I must confess to an initial skepticism at the prospect of a Batman score by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard. I suppose just about every composer must count sell-out gigs amongst their triumphs, but my impression of these gentlemen was a faint and generally dismissive one (especially of Zimmer, to whom I primarily attributed a slew of wan comedies, thrillers, and—horrors!—Jerry Bruckheimer pictures). But Zimmer and Howard's collaboration on Batman Begins—which proved an important part of the cohesive and powerful film experience marshalled by director Christopher Nolan—sent me, eagerly, to the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack from Warner Sunset Records.
On closer examination, Zimmer can name among his hundred-plus scores The Thin Red Line, The Pledge, As Good As It Gets, Thelma & Louise, Driving Miss Daisy, and Rain Man. His Best Score Oscar for The Lion King was a somewhat dubious ballot no-brainer in 1995, and though they bring out his worst instincts, Ridley and Tony Scott obviously consider Zimmer a go-to guy, most famously for Gladiator. Howard's similarly varied credits nevertheless include Pretty Woman, The Prince of Tides, Glengarry Glen Ross, Falling Down, The Fugitive, The Devil's Advocate, The Interpreter, and the complete works of M. Night Shyamalan.
In creative collaboration, Zimmer and Howard have mostly brought out the best of each other's style. According to the composers, a longstanding mutual offer to work together led to the meeting of minds; apparently, the compositions were all written, or at least polished, in tandem. The two ignored previous themes composed for the character, including a well-known Danny Elfman rouser introduced in 1989's Batman and reprised in its sequel and the subsequent animated series. In fact, Zimmer and Howard have released nothing comparable in tone for the Dark Knight, no so-called "heroic" or "superheroic" theme (Zimmer cops to having composed one with Howard, but since it didn't belong in Batman Begins, it remains shelved...for now). Rather, the team pursues more insinuating effects by delving into mostly quieter, if equally disturbed, psychological colors.
The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack totals close to 61 minutes of music across twelve tracks, each named for a genus of bats. Though this musical taxonomy makes matching the cues to their use in the film more challenging, each title may suggest a thematic relevance to the piece and its correspondence to Nolan's emotional themes. The pieces themselves are considered and rich in their evocation of the story. A rundown of each cue on the soundtrack follows.
1. "Vespertilio" (2:52) An electronic feel colors thrums, flapping beats, rattles, and washes of sound, and as pulsating strings and a stark, two-note brass chord emerge to meet the electronic undercurrent, so too do occasional chimes. This cue, which accompanies the opening minutes of the film, announces the mystery of Batman's "birth," his dawning (on screen, the Warner and DC logos yield to the Batman logo peeking through a swarm of Bats, followed by a whip-pan into the gardens of Wayne Manor; there, young Bruce Wayne runs carefree before plummeting into his childhood trauma). This first of two key themes recurs throughout the film, and conveys the stealthy, winged movement of a bat as well as Nolan's propellent narrative drive. Vespertilio (Latin for "a bat") indeed refers to a genus of bat, but a "vesper" is also "a bell that summons worshipers," a winking reference to the spiritual birth of Batman and perhaps the devotion of his real-life followers. (In 1835, The New York Sun reported an astronomical, lunar sighting of the "Vespertilio-homo," or man-bat.)
2. "Eptesicus" (4:20) Ominous and lyrical at the outset (and suggestive of Howard's imprint), "Eptesicus" strikes a minor key to dramatize the flashback of Bruce's loss of his parents, then sifts down to a clear, melodic tone of melancholy nostalgia. A bold strain rises from these ashes (a return to Bruce's training), with steady strings characteristic of Zimmer's pounding, percussive, action-movie style striking a rhythm of inevitable time under a gently brassy wave of resolve. The defining transformative experience of Bruce Wayne, the single event that drives him to be Batman, can be felt in the track named for Eptesicus, meaning "house flyer." This is the bat species, once cave dwelling, that now commonly makes its way into human dwellings, as do the bats of Wayne Manor.
3. "Myotis" (5:46) A dark cello intro leads into mystical ambience matched to the film's early scenes of Bruce among Ra's al Ghul's League of Shadows, then explodes into an energetic Zimmer-esque action passage: Bruce's explosive denial of the League and escape from the temple training ground. The myotis, or "mouse-eared" genus of bat (also the largest genus) is a nocturnal breed of opportunistic predators, distinguished by a long, pointed flap of skin on the external ear or, in effect, an apparent ear above its actual ear, like the appendages on Batman's cowl. The accompanying cinematic scene marks a distinct choice by Bruce to embrace his personal sense of justice; as the scene turns over to a reunion with Alfred, Bruce resolves to adopt a powerful symbol...
4. "Barbastella" (4:44) As Bruce plumbs the depths of the Wayne Manor caves, the site of his childhood terror, a boy's soprano vocal sounds into a dark space, then blends into a searching string line, reprised as a tender piano melody (these melodic passages are reminiscent of Barber's "Adagio for Strings"). A sound suggestive of sonar moves between the left and right channels, before Zimmer's rhythmic strings return, thunderously complicated by heavier percussion (on screen, a swarm of bats engulfs Bruce, who resolutely banishes his fear). Barbastella ("star-beard") bats likewise exhibit a characteristic outer-ear, but also a "superficial star-shaped mustache apparent on the upper lip" and a penchant for wandering. Perhaps, then, the title is meant to remind us that the wandering, goateed Ducard—Wayne's shadow—taught Bruce to embrace his own fear. Or not.
