Superman: The Animated Series

Shirley Walker, Michael McCuistion, Lolita Ritmanis, Kristopoher Carter and Harvey R. Cohen

 
" It's some of television's finest scoring ever, almost exclusively done with orchestra. "

Written by Justin Boggan - Review of the limited release

In 1996 Bruce Timm expanded his Batman-centric animated universe to include Superman. Whereas Batman was drawn on black paper and was darker in tone, Superman was on white paper and bright in look and more lighter in tone.

Fortunately for fans, composers from "Batman: The Animated Series" scored this new series, with Walker also providing the theme music (sadly not all Batman composers crossed over; though Batman composers Coster, Tomashek and Stromberg* did do copyist work here). Like Batman, the Superman scores were done with an orchestra (though some synths made their way in here and there).

(* = one source cue on one episode)

Walker's theme for the series featured repeating brass and timpani figures with various orchestral flourishes and a trumpet playing the theme. Unlike Batman, it's lighter and more adventurous, putting it -- in my book - as the second best Superman theme from any film or television adaptation. Interestingly enough, it's the complete opposite of what she originally did. Walker had been asked to provide something that sounded like Alex North's score to the film "Dragonslayer", an avant grade atonal work, but it wasn't used. Sadly, tapes for that piece were not found.

The music overall ranges from bold to moments of lushness, frantic and furious action music, to even some softer more tender stuff. It's some of television's finest scoring ever, almost exclusively done with orchestra (with some rare added synth work). It's shocking, once you hear the quality of the scoring, to note that Walker mentions in a hidden Easter egg on the set, that Warner Bros. thought that once they had thirty or so episode scores in the can, that they could just track the rest -- mind boggling. You hear stuff like that and you want to fly Wayne Brady over there so he can choke a bitch. Walker and Timm made sure that never happened. Though it appears once Walker was dead, they lost that battle some with no orchestra on the "Justice League" series. Even after Batman and Superman, Warner Bros. apparently still didn't get it.

The score to the three-parter "The Last Son of Krypton", opens with lights synths not unlike something from Goldsmith's "Explorers" (and much like a synth sound used in Goldsmith's "Supergirl"), with strings and woodwinds giving it a film-quality sound. The cue shifts from light mystery to dramatic work.

Track three, "Family Theme", is a tender piece with woodwinds and strings, showcasing Ritmanis' abilities at writing.
Track six, "Jor-El Escapes Arrest/Jor-El Outside" opens with dramatic brass and snare drum with fun chase music.
The second half of track eight, "Brainiac Leaves Krypton/ Kal-El Leaves Krypton" features some nice sweeping music.

Whereas the 1970's film had some of it takes place on Krypton and then sending Superman away as a baby, part one of the pilot explores his mother and father some more, as his father tries to save Krypton from destruction, and sets up the series primary protagonist, Brianiac, in advance; Brainiac would later cross over into "Justice League" (which features the same Timm-verse designs and characters from this series).

The second part of "The Last Son of Krypton" (McCuistion) features Kal-El being found, to becoming a young man and discovering his abilities.

Stand out tracks include: the second half track ten, "Kal-El Lands on Earth/Couple Find Kal-El", with the tender strings and solo flute, with various instruments playing small parts over the strings. The various heroic-sounding moments with some tension in track eleven, "Clark's Abilities/Clark Meets His Parents". And track twelve, "Clark's First Flight", with the frantic strings and orchestral bursts and Clark flies for the first time; with some flourishes and writing more in tune with orchestral scores of yesteryear in the second half; the cue ends with some lovely string work. Track fourteen, "Industrial Film Source", that sounds like a dramatic militaristic science fiction series main title cue, with snare, brass, and brass playing the theme, even ending like a TV series theme. And the final track of the episode, track fifteen "Superman Rescues Lois/Missile Hits Airliner", with various dramatics, though a little cohesively loose; it also features a nice bold statement of Walker's theme.

And the final part of "The Last Son of Krypton" is scored by Harvey Cohen (though the booklet states some additional music around the end was by Ritmanis and McCuistion). In this one it sets up the Superman character, his eventual relationship with Lois, and his abilities.

Stand out tracks include: track seventeen, "Superman Saves Airliner", with some nice slower statements of Walker's theme interspaced with some tense moments of action. The short "Clark's Identity Crisis" (T18) that opens with a harp and strings, adding woodwinds and like cymbal swells. "Clark Recognizes Ship/Orders to Kill Lois" (T20) features more thrilling statements of Walker's theme, with various dramatic moments including brass bites, with snare and trumpet. "Robot Loose in City" has more interesting dramatic work, with a more paced statement of Walker's theme, as a military robot Luthor has helped fund, reeks havoc.

