Musical Themes in the Dark Knight Trilogy, Part 5 of 6: The Dark Knight Rises


000022 - Dark Knight Rises 2

Hans Zimmer worked alone for the trilogy’s final installment instead of collaborating with James Newton Howard, who claimed that, although he had contributed much to the music of these films, Zimmer was really “the mastermind behind the Batman scores.”

Like the second film, The Dark Knight Rises has three main characters who are all given their own theme. A striking contrast is set up, however, between the themes for Batman and Bane, the film’s villain. After laying out the themes for the film’s two new characters, Bane and Selina Kyle, I will demonstrate how Zimmer takes advantage of the opposition between the Bane and Batman themes in Bruce Wayne’s three attempts at climbing out of the pit prison.


Unlike traditional Hollywood film scores, which tend to focus their attention on melody, harmonic progressions, and varied repetitions of musical motives, Zimmer’s film scores tend to rely more on timbre, texture, and rhythm. In fact, it is rhythm alone that defines the theme for Bane as Zimmer employs a four-note rhythm in an unusual 5/4 time:


Usually, though, the rhythm is filled out with eighth notes like this:


This 5/4 rhythm is quite similar to another famous theme in the same meter: the title music from Mission: Impossible. Although there the meter is associated with the “good guys”, both themes are used in the context of thrilling action narratives. Compare the two rhythms here:



Bane’s rhythm also has much in common with the Joker’s accompaniment from the previous film in that groups of three beats are juxtaposed with groups of two beats. Compare these two below:



The main difference here is that, unlike the Joker’s theme, Bane’s theme does not fit into a regular 4/4 time. But like the Joker’s theme in The Dark Knight, Zimmer sounds Bane’s theme not simply to signify that character’s presence in the scene, but more importantly to indicate that Bane is the one in control of the situation onscreen. A good example is the film’s opening scene, in which a number of captives with hoods over their heads (whom we soon realize are Bane and a few of his men) are threatened with being shot and pushed out of a high-flying plane unless they provide the captors with information. Although in the visuals and dialogue, it appears that the captives have no hope of escape, the music suggests otherwise. In the following film clip, notice how Bane’s 5/4 rhythm is heard as soon as we see the plane in flight at the very start of the clip, and how it becomes much more prominent once Bane and his men take over the plane at 2:13:

The uneven quality of Bane’s 5/4 rhythm suggests an instability that stands in marked contrast to the stability of Batman’s themes, which are all in an even 4/4 time. In this way, the themes for Bane and Batman establish a clear musical opposition not just between the two characters but, on a broader level, between good and evil. A clear example of this opposition occurs in the scene where Batman makes his first appearance after eight years of absence. At the start of this scene, Bane has just escaped from the stock exchange after bankrupting Bruce Wayne. Since it is Bane in control here, we hear his 5/4 rhythm during the escape. Hear it in the film clip below from 3:48:

Once Batman returns for the first time, the music shifts into a regular 4/4 time and sounds a familiar four-beat accompaniment pattern associated with Batman. Naturally, it is also in D minor, Batman’s key. Although Batman does not manage to stop his bankruptcy, he does alert the city to his presence again and demonstrates his ability to slip through the fingers of the police even when his arrest seems, to them, inevitable. Batman can therefore be said to be in control of at least his own personal situation (if not Bane’s), and for that reason, we hear Batman’s reassuring 4/4 music. Hear the appearance of this music at 0:30 in the following clip with Batman’s return:

Selina Kyle

Signifying Theme

There are two themes associated with the cat burglar, Selina Kyle. The first is rarely heard in the film and is a graceful signifying theme that indicates her presence in the scene:


Generally, most character themes in films at some point sound the first note, or tonic, of the scale. If the tonic occurs near the start, it gives the theme a solid base from which a distinctive melody can take shape. If it occurs near the end, it gives the theme a goal that it can head toward. Selina’s theme does neither. Instead, it hovers on the fifth note (A), or dominant, of the scale, making us wonder whether the theme will move up or down to produce some kind of melodic arc, as is typical of themes. This stasis on the dominant note appropriately expresses Selina’s ambivalent moral attitude. On the one hand, she is a jewel thief who willingly turns Batman over to Bane, yet on the other hand, she desperately wants to eliminate her criminal record and live a crime-free life.

The theme also has quick motions around this dominant note by semitones (the shortest distance between two notes). Along with the soft scoring in the piano, these motions suggest not only Selina’s mysterious nature, but also her skills of stealth that led to her being labeled a cat burglar. This suggestion of stealth through semitones is also a prominent part of the famous theme for The Pink Panther, which Henry Mancini composed to represent the film’s jewel thief known as “the phantom”.

