Men vs. gods – A Batman v. Superman Character Analysis

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Okay, let’s talk some Batman v. Superman.

To preface: I’m a big fan of Man of Steel. I mean, I like it a heck of a lot. For me, that film tells an incredibly emotional story about a man trying to find his place in the world – no, the universe – and having to make choices to decide what kind of man he’s going to be and what world he’s going to choose to be his own. Clark Kent chooses Earth as his home and fulfills both of his fathers’ (Jor-El’s and Jonathan Kent’s) wishes of becoming “a force for good” and giving “the people of Earth an ideal to strive towards”, becoming Superman. He understands that doing good can come at a cost; he kills Zod not because he wants to but because it is the only outcome of an impossible situation – the life of Zod versus the lives of the people of Earth.

Cue Batman v. Superman. The world has not forgotten the collateral damage of the Superman/Zod fight – nor should it. Another lesson of MoS is that there are consequences to our actions, both good and bad. Bruce Wayne is one of those who sees Superman as a liability, someone who is a good guy now but would be unstoppable if he was to change his mind. During that Metropolis clash of the titans, Bruce loses friends and sees children lose their families, making more orphans like him who must now grow up far too quickly. Unlike the idealist Batman of Nolan’s trilogy, this Batman is a realist; he’s battle-worn and cynical, no longer believing that purely good people exist. He’s more cavalier with his violence in this iteration. He undoubtedly kills many people over the course of the film, not because he sets out to kill but because he’s less careful – after all, they’re criminals and so is he. He accepts this hard truth of the world. Because he understands that all men are capable of both good and evil, Batman decides to kill Superman, not because of the man he is now but because of the evil he may become in the future. If Batman can prevent it, no more children will lose their families due to the carelessness of gods.

Superman continues to be the force of good wished upon him by his fathers but struggles when the world begins to turn against him – does he continue to help those who need him, or does he hang his cape and focus purely on loving his mother and Lois? As appealing as this second option is, he simply can’t ignore the cries of help from people who have no one else to rely on – he is truly a savior and ignores the hatred thrown at him in order to continue being a beacon of good in the only way he knows how. All the while, he learns of Batman’s increasingly violent (and extremely literal) brand of justice and comes to the same conclusion that Batman came to for him – Batman must end. Not die, but he can no longer continue operating as an arbiter of justice outside of the law, not under Superman’s watch. And thus we have our central conflict.

Meanwhile, Lex Luthor is a wild card who has immense wealth. Despite his incredible resources, though, he has less power than Superman. Maybe he truly considers Superman to be a threat to civilization, but unlike Batman’s genuine fear for humanity, Lex is jealous and wants Superman’s power for himself. A master manipulator, he decides to create another impossible situation for Superman – kill Batman so that the world can see him as truly powerful and not all good…or lose his mother. Throughout the film he does everything he can to turn Batman against the Man of Steel, framing Superman for collusion in a congressional bombing and sending letters of taunt. He also manipulates his way into gaining access to Zod’s corpse and his crashed Kryptonian ship, creating a monstrous Kryptonian/human hybrid that can finish the job, whether it’s Batman or Superman still standing in the end.

But something happens in that final duel: Superman initially avoids fighting Batman, refusing to kill Batman even for such a noble cause as saving his own mother. Perhaps the weight of the death of Zod, the last living Kryptonian, weighs too heavily on his heart – he doesn’t want to kill again, not if he can help it. However, Batman still sees his cause as righteous, so he shows no mercy, going so far as to having Superman within a stroke of death…when Superman reveals their mothers’ shared name. Martha. Batman hesitates. What is he doing? How can he stand over this man who has strove to do nothing but the right thing and take his life from him, thus also taking the life of yet another Martha? So he relinquishes his weapon and forms a truce, promising that Martha will not die tonight as Superman goes off to fight the new threat of Doomsday.

Batman succeeds. Superman struggles. Batman returns – a new partnership. Diana Prince, seeing the new threat to humankind, joins the fight. But still Doomsday is too much for the trio. One last time, Superman saves Lois, the woman he loves, before sacrificing himself for the good of the world he loves. Peace is restored. Good prevails. Superman is dead.

Batman is devastated, but he is also reformed. Superman has restored Bruce’s faith in mankind, showing him that true good does exist in the world and that helping is better than condemning. Instead of branding Luthor, marking him for death at the hands of his fellow inmates, Batman spares him, transferring Lex to Arkham and promising to keep a watchful eye on him. But Luthor makes a truthful remark: more are coming. More unstoppable forces, likely not as righteous as Superman, and therefore a true threat to Earth.

