theme songs?
"Although Lex Luthor is your ultimate opponent, you will triumph over him, and when you show yourself to the world....it will be a different age than ours, Clark. A silver age of heroism...that will start when they look up into the sky at you...with hope for tomorrow. You will help everyone to embrace it."-Dr Fate