As I mentioned in the first post of this series, from watching the Dark Knight films, one can get the impression that the soundtracks are largely atmospheric rather than tuneful. But that’s mainly because the themes that Hans Zimmer writes are often very short, more of a musical emblem than a fleshed-out melody. But this doesn’t that mean that they are not themes. Consider what Zimmer says in an interview about the most important thing he learned from his mentor in film composition, the prolific British film composer, Stanley Myers:
“I think the thing that he really taught me was, you gotta have a tune. If you don’t have a tune, you have nothing. You’re just grazing like cows in the field. … Dark Knight [the Joker’s Theme] is one note, and then the Batman thing is really two notes. So a tune doesn’t have to be a lot of notes, but it has to have purpose. … It has to be somehow intellectually defensible for it to resonate emotionally.”
As I have attempted to show through these posts, the Dark Knight soundtracks are indeed full of memorable themes when we listen to them closely. In this final post, my film music analysis will introduce one more theme that Zimmer uses in The Dark Knight Rises before giving a musical breakdown of the themes heard in the film’s explosive finale.
“Succeeding” Theme 4
In the second post of this series, I discussed three more or less interchangeable themes that are associated with Bruce or Batman being in the process of overcoming some sort of difficulty. This is why I called them “succeeding” themes and not simply “success” themes, as though victory has already been claimed.
There is a fourth succeeding theme that is actually introduced in the second film, The Dark Knight, when Batman kidnaps Lau, an accountant for the mafia, from Hong Kong in order to return him to the jurisdiction of the U.S. and bring him to justice. We hear the theme just after Batman and Lau are carried off on Batman’s “skyhook”, a gadget that connects him to his plane flying overhead via suspension cable. Here’s the theme itself:
And here’s the “skyhook” scene – the theme appears at 3:25:
As with the other succeeding themes, Batman is in the process of accomplishing a goal. He only reaches that goal in the following scene, when we see Lau tied up outside the Gotham police station, having been delivered by Batman. Appropriately, the succeeding theme ends at this point. This is a different situation from, say, the scene in which Bruce climbs out of the prison pit. There, reaching the top is actually success, so instead of a succeeding theme, we hear Batman’s “heroic” theme. This particular succeeding theme (#4) becomes an important of the film’s finale.
Zimmer’s adherence to thematic writing in film scores is particularly evident in the (literally) explosive final thirty minutes of The Dark Knight Rises since several of the themes from this and the previous two films reappear throughout. I give a breakdown of four excerpts from this lengthy sequence below.
Batman Saves Blake
Detective John Blake is captured by the villain Bane’s men, one of whom raises a gun to Blake’s head. Just as Blake is on this verge of meeting his demise, Batman leaps down and single-handedly beats up each of the men to rescue Blake. The music we hear is Succeeding Theme 4 since Batman is in the process of overcoming an obstacle here. Appropriately, the theme ends when he has knocked out all of the men.
When Batman then frees the city’s police force from the sewer tunnels with rockets from his Batwing, we hear the “Batman Troubled” theme. Why? As Batman says, he needs Blake to get people across the bridge and out of the city “in case we fail”. Clearly, he’s not entirely confident he’ll be able to stop Bane’s plan to destroy Gotham, so we hear his “troubled” theme.
Watch the scene here from 2:25:
The intense chase scene during the finale involves Batman and Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) chasing after the military truck containing a powerful bomb that is minutes away from detonating and destroying the entire city.
The clip below begins with Commissioner Gordon looking worriedly at the bomb and follows with the other villain Talia (Marion Cotillard) getting into the truck carrying the bomb. Later in the scene, Blake tries in vain to convince his fellow cops to open the bridge and let him and a busload of children through to safety, then Talia’s envoy of tumblers are seen racing through the streets alongside the bomb-carrying truck. Through all this, we hear the “Batman Troubled” theme and accompaniment, which may seem puzzling since we don’t actually see Batman onscreen here. But the overall situation is one that poses significant obstacles to Batman if he is to save Gotham from destruction. Hence we hear his “troubled” music. We do, however, hear this music once accompanying Batman in trouble when he is attempting to elude some heat-seeking missiles following the Batwing.