And that’s where the Justice League comes in – Batman’s answer to a world in the wake of Superman’s sacrifice for the people of the world. We can only hope that this film, and hopefully The Batman after that, will continue to build on these characters in meaningful ways.

These are my thoughts after watching the film (Ultimate Edition) for the first time. If you disagree? Okay. I’m not saying I’m right or you’re wrong, I’m just inviting discussion – these are characters with lessons to learn and values to teach. They learn from each other and we can learn from them.

-Chad

If you would like to hear more in-depth discussions like this one, make sure to check out The Cinescope Podcast, a weekly show that I host where we talk about the movies we love and why we love them. We do this kind of breakdown for all kinds of movies! Check it out and be sure to let me know what you think!

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My Adventures on Barsoom

Superman. Flash Gordon. Star Wars. Avatar. These characters/films share a common ancestry through Edgar Rice Burrough’s classic novel A Princess of Mars. The creators of these and so many others at some point in their lives picked up this story and were absorbed into the world of Barsoom, introduced to a man named John Carter, a man transported to a world apart to have adventures the likes of which no one had ever seen. The fantastical world created by Burroughs, as well as Carter as the ultimate hero, inspired 100 years of film and storytelling, though the original story itself did not come to the silver screen until 2012.

I was not familiar with the character nor the world of John Carter until I learned of Disney Studio’s film adaptation, directed by Finding Nemo (my review) and Wall-E director Andrew Stanton. I wasn’t much excited about the film until the month or so before its release, when the director began to tweet about it and retweet advance reviews and content regarding the film’s upcoming release, at which point I became very excited. Through the narrow tunnel I was viewing the film through, comprised of the director’s Twitter feed, I thought that the film was going to be a big success, with me even tweeting the following:

As the film’s release approached, my excitement grew and grew until…well, it flopped. John Carter, which had an estimated budget at a whopping $250 million, received negative reviews online in the week leading up to its release, with the critic consensus over at RottenTomatoes.com stopping at a 51% “rotten” rating. The film only opened to $30.6 million domestically in its first weekend, though it fared better overseas, earning $70.6 million outside of the US. Looking back now, though, the film has surpassed its production budget, with a total worldwide gross of $282,778,100. So why the bad reputation?

John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood by Michael D. Sellers

John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood

The film’s theatrical run came and went without me going to see it; my interest in the film had been stripped away by its poor reception and apparent status as “Disney’s biggest flop ever.” However, several months later, a good friend of mine who knows of my interest in film showed me that Amazon.com was offering a free Kindle edition of Michael D. Sellers’ book John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood, a book about the production of the John Carter film and why it failed the way it did. I figured that I’d go ahead and download it to read at a later point in time, but I actually forgot about it for quite a while until I randomly came across it on my Kindle Touch a few weeks ago. Since I alternate between non-fiction and fiction books, I put it next in my queue, expecting it to be mildly interesting at best. When I finally picked it up, though, I was completely absorbed.

Sellers opens the book by admitting his own bias; he has been a fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom series all his life, saying that it was Burroughs’ writing that “gave [him] the confidence to pursue a life that has had its share of adventures and misadventures, first in service to [his] country, and later in pursuit of dreams that [he] believed in.” Throughout the book, his passion for the series and sincere hope that the film would do well on the big screen is incredibly evident, which makes the whole book endearing in a way. But, even more than his personal connection to the film, I found his extensive research to be exhilarating, with every detail scoped out and reviews and statements pulled from every corner of the Internet, making the book seem like a very long and detailed dissertation – in a good way! Let’s walk through the contents of the book and what Sellers uncovered through his research.

Edgar Rice Burroughs had no experience in writing before he wrote A Princess of Mars, the first story about John Carter, for a pulp magazine in 1911. He simply needed money and thought that he “could write stories just as entertaining and probably a whole lot more so than any [he] chanced to read in those magazines,” so he grabbed some paper and wrote, selling the story rights to All-Story Magazine, who published the story in serial form over several months. It proved to be immensely popular, so the author, who would also create the character Tarzan, followed the first story up with eleven more. Throughout his life, he tried and failed to bring his Barsoom series to film, but the technology of the time was simply not as capable as it needed to be in order to set a film on the planet Mars.

