Based on the DC Comics series, the new Justice League film gathers top crime fighting heroes and heroines under one shield to fight a malevolent alien force that seeks to wipe out humanity using a spaceship that sprouts all kinds of man-eating reptilian crud.
Like a serialized comic (and vintage movie serials, too), the film also intercuts a series of hero threads that eventually converge during the film's grand final battle – a narrative that gives composer Kevin Manthei (a serious veteran of videogame and TV scoring) plenty of time to develop themes and build moods early in the film before he gets to engage is big orchestral sounds.
As the CD's liner notes detail, the score was written under the usual time and budgetary constraints, and Manthei took advantage of existing orchestra samples and overlaid live woodwind – a process that actually works quite well in the final mix. The synth strings in action cues like “The Flash Saves Las Vegas” actually provide a positive retro sound, tying the film to the animated TV show that ran between 2001-2006, but the lack of live strings somewhat lessen the album's impact when heard before experiencing the score with the movie.
It's a dilemma that affects a number of animated scores simply because the repetition of themes or a singular theme sometimes happens in rapid clusters, and is meant to match fast-moving onscreen actions; when set against picture, it works, but when left on its own at full length, it can become a tiresome reiteration of the same action, heroic, or combat cues.
That's a reaction some may find when listening to this nearly hour-long album without knowing the context of the cues, but with a familiarity, the album stands quite well because one has a better understanding of what's happening when Manthei returns to a chorale, or repeats the heroic theme that dominates the album's final cues.
In terms of orchestrations, they're very precise and clean, which ensures the CD listening experience will reveal a lot of subtleties buried in the final film mix. The film is set in a paranoid fifties Cold War era, with McCarthyism alive and entrenched in American society, while every chair, TV set, car fender, or Las Vegas lounge evokes part of the era's obsession with jet design.
That visual style gives Manthei room to interweave a bit of silky jazz in the film's short bouts of romance, and the emphasis on sprawling shadows also lets the composer have fun in evoking some vintage Herrmannesque motifs during the mysterious character intros that dominate film's first third.
The score's strongest elements are Manthei's subtle gestures: the mysterious nature of “J'onzz Contemplates” with delicate woodwinds and shifting tones on strings is very elegant, and the twittering trumpet discord (a clever nod to Miles Davis' trippy Bitches Brew) in “Thick of Battle” is very effective when the Green Lantern heads into the craft's weird innards.
Some may find the heroic passages too oft-repeated, but as an album, it's a good distillation of Manthei's lively film score.
Kevin Manthei's other animated DC production is Batman: Gotham Knight, also available from La-La Land Records.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan