The Joker score is straight out of a grimdark Batman movie. That might be an obvious choice for a DC villain standalone movie, but writer-director Todd Phillips made one thing clear in the lead up to release: he didn’t set out to make a comic book movie.
But by the end, Joker — which should be the Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) show from top to bottom — takes a hard left into Batman territory, as if pushed there by Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir’s booming orchestra. The choice speaks (loudly) to the conundrum faced by Phillips’ referential drama, and future imitators hoping to have their own massive win at the box office: what does a prestige comic book movie sound like?
Up until the climax, Joker’s score leans on drawn-out strings to build a sense of dread. A few lilts up and down provide the barest thread of a melody, but otherwise, the music comes across as a drone more than anything else. Then, as the unfolding events reach a critical mass, those almost formless sounds give way to a rhythmic beat and echo that bears a striking resemblance to the theme for Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, a series that also tried to bill itself as anything but a comic book movie.
Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard concocted the first sounds for Nolan’s caped crusader in 2005’s Batman Begins, departing from the themes and motifs that defined Danny Elfman’s work in the 1989 Batman with a much more operatic sound. Three years later, they reinvented the sound of the Joker, with Zimmer composing a theme built around just two notes (and razor blades drawn over strings) that defied any sense of melody for over a full minute.
The callback — intentional or not — is all the stranger given that there are movies that Joker is trying to emulate that seem to have been ignored in terms of musical influence. Herrmann’s jazzy score to Taxi Driver is nowhere to be heard, as is the relative sparseness of the music in The King of Comedy. Instead, the music plays almost like a parody of Zimmer’s work, aping his most famous scores (Inception, Man of Steel, and even Batman v Superman) by peeling out the loud, sustained noises and simple themes.
Zimmer’s work on the Dark Knight trilogy was both the inception and the peak of a trend, with most failing to pick up on the fact that there was, in fact, light built into the music he wrote in order to counteract the darkness. Comic book movie music has been somewhat stymied since then, with most Marvel movies achieving a perfectly utilitarian anonymity (the Avengers theme remains the most distinctive piece of composing to come out of the franchise). Best case-scenarios like Thor: Ragnarok and Guardians of the Galaxy deploy pop music that embrace their colorfulness and nostalgia factor as part of the comic book genre. Joker doesn’t lack for recognizable songs, but when Frank Sinatra’s rendition of “That’s Life” pops up at the end of the film, after serving as Murray Franklin’s theme, it has all the depth of one of the film’s trailers.
The dissonance of Joker’s comic book movie soundtrack never falls in step with Phoenix’s performance. The groaning strings of the score seem consistently out of step with Arthur’s frenetic energy, echoing the pop songs’ surface level use by going for a “serious” sound rather than working in tandem with what’s happening on screen.
The best cinematic character studies work in tandem with their scores: Jonny Greenwood’s soundtrack for There Will Be Blood builds the tension and madness of its main character. The fluctuating moods of Bernard Herrmann’s music for Taxi Driver adds to Travis Bickle’s detachment from reality. In Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, composer David Shire’s winding piano score ushers viewers along with Harry Caul’s (Gene Hackman) surrender to paranoia rather than overriding it, building a full story instead of trying to force it in different directions or serve as shorthand. There are ways music can get inside characters’ and viewers’ heads.
In trying to shy away from more obviously melodic or “colorful” themes, Joker reminds the audience of its origins in both comics and the history of Batman on screen. When Batman is hamfistedly inserted into Arthur Fleck’s story, it’s no surprise — the music has been signaled the inevitable from the very first note.