After Burroughs’ death in 1950, filmmaker Ray Harryhausen tried to bring John Carter to theaters, but even he, a Hollywood legend, was unable to convince others that it could be done despite the impossible setting. In the early 1960s, several of Burroughs’ works were republished in a sort of revival, with the stories even coming to Marvel Comics in the 1970s. This revival brought the property to the attention of filmmakers like George Lucas and James Cameron, both of whom would later borrow heavily from Burroughs’ universe in their films Star Wars and Avatar. It was partly due to this revival that the property first came to the attention of Disney in 1986. They purchased the film rights and began production, with producers set, screenwriters hired, and tentative casting of Tom Cruise as Carter and Julia Roberts as Dejah Thoris. When Cruise didn’t like the script, new people were brought in to rewrite it. At this point it was 1992, and the budget estimation was placed at $120 million, which would have made the film the most expensive ever made at that point. More rewrites were ordered, this time by George R. R. Martin (author of A Game of Thrones) and Melinda Snodgrass (who wrote for Star Trek: The Next Generation). The project was scrapped, though, and the rights to the project reverted back to Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. in 2000.

Paramount bought the rights to the books in 2001, but, long story short, that didn’t work out either, with the company giving up in 2006. At this point, Andrew Stanton, director of Pixar’s highly successful films Finding Nemo and Wall-E, became interested in making a film version. He had become acquainted with John Carter through the Marvel comics of the 1970s and also read the books, so, seeing that the rights were again available, he convinced then-Disney studio chief Dick Cook to purchase the rights and green light a film adaptation. Cook trusted Stanton and his track record, so he placed full control in Stanton’s hands.

Here’s a list of a few of the things that went wrong during the production of John Carter:

  • Disney CEO fires Dick Cook (who greenlit the film) and several other key membrs of Disney Studios; Cook replaced by Rich Ross
  • MT Carney hired as Marketing Chief by Ross, despite no previous experience with promoting films
  • Ross decides to not offer John Carter full marketing benefits like he later would with The Avengers
  • Social media accounts (Facebook, Twitter) not regularly updated or promoted
  • Decision by Carney to remove “of Mars” from original film title, simply giving it the ambiguous title “John Carter
  • Awful trailers for the film; missed opportunities to bank on Stanton’s previous successes with Finding Nemo and Wall-E
  • Failure to engage existing fan base in promotion of film
  • Failure to debunk online rumors about swelled budget and reshoot schedule
  • Film marketed more towards children than to a broader audience

That’s not a list of everything that led the film down the path it took, but those were some of the major decisions made (or not made) by Disney that helped contribute to the film’s ultimate failure. During production, Sellers did what he could as a fan of the original Burroughs books to promote the film by creating TheJohnCarterFiles.com, contacting Disney directly with ideas to engage the ERB fan base, and making a couple of fan trailers by compiling clips from Disney’s awful “official” trailers. While he did have success with his site and his trailers caught the attention of Andrew Stanton himself, none of it was enough to put the film on a more successful path. It seemed that Disney had not even given the film a chance despite highly successful early test screenings and the track record of Stanton.

So, that’s the history behind the film. Halfway through the book, or maybe even earlier than that, my interest in the film and the series on which it was based grew to such a high level that I decided that I would jump straight into Burroughs’ Barsoom as soon as I could. Sellers’ descriptions of A Princess of Mars, as well as the incredible stories of fan dedication to ERB and his work, convinced me that this was something worth looking into and checking out for myself, so I purchased the first seven books of the eleven-book Barsoom series by Burroughs and dove right in.

A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Princess of Mars

The first thing I noticed about this book while reading is the way Burroughs writes. His sentence structure, choice of words, and descriptive prowess all join together beautifully to form sentences that are almost romantic in their presentation; that is to say, not “lovey-dovey” romantic but expressive and artistic. All of these wonderfully composed sentences build into a story that carries with it the largeness of the world and the larger-than-life qualities of the characters within it.

John Carter is the ultimate “good guy”; his intentions are all noble, he always strives to do the right thing morally, and his abilities are such that he may struggle in a fight, but he always comes out on top. What more could you want from a good guy? And truthfully, it’s not so much that he is guaranteed victory but rather that he is guaranteed the opportunity for victory. His immense strength and superior endurance, as well as his previous wartime experience, give him an advantage over most opponents that he crosses paths with, but as his opponents grow more ferocious, the supposed assurance of success becomes less and less assured. He is not a flawed character, but, instead of detracting from his likability, it makes him more interesting. He’s a character of ultimate good, and reading about his outlook, his treatment of others, and his various adventures is always thrilling. The fact that the story is told from his perspective adds a layer of wonder to the book, with the reader experiencing and discovering Barsoom at the same time that Carter is rather than having it spoon fed to us by an exterior source.