The scores for the three-part pilot are some of the series finest work.


"Monkey Fun" (Ritmanis) showcases the more cheesy elements of the series, featuring a giant ape, that are better left forgotten.

Stand out tracks include: "Titano Lost and Found" (T24), that introduces pounding drums for the giant pae, chugging strings here and there, congas, and what I think may be an egg shaker (also brief electronics used as highlights). "Jimmy Runs Away" (T26) has more of the faux exotic elements as in the previously noted cue. "Monkeys on the Loose" (T27) brings in some wooden xylophone, anvil, adding some other brief moments of orchestration colors as the big drums pound away.

As a whole the score is a little too disjointed and ultimately, for me, it will require using Audacity to arrange a suite for the best listening experience.


"Tools of the Trade" (Carter) introduces the planet Apokolips. Again, another character set up instead of just shoving in and going with it.

Stand out tracks include: "To the Rescue" (T36), simply for the opening statement of Walker's theme.
Track forty-one is labeled as "Video End Credits", a special extended version recorded for use, as the liner notes state, by Walker because she figured it would be needed later on. The theme pretty much goes on as the regular series theme, until around before it would end, it pauses then does a slow stately rendition with strings and brass playing the theme with some gong, then the action picks back up with a more stripped down version of the theme's backing before going full rendition; around the end there is a brief part on brass doing a variation not heard in the regular theme. The cue ends with a slightly slower tempo.

And track forty-two is the final cue on the disc, featuring a cue with some FX, as the stem had to be used since the master recording couldn't be found. It features a good deal of Walker's theme music, as well as Ritmanis menacing repeating electronic sound signifying Braniac, for the final part of the track.



Disc two opens with Walker's terrific new theme for "The New Batman/Superman Adventures" title music when both series were aired back-to-back as their popularity was still going strong. A memorable piece with drums, brass and some strings and cymbal rolls.

Part I of "World's Finest" (McCuistion) finds Superman facing a Gotham City foe, the Joker, who has come to make a deal with Lex Luthor (the Joker would return in the "Justice League" to bother Luthor even more). This inevitably leads to Batman showing up. This is what the "Batman vs. Superman" movie could have been, both writing and musically speaking, as opposed to the nonsensical shitpile we ended up with. It's funny, smart, and shows Smallville Clark was really not prepared to encounter Batman, with Batman vesting him handily in the wits department, by the end of Part I.

One of my problems with the music of "Justice League" was that even though it's the same Timm-verse Superman and Batman, I can't recall hearing their respective character and/or show themes (though oddly enough, the "Superman: The Animated Series" theme for the different Green Lantern character, from "In Brightest Day", was used a few times in "Justice League"; wonderful theme though), so it was nice that not long into the first cue of the episode, "Closing Time/Joke in the Box Source/Batman Takes Evidence", the Joker's theme is heard, not once but twice. And then part of Walker's Batman theme.

Stand out tracks include: The chopping strings and brass of various playing styles in "Joker Abducts Lex" (T5), and the last part of "Batman Shows Up/Binko's Bad Night/Batman Bugs Superman" (T10) for the wonderful build up of Walker's Batman theme.


"World's Finest: Part II" (McCuistion)
Stand out tracks include: "Batwing Takes Off/Superman Meets Joker" (T13) for yet another use of Walker's Batman theme (in dramatic mode here) and some brief action music, the music playful and plucky lighter moments throughout "Harley Cheers Up Joker/Lex Meets With Joker" (T16), and the punchy brass second half "Batman Pays Lex a Visit/Superman Flies By" (T17) for Superman's theme.

"World's Finest: Part III" (McCuistion and Ritmanis)
Stand out tracks include: The bold brass and pounding drums as Superman Battles robots in "Arrival at Lab/Robots Battle Superman/Batman Gets to Lexwing" (T23) (which in of itself is a fantastic example of action music from the Superman series; a cue noted to be by Ritmanis), and more exciting action writing and brass work in "Lexwing Crashes" (T24) which also brings back one final statement of Walker's theme for the Joker.
The brass section must have been tired after that session.

