Musical Themes in the Dark Knight Trilogy, Part 6 of 6: The Dark Knight Rises

Dark Knight Rises posterAs 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:

000023---Succeeding-Theme-4 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.

The 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:

Truck Chase

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

8 thoughts on “Musical Themes in the Dark Knight Trilogy, Part 6 of 6: The Dark Knight Rises”

  1. Thank you for this post! I listen to the Dark Knight themes all the time and am always in total awe – im glad to find someone who listens to music this deeply

  2. Mark Richards

    Thanks, Shaun. There’s more Zimmer to come – look for a post on Man of Steel soon after the release of the film.

  3. Thank you so much for your posts, Mark, I really enjoyed the whole series.

    The use of the ostinato in the climbing scenes is so poignant – I actually listened to the soundtrack before I watched the film, and “Why do we fall” was the track that immediately got me (despite being quite simply structured and rather “blunt”, if I played the Devil’s Advocate ;))

    Another masterful use of the “two-note” Batman-theme, which you haven’t mentioned (or maybe I’ve overlooked it), is the track “On thin ice”. I believe it appears in the film for the first time when Blake visits Bruce at Wayne Manor and tells him he knows who he is. You have the two-note theme very faint in the background (which tells us “he’s still in there somewhere”). However, there is something else added to the mix here (I will refrain from describing it all in detail, otherwise I’ll still sit here tomorrow, but it might be a great addition to one of your posts ;)), which tells us Bruce/Batman is broken in the truest sense of the word.

    It’s also quite interesting that this slightly changed theme links into the climbing scenes-theme (you hear it for the first time after Blake has left and Bruce talks to Alfred, asking him to set up appointments with Fox and his doctor). For me, the ostinato-themes are the true signature themes of the third film in a way…

    Anyway, I’m rambling away.
    Thanks again for your excellent analysis, I really enjoyed it!

    1. Mark Richards

      Dear Petra,

      Thanks for your kind words. I completely agree about the music for the climbing scenes – I think they have the most emotional impact in the whole film, for it’s there that Zimmer seems to be speaking with an elemental kind of musical language that resonates with us on a deep subconscious level. I’ve always felt that the most effective music is that which is based on a very simple idea, and Zimmer capitalizes on that here.

      And you are quite right about the Bat-theme appearing in “On Thin Ice”. Funnily enough, I remember Zimmer mentioning this particular use of the theme in a short interview for the news just before the release of the film (I saw it on YouTube well after the release), but I couldn’t remember where in the film he used it. So thank you! I watched the scene where Blake first visits Bruce and, lo and behold, there it was, just as Blake says that Gordon “needs the Batman”.

      Yes, I think “broken” describes this version of the theme quite well. (In fact, in the news spot, the interviewer even suggested that Batman’s “wounded” here.) Along the same lines, there’s a vulnerability to this version of the theme – it’s up in the high register sounded with a very delicate timbre instead of down low in the forceful brass. After a few times unharmonized, Zimmer also adds slow string chords, which gives it a feeling of warmth, as though Bruce is forming a connection with Blake after learning that he too was orphaned as a child.

      Thanks again for your unerring insights. It was a real treat. 🙂

      1. Thanks for your reply! (I should really warn people about the following spoilers, shouldn’t I?)

        Yes, I think you are quite right about “On thin ice” hinting at Bruce and Blake forming a connection. And to take it one step further, we more than likely have the next Batman in Blake (at least in Nolan’s vision), so we could even see the faint use of the theme with a double-meaning: One is in/coming out of retirement, the other one is on his way to become the next Batman. There’s definitely more than one Dark Knight rising here, isn’t there? 😉

        I also remembered another use of the “climbing-theme”, just looked it up again to check if I was right (here’s the recording: ): It also appears in the tunnel with Selina, leading up to the infamous scene when Bane breaks Batman’s back. Funnily enough, it is preceded by one of the themes you describe as “troubled” (the one with the C#/diminished 4th): A first hint that this isn’t going to end well?
        Then follows the climbing theme, almost identical to the 3rd version (the one when he finally manages to climb out of the pit), with one major difference: There is no resolution at the end into what you call the “heroic theme”. It just cuts out. I believe that in the film, this is where the gate crashes down and traps Batman with Bane (just on a side-note: I found it immensely effective not to have any music during the actual fight). Batman is back, yes, but he was ill prepared and not really up to the task, and he has a lot of physical, emotional and spiritual healing to do before gaining closure (and that’s why there is no musical closure either, one could argue).