5. "Artibeus" (4:19) Eerie, creeping ambience erupts into terrifying flurries of strings to support the nerve-jangling scene in which Dr. Jonathan Crane (a.k.a. Scarecrow) reveals his dastardly designs to A.D.A. Rachel Dawes, who promptly flees. Horror-film stingers accompany Katie Holmes's jumps, then the track melts into a tense, trembling line. The genus Artibeus is known to "respond to the distress calls of a captured individual by mobbing the captor," an analogy for Batman's fearsome rescue of Dawes and, more aptly, his resulting sonar transmission to his nocturnal friends. The pun may also anticipate the mob mentality incited by Scarecrow's fear toxin.
6. "Tadarida" (5:05) After a slow and sweeping build, the wing-flapping motif carries "Tadarida" into musical confrontation to dramatize Batman's first clash with the Scarecrow. The airborn eruption of Scarecrow's fear toxin comes with a cymbal clash, chased by electronic effects signalling the kinetic images, roused by Scarecrow's mind-altering poison, of Bruce's deep-seated fear: bats (the boy soprano returns to represents Bruce's inner child). Set aflame by Scarecrow, Batman plunges through a high window and down to earth, to an aggressive drumbeat. The cue climaxes with emotive strings and the boy's echoing solo vocal, evoking Batman's figurative fall—a failure in his goal of turning his own fear against the criminal element. The track resolves with a painful musical summation of rise and fall. The Tadarida ("withered toad") is notably susceptible to epidemic disease, a factor in the species' endangerment.
7. "Macrotus" (7:35) This psychodramatic cue, laced once again with Bruce's soprano surrogate, accompanies Bruce's most bittersweet, shining memories of Thomas Wayne (as on an elevated train, with Bruce awestricken by his father's top-of-the-world greatness), his dark night of the soul on the day of Joe Chill's sentencing, and the saving grace offered by Rachel in the unmercifully corrupt city of Gotham. "Macrotus" returns to the piano and string dyamics of "Eptesicus," though they swell to greater heights here (a training-days passage thrums quietly through the cut's midsection). "Macrotus" (large-eared) bats have exceptionally prominent ears and gestate slowly, traits which mirror Bruce's young adult floundering: he listens (to his father, to Chill, and to Rachel) as he grows to a realization of what he must do: migrate from Gotham City.
8. "Antrozous" (3:59) A skin-crawling synth intro works its way up to a unpredictable storm movement that's dominantly up-tempo but also veers briefly into a more halting rhythm. Pulse-like percussion, strings, and blaring brass pound out action-oriented iterations on the two major themes. A creeping calm settles in after the storm to finish out the track. Antrozous ("one who lives in caves") describes a noisy genus of bat that usually sticks to the ground in pursuit of prey.
9. "Nycteris" (4:25) This often mournful cue begins with idiosyncratic electronic percussion, then reprises elements of "Vespertilio" and, briefly, "Macrotus"'s father-son motif to echo the undying conflicts of Bruce's past. Nycteris refers to slit-faced bats, which conjures the image of the mask (since the slits of the Nycteris bats, in fact, run beneath the nose, Rachel is probably right to identify Bruce's face as his real mask).
10. "Molossus" (4:49) A muscular torrent of pulsating percussion, swiftly dancing strings, and fat brass notes construct the rising action of this cue, the musical support to the intercut exploits of Batman and Gordon as they race to save Gotham City. Appropriately, Molossus means "massive."
11. "Corynorhinus" (5:04) The contemplative falling action of the film's final minutes includes bittersweet bonding and parting between Bruce and Rachel and a nevertheless hopeful exchange between Bruce and Alfred as they make their way through the ashen remains of a fire. Bruce's childhood piano theme resurfaces, as do the young-adult stirrings of the swoony, stringed "Macrotus." Corynorhinus, the big-eared bat, is another genus that has historically shown a movement from natural to man-made roosting sites, which makes it an appropriate symbol for Bruce's homecoming at picture's end. The cue's last third takes swift-stringed flight again into the Gotham night to underscore Batman's pensive rooftop meeting with Gordon.
12. "Lasiurus" (7:27) This initially introverted cue gently builds layers of strings until an emotional outpouring. Near track's end, Zimmer and Howard mix up the musical equivalent of batwings (in the stringed equivalent of a drum-roll!), a bit of music used in the film to complement the soaring helicopter shot that unveils Batman—perched, still and gargoyle-like, atop a Gotham spire on his first night out in full costume. Churning electronic beats signal that Batman is ready to take on the night. The Lasiurus, or "shaggy-tail" bat is a fast-flying but generally solitary breed, skilled at camouflage.
This score can be mannered at times, particularly in Zimmer's recognizable stylistic flourishes; then again, Philip Glass is nothing if not mannered in his beautifully crowded string syncopations, and the Zimmer touch deftly colors this film without undue overstatement. Howard's more classical flavors contribute to an intentional duality in the music: after all, Batman Begins is about a man with more than one identity. These compositions masterfully serve Christopher Nolan's film, and therefore the enduring character of Batman. If a soundtrack album has two very different but equally valuable functions—to conjure the experience of watching the film and to provide a unique aural and musical experience in and of itself—the Batman Begins Original Motion Picture Soundtrack passes both tests with flying colors.