You can hear Selina’s signifying theme in her first meeting with Bruce Wayne in this clip from 1:51:

Action Theme

Selina has a second more frequent theme that is heard when she is engaged in some sort of dangerous action. This theme consists of a rising scale played in repeated, or tremolo, notes, giving it an agitated sound:


Notice that as the theme rises up, each note returns two beats later. In this way, the theme hovers around each note in a way similar to Selina’s signifying theme, closely linking the two themes. And because this theme is usually repeated several times when it is heard, it creates a sense of stasis similar to Selina’s signifying theme despite the actions theme’s rising contour. The action theme also retains part of the mysterious quality of the signifying theme by being scored in a soft, subdued manner for the violins.

Hear this theme in the clip above as Selina makes her escape from Bruce Wayne’s mansion with the necklace she stole from him (from around 1:10):

The Climbing Scenes

Through these scenes, Bruce Wayne makes three attempts to climb out of a pit prison in which Bane has incarcerated him, the last of which is successful. With each attempt, the music differs and in fact subtly predicts each outcome.

First Attempt

In Bruce’s first attempt, we hear a repeated figure, or ostinato, of four notes in the bass:


While this ostinato has a rising contour, and therefore implies climbing, it always skips back down after only three rising notes. In much the same way, Bruce, secured with a rope, only manages to climb up to the first ledge in the pit before failing to make the jump to the next ledge and plunging back down to the bottom (the rope catching him before he hits the ground). At the same time, the other inmates chant “deshi basara” (meaning “he rises”) to Bane’s 5/4 rhythm. Thus, the music suggests that Bruce will not be able to rise enough to escape from Bane’s prison.

Now watch and listen to the scene here:

Second Attempt

After failing his first attempt and seeing some of Bane’s destruction of Gotham on a television, Bruce becomes angry and makes a second attempt to climb the pit. This time, the ostinato is absent and is replaced with continual instrumental statements of Bane’s rhythm. When Bruce is about to climb, the inmates begin their chant again, and as he scales the wall, the instruments and the inmates’ chant suddenly align in their rhythm and state Bane’s rhythm together. With nothing but Bane’s theme sounding, the music clearly implies that anger is only going to keep Bruce within Bane’s control (recall that Bane’s rhythm tends to indicate that he is in control of the situation onscreen). Accordingly, Bruce’s hand slips on a loose rock and again he falls to the bottom secured by the rope.

Watch and hear this short scene here:

Third Attempt

After failing his second climb, one of the inmates tells Bruce that if he wants to escape, he needs to have a fear of death, for, as he says, “how can you move faster than possible, fight longer than possible, without the most powerful impulse of the spirit: the fear of death?” Consequently, he advises Bruce to climb without using the rope; then, he says “fear will find you.” As the inmate tells Bruce this, we begin to hear the ostinato from the first attempt again. As before, the ostinato skips downward after rising through three notes and continues to do so as Bruce climbs up to the ledge.

Once he reaches the ledge, however, the ostinato does something it didn’t do before—it continues rising up the D minor scale, going from D all the way up to the D an octave higher. As we hear this, a flurry of bats streams over Bruce’s head from a hole in the wall in much the same way as when he fell down the well as a child and developed a fear of bats in Batman Begins. The symbolism here is clear: Bruce’s fear has indeed returned, and the music follows suit by repeating the rising scale, now with a fuller and more active orchestration. While the inmates once again chant in Bane’s rhythm, the rising ostinato gradually overpowers it, indicating that this time Bruce will make the leap. Just before Bruce jumps, the ostinato dramatically halts before its final note. Musically (and perhaps literally) we are holding our breath while Bruce is in the air.

When he successfully grasps the other ledge, making the jump, we at last hear the ostinato’s final note, D, which merges with a statement of Batman’s “signifying” theme (see Part 1 of these posts). Having conquered the pit, the music suggests that Bruce has turned his mind towards Batman once more. After throwing down the rope for the other prisoners, Bruce then crosses the terrain atop the pit, a free man on his way back to Gotham. At this point we hear a climactic statement of the Batman “heroic” theme (again see Part 1 of these posts) to close off the scene in a way that is both appropriate and enormously satisfying.

Watch and hear this scene here:



Musical Themes in the Dark Knight Trilogy, Part 5 of 6: The Dark Knight Rises — 1 Comment

  1. Pingback: The Dark Knight Rises – Score of the month | thomas sounding off

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