Friday, December 13, 2013

The Superhero Theme Project Part 7: The Martian Manhunter

The Martian Manhunter is certainly one of the most underrated of DC’s classic characters. Thanks to the Justice League animated series streaming on Netflix, however, The Little One has a soft spot for (as we call him) J’onn J’onzz. When, over Thanksgiving, I suggested that J’onn J’onzz might have a “song,” she ran down the hall yelling “J’onn J’onzz! J’onn J’onzz!” Even the comic book fans in the family were confused.

Even though the Martian Manhunter is a relatively obscure member of the Justice League, I wanted to get this one right. A theme song for J’onn J’onzz was an opportunity to introduce some moodier sounds into her superhero theme playlist. The character’s stoic and lonely demeanor, coupled with otherworldly powers like telepathy, shape-shifting, and phasing, make him the “Other” on the team. He is an outsider with the capacity to objectively comment on humanity. It seemed like a wide-open field, but once I set out on the path to find J’onn J’onzz’s theme, things got sticky pretty quick.

I initially considered some more exotic 20th century chamber music, and although 12 tone music certainly captured an otherworldly feeling, I thought that might be just too far out (especially after pushing the limits with Hawkman). Instead, I used Debussy’s Nuages as a starting point. For me, this alI-time favorite would be welcome listening three times a day, but ultimately, its length and mood was prohibitive for a 2 year old.

I - Nuages by Claude Debussy on Grooveshark

I asked around and checked out lots of unfamiliar suggestions, but it was a little difficult to immediately decide if a piece really captured how I saw the character. J’onn J’onzz is obviously a science-fiction character, but his demeanor is far more introspective and detached than the space themes that I had been examining for Green Lantern. His alienness is otherworldly and his powers surreal, so I began to look for themes from reality-challenging movies. Inception was a top contender.  Although this score is basically orchestral, its instrumentation often reaches far beyond the boundaries of traditional scoring, and its use of melody is not always obvious.

Dream Is Collapsing by Hans Zimmer on Grooveshark

It seemed like a step in the right direction, however, so I started to research the soundtracks to other reality-bending movies, and it was not long before I came up with The Matrix. I remember the movie’s soundtrack as being quite synthetic, but despite the technologically-driven theme of the movie itself, its score largely stays within the boundaries of the traditional orchestra. What really caught my attention, though, was a pervasive sequence of layered chords that, in the movie, accompanied most of the bullet-time sequences. I have since been referring to this texture as “the Matrix Sound” (with some deference to Tristan).

As a whole, The Matrix score was even less thematic and more programmatic than Inception’s. Taken out of its context, however, I began to relate the Matrix Sound with J’onn J’onzz walking through walls or changing shape. As a result, for a brief time during the Thanksgiving break, I became a bit obsessed with the Matrix Sound. I wondered if it could be compelling enough on its own to pull a piece together into a cohesive theme for J’onn J’onzz. I listened to as much of the Matrix soundtracks that I could, distilling them down to the tracks that fit the two-to-five minute mark. Then I repeatedly listened to and reviewed these tracks, trying to find one that had both some thematic strength and an emphasis on the Matrix Sound.

The Little One had no patience for all of this research, though. Every time we stepped into the car from that point on, she begged for J’onn J’onzz, so I somewhat prematurely chose a track of the appropriate length that prominently featured the Matrix Sound, which was the Main Title/Trinity Infinity track shown above.

This is the first time during the course of this project that I was, and am still, a little ambivalent about the track I chose. Clearly, it is meant to accompany the action of the film. Perhaps I can justify the somewhat erratic, jarring nature of the piece by attributing it to the complexities of the Martian Manhunter character, but as a standalone piece of music, it does not really make a whole lot of sense in comparison to other tunes in the playlist. This would be a pretty serious issue if it weren’t for one thing: the Little One loves it. J’onn J’onzz has been first on her lips every morning since the track’s introduction and it always gets at least two repeat requests. I guess I shouldn’t let my personal predilection towards melody and form inhibit her formative musical experience.

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