The Imperfect Man of Steel

“If you think about the Dick Donner and John Williams version, they declare themselves in the first note. This is a superhero. I kept thinking, we know he’s a superhero, but wouldn’t it be interesting if we did it the other way around? How can a stranger in a strange land become part of humanity? The question is that there is an endless search. You have one DNA. Do you have free will to become a human, or do you have to stay a Kryptonian? As a foreigner, it’s something I’m somewhat familiar with.”

–Hans Zimmer (WNYC’s Soundcheck)

I’m a big defender of Hans Zimmer (and it’s not only because I think performing one of his scores would be the most pure fun had in an orchestra).

Often the trollop of many a bombastic joke, I find intelligence and drastic experimentation built into the aesthetic, hiding out so as to make its way untethered by the confines of traditional composition and performance. This has only grown over time as he’s joined forces with creators like Christopher Nolan and become the sound (initially in cahoots with James Newton Howard) of DC Comics’ film adaptations.

For Man of Steel, much conversation is being devoted to the drum circle forged by Zimmer to build a distinct aesthetic.

Put in a round, facing each other, with microphones positioned just right to enhance the already expansive concussion, the process led Zimmer to investigate technology that mimics his 11.1 surround sound recordings for stereo headphones so as to offer the experience of his studio to the listener as close as possible. It’s an incredible feat of design and makes for a staggering image.

But what really exhibits Zimmer’s talent is the quiet piano piece first heard in the film’s third trailer.

In a few notes he encapsulates the narrative—slight and delicately played with a layer of guitars for atmosphere in the background. Its success lies in the imperfect nature of existence. Not only having the background built upon an imperfect structure, but played in a way that is timid and a bit lacking control.

He spoke of this recently on WNYC’s Soundcheck:

I’m not a great pianist and we had great pianists play it and it never sounded right. It had to have this sort of dilettantism about it. And it’s an upright piano, it’s not a beautiful grand here, no, it couldn’t be that. And the background  is actually eight peddle steel guitars playing just because I thought there is more than country western to be gotten out of this instrument.

The presence in that timid, unknowable performance by his unaccomplished hands provided an insight to the film and its core that was lost with greater talent. This is Zimmer’s quality and why he is an indispensible resource to anyone who can get him on their team. To recognize that something may be lacking in technical acuity but provides a power otherwise lost is an awareness forged by experience. It’s what develops over time, sitting with instruments and sounds, understanding what it is to manipulate and alter them. It’s living with ghosts and learning how to interpret what they’re saying about the world you inhabit.

Part of Zimmer’s job is to aid the filmmaker’s attempts at humanization. Batman has always been attractive for the frailties overcome and Nolan tapped into that well in revamping him for a new generation of moviegoers. This is doubly difficult with Superman, who is a god in this world, most exemplified by the distance felt in watching the end battle. Not because of a lack in quality or failure of the film, but because ostensibly one is watching two gods battle it out. We cannot relate to this. It is impossible to know what fighting without frailty is like.

It’s why the ending [SPOILER ALERT] death of General Zod at the hands of Superman is especially important. Not only does it establish why Superman commits to not killing people, which needs establishment for the franchise to continue, but as well it pins him responsible for the end of his race. In killing Zod, Superman becomes the last of his kind. A responsibility no one would want to take on, one that will inflect itself upon furthering the story as he comes to grips with the loss and absence of demise. [END SPOILER]

Amidst the bombastic qualities that so pronounce Zimmer’s score lie delicacy and soul, lingering with you, informing you of a foundation that travels far into unknown territories. More than the ability to bring in as many musicians as he can, Zimmer has aged into an ability to see how frailty is virtuous and worth embracing. It’s why the idea of anyone else composing a score for this film is unfathomable.

A journalist asked me (at an ‘Inception‘ party) if I was going to do Superman, and I hadn’t even heard of it, so I went, ‘Absolutely no way…’ Somehow in the noise of that party, that got misconstrued as ‘Absolutely Hans is doing it.’ It was all over the Internet that I was doing Superman, and I’d never even met Zack! So I phoned him up, ‘I’m really sorry, this wasn’t my doing, this is a misunderstanding.’ And he said, ‘Oh! It’s great that you phoned. Maybe we should meet and talk.’ (CNN)

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