The Tharks are probably the most interesting part of the story – a tribe of four-armed green Martians that stand fifteen feet tall. They hatch their young from eggs that are incubated over a period of several years, and, upon hatching, they are randomly divided among the women Tharks, who teach them how to speak and fight. They are a warlike tribe, but they have a strict code of honor that all must adhere to, making interactions between characters fascinating. The politics of the Tharks is interesting as well; when one kills another, the belongings and status of the dead one are transferred to his conqueror, a system that allows John Carter to rise in rank within this society in a short period of time. The Green Martians are typically an emotionless species due to the lack of personal relationships between anyone. They do not marry, nor do they love anyone at all, and even “friendship” is a term not used in their communities, so, when John Carter comes and displays signs of affection for animals, or friendship for Tars Tarkas, it is interesting to see how they all respond to it. The interactions between Carter and Tars Tarkas are probably my favorites of the book, even more so than those between Carter and Dejah Thoris.

Dejah Thoris, like Carter, is a pretty one-dimensional character in a way that makes sense for the genre, so it doesn’t take away from the quality of the story. She is described as incredibly beautiful, and it doesn’t take long for Carter to fall deep in love with her, and, likewise, her with him. Reading about his confusion in her mannerisms and unwillingness to flat-out share her feelings is entertaining because it is something that I’ve gone through before as well…who doesn’t want the object of your affection to express the same affection for you? The lengths to which Carter dedicates himself to a task for the protection of Dejah Thoris is what makes her character so wonderful; she is what Carter is fighting for throughout the book, she is his motivation to commit to fighting against such evils as the people of Zodanga and other enemies he comes across.

Perhaps the best part of the book is that it is simply immeasurably, impossibly fun. From the humor found in Burroughs’ description of Carter’s first attempts to walk on the surface of Mars to the swashbuckling, Errol Flynn-like fights between Carter and his adversaries to the classic tale of the fight for the right to true love, I enjoyed every step of the way through this book and am excited to read the following books in the series. Reading this book was possibly the most fun experience I’ve had while reading in several years. By the time I had finished, I was even more excited to see the film…how could a film based on something this great be anything short of amazing?

John Carter (2012)

John Carter 2

Now that I’ve seen and greatly enjoyed the film, I simply can’t understand why it at least didn’t do well critically. Maybe my anticipation for the film gave me tunnel vision so that the only possible outcome was for me to love it, or maybe it was because I liked the book so much and was so willing to accept the changes from the source material. I don’t know for sure the reason, but I definitely liked this film quite a bit.

I must admit that the opening scene, referring to the scene with the Therns giving Sab Than of the Zodangans the weird “Ninth Ray” weapon, was pretty confusing because it wasn’t from the book. Sure, there is brief talk of the nine rays present on Barsoom, but they are not explained in detail and are certainly not used as weapons, nor are Therns present at any point in A Princess of Mars. Despite this, though, the film moves on pretty quickly to what is in the book, that being the news being delivered to a young Edgar Rice Burroughs that his dear uncle John Carter has just passed away. He is handed his uncle’s diary with instructions that he alone shall read its contents, and, with that, we are whisked into the past, where we meet John Carter, a Civil War veteran searching for gold.

The John Carter of Stanton’s film is unlike the Carter of the book in the sense that he is not a flawless hero. When we first see him, he is rude, rebellious, and selfish, disrespectful to authority, etc. All of this, while different from the book, is a means to an end; despite his character flaws, he is still a character with the same deep-down morals as his literary counterpart. These values emerge throughout the film as he’s faced with difficult choices at difficult moments, such as when he saves Colonel Powell from being killed by Indians despite the fact that he had just escaped from a cell where Powell had been keeping him in custody. There are other moments like this in the film, where Carter is faced with the decision to either do what he wants, what benefits him, or to do what is right and protect others. Obviously, he wouldn’t be John Carter if he didn’t go with the latter option. This alteration from Burroughs’ Carter is acceptable because it gives him character in a medium that desperately needs character growth for it to work. If Taylor Kitsch had played the Carter of the book, a man with zero character flaws or chances of defeat, the film would have done worse than it already did, so Stanton made a smart decision here, and Kitsch plays the role as written very well.

