Zack Snyder's Justice League (2021)
Tom Holkenborg’s journey through the DC universe has been monumental.
The industrial metal and electronic musician-turned film composer was working as Hans Zimmer’s assistant for Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel in 2013 and then co-composed the score for the sequel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice in 2016. Taking over from Zimmer for Snyder’s DC universe was a clear choice, as Holkenborg had launched his foray into solo film scoring for the sequel to Snyder’s 300, Rise of an Empire in 2014. He had written about half of the score for Justice League when Snyder left the project and Joss Whedon and Danny Elfman took over. It is important to remember that the collapse of Justice League in 2017 hinged on an unimaginable tragedy for the Snyder family. The result was disappointing, disjointed, and messy; over the next few years, vocal fans (myself included) brought about something never heard of in the film industry: the decision by Warner Brothers and HBO Max to provide funding for Snyder to finish and release his original version of the film.
I had the opportunity to participate in a press junket with Holkenborg ahead of the HBO Max release of Zack Snyder’s Justice League and learned some interesting things about his background as a composer as well as some insights to the Justice League score. His rise to fame within the film score community was of course with his bombastic and rhythmic score to Mad Max: Fury Road. However, the Dutch composer started in industrial metal bands and making electronic albums before working for more than two years as Hans Zimmer’s assistant. It was during that time that he worked on Man of Steel, his first of six films with Zack Snyder to date, including his first solo outing as a composer for 300: Rise of an Empire. Holkenborg, as Junkie XL, then co-composed the score for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice with Zimmer and was working on Justice League when Snyder left the project.
The immediate question that arose most frequently is if he used any of the material he had written in 2017, and if he approached it differently this time around. When the Snyder Cut was green-lit and he played the first round back, which had been about halfway done, he was reminded of the painful period of Snyder’s departure and the circumstances behind it. Even more, Holkenborg had scored numerous large films in the interim and had grown as a composer. So he threw out everything and started over. This time around, Snyder told him the shackles are off and there would be no interference from the studio, which is an extremely unique situation. And with that, as he stated it, his “Mount Everest climb began.”
To make a unique situation and large demand for a 4-hour film even greater, the entire film was done during the Covid-19 pandemic. Holkenborg moved his studio to his house in an 8 x 8-foot spare room. He is typically a full contact composer involved in every aspect, but for this he actually did almost everything himself, including playing a large number of the instruments for recording purposes. The pandemic situation allowed him to immerse himself in the score. He did talk about some of the frustrations with recording soloists and orchestra during the time, which was done in London. For part of the time, no one was allowed in a room together, so musicians would record themselves and send it in to be mixed, and eventually small groups could be recorded together. The end result was a large variation in quality and types of recordings that all had to be mixed together. A project that should have been a 10-14 day period to record and mix took 18 weeks. In the end, however, Holkenborg developed a huge score despite the limitations and restrictions due to Covid-19, and which is quite impressive.
Justice League (The Foundation Theme)
Holkenborg’s new theme for the Justice League is big, consisting of a series of slow descending triplets nestled among rising chords, which was introduced to us as the single “The Crew at Warpower”. This track is as powerful and fun as his “Brothers in Arms” from Mad Max: Fury Road. I asked Holkenborg how that particular melody for the League came forth, and he said that Snyder gave him only one job regarding the theme, “Write me a national anthem”. He also said that “The Crew at Warpower” is a version of the theme that is infused with pop culture, rhythms and bass sounds, whereas other statements of it are slower with choir and brass and feel more like an anthem.
The Justice League theme is first heard over the DC title at the start of the film, but does take some time before we hear it used in the film. The first time it is heard on the album is at the end of “No Dog, No Master” where the theme comes in after a crescendo of harsh brass, in a sweeping style. I like in this statement how the brass holds a note and then the strings play the triplet underneath. In “We Do This Together”, the theme is intermixed with the Wonder Woman theme throughout the track and then enters in full at the end in the low brass over pounding percussion. The theme is given time to show a different side in the slowed-down “Beyond Good and Evil”, but expands to big brass chords at the end of the cue, which is then followed by the bold and triumphant “Flight Is Our Nature” underscored by large percussion.