I know, I'm an ungrateful bastard, but I had some issues with the music in the three-parter. First: okay, if you are reading this, chances are you know Walker's Batman theme kicks ass and the inclusion was only natural since this was a crossover/ratings thing, but likewise you undoubtedly know Walker's theme for Joker also kicks ass in its own way, so with Joker being a main protagonist in all three parts, you'd think it would be a given that his theme was heard in some iteration or other multiple times, right? I counted three times, in the opening cue of Part I and in the second to last cue of Part III. For some strange and annoying reason, Joker was given this new theme that is played on what I think was a theremin. It's unfitting, didn't work in the episodes if you saw them, and sounds like cheesy outerspace music. Even Harley is there and has some screen time, but is her theme there? No. Again, why? Even Harley knows it's a good theme, as in a "Batman: The Animated Series" she's humming it in her Arkahm cell.

And another complaint, though admittedly rather minor and nitpicky in a way, was an orchestration choice. Remember the "Batman: The Animated Series" episode "Joker's Favor", where Joker uses a man named Charlie to help commit a crime? Walker's fantastic score featured a theme for Charlie's character, heard straight away in the title card; it featured a counter point -- and forgive me in advance for this description -- of a farting staccato brass line under the theme. Okay, got that? It was part of a theme for a one-time character. So why the heck was it used briefly in one cue in Part II? Did McCuistion forget and think that was a Joker-specific orchestration?


"Myxzpixilated" (Harvey R. Cohen)
In this episode Superman plays a game of wits with an annoying magical midget named Mxyzptlk (voiced by Gilbert Gottfried -- I know, which one is the annoying midget) from another dimension. For details best left to watching the episode, Superman can only be free of the being by saying his name backwards. When that happens, Mxyzptlk disappears back to his dimension and can only come back in three months. Each ninety days Mxyzptlk comes back, is tricked by Superman, and becomes more and more furious about it.

It's cheesy, cartoony, but if anything it shows that this version of Superman had Clark fitted with some quick wits and made his character more fleshed out than previous versions.

Stand out tracks include: the rumba/jazzy source music with shakers and a sax playing the theme in "A Close Shave/Proofreading/Apartment Source" (T28).


"Father's Day" (Walker)
This episode features Michael Dorn not wearing hours and hours of make-up to play a Klingon that barely gets to do anything. It was bound to happen.
Seriously though, Dorn would go on to reprise the character he voices in this episode, in "Justice League" as well.

He'd also voice it again in the series as well as another character.

Stand out tracks include: nothing. I wouldn't even recommend watching the episode.


And finally the second disc closes out with a short rendition of "The New Batman/Superman Adventures" theme for the end credits. After some silence we are presented with a treat of the late Shirley Walker talking to the sessions players and introducing Bruce Timm, in a hidden Easter egg.



Disc three opens with a twenty-six second promo that has a stately rendition of Walker's Superman theme, before going into a version closer to the series theme.

"In Brightest Day.." (McCuistion)
Stand out tracks include: "Abin Makes Ring Choose/Ring Chooses Kyle" (T3) with its exciting brass opening; it features some synths you might expect to hear in Goldsmith's "Explorers" score; a thrilling statement of Superman's theme is hear, then it gets quieter with the synths and strings as the Green Lantern theme is finally heard; "Kyle is Green Lantern" (T4) gives us a more subdued heroic statement of the Green Lantern theme; "Superman Finds Abin/Sinestro Wants the Wing" offers an opening with a softer version of the eight-note Green Lantern theme as well as some varied interesting action music; "Kyle Saves Little Girl/Fight Continues" gives us some repeating brass clusters with a shaker for a pronounced pace (which serves as the primary action idea for the episode) and various melodramatic moments; in "Superman Helps Counsil/Fight for Power/Kyle Wins Battle" (T8) we get bold heroic statement of the Green Lantern theme, however brief, with male chorus underneath and even some church bells, as well as some tense action music; and "Kyle's Their Man" gives us a final quieter statement of the Green Lantern theme and goes out on an exciting note.

I unabashedly love this score and for me, McCuistion was just on fire here for each minute of it. It's not only a series highlight, but quite frankly the Green Lantern theme is just spectacular and highly memorable -- it's what we should have gotten from James Newton Howard on that terrible "Green Lantern" movie, but didn't. I pointed this out earlier, but I'll mention it again: McCuistion's wonderful Green Lantern theme found its way into the "Justice League" series, even though it was a different man as the Green Lantern, on a number of episodes. Being a synth orchestra on that show, it never reached the same level and never quite got the grand statements as heard in the Superman series, but nonetheless it was most welcomed.