Another great deviation from the book is the character changes in Dejah Thoris. No longer seen as nothing more than the object of beauty, she is given the status of head scientist for the city of Helium, and she’s a pretty accomplished warrior as well. This gives the character a chance to have a more active role in the film, allowing her to be a part of the fight against Zodanga for the people of Helium. Despite the character changes, Lynn Collins is still quite beautiful as the princess, so that quality from the book is still present here.

The visuals of the film are incredible, with the use of real-world locations grounding it a bit. However, that doesn’t stop the creatures who inhabit Barsoom, namely the Tharks and Carter’s pet calot, Woola, from being appropriately “out of this world.” The design of the airships used by the Heliumites and Zodangans, though possibly not in line with how Burroughs originally described them (I pictured giant, flying pirate ships while I read), works here because it brings the technology into the 21st century; what’s more “out of this world” from 19th century America than 21st century America? All of the special effects are flawless, with the design of the Tharks being a great example. Because they were filmed using motion capture on actors wearing stilts, the facial expressions and movements of the Tharks are quite realistic, and Willem Dafoe as Tars Tarkas is one of my favorite aspects of the film.

There were certainly aspects of the book that I think could have worked really well in the context of the film, particularly the story being told from Carter’s point of view, the idea of discovering the world along with him. There are two scenes in the film that feature voice-overs from Kitsch, both being moments when the young Edgar Rice Burroughs is reading from Carter’s diary. During these scenes, we hear the diary being read aloud by Carter, giving us plenty of exposition. It may not have actually worked in the film, which is why I’m not upset that it wasn’t utilized, but I think that there were definitely moments when maybe a montage of time spent with the Tharks could have been compiled, featuring a voice-over detailing Carter’s experience. Like I said, this may not have worked, and I liked the way the film approached the storytelling regardless, so it’s not a strike against it. I can also understand why the episodic nature of the book, which I really liked, was not carried over into the movie; A Princess of Mars is more like a series of short stories, each with its own mission and antagonist, which can be attributed to the fact that it was originally serialized in a magazine. The lack of a central antagonist or villain in the film, though, might have caused unnecessary confusion, so it makes sense that Stanton consolidated bits of the story for the purpose of centralizing one general plot.

Michael Giacchino’s score is fantastic as per usual, with it definitely being in the same vein and style as John Williams’ scores to Lucas’ Star Wars saga without ripping it off. It has all of the grandeur of the planet and the adventure at hand, but it also captures the more intimate moments, such as the scene at the Temple of Issus or the interactions between Carter and Dejah Thoris. He utilizes the choir especially well, with the wide range of possibilities of the voice being used in several different styles, from ethereal to warlike to romantic to adventurous. Giacchino has always been a master of diversity and variability, with his ability to both broaden and focus his music to encompass large, epic moments on the screen or to focus onto the smaller moments with the use of only a small handful of instruments.

Ock, Ohem, Oktei, Wies, Barsoom!

My adventures on Barsoom have been quite a fantastic experience for me. I never expected to like this universe or this character as much as I do, but Burroughs created a world that I was all too happy to be sucked into with zero resistance at all. His world is built with beautiful complexity and a rich culture that is so different from our own that reading about it is an incredible pleasure, and the characters are wonderfully fun to read about. Michael D. Sellers’ book managed to give me a peek into Burroughs’ world, just enough of a peek to make me curious and draw me in. A Princess of Mars is one of the most fun books I’ve ever read, so I can’t recommend it enough, and Disney’s John Carter film, while not perfect, is a perfectly acceptable and enjoyable adaptation that is given a lot more bad criticism than it deserves. I promise that, if you give it a chance, you’ll have at least a small amount of fun…hopefully more, because I had a blast.

-Chad

All sources used in writing this post have been linked to within the post itself. For individual, less-detailed reviews of each of these items, as well as the ratings I gave them, follow these links:

John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood by Michael D. Sellers – Review

A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs – Review

John Carter (2012) – Review

John Carter (2012) – Michael Giacchino – Review

Thank you for reading! I hope that you enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed writing it! I’d love to hear your opinion of John Carter, and I’d also love to have your feedback! What other kinds of posts would you like to see here on ChadTalksMovies?