The theme evolves over the course of the film, and is used more prominently as the full ‘Justice League’ is together. I also appreciate that the theme is almost always performed differently, and is also hinted at without full statements. Quiet background chords in “We Slay Ourselves” show this well, although it is followed by a larger version. The track “The Foundation Theme” showcases the theme as the anthem that Holkenborg said it was as written for Snyder’s request. This is also effected in the drawn-out massive statement in “An Eternal Reoccurrence of Change”. The final track on the album, “Flash, the Space to Win/Our Legacy Is Now” brings everything together, with the main theme used for Flash as well as melding the Wonder Woman and Amazons music with the Justice League theme. This track ends with a large, heroic and anthemic final statement.
Holkenborg told a story of when he and Zimmer first began Man of Steel in 2013, they were sitting on the couch in Zimmer’s studio and discussed whether or not to reprise the John Williams Superman theme. Zimmer immediately said absolutely not. Not only is it one of the greatest and most recognizable themes in film music, but it also had an appropriately tongue in cheek tone that fit the style of that film. Man of Steel – and the entire Snyder DC universe – had a much different, darker tone and it would not fit in that gritty style. Snyder’s universe also set up Wonder Woman and Aquaman, so some of those musical ideas belonged in the world, but not those from previous versions of the characters.
The Superman in this Justice League is very different than in the previous two films, so the use of his themes takes on a much darker tone. A few times, we get a few quiet statements of the theme, for example, in “A Splinter from the Thorn that Pricked You” that reprises the slow two-note piano motif. The ominous cue, “I Teach You, the Overman” turns into the Man of Steel brass chords toward the end over trilling low strings. “Superman Rising, Pt. 2/Immovable” provides the most heroic statement of the Superman music, but this is the action theme from Man of Steel soaring in the brass over powerful percussion, which then ends with a statement of the Justice League theme also over the same percussive rhythm. Finally, “Your Own House Turned to Ashes” opens with the Superman theme in the low piano, which is a foreboding and brilliant use of these chords.
Holkenborg immediately told us that he did not reprise the Batman theme from Batman v Superman, as he and Zimmer had determined that that arc for the character was closed. The new theme is focused on Bruce Wayne’s motivation to bring the crew together and his torment for how things played out with Superman (not to mention the rest of his tormented past, and I’ve thought throughout that Affleck has done a good job portraying a scarred, older Wayne). Holkenborg turned to a guitar riff to resemble Batman’s moments of “being a badass” as well as a four-note motif for the character.
That having been said, this theme does not see much musical development because of the prominence of the other characters featured on the team. The theme is first heard in “As Above, So Below” in the low brass over an eerie choir. On the album, the theme is further fleshed out in two final suites, “Batman, A Duty to Fight/To See” and “Batman, An Invocation to Heal/To Be Seen”. The first of these is bold and dark and has a gothic feel that is reminiscent of the tone of Elfman’s 1989 Batman score. This tone is reprised in “The Provenance of Something Gathered”. The theme has a brighter tone in the second of these suites with more brass as well as some percussive moments. Like the Elfman and the subsequent 1990s animated series themes, the four-note motif starts as a rise and ends with a descending chord progression, which still works for the character.
Hans Zimmer wrote the first iteration of the Wonder Woman theme for Batman v Superman. For Justice League, Holkenborg explained that he was able to make the theme different, closer to how he would have written it. Zimmer used primarily strings and brass, whereas Holkenborg added more world music elements to make the theme tough like the character but also emotional. He wanted to make the music “breathe 1000s of years backwards and forwards, as if it has always been and always will be” without having a period feeling, while at the same time still using the same bombastic riff we recognize from previous films. The drums are more aggressive, reflecting the strength of the Amazon clan, and he brought in an Iranian female vocalist from Tehran whose voice reflects inner soul of Wonder Woman. Holkenborg looked back to his work on 300: Rise of an Empire to help craft writing old world music.
