Perhaps one of the most talked about movie releases in the past few years, the recent HBO Max exclusive Zack Snyder cut of Justice League seems to have taken the world by storm. Die-hard fans of DC comics had been pushing to see this unreleased, 4-hour long cut of the movie ever since the original version came out in 2017. Many mixed reviews combined with a history of struggle for the first release of Justice League made for many fans calling it cringeworthy. While many people looked to compare the few scenes that were shared by both (and the extensive catalogue of scenes that weren’t), I want to look even closer at the musical similarities and differences.
A Struggled History
The production process of the 2017 version of Justice League was littered with complications. The problems began when the original director of the film Zack Snyder left during postproduction due to the devastating loss of his daughter Autumn to suicide in March 2017. According to an interview with the New York Times it was this familial need combined with the hiring of Joss Whedon to rewrite Snyder’s ideas, that caused him to leave voluntarily. Upon leaving, Snyder requested one of his close friends who was an editor, to put together a rough director’s cut as a keepsake. This grew into its own version of Justice League lore as fans petitioned for this version to get released. While the conflict between Snyder and Whedon was on the forefront of this news, almost no one considered the switch from an almost finished score written by Tom Holkenberg to one that had yet to be written by Danny Elfman.
Danny Elfman, The Dark Knight of Film Scores
Whenever Joss Whedon became the new director for this massive film and began rewriting scenes, he also switched the music style. He decided to choose a composer already famous in the DC universe for his work on the 1989 Batman film. The same film that launched an iconic theme known today as the go to Batman theme song in live-action and animated film adaptations.
Daniel Robert Elfman (more commonly reffered to as Danny Elfman) is an American Composer known for his work on Films such as Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Batman, Edward Scissorhands, and The Nightmare Before Christmas. Working closely with director Tim Burton (who launched Elfman’s film score career) has allowed Elfman’s music to take on a life of its own that can be described as having an “intimate connection to the narrative”. His original music career as a rock n’ roll musician in his band Oingo Boingo allowed him a unique perspective that wasn’t filtered through the lens of a classically trained musician. While today this outlook on the soundscapes of his movies is celebrated, early on it was shunned within the film scoring community.
Despite early criticisms from other composers, his film score for Batman launched him to fame within a new community, comic book fans. Elfman was able to perfectly capture the feeling of Batman and the gritty life of Gotham City. The main 5-note motif went on to be used in subsequent projects such as Batman: The Animated Series, The Lego Batman video game series, Batman: Arkham Knight, and the Arrowverse crossover Crisis on Infinite Earths. This theme became a mainstream media phenomenon that was hard to separate from the idea of Batman himself. This previous DC universe stardom and the work he did with Joss Whedon on Avengers: Age of Ultron, earned him the last-minute job on Justice League. According to Hollywood Reporter, Elfman describes both instances of working with Whedon as “three-alarm calls” where “You have to decide now and then go to work tomorrow”.
Elfman was given a blank slate for scoring the Justice League movie. The only parameters he was given was to add humanity and warmth to the score. He was also requested to use his original Batman theme along with the even more well-known Superman theme by John Williams. Elfman believes strongly in maintaining musical continuity throughout movie franchises, so using and adapting these original hero themes was something he was particularly fond of in this experience. The pure nostalgia of these themes occurring during the final battle scene of the movie is an experience many audiences found to be one of the most memorable musical moments.
Junkie XL, The Original
When the original version of Justice League was being filmed, Zack Snyder picked Tom Holkenborg (also known by his stage name Junkie XL) to compose the score. This is not surprising considering his work with Hans Zimmer on both Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Since these films were precursors to Justice League, it made sense that someone with this kind of expertise in the world of DC movies would take on the final project.