"A Little Piece of Home" (Carter)
Stand out tracks include: "Lois Gets a Phone Call/Steal Treasury Plates/No Deal with Lex" is full of fun jazz with swingin' brass licks, cymbal tapping fun, and fingered double bass, from a more loungy jazz piece with saxophone, to jazzy chase music that makes me think of Elmer Bernstein is his jazz mode (unfortunately the only cue in the score like this, though it's a long one).

"Livewire" (Cohen)
Stand out tracks include just one cue: the action music middle of "Construction Crane/Prevents Crane Accident", with some snare drum carrying on the action.

Unfortunately, entire cues are made up of grungy guitar and soft metal beats, and others have orchestral bits in them, but are ruined by grunge parts (such as "Superman Averts Planes", which has an exciting opening using Walker's theme) -- perhaps the only downside of this whole set.

"Apokolips...Now: Part I" (Carter)
Stand out tracks include: the opening desolate solo soft trumpet which leads into some snare licks with some brass in "Maggie Brings Cash" (perhaps the most dramatic cash bringing cue ever); the action brass farts and synth beat with brass and timpani filling the sound in, in "Hovercraft Steals Tank/Superman Fights Craft/Superman & Broken Glass", which also includes some churning string material reminiscent of a cue from Walker's score to the first "Final Destination" score (as well as a rather effective synth sound used in brief bursts); the uneasy and unsettling mood done with strings and brass in "Darkseid Arrives/Orion Arrives"; "New Genesis & Apokolips" which runs the emotional gambit with the orchestra very well, also including an ethereal synth pad; "Air Base Battle/Orion Zaps Hovercraft/Orion Wins at Air Base" which reprises ideas found in the cue "Hovercraft Steals Tank"; "Orion Goes Back" which features a high octave violin and a pleasant chime-sound, and an ending that builds to big movie-quality end; and "Power Plant Explodes/Superman Sees Explosion" which features a couple of synth sounds, one a weird distorted sound with a repeating rhythm, as the brass builds around it.

For those curious, that's all but one cue. And no, that one cue wasn't bad.

"Apokolips...Now: Part II" (Carter)
Stand out tracks include: "Recap" which introduces new orchestral ideas not heard in Part I; "Steppenwolf Arrives/Missiles Bring Down Superman" which opens with an off-kilter rendition of Walker's theme, as well as using a motif from the two-parter, followed from some frantic strings with bongos and various percussion as well as two (or three) trumpets playing a five-note fanfare again and again; "Demons Take Over City" which features an ominous synth pad with repeating trumpet bursts, atypical string playing, for a moody listen, which has a second half with some action material full of brass and a little militaristic snare performance; "Superman Puts Out Fire" which opens with a more somber brass rendition of Walker's theme as well as some heroic bursts; "Dan Fights Demons" with the return of the distorted synth sound used with brass and snare hits; "Apokoliptic War Machine/Darkseid Takes Control" which uses a tubular bell with brief light snare for a low-key menacing effect; "Orion to the Rescue/Dan's Funeral" is full of highlights from dramatic to soft, including a solo piano for the funeral closing.

Both scores use, as the booklet notes, thematic material by Walker (noted in many of the cues), which could account for the "Final Destination" part.

Both scores features writing far above even what this good two-parter even needed, elevating it to new heights. Some of the dense brass writing alone must have been a tough writing experience. Surely not only some of television's finest modern scoring, but easily one of the best of the series.

The disc closes out with a short promo version of "The New Batman/Superman Adventures" theme, which has a brief opening not part of the regular series theme. Then after ten or so seconds of silence, listeners get an Easter egg in the way of the control booth calling out a special Superman-influenced take call.



Disc four opens with a brief "Superman: The Animated Series" promo which is Walker's theme with a small bit of variation in the closing.


"Little Girl Lost: Part I" (Ritmanis)
Stand out tracks include: the soft strings and stately solo trumpet opening of "Journey Through Space", which includes dreamy string patterns and other orchestral colors and the solo trumpet playing the Supergirl theme (with some small more dramatic flourishes); "Kara Flies" with it's thrilling repeating strings and french horn creating a sense of being up in the air, as well as a bold action burst with snare; and the action material in "Gang Fights Superman" with congas, snare, percussion, even an anvil (how often do you hear that in TV scoring these days), with various flourishes and color additions.