Movie Music and Its Recognizability

(click on images to enlarge them in a new window)

The Setup

The first movie score I remember completely listening through separate of the movie it was written for was John Williams’ score to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Since then, my interest in film scores and, subsequently, my personal collection, have grown considerably, leading to my current collection of 116 complete instrumental film scores, plus several individual themes. Typically, a movie will have what is considered the “theme song,” with some of the most iconic being those for Star Wars, Superman, and Pirates of the Caribbean, among others. When considering those that everyone seems to recognize in comparison to others that may be less recognizable, I grew curious; what made some movie theme songs more recognizable than others? I decided to do some research on this, assuming that there had to be some sort of correlation between the most recognizable film themes and between the least recognizable film themes.

I first went through my iTunes library and compiled a list of what I personally considered to be the most recognizable movie themes. I did not set a limit for myself, only knowing that I wanted diversity; I wanted to be sure to include originals and remakes (i.e. old Star Trek vs. new Star Trek, old Batman vs. new Batman, etc.), several themes by the same composers, and themes from movies that were made by the same production studio, which is why I used themes from four different Pixar movies. Selecting anything and everything that fit within these parameters while remaining what I considered to be “recognizable,” my list came out to forty-one individual “theme songs.” From there, I selected ten- to twenty-second-long clips of the main themes from each score and put them all into a playlist. I arranged the themes so that no two themes by the same composer were located right next to each other on the playlist, and likewise for originals/remakes or Pixar films. The playlist can be found in the following YouTube video:

Once this had been done, I had to decide what I was going to use to categorize and compare each theme to one another so I could see what it was that made each one recognizable or not, so I created the following survey:

The reasoning behind each question is as follows: Name, Classification, Birth Year) I will admit that, because the three classes whose data I used were all classes that I was in, I only asked for the names of the participants so that I could see how my friends did. As for Classification and Birth Year, I ended up not using this data because it proved irrelevant; most participants were born within a five-year period, with too little variation to figure that data into the results. Title) Asking for an answer whether they knew (or thought they knew) for sure or not would allow me to factor in the subconscious. Sometimes, you can remember things on instinct rather than on knowledge, and so I thought that it would be interesting to see in the results. 1) Asking whether or not they had seen the film (again, or thought they had seen it) that they thought the theme was associated with allowed me to see if the recognition of a theme was based on experience or cultural permeation. As shown in the results, not all of the most recognizable film themes were seen by everyone who was surveyed, showing a deeper level of cultural permeation. 2-4) While not every film theme ever composed can fit into these categories, I thought that people would be able to fit each theme into at least three of these six categories without stretching the imagination too much. Having each person sort each theme as they saw fit gave me an opportunity to see how people think; if there was a trend for the more recognizable film themes versus an opposite (or simply different) trend for the less recognizable themes, I could attribute it to the categories that they fell in.

I visited four college classes in total, though I had to throw out the results from one class due to not being able to complete the survey before the class ended. In each class, I passed out the two-page survey, explained the rules as outlined at the top of the page, answered any questions, and got started. Playing each clip only once, I gave an average of about twenty to thirty seconds between each clip in which the students could answer all five questions. The main reason for this speed was so as not to take up more of the teacher’s class time than necessary, though I certainly wish that I could have made it a bit less frantic. Each class took about twenty-five minutes to get through the whole survey, and, with fifteen students in each class, that brought the total number of participants up to forty-five.

The Data

Data entry was more complex than I had initially anticipated, mainly because there was so much of it; doing the math, I discovered that, with three classes, fifteen students in each class, forty-one film themes, and five questions per theme, the total number of possible cells of data in Microsoft Excel was over nine thousand (15 x 3 x 41 x 5 = 9, 225). It took six hours to input the data for the first class alone, with me working over a span of three days for several hours each day in order to get the data from all three classes completely inputted into an Excel spreadsheet. I inputted each class separately, sorting the data by film, so the data looked like this:

As I inputted the answers for the first two questions (the title of the film and whether or not they had seen it), I used the number value “1” for incorrect answers and for people who had not seen the film, and I used the number value “0” for correct answers and for people who had seen the film. When these numbers were averaged together, the result was a percentage which, as the above picture shows, represents the percentage of people who guessed the title incorrectly and the percentage of people who had not seen the film, so flipping the percentage would result in the opposite (correct percentage, seen percentage). I made a couple of assumptions when inputting the data for the second column: I only counted a movie as “seen” if the person put a definite “yes” as their answer, which means that I marked that they had not seen it if they put “maybe,” “not sure,” or simply left the space blank. I did this because I wanted to only include definite “yeses” or, in other words, people who were confident enough in their answer or who knew they had definitely seen the film but the title escaped them. Aside from averaging together the totals of the categorical values, I kept track of one more piece of data: how many times someone guessed the wrong movie but managed to guess another movie with a score composed by the same composer, which I figured into the results later.

The Results

Speaking of results, the most recognizable film themes were mostly what I expected, though I was surprised by a couple of exclusions from the top of the list, namely John Williams’ themes to the original 1978 Superman film and to the 1982 film E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. It is interesting to note that John Williams’ theme for the Harry Potter film franchise is the only theme that was universally guessed correctly and seen, with his theme for the Star Wars saga being in a close second. In fact, the top three most recognized film themes are all Williams compositions, with the fact that roughly only half of the participants had seen Jaws showing the depth to which both the film and Williams’ theme music have permeated our culture. The other film theme with a notable drop from percentage correct to percentage seen is Monty Norman’s original theme to the James Bond films. With twenty-three films featuring the character and this theme song to date, the most recent having been released just last year, it is easy to see why so many people were able to guess it correctly.

In comparison, you can see that all but two of the least recognizable film themes had less than fifty percent of people saying that they had seen it, with Randy Newman’s theme to the Pixar film A Bug’s Life and Alan Silvestri’s theme to Night at the Museum being the exceptions. Also, the only two film themes that nobody was able to guess correctly were James Horner’s theme to The Amazing Spider-Man and John Williams’ theme to War Horse, which is intriguing because it puts John Williams themes at both the extreme top and extreme bottom of the list. This list also includes three films whose scores were nominated for Best Original Score at the Academy Awards. What caused this? Now that I knew the results, what conclusions could be drawn?

The Analysis

Looking at the category results for the most recognized film themes, there is quite a bit of variation. For example, in the sad to happy category, four of the six themes were considered to be happier (higher bars), while the themes for Jaws and Titanic were both thought of as sad. Taking these variations into consideration, I decided that it would be more practical to find the average of the four “happier” themes rather than average all six values together, so the idea was to find the trend rather than the average. This led to the shown values, or 6.5 in the sad to happy category (moderately happy), 7.6 in the pretty to exciting category (mostly exciting), and 4.8 in the light to dark category (neither one nor the other). The results for the least recognizable films…

…show just as much variation, though, by looking at the typical trend, a couple of basic observations can be made. The sad to happy rating is about the same as it was for the most recognizable film themes at about a 6.5 (moderately happy), with a 4.3 in the pretty to exciting category (moderately pretty), and a 3.1 in the light to dark category (mostly light). Between the two graphs, the following basic observations can be made: the more recognizable film themes are generally more exciting, and the least recognizable film themes are considered to be slightly lighter. Perhaps this reveals that the combination of exciting music with a darker tone makes for a more recognizable film theme, while prettier and lighter is more forgettable.

However, due to the large variation from theme to theme in categorical rating, I am unwilling to put all of my faith in these values. There was too much room for error in these results; many people did not provide ratings for the categories for every single film on the survey, meaning that I had to leave blanks in the spreadsheet. This also means that this data is not entirely representative of the whole group, unlike the first two questions (film title and seen/not), for which data exists for all forty-five students. What questions can be asked based on these first two questions alone?

Further Questions

It occurred to me that the release year of the movie might be a factor, especially among the general age group of these participants, the majority of whom were born between the years of 1985 and 1994. Using the same list of most and least recognizable film themes, taking note of the release year of each movie, or, for series like Star Wars, the release year of the first movie in the series, and averaging them together, you can see that the average release year of the most recognizable is about twenty years older than the average release year of the least recognizable. To confirm that this is indeed a correlation, I took the average of all of the films located between the most and least recognized and averaged their release years together, which ended up being 1996, showing that my suspicions appear to be correct. Though the majority of the test group had not yet been born in 1986, these results could suggest that the more time that the film and its music have spent in “cultural circulation,” the more likely it is to be recognized by the general population, which is why the newer themes, some from as recent as 2012, were not as widely recognized by the participants.

The final bit of data I took into consideration was the average domestic box office gross of each film. I assumed that the higher the box office gross for a film, the more likely that it would have permeated the culture; a higher box office gross means that more people saw the film. For series of films, I averaged the domestic box office gross of every film in the series to come up with the average per film in the series, then averaging together all of the most recognizable themes and the least recognizable, as well as for all of the films in between for confirmation, and the results once again seem to support the theory.