Thomas Holkenborg is a Dutch composer who originally rose to fame through his work as a DJ and producer under the guise Junkie XL. Classically trained on piano since he was 3 years old by his mom, music has always been a part of his life. At the age of 8 he started playing drums and 4 years later picked up guitar. Adding the bass to his growing repertoire of instruments at 14 completed this multi-instrumentalist’s arsenal until he began producing for bands and his own electronic tracks. The recognition he gained from his albums and producer credits allowed him to get his foot into the world of film composing. Some of his earliest contributions to films included Blade and The Beach. Three full-length albums later, Holkenborg once again contributed to the film industry with his work on Domino and the Dutch film Blind. His more recent solo film credits include films such as The Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Fury and Resident Evil. His larger film score works however, began when he started working with the legendary Hans Zimmer. Since becoming a part of Zimmer’s Remote Control Production Studios Holkenborg has become a regular partner, helping on movies such as Megamind, Inception, and Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted. The two musically adept individuals collaborated on both Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. These two films allowed Junkie XL to attain the acknowledgement of Zack Snyder who ultimately chose him as the composer for Justice League.
The interesting part about the recently released Zack Snyder cut of Justice League is that while it is obviously different from Danny Elfman’s version, it is also different from Holkenborg’s original version. Even though he had already finished half of the score back in 2017 he decided to completely start fresh when news came of a longer Snyder cut being released. According to a round table interview, 2 main factors played into this decision. The first factor was emotional. Holkenborg couldn’t listen to the original score he had written without remembering the upsetting time him and his team went through when they worked on it. The second factor was logical, as he thought that he had grown too much in the 5 years that spanned between his original work and what would be his new score.
“I thought I grew so much as a composer in the last four or five years, working with all these great directors — Robert Rodriguez, James Cameron, Peter Jackson, George Miller, Tim Miller — that I really thought when I saw the film that Zack was editing now demanded the best of what I potentially had to offer.”
So, what are the differences between Elfman’s musical vision for Justice League and Holkenborg’s more recent adaptation? A big one to consider is that the Snyder cut is 4 hours long with scenes that were not shown in the 2017 version. This means that Holkenborg’s score is nearly 2 hours longer than Elfman’s. A second easily recognizable difference is the musical themes. Elfman paid homage to more classic themes such as his own Batman theme and John Williams’ Superman theme. In contrast, Holkenborg reiterated themes written by Hans Zimmer in the other Zack Snyder DC films. This led to Elfman’s score being more nostalgic for fans and Holkenborg’s to utilize the consistency of the DC Extended Universe films’ themes. To delve a little deeper into what differs in these scores, let’s take a look at one of the few specific scenes shared by the two versions.
A Comparison of Wonder Woman’s Rescue Scene
One of the few scenes shared by both versions of the film is the Wonder Woman rescue scene at a bank. This scene is our first introduction to Wonder Woman in the film and outlines a variety of her abilities as she fights to stop terrorists from blowing up a bank full of children on a school field trip. Right from the start we hear a pretty drastic difference in the stylistic choices of the two composers.
2017 Justice League
In the beginning of the scene, we see the leader of the terrorist group walking in to set up the bomb. In the 2017 version of the scene, the music is undeniably Elfman. He sets up the villain with a piano bass line that is reminiscent of a slower paced Beetlejuice theme. You can listen to the resemblance in these examples:
An interesting thing to point out about this piece in the score is that Elfman decided to use a 5/4 time signature. Using odd meters is a popular way to add a metric tension to the already prominent harmonic tension created from dissonant chords. His usage of tension along with heavy low brass drones allows the scene to maintain a classic menacing feel. While the occasional accented trills from members of the upper brass family (mainly trumpets and French horns) keeps us in the somewhat whimsical soundscape that Danny Elfman likes to reside in. Even though the tempo is around 125 bpm, the measure-long low brass movements between D and A along with march-like snare drum hits on beats 2 and 3 create a “trudging along” feeling that emphasizes the calm manner with which the main villain in this scene walks into the bank and up the stairs.
