Somebody’s gotta keep these projects classy. DC Universe, the animated arm of the DC Comics empire, has carved out a niche by mining and exploiting classic comics storylines for direct-to-video product. How they manage that material is up for debate, but unquestionably, one of the biggest talents in their stable is composer Christopher Drake.
Take 2011’s All-Star Superman, an adaptation of the standalone 2005 story cycle from writer Grant Morrison and artist Frank Quitely. Justly acclaimed as a defining Superman story, the work was adapted into a watery paint-by-numbers Filmation cartoon. But this cartoon did boast the most compelling original score I’ve heard on a DCU disc, getting the pomp and tragedy of Superman just right. It evolves from Coplandish pastorals to symphonic skyward thrusts, not unlike the character. (It also cleverly quotes Maurice Ravel’s Bolero in segments where rival superdudes come on to Lois Lane.)
Green Lantern: Emerald Knights, released the same year, pushes the action out into space, and Drake follows suit. Digital percussion drives the horns and choruses, and while it’s less imaginative than some of his other, I like to think that’s because he was spending his energy on All-Star Superman.
In 2012, Drake scored the two-part DTV version of The Dark Knight Returns, the ultimate fanboy Valentine. While the resulting film made no improvements on the source material and in fact wound up looking significantly less cool than Frank Miller, Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley’s comic, Drake certainly made it sound better, harking back to ’80s dystopian science fiction films for his source material. It doesn’t necessarily top the mortal gloom he unearthed in Batman: Under the Red Hood (2010), which mirrored the source tale of Batman’s failure to protect the one person closest to him.
But I’m particularly enraptured by the churn und drang of Drake’s main title composition for Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths, with its tale of Earth’s heroes pitted against their own negative images. I’m not sure whether the title sequence or Drake’s music came first, but it gave him a chance to really speak to the themes posed by the film in the way the film itself, at times, did not. It also let Drake invent a Justice League motif that he was able to revisit two years later for Justice League: Doom.
It’s rare that I key in on music in movies, at least on first viewing, but Drake’s scores always draw me in — maybe because DCU product so often disappoints me in the visual sphere. I think he deserves a treat on the next Blu-ray: a music-only track. It would be a reasonable reward for an animation franchise’s MVP, the guy who provides the real energy.