There are many reasons to love the superhero genre, from the nostalgia of seeing the heroes of your childhood on the big screen to the thrill of spectacular action sequences. One area that is often overlooked is the music, but a good score can truly get under your skin and lift an ordinary movie to heroic heights. Thinking about both how they enhance the movie and about their musical caliber in their own right, here are five examples of fantastic superhero movie scores.
Superman (1978, John Williams)
When it comes to superhero music, John Williams’ theme to Superman is pretty much the piece that summarises the genre for a lot of people – it is so bombastic and so heroic in intent that it is a joy to listen to. As is typical for a Williams score, the orchestration is alluring, but this is a score that really hangs on the strength of its themes, and one of the best is the love theme. It is said that the best film music can tell a story on its own, and this piece is a fine example of that. The rest of the score is packed with fantastic themes; you may think “The March of the Villains” is a bit too comical for its purpose, but that’s really the only fault here. Superman is Williams in top form, writing suitably iconic music for the most iconic of heroes.
Batman (1989, Danny Elfman)
In much the same way as John Williams is undoubtedly the musical voice of Superman, the music of Danny Elfman is the same for Batman. His tragic and whimsical style of scoring, mixed with Tim Burton’s vision of Gotham City, cemented a voice for the caped crusader that is still used to this day in advertisements and the like. The ‘Batman theme’ is designed to show both the duality of Bruce Wayne and his lack of completion (it mostly comprises of five notes, with the finishing sixth note only occasionally afforded to the theme), and the score continues with gloomy and mood-filled music full of instrumental creativity. If music doesn’t match the film world, it doesn’t matter how good it is, but this is an example of it done well, and perfectly fitting the movie.
The Incredibles (2004, Michael Giacchino)
Who ever said that superheroes had to spring from the pages of DC and Marvel comics? The Incredibles, Pixar’s sixth, saw a family of undercover heroes being forced into action to save the world, and such a rollicking adventure benefits from its equally adventurous score. Giacchino’s music is big and full of brass (as well as featuring prominent use of the xylophone), with a retro feel often described as reminiscent of John Barry (although it has a very appropriate cartoon quality to it). It combines big band and jazz sounds to complement the film, with several melodies you’ll find yourself humming the moment the film finishes. Giacchino is returning to score the movie’s sequel and if his work there is as good as it is here, we’re in for something special.
The Dark Knight (2010, Hans Zimmer/James Newton Howard)
I’ll be the first to admit that I have a very mixed opinion on Hans Zimmer. Some of his scores are absolutely magical, but when it comes to superhero movies, he tends to rely on bassy and generic themes (Zimmer himself has said he is leaving the superhero genre, because he is burned out and can’t think of anything new to do with it). However, I think the score for The Dark Knight matches wonderfully the tone of this Batman; in particular, the chaotic electric elements that denote the powerhouse performance that was Heath Ledger’s Joker. A highlight is co-composer James Newton Howard’s music for Harvey Dent: it is more subtle and orchestral-based, and the two composers working together have complemented one another beautifully.
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011, Alan Silvestri)
Until Marvel came along, superheroes had never truly had the hold on the box office that they do now. Sure, the odd film was a hit here and there, but they were never produced as frequently as they are now. Sadly, it took Marvel five films before they hit a musical turning point. Alan Silvestri was brought on board to score Captain America and produced a fitting action score with the first great character theme of the series. Silvestri draws on his action experience to create an old-fashioned symphonic score that is rousing and entertaining, and, as a result of Disney buying Marvel, we also have an Irving Berlin style tune from Alan Menken. This was the first great Marvel score and, to my mind, it remains the best.