Dark Phoenix represents Hans Zimmer’s highly anticipated return to the world of superhero scores, and while the album does have its moments, overall it sadly just wasn’t worth the wait.
Let’s talk about the main theme first, shall we. It debuts in Gap, the first track on the album, and almost as soon as the score begins, you know it’s a Zimmer show. The ambience, the tension, the loud percussion – all the classic elements of a score composed by him are here. Then a minute or so in, the main theme introduces itself. Stylistically, it’s quite similar to that of Man Of Steel, being a short series of repeating notes that slowly increase in pitch. In fact, listening to the album overall I found myself noting many similarities to that particular superhero score, both thematically and compositionally. The main theme is initially played (in rather atmospheric fashion) on piano, before percussion and electronics begin to rise up in the background and the theme then switches to brass as its expressive medium. Things then become bolder, louder and more dramatic as the score rises with the theme, introducing vocals near the climax before then coming to a typically Zimmer-esque sudden finish.
Gap continues on for another four minutes after the theme finishes its premiere, but other than a great deal of tense electronic percussion, I found nothing of note. After hearing the track overall for the first time, I found myself rather underwhelmed with the main theme. It was an odd sensation; I felt I ought to like it, even love it, but I didn’t, and I just couldn’t work out why. I loved Man Of Steel‘s and this was quite similar, so why didn’t I enjoy it? It was this thought that gave me the clue however, and it didn’t take long to then figure out the answer.
Take Man Of Steel’s main theme. Stylistically it’s very similar to Dark Phoenix’s, being a pair of recurring notes that change in frequency, intensity or pitch throughout its score, but still remaining those two notes. Due to the way they’re orchestrated and thematically used, they seed heroism throughout the album, and whenever they appear, tension simply fades away, and you’re almost basked in this shining light of musical hope. You can practically hear Superman’s cape flapping in the wind whenever those notes show up. The theme is so short and simple, but because of how masterfully Zimmer uses it to seed this ideal of hope throughout Man Of Steel, it’s incredibly effective. It captured this symbol of what Superman is (this version of him, anyway) perfectly, and that right there is what Dark Phoenix’s X-Men theme is missing.
In Gap, the main theme is well orchestrated, dramatic, and even quite enjoyable – but it’s not really heroic, nor do I feel I’m listening to the theme for the X-Men. With Superman’s theme in Man Of Steel its central emotion of hope gave the rest of the score something to rally behind, and with Dark Phoenix’s X-Men there’s…nothing, really. There’s no central emotion that I’m getting here. Considering that it’s a superhero score, there’s remarkably little in the way of heroism, both in the theme and the album overall. A main theme is there as a musical constant for the rest of the score to rally behind, and not only does this particular theme not give the music overall much to work with, but for the most part the remaining nine tracks just kind of ignore it. The theme is there, lurking in the background a lot, but it doesn’t really do…anything. Gap represents its first and only full rendition on the entire album.
Anyway, time to move on, I think. Dark is the second track, and it introduces another fairly significant motif; the one for the Dark Phoenix, or Jean Grey. It opens with some very ominous high pitched vocals with quiet and rather solemn percussion bringing up the rear. In a similar manner to Gap, the music then starts to build up, introducing an electric guitar and then repeating the new theme a few times in order to fully establish its presence. Thematically it’s a far darker, more complex and frankly more interesting piece than the one for the X-Men, which may or may not be a good thing. The film is after all centred around the Dark Phoenix, but then again in scores like these the good guy theme needs to really complement the bad guy theme otherwise things just kind of fall apart thematically, and the two main themes here are most definitely not on the same compositional level.
The album presentation here is typically Zimmer, comprising of ten suite-like tracks with particularly ambigious titles. Intimate is a rather interesting one, being the longest of the group at just over ten minutes long. For the most part it adheres to the same tonal structure as the rest of the album; darkness, tension and many an appearance of the new Dark Phoenix/Jean Grey theme. Compositionally I would liken the use of electronics and percussion here to near that of Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s work on Blade Runner 2049, if not slightly more villainous at points. The new X-Men theme does eventually show up towards the end of the piece, though more in the use of instrumentation rather than an actual note-based appearance.
Deletion is up next, and the ominous electronics and gloomy vocals take no time at all to present themselves, this time in a surprisingly striking rendition of the Dark Phoenix theme. It was here that I started to feel hope for the rest of the score on my first listen, as I thought that perhaps Zimmer had been holding the best until last (or rather, last few). Other than a rather sorrowful and percussive ending to the track however, no such musical salvation came. Nor did it come in Reckless, save for an unfortunately short and annoyingly un-heroic appearance by the new X-Men theme. Zimmer did actually decide to play the notes this time though, which was nice of him.
The album then draws into its finale with Insertion, the penultimate (and seven-minute-long) cue of the album. It starts with a few very solemn piano notes and just a dash of vocals, which then become more prominent as the music continues, sounding out a few notes from the Dark Phoenix theme at various intervals. It’s interesting to note that said theme appears far more on the album than the actual X-Men one does, which likely was a deliberate choice, but I’m not sure it’s one I agree with (it is an X-Men movie, first and foremost). Coda then wraps up the score, brightening it up ever so slightly with several almost-hopeful-but-still-kind-of-dark piano and percussion-based moments. The Dark Phoenix theme makes a vocal appearance or two, and then the track just kind of ends. No explosive finale, no dash of heroism, not even a whisper of…you know…a superhero movie.
Overall, Hans Zimmer’s score to X-Men: Dark Phoenix is a rather bizarre one. I wouldn’t exactly call it bad, but I wouldn’t call it great either. For a start, it isn’t really a superhero score, at least not in a traditional sense; it’s very dark; being quite atmospheric and near haunting at points, and while I’d say that tone works very well for the Dark Phoenix theme (easily the standout composition of the score) it doesn’t work at all for the severely underused X-Men motif. It’s a bold and dramatic piece, but listening to it I get no real sense of heroism or even just hope, and that’s not good for a superhero theme. Admittedly, this could be just in-keeping with the tone of the movie, but frankly if an X-Men movie is as grim and emotionally empty as this score sounds, then I don’t really want to see it.
This absence of musical hope also links rather well to my next point; the lack of well…anything very significant, track or album-wise. I spent pretty much all of my first listen waiting for an epic moment or explosive burst of score that never really comes. The album spends most of its runtime building up (both tonally and thematically) to something, but there’s basically no release for it. That build-up never amounts to anything; the album just kind of stops at the end, leaving you feeling kind of underwhelmed at the whole experience. The two main themes never really get the full thematic workout that I for one was hoping for. Overall, I honestly can’t decide whether I actually like this score or not, as it is decently composed (and the Dark Phoenix theme is excellent), but it just doesn’t really…do anything with itself. A true standout cue just never appears.
You can hear its potential, but Zimmer’s Dark Phoenix just doesn’t utilise it, at least nowhere near enough.
Standout Cue: 1. Gap