After over a decade of being in the works, Black Adam finally makes its way into movie theaters this weekend. The DC Comics-inspired film has been a long-running passion project for actor and producer Dwayne Johnson, who enlisted an all-star ensemble cast and crew to help bring the end result to life. Among them is Lorne Balfe, a prolific composer known for his work on franchises like Mission: Impossible, Top Gun: Maverick, His Dark Materials, and The Wheel of Time. While Black Adam is not Balfe’s first foray into the superhero space, as he previously worked on last year’s Marvel blockbuster Black Widow, it might be his most buzzed-about yet, thanks to several of the tracks from Balfe’s score released before the film’s debut, including the main Black Adam theme and the Justice Society theme.
In celebration of Black Adam‘s debut, ComicBook.com caught up with Balfe about his work on the game-changing project. We spoke about the unlikely inspiration for Black Adam’s main theme, creating nostalgia for characters making their cinematic debuts, his upcoming work on Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, and more.
ComicBook.com: You just went to the London premiere. What was it like to be at the premiere, and to get to celebrate the movie in person with everybody?
Lorne Balfe: It’s always great to see a film finished. We live and breathe these things for months on end — and also, you’re working on it where a lot of the visual effects are never completed, whilst you’re writing. We saw it in IMAX, so that was amazing, for a start. Look, it was the reaction. The first time we see each of the characters, the crowd lit up, and you felt that energy.
I liked the fact that The Rock arrived by a London taxi. I thought that was the best ever thing. I literally saw this taxi pulling up on the side — or, it was parked — and as a joke, I said to my wife, we went over and I said, “Is this The Rock’s taxi?” And he looked at me and said, “How do you know?” You don’t normally get people turning up to premieres in a black cab, but he did. It was a great night, and the energy in the room for all the things — whether we talk about them or not, things where people might be or people appear. It was electrifying.
You’ve gotten a really wide array of fan reactions to your score so far. Are there any that have been very pleasant surprises to you?
No, I’m always just relieved anybody likes it. Listen, this one’s been fun, because of the sheer size of [it]. The fact that The Rock is telling everybody to listen to it whilst they do their pre-workouts and their workouts. I tried to get through about two sit-ups whilst listening to that main Black Adam theme, but was not very successful.
Before the film started, they were talking about the Justice Society. And we spent so long talking about the Justice Society [theme], longer than we spent writing it. Because it was this fact that [the team has] been there longer than the Justice League. It’s a legacy. So it is important to make sure that it’s going to work for the fans, and be loyal to the past, and be nostalgic and heroic, but yet modern. That was a difficult one to crack.
And the Black Adam main theme, I’d like to think when you close your eyes and you see The Rock, that’s what you hear. There was taking a pinch of his personality, as well as the character of Black Adam. It all had to go together. It’s been a great feedback, regarding it.
You’ve been in the superhero space before. You’ve been in the big blockbuster space. What was it about Black Adam that uniquely appealed to you?
The biggest thing is the team behind it. I always remember being told early on when I started — you choose your projects because of the team, and not the scripts. Because the scripts change — I’ve been on films where the characters’ names have changed, and the countries have changed. So, don’t rely too much on that. But the whole creative team behind it, Jaume [Collet-Serra] and Beau [Flynn], the main producer, and Hiram [Garcia]. When we all met on… well we live on Zoom nowadays, don’t we? We never enter a room. It was just the energy and the love.
And I know that they’ve all been part of this world for fifteen years and they’ve wanted to make it. You fed off that. It wasn’t Hollywood BS. It was honesty and pride in making this. That’s what got me excited about it, because you do get calls sometimes for things, and the passion’s not there, so you don’t do it. And this, they truly love and believe in this character and what else can happen, the [spinoffs] and the rest of the universe. They made it exciting, and they made it fun, and that’s what made it fun for me.
These are characters who haven’t really gotten the spotlight in a movie before, but have these very big and epic and cinematic comic appearances. Did you research any of the comics before you crafted the score, or while you were crafting it?
Totally, totally. You don’t need to, but I think it makes it fun. As we’ve talked before about different fan bases — I think you should immerse yourself in it, and find out what people think. And sometimes join forums under pseudonyms to find out what people… [laughs] Maybe not all the time… But I think with His Dark Materials and The Wheel of Time, it was fascinating seeing what people had been listening to whilst reading. I think that was an interesting way to approach the music.
And then with this, I think it was a case of that. It’s not trying to try something different all the time, but we just did want something contemporary, but with that sheer epic-ness of an orchestra. So you did have contemporary beats in the score, and the sheer mass sound of that orchestra.
I’ve been trying to post… It’s like a photograph, it never comes off as good as it looks in real life. But I’ve been trying to post videos from the scoring session. So you hear the brass. And I loved — I posted one last week where it was just the brass… It was 12 french horns, 12 trombones, four tubas, four trumpets. And they were playing, and normally all you see is the violins with their fingers in their ear, because it’s so loud, but they were all watching and rocking out to it when that tune was playing.
I think looking at the past is always important, because that is the heritage. I remember working on The Lego Batman Movie, and I ended up using some of the original TV show, because to me, that was my Batman. I know you can debate films and say that… But the TV show was my Batman. I used to hint parts of the actual original TV show in it. I think it’s important that you do delve into it, and immerse yourself into this world, and try to figure out what can you do that’s going to make it fresh, but not feel alien, but also fun. It is about escapism, going to the cinema. That’s why I go, at least.