The next shot shows the villain setting down his gun then focuses in on the crowd of scared children and chaperones. This movement by the terrorist seems to bring a momentary calm to the situation as it would seem his intentions are not to shoot any of the kids. In reflection the music all but cuts out, only to replace the heavy brass tones with strings leading into an orchestral version of the Wonder Woman theme created by Hans Zimmer. This coincides with the big reveal that Wonder Woman is there to save the day.
The focus of the scene once again shifts to the leader of the terrorist organization as the camera zooms on the briefcase he brought being opened to reveal a bomb. A close up of the man’s face shows us a haunting lack of remorse as he says: “Down with the modern world”. These words are reflected in Elfman’s composition almost like text painting as the word “down” lines up with an eerie string glissando in the score. Overall, this version of the Justice League score seems to accent certain actions in the scene very effectively. All the way down to a harp strum lining up with the villain flipping the on switch.
2021 Justice League
Much like the score written for the 2017 version of the film, Junkie XL’s compositions fit right into his style of writing. A more electronic sound permeates the soundscape of the overall movie, and this scene is no different. Like Elfman, Holkenborg utilizes a bass line to introduce the villain. However, this bass line is created by pulsing, low-toned synthesizer sounds. These sounds are much like a heartbeat or ticking clock and seem to foreshadow the countdown that comes later in the scene. As actions ramp up in intensity, the music takes a more gradual growth as strings are added to the pulsing feel of the music. As individual parts are added into the score it takes on a feeling of 6/4 time. This is outlined, similarly to the 5/4 in Elfman’s score, with low bass drones that help the listener identify where the string motifs are starting and ending. The measures alternate between these pulsing bass notes and the strings.
In true music producer form, the music intensifies with a string “riser effect” as Holkenborg transitions into the “drop” of electronically distorted bass synths backed by a heavy hitting drumbeat. In contrast to the 2017 version, this makes the stride of the villain seem more hurried and purposeful. The meter of the music changes with this transition as well. The length of the repeated phrases now creates a feeling of a slow 7/4 meter. This once again created a rhythmic tension to accompany the tension in the scene. The feeling shifts back to the realm of 6/4 as more involved string melodies come to the forefront of the score and the terrorists corral the hostages against the wall.
When the leader of the villainous group sets down his gun Holkenborg also chose to bring down the music to create a sense of momentary calm and to allow the terrorists voice to be the focus as he makes his call to the police. While this is similar to the musical choices of the 2017 version it is not as drastic, because the pulsing of the music never stops in the background. This gives the listener a sense of the elevated heart rates the hostages must be feeling. Another similarity between Holkenborg and Elfman is the choice to use strings for their ability to create creepy sounds. In this version of the scene the violins drone high pitches with very light bow strokes to create a wispy sound heard often in horror movies. This combines well with the calm manner of the villain to make him seem scarier.
The music melts away into a new form as the shot changes to Wonder Woman overlooking the scene and contemplating her options. This brings up a big difference in the two version of the film. In the Snyder cut, Wonder Woman seems to have a new theme song. These middle eastern vocalizations happen fairly often throughout the movie when Wonder Woman does something heroic or epic and is usually accompanied by slow motion effects. This scene is the first time we hear this theme, and it brings a whole new feel to Wonder Woman.
Both versions of Justice League were massive undertakings with a myriad of complications to overcome. They were both epic films with amazing cinematography and film scores that complimented them in their own way. Danny Elfman was able to take his knowledge and experience of music he was known for and translate it into a much larger and much more complex universe. His iconic use of classic themes combined with the style of writing style we’ve come to love from him created a world of music that pulled at the heartstrings of all die hard DC fans. Conversely, Tom Holkenborg brought to life something the fans were craving with an all-new soundtrack. Years of experience as a producer and his work on the previous DC films allowed him to create cohesion where others thought it wasn’t possible. Taking an electronically heavy approach combined with epic orchestral writing created the feeling of an action blockbuster like no other. To compare these scores is to compare timeless classics with the exciting and new. Both have their charms, and both have their place in the Justice League.