Zimmer also returns to a couple of other themes in this scene. Selina’s “action” theme enters when Batman is asking Selina for her help from the ground when he takes to the air, and again later when Selina destroys one of Talia’s tumblers. In both cases, the music helps us to focus on Selina rather than Batman and on her contributions to the success of the “good guys”.
At the end of this clip, Batman in his Batwing is finally in an advantageous position over the truck. Thus, after all the “troubled” music we have heard with the scene, the emergence of the more heroic sounding Succeeding Theme 2 comes as welcome sigh of relief and signals that Batman is about to take control of the situation.
Here are the entrances of the above themes in the clip below:
- 0:00-0:31 – Batman Troubled Theme and Accompaniment
- 0:34-0:40 – Selina Action Theme
- 0:40-1:00 – Batman Troubled Theme and Accompaniment
- 2:09-2:20 – Selina Action Theme
- 3:22-3:25 – Batman Troubled Theme
- 4:01-4:13 – Succeding Theme 2
Batman Saves the City
In the last two minutes of the bomb’s countdown to detonation, we hear three of Zimmer’s previous themes make a return. First, appropriately enough, we hear Batman’s “troubled” theme as he struggles to take the Batwing, which now suspends the bomb below it, high enough to clear a building under construction. Batman instead decides to carve a path through the building with rockets.
When Blake sees the explosion, he believes the bomb has been detonated and frantically shouts for the children to keep their heads down. Watching from the bus, one of the children then proclaims, “No, that’s Batman!” Here, the music makes an abrupt shift to a slower, more confident sounding beat that usually accompanies one of Batman’s succeeding themes. And sure enough, we hear Succeeding Theme 4 as Batman carries the bomb to the bay outside the city.
The focus of the scene then changes to Blake, who watches on as the Batwing recedes into the distance. At this point, the percussive beats fall away and we hear the “Thoughts of Death” theme, which has not appeared in these films since Batman Begins. The poignant emotional quality of this theme fools us into thinking that Batman has actually perished in the explosion.
Here are the entrances of the themes in the clip below:
- 1:20-1:31 – Batman Troubled theme
- 1:48-2:04 – Succeeding Theme 4
- 2:04-2:33- Thoughts of Death
Farewell to Batman
The final five minutes of The Dark Knight Rises are devoted to tying up loose ends and bidding farewell to Batman as we have known him. Despite Batman’s apparent death, he has managed to achieve success in a number of ways. First, there is the statue of him that is unveiled and applauded. Thus, Batman has regained the admiration of Gotham’s citizens since the end of the last film, when he was deemed an outcast and murderer. Second, through his will, Bruce passes his wealth on to Alfred and designates that the Wayne house and grounds become an orphanage for Gotham. Third, there is the reveal that Blake’s full name includes “Robin” (how this is a success of Batman’s is explained below). And finally, we learn that the Batwing’s auto-pilot had been fixed months before by Bruce Wayne, implying that it flew to its destruction without Bruce’s piloting and in turn that Bruce is still alive. Through all of this, we therefore hear several statements of Succeeding Theme 4 in a more somber setting without its driving percussion.
The next section of this final sequence implies that Batman’s legacy will continue to live on through two individuals who were particularly inspired by him: Blake and Gordon. Blake travels to the Batcave, finds his way inside and begins to explore it, the implication being that he will become the next Batman (as Bruce Wayne himself says before carrying the bomb away, “a hero can be anyone”). Meanwhile, Gordon is seen admiring the Batsignal on a rooftop while looking up at the skies, as though hoping that Batman will return someday. For these scenes, the Bat-accompaniment is heard as a sign that Batman, at least as a masked hero who “can be anyone” has not actually died, but that he will continue to appear when Gotham needs him.
The big reveal, however, comes when we see Alfred nod to someone in a Florentine café. The reverse shot then shows Bruce with Selina at another table. Upon seeing Alfred just before his nod, heavier percussion kicks in and we soon hear Batman’s two-note “signifying” theme, driving home the surprise that Bruce is alive and well after all.
The final scene of the film shows Blake still in the Batcave, now suddenly raised up on a platform. The music here is Batman’s “heroic” theme, which, together with the image, suggests the rise of a new Dark Knight and brings the film and the entire trilogy to a satisfying close.
Here are the timings of the entrances of these themes in the clip below:
- 4:23-4:36 – heavier percussion on Bat-accompaniment, then Batman signifying theme
- 4:37-4:49 – Batman heroic theme