Special annoying note to a track in the booklet that misspells her name "Kala".


"Little Girl Lost: Part II" (Ritmanis)
Stand out tracks include: "Recap" which reprises her theme; "Superman is Captured/Kara Leaves for Apokolips" with various edgy and hard percussion hits (even if it is a little all over the place); "Kara Arrives on Apokolips" shows the stark contrast between the large film quality work in "Apokolips...Now!" two-part episode score and how here it's more sparse, percussion lead and hard hitting (includes thematic material by Carter); "Kara Escapes Parademons" which features a catchy repeating distorted synth sound and snare together, with a more uneasy closing with woodwinds and light brass (also includes thermatic material by Carter); the calm opening with strings, woodwinds and tender brass of the closing cue "Supergirl's OK", which also features of a more bold heroic closing.

Unfortunately, the thing is the score to this two-parter opens with so much promise but it's lost, just like the name of the two-parter. It's quality work mind you, but after the lengths Carter went to on his big "Apokolips...Now!" two-parter score and then hearing not even the general big orchestral ideas of that used and the almost complete disappearance of Supergirl's/Kara's theme, it just seems like a big waste.

And especially annoying, considering this was the origin story for Supergirl, one of the worst villain's from Apokolips is featured. I might also take my time to bitch about her under use here and in "Justice League", but perhaps for another review!


"Feeding Time" (McCuistion)
Stand out tracks include: nothing. There were some good moments in the final cue, but aside from that the score is just one long bore.


I guess you could say the final disc ends apokoliptically.

"Legacy Part I" (Walker)
Stand out tracks include: "Kal-El's Dream" opens with a pleasant repeating flute motif and strings with underlining ominous brass; and "Supergirl Chases Robot" which opens with frantic repeating brass, snare, and some wooden xylophone before moving into a more slowly paced work with a paced thuding timpani and woodwinds like clarinets and oboes, then transitioning back into the action material.


"Legacy Part II" (Walker)
Stand out tracks include: the first half of "Return to Apokolips" which covers counterpoints ideas used before in the series.

There's nothing wrong with the performance or the writing of the music, it's just that it's so all over the place that it makes tracks have almost no cohesion and thus the lack of standout tracks. Don't get me wrong, there were certainly highlights within cues, like three quarters into "Taken Prisoner" and the last twenty seconds of "Lois Springs Superman", but in all honesty I can't cite cues based off of bits here and there as being best of representations.

The two-parter was certainly a big one and was a precursor to the darker kind of more worn down Superman we'd later see in "Justice League" (I mean, it's the same Superman character, not a new one).

It wasn't just a big two-parter but rather that it was a big two-parter that brought back Darkseid and it was the series finale. Lasting only three seasons, the show finally concluded in February of 2000.


And finally the final disc closes out with the end credits theme, which is the same except some very brief and very minor orchestration additions.



In the end the listener is rewarded with some of television's finest modern scoring as well as some of television's most professionally done music (whether you like the scoring or not). There are really only two scores that bring the set down from being as great as it could have been, but that's a small quibble considering the huge amount of wonderful material we did get. If you didn't care for the scoring of "Batman: The Animated Series", this very likely won't be for you, but please at least -- if you were middle of the ground of the Batman music -- try out the samples at La La Land Record's website for this -- it's wonderful work and unfortunately it has not been a good seller, assuring no second volume.

The set comes with a colorful big booklet, artwork from the show plastered everywhere, and detailed liner notes about the episodes and the scoring.

And if you found yourself watching Batman and then "Justice League", but managed to somehow not catch this, do so. Just ... avoid Lobo and Livewire. And that terrible "Father's Day" episode.


One final note, as I don't know where to put this: for some reason some of the cues on the set sound like they were either from inferior tape sources (not bad sources, mind you, just not up to the same level as the rest of the set) or miced in such a way they sound kind of distant and not as clear and upfront as the rest of the cues on the set.

Oh, and Superman's eyes are white for some reason on disc one.
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Released by

La-La Land Records LLLCD 1276 (limited release 2014)

Orchestrators

Bruce Babcock, Jonathan S. Charles, Tom A. Diekmeier, Sharon Farber, John Given, Ira Hearshen, Lesa O'Donovan, David John Olsen, Larry Rench, Ian Walker, Michael McCuistion, Lolita Ritmanis, Kristopoher Carter, Eric L. Stonerook, and Harvey R. Cohen.