The result is certainly a tough, strong, bombastic theme for Wonder Woman backed by guitar riffs. It is an extremely different approach from Zimmer’s recent sweeping strings and 80s synth from Wonder Woman 1984, but that is the exact sound Holkenborg was trying to avoid, as the Amazons do not belong to any particular time period. It is fascinating that both scores use the same melody and rhythm but are so different. “Wonder Woman Defending/And What Rough Beast” showcases all these elements. The Iranian vocals return in “No Paradise/No Fall” again over the pounding percussion. I also love that both Holkenborg and Zimmer are able to write rhythms that are so thematic in their own right, and have done so in a variety of scores, where no musical note is even needed to call a certain character to mind.
The Wonder Woman theme and rhythm is used frequently throughout the action sequences. The first expansion of the theme is in “World Ending Fire” which chronicles the Amazon’s fight with Steppenwolf, and brings in the heavier percussion, grittier sounds, and the Iranian vocalist. Another good example is “We Do This Together”, which has the rhythm pulsing underneath it, and later the vocals come in over the rhythm. This is followed by the Justice League theme, which lifts off from the vocals and continues over Wonder Woman’s rhythm. The final track of the album, “Flash, The Space to Win/Our Legacy Is Now”, similarly interweaves the Wonder Woman and Justice League themes through a bombastic sequence. The implementation and growth of the Wonder Woman music is powerful and showcases her role at the center of the film, particularly the action sequences.
Rather than take the expected synth/electronic music approach to Cyborg as one might expect, especially from a former electronic music artist, Holkenborg instead made the theme for Cyborg almost entirely acoustic. The main use of the Cyborg theme is during his 10-minute backstory sequence in “Cyborg Becoming/Human All Too Human”, which the composer describes as an adagio style, “heart of the film”. It is a long and evolving piece of music, both dark and majestic. It reminds me of some of James Newton Howard’s finale cues as it builds upon itself. I noted, and this was likely intentional, that the chord progressions in the brass parts of the Cyborg sequence have a resemblance to those in the Justice League main theme. The main melody, however, also appears as just a three-note piano motif throughout the middle of the cue.
Aquaman has a new theme but it is very sparingly used. It is best heard early on in “Aquaman Returning/Carry Your Own Water” as a series of big brass chords, backed later by choir. Aquaman is largely a supporting role in this film with the least amount of screen time because his solo film was to be released soon after and they needed to spend time on Flash and Cyborg’s backstory instead. In this film, Aquaman is given an air of mystery and viewed as a force of nature, and the bold, chaotic tone to the brass statements of the theme reflect that.
Holkenborg did not write a theme for The Flash because his introduction in the film was covered by a song, and most of his other scenes he is with others. Instead, Holkenborg uses the Justice League theme for Flash, because he makes it possible for League to exist and a few key moments to how the film resolves. This is exemplified in “At the Speed of Force” which uses slower chord progressions underneath the Justice League theme for the audience following Flash in his speed force.
Darkseid/Steppenwolf/The Mother Boxes
A good chunk of the film has very harsh, dark tones and the score representing the threat to Earth is Holkenborg with all the stops out. During the press junket, he stated that he likes things that are “operatic or larger than life” and was able to really expand upon that here. For example, the Knightmare sequence has a multilayer approach in which he added what he calls a Choir from Hell that ends with 24 women nearly screaming for volume. This overall hellish, apocalyptic tone was used to represent Steppenwolf, Darkseid and the Mother Boxes, as they are three entities with a combined plot line, and in fact have the most run time in the score, thematically. Holkenborg utilized orchestral, complex harmonies with awkward strings and, as he put it, “crazy” choir sounds. This is exemplified in numerous tracks, including “Take This Kingdom by Force”, “Monument Destroyer” and “And the Lion-Earth Did Roar.
The end result is a monumental achievement that is both bombastic and highly thematic. The score brings together the industrial metal, electronic, and huge orchestra and choir elements of Holkenborg’s career in a grand style that he states he is very proud of, and he should be. The thematic development is fascinating in and of itself, with a vast reworking of the Wonder Woman theme from Batman v Superman, and a darker take on the Man of Steel theme, which is very fitting for Superman’s short story arc in this film. Most impressive is the development of a bold new Justice League theme that is immediately memorable, and fitting in its power to both the history of the comics and the huge accomplishment and journey that the Snyder Cut of Justice League represents as a whole.