Crafting a satisfying score for a superhero film, any superhero film, must be among the most daunting tasks a Hollywood composer can face. The chance that the music will match the expectations, the hopes, and the dreams in the minds of the fans of a preexisting mythos is always slim. But it’s got to be even more intimidating to try to carry on the legacy of a series that already has an iconic, archetypal score to its name. So, it’s not surprising that the powers-that-be chose to cut hero-film veteran John Ottman some slack and let him use the original John Williams Superman cues in the score for Superman Returns.
Purists will be glad to hear the familiar trumpets blaring, drums rolling, and general da-da-da-da-dum from the Christopher Reeve classic, but there’s more to resurrecting a movie score than simple cut-and-paste. It’s not easy to take another composer’s cues and interpolate them seamlessly into new music, and Ottman deserves credit for not trying to do too much and just letting Williams’s music stand on its own. “Main Titles” consists entirely of Williams’s work, re-orchestrated and rerecorded for the 2006 release, but Williams’s DNA comes through in “Rough Flight,” “You’re Not One Of Them,” and “Saving The World,” among others. It gladdens a jaded critic when one composer can gracefully allow another, superior composer’s work to shine through without equivocation.
Not to take anything away from Ottman himself. He does well when it comes to his own compositions, though the inevitable “pales by comparison” clichés come to mind when lining up his cues against Williams’s—that’s the price you pay for recycling the originals. But tracks like “How Could You Leave Us?” and “The People You Care For” showcase Ottman’s obvious talent for lilting adagios and romantic themes. Indeed, Superman Returns works considerably better away from the celluloid than did Ottman’s other two comic-book film scores, X2 and Fantastic Four. That shows growth as a composer and should only spell better work in the future.
Still, while Superman Returns is, on a fundamental level, a thoroughly competent and enjoyable score, it never swats you with the “oomph” of the best hero-movie music. It is the sum of its parts, sure, but nothing more than that. Holding Ottman’s work up against the original Superman score may be unfair, but Superman Returns just isn’t in the same league as Danny Elfman’s Batman or Basil Pouledouris’s Conan the Barbarian. Pick it up if you want to relive the movie experience, or if you (like me) must have all things Superman.