        I could probably write about this for ages, but I tend to read into film music what probably no composer ever intended (or did they? 😉 ), so I better stop…

        Thanks for the interesting exchange!

        1. Mark Richards

          Great insights once more, Petra. I certainly agree about Blake becoming the next Batman, as that’s how I interpret the end of the film with Blake literally rising up inside the Batcave.

          The climbing theme in the tunnel scene is very interesting. I think we might extend the meaning of the theme from literal rising in the pit to a general rise in Bruce’s confidence. In this scene, he seems to delight in out-maneuvering Bane’s men, being suspended from the ceiling, then in that wonderful strobe effect of the light from the gunfire as he avoids being shot in the darkness. Then the gate comes crashing down along with his confidence – he knows he’s not ready for a fight with Bane, and the surprise of being locked in with him seems to leave him rattled. (If he had every confidence in himself, he probably wouldn’t have been so disappointed with Selina for being duped – he would have just taken care of Bane, and that would be that!) And as you say, the music remains unresolved, only to be completed in the climbing scene, making it all the more powerful.

  4. Interesting analysis, but may I ask why you didn’t include the theme which begins the end credits for each of these movies? In Batman Begins it played when the bats appeared in the “backup” scene and when Batman prepared to go fight the League of Shadows as the toxin was covering Gotham. In The Dark Knight it played when Batman grabbed the fake Batman’s gun in the garage, when Batman shot up with Lau out of the LSI building, and when Batman pushed Dent off the ledge. In Rises, it played when Batman first appeared in the tunnel, when he and Selina escaped Bane on the rooftop, when he jumped down and saved John Blake, and when he appeared out of the explosion with the bomb. It could be called a “success” theme and usually signifies that Batman is in control of a given situation.

    1. The main reason I don’t discuss one theme or another is the size of these posts. I try to keep them to a manageable size, so omissions are inevitable.

      As for the end credit music in each film, in Batman Begins, I’m supposing what you were looking for is a discussion of the percussion riff with that growling brass note that we hear at the points you mention. True, I don’t discuss that portion, but it could probably be considered an accompaniment to the “succeeding” themes. In the end credits here, just after the growling note, we actually get a number of the themes I do discuss – the Bat-accompaniment, then the Batman “Signifying” Theme, Succeeding Theme 1, another theme I don’t discuss in long notes (probably another succeeding theme – call it Succeeding Theme 5), then Succeeding Theme 3 three times in a row, then a fading out of the Bat-accompaniment into the slower portion of the credit music.

      In The Dark Knight, we get the same “succeeding” accompaniment, then a hint of Succeeding Theme 1 that merges into Succeeding Theme 4 (mentioned here in this last post). Then the Bat-accompaniment leads into Succeeding Theme 1, then an aggressive series of chords that could be considered another succeeding theme (call it Succeeding Theme 6), then into Batman “Troubled” Theme and accompaniment for five consecutive statements (scoring altered in some). Finally, there is a series repeated chords that could be another succeeding accompaniment before the music turns softer and more lyrical.

      In The Dark Knight Rises, we again get the “succeeding” accompaniment (percussion + growling brass), then a hint of the climbing ostinato before the music goes into its by now expected statement of Succeeding Theme 1, then Succeeding Theme 5, Succeeding Theme 3 three times in a row, then the Batman “Signifying” Theme with its accompaniment. Then the music style changes, still upbeat, but now with repetitions of a two-note motif that leads to a more developed version of the “Signifying” Theme (this one much like Elfman’s Batman theme) before the music becomes more lyrical.

      In short, the music that begins the end credits in each film is the same – a sort of “succeeding” accompaniment that indicates Batman’s control of the situation, as you suggest. After that, each film runs through various themes, most of theme from the set of succeeding themes, probably because Batman’s signifying or even heroic themes are so short that they would hardly take any time at all. The diversity of succeeding themes seems to me an appropriate choice since they can be strung together so well, along with the Bat-themes themselves (they’re all in D minor!).

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