Not shown above is the average for the middle films, which came out to be $241,059,348, showing the correlation. Five of the most recognizable films, or, at least, films from the series, are located on the list of the top twenty highest-grossing films of all time, while none of the least recognizable films are located anywhere higher than forty-eight on that same list. This is a correlation that makes sense in that it monitors the number of people who are theoretically familiar with the film.

The demographics of the participants varied significantly from class to class; I classified one class as “non-music majors,” the second class as “music majors,” and the third, a class about the cultural relevance of superheroes, I affectionately referred to as “the geeks.” I would not have separated these demographics if I had not noticed a significant difference between each class. The “non-music major” class had the fewest number of film themes that everyone guessed correctly, with only two, whereas the “music majors” had the highest number of themes that everyone guessed correctly, with six. Additionally, the “music majors” had several people leaving more cells blank than people in the other two classes, meaning that they were more careful with their answers, resulting in the higher number of themes that were unanimously guessed correctly. The “geeks” came in second place with five themes that everyone guessed correctly; these people I considered more likely to be people like me, who spend more time with the movies and their music than the average person.

The Composers

Leaving behind the argument of what makes the theme recognizable or not, I did my best to choose selections from a variety of composers, but, of course, John Williams is hard to avoid when you are creating a list of most recognizable film themes, so he appears on the playlist eleven times. As mentioned before, I kept track of how many times someone guessed the wrong movie but still guessed another movie with a score composed by the same composer. I multiplied how many times a composer appeared in the playlist by forty-five, the number of participants, to show how many times it was possible for the group to guess the composer’s themes correctly, and then I divided the number of times the wrong film but correct composer was named in order to get a percentage of how many people guessed him correctly.

I have always said that all of Hans Zimmer’s scores sound the same, and now I have proof (kidding)! These percentages are exactly what I would have expected; I have always argued that John Williams’ music is recognizable because he has a distinct sound, whereas Zimmer’s music is recognizable because all of his themes sound the same. Something to note is that William’s highest number of incorrect guesses while still guessing the correct composer was eight with his theme for Superman, while Zimmer’s themes for Inception and the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy each had ten incorrect guesses, with most people switching up the two films…because they sound the same! I mean this mostly in jest, though the results certainly seem to support my argument. Another interesting tidbit of information gathered from this data is that the number of people who guessed Randy Newman’s themes (A Bug’s Life and Monsters, Inc.) guessed either Toy Story (another Newman score) or some other Pixar film, most often Ratatouille, which was scored by Michael Giacchino. This general association of Pixar music sounding the same is one reason why I wanted to include multiple made by the same production company; it shows that people associate similar films together, even by the music.

Conclusions

This study was by no means perfect. If I could do it again, I would arrange to have more time to complete each survey for each group. Twenty-five minutes, though it allows completion of the survey, is too rushed, not giving people time to think. Although a gut reaction could be encouraged, I think relaxing everything just a bit so that the study is not so frantic would benefit it as a whole. In addition, while forty-five people allows for a decent sample, I would preferably have more participants, especially from a wider demographic. Forty-five people born within a ten-year window is not indicative of the population as a whole, so having a wider age range would be ideal.

My personal collection of film music is quite extensive, but, admittedly, there is a large amount of music that I do not own, so a second study would ideally utilize more music. I would also like to take out my own bias by having a sort of “committee” choose the film themes that would be used for the survey. Additionally, creating more categories would provide greater variety in ways that people can categorize the music, showing possible greater correlations between most and least recognizable film themes. Ensuring that everyone fills out every possible blank on the survey form would be excellent so that the data collected can be completely indicative of the population surveyed. Lastly, eliminating conversation and making sure that the survey environment is completely quiet would help in making sure that everyone’s answers are their own and that everyone has equal opportunity to hear every clip in its entirety.

Starting out on this research project, I assumed that there was some sort of correlation that made a film’s theme music recognizable or not, and the data collected seems to support this theory. There are several ways that this correlation manifests itself; the category ratings do not provide an obvious relation, but the release years and the average domestic box office gross certainly do. While studying this data, I could not help but think about how interesting all of this was, and I honestly hope that I get the opportunity to perform this survey again on a larger scale.

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I hope you all liked the first post on my new supplemental blog to my ChadLikesMovies review site, ChadTalksMovies. Your feedback would be much appreciated; the future of this blog and what it becomes will rely quite a bit on what you all think!

-Chad