Black Adam Theme
You mentioned, with the Black Adam theme, capturing some of The Rock’s essence and trying to translate that into the theme. What was the most important thing in terms of capturing that? How did you go about capturing that in an orchestral musical sense?
The weirdest thing is that, originally, I had thought about a marching band, because of his background with American football. that was the way I actually started writing it, and then I kind of knew that it was a difficult one. Because I think when it becomes too patriotic and too over the top, the audience can be removed from it. Maybe it’s called being old-fashioned, I don’t know, but sometimes you can make it not as real. And I wanted it to feel as if it was a commercial track that you literally feel that you’ve heard before, because it’s the nature of a fanfare, but it’s a short, repetitive factor, but it’s a pop song. I think it’s a pop song, without the lyrics. Some may debate that, but that’s how I looked at it. It’s got a contemporary feel to it.
That’s so fascinating. I almost want a high school marching band to cover it now, so I can hear that version. Because I can totally picture that.
The only reason we didn’t was because it was during a holiday time, and it was impossible. I couldn’t get everybody to all come back and meet up. They all wanted to continue their holidays, rightly so. But that was the idea behind the brass thing. And I kept thinking about that, how visually that sounds, and that comes from the inspirations from The Rock. I think when you watch the movie, I’d like to feel that everybody feels it, connects to it, and it belongs to the sheer size and gravitas of his character.
With the JSA theme, you’ve spoken a lot about nostalgia, and capturing nostalgia for characters that have such a history, but not on the big screen until now. How did you go about finding that, musically?
Originally, I did try at the start [to give] everybody their own themes. But you’re getting introduced to five other characters, and personally I found, and I think the rest of us found, it was going to complicate things a lot. Especially when this is your first experience. So we just looked at it as a bigger arc, and for the moment looked at it as they are part of the Society, and they are a unit, and make it work that way, so that they all worked as a team. Musically, it was that.
It was trying to make it very traditional, as if it was a classical piece, a Brahms or an Elgar piece. But again, made a bit more contemporary. And again, just so that you feel that you know this tune, or you feel that you’ve heard it, or you feel that you also know these characters. You feel you know about the Society. You feel connected to them.
What would you say surprised you the most about the entire experience of working on this movie?
Oh my goodness. What surprised me? Every project I work on, there’s a thousand surprises. I think it’s the loyalty of the fanbase. Really, that was the big surprise. And there’s some haters out there, which, they have every right to free speech. But to waste so much time wanting things not to succeed, I’ve never understood that.
The best thing, though, out of it, has been the excitement about what this film can bring. Having worked in the Marvel world, I see how fascinating that’s been. And the DC world, I think it can give a fresh new approach to the audience. We need it after COVID. I don’t know how you were, but not going to the cinema for two years was depressing.
Oh absolutely. I missed it so much.
It’s great. We all spent more money getting bigger TV screens and bigger speakers. But then, at the end of the day, when something happened, there’s nobody to interact with. It was dull. So, I think that these are experiences. And seeing it in IMAX last night, just amazing. There’s a good heart to the film also, which is important. You can’t just have action all the time.
Do you have a favorite track from the score? Something you’re gonna look back on at the end of your career and you’re still going to be amazed by?
No, I never look at it that way. I don’t think I ever listened to anything I’ve written in the past. I put it aside. I think it’s been lovely, the reaction to that main theme for Black Adam. And I hope the fans do see the film, and that other stories can be told with it.
I really always enjoy the father and son relationship in movies, because I am a father. With this film, there is a strong narrative between them both. Writing that, I really enjoy those things, because you’re trying to channel your relationship with your son. And my son’s too young to be watching this, but he has, and he loves it.
Amazing. I completely understand that, not listening to your stuff again. I very rarely rewatch my interviews back, so I completely get that.
Only because you just feel — obviously, you sit there and go, “Oh, I shouldn’t have done that. I should have did that. I should have changed this. If I had a week longer, I would’ve done this.” You sometimes have to distance yourself. It always amazes me with bands, when they go on tour and they just have to play the same songs. Nobody wants to hear the new album with zero hits. It’s, “Play the stuff you did from the eighties! Come on, that’s it.”
But generally, the whole project, the memories, [were] fantastic. The Rock turned up, he came to the recording session, which is very, very rare. [It’s very rare that] you get the stars and the producers wanting to come to recording sessions. He came, and it was his first ever recording session that he’d been to. It was fantastic. He went, and he talked to the orchestra, and they played the theme for him. That was very special, seeing that. This has been their life and soul, and I know it’s been said fifteen years, but when it’s a passion project, that means a lot. So having them play that for him is a great memory, because it was something that he has given his whole 180% to.
After Black Adam, and after also working in the Marvel space, are there any other superhero characters that you still want to compose for?
Oh boy. Well, you know what’s interesting, is that I didn’t know of Black Adam before. And I think that makes things interesting, when you don’t necessarily know about the person. Because it’s kind of going, “Okay, well we can go onto a new slate.”
I may be doing one next year for… Not maybe, I am. [laughs] That’s exciting. It’s also intimidating, with the well-known ones because there’s a history to those characters, and there’s big themes. My next one that I’m really excited about is, because I was a gamer, Dungeons & Dragons.
That trailer looks amazing. I’m very excited for that one.
I used to play Dungeons, so when I heard they were making that, I knew I wanted to be part of the team. Because that was my memory as a child, playing it. So that’s fun. And that’s in that realm of — they are superheroes. That’ll be a fun movie.
Black Adam is now playing exclusively in theaters.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.