In the 21st Century, comic book films have taken the world by storm. Some have criticised the genre for having a formulaic approach to film-making, yet their popularity is evident in the revenue produced and the consistent success of Marvel Studios. So when we think about the music behind each of our favourite heroes, do they all fit the same cookie-cutter shape? Or do they each have their own unique sonic identity? The answer may be both.
A Brief History
In 2002, the first Spider-Man film hit cinemas with an iconic score from Danny Elfman (The Nightmare Before Christmas, Edward Scissorhands, Batman 1989). I say the soundtrack to this film was iconic because despite a number of Spider-Man theme reboots over the coming years, Elfman's tunes are fondly remembered. It featured the classic sound of a Hollywood orchestra masterfully orchestrated to make you root for Peter Parker. Perhaps this is one of the more complex superhero themes you may be familiar with, because by the time Spider-Man 3 released in 2007, the modern sound of superheroes would begin to find its stride.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe kicked off the very next year with the release of Iron Man in May of 2008. Most of us associate Iron Man with the rock drums and distorted guitar sounds of ACDC songs scattered throughout the franchise trilogy. However, Iron Man also makes use of the Hollywood orchestra sound, bringing us to the first hallmark of superhero film scores: Big Brassy Melodies.
The first hallmark of superhero film scores: Big Brassy Melodies.
The first thing that comes to mind when I think about writing a superhero theme is brass. It has been tried and tested, and it works with an awe-inspiring power. I think the sound of a French horn has a sort of nobility to it as well, in a way that makes you look up to the hero and believe in them. Hans Zimmer would reinforce this trend in his score to The Dark Knight which released just two months after Iron Man. Many have commented on Zimmer's innovative writing style, noticeable in this movie. While it is similar to other superhero music in a number of ways, it is also unique in others. A two note theme between D and F relies heavily of the weight, dynamics, and epic timbre of the French horns. The long, drawn out notes make this simpler in its arrangement than Elfman's Spider-Man theme, but Zimmer offers something new to the orchestral palette in his skilful sound design. Maybe these differences are just one of the ways that Marvel & DC films are distinguished.
A Series of Spider-Men
Fast-forward a few years and we are presented with not one, not two, but three new Spider-Man themes in the space of 5 years. There's 2012's The Amazing Spider-Man with music by James Horner, the 2014 sequel with new motifs from Hans Zimmer, and the MCU reboot in Spiderman: Homecoming which featured an original score by Michael Giacchino. Surely then a good way to assess the superhero formula would be to compare these themes for similarities and differences.
In the time when scoring with synthesizers was the thing to do, James Horner monopolises on the technology to bring Peter Parker into the modern day. Andrew Garfield's portrayal of the character is more self-assured and seems kind of moody to me compared to the character played by Tobey Maguire. I see this reflected in the music through the many aching synths and surprisingly, an acoustic piano that appears much more frequently than I would expect for a superhero film. It seems the minor piano chords were Horner's choice for scoring scenes dealing with Peter's anguish and guilt over his Uncle Ben. Nevertheless, the overall instrumentation and arrangement seems to focus more on sounding 'cool' than it does trying to develop a sense of intimacy. Peter Parker has to be relatable. The music needs to grab our emotions and make us empathise with his situation. I think that's something that was missing from both of The Amazing Spider-Man films.
The theme to the sequel continues with Horner's use of trumpets - another entry into the catalogue of superhero themes on brass instruments. Zimmer's theme is much more memorable though and absolutely captures the essence of heroism. If you're not familiar with it, be sure to check it out amongst the links to the music I've mentioned at the end of this blog. What's interesting is his use of the mixolydian mode. It's a strong sound that grabs our ear as something very interesting - almost super-natural - how fitting. While I still prefer the older themes by Elfman in 2002, this mix between major and minor tonalities leads us to our second hallmark of superhero music: The Flat VI/Superhero Chord.
Our second hallmark of superhero music: The Flat VI/Superhero Chord.
Michael Giacchino (The Incredibles, Doctor Strange, Up) had quite a different take on the sound of Spider-Man. His score to the Tom Holland reboot is a lot more playful and fitting for the high-school vibe that Director Jon Watts seemed to be going for. Despite its differences there is one chord in particular that continues to make this film sound heroic. The flat six major chord is relative to the key that it is played in (e.g. Ab in the key of C) and it serves as both a powerful and inspirational sound that suitably describes the hope we may find in our hero. Used in countless other heroic themes, Giacchino uses the chord in a rising sequence from the flat six chord, to the flat seven, to a one major chord. This progression is also known as the Mario cadence and sounds incredibly bright and triumphant.
While each of these soundtracks are undeniably unique, they do share the similarities I've mentioned. The tropes explored so far are not just found in Spider-Man scores, but across the board of comic book films. For a composer just starting out and wanting to write music for superheroes, they will probably start by copying these trends. The sound of superheroes has been clearly identified in pop culture, but that hasn't stopped other composers from breaking out from the norm and diversifying their sound.
Diversity & Creativity
For every cookie-cutter media entry, there are also those projects that push the idea of writing music for superheroes out of the box. I wanted to celebrate originality by mentioning a few films and shows that do this well.
While many themes try to convey a sense of action, adventure and heroism, 2015's Ant-Man is much more of a heist movie, and this is totally reflected in the music. Composer, Christophe Beck (Frozen, The Hangover) opts for a theme much more akin to that of Mission Impossible and his prior film, Tower Heist. The Ant-Man theme is written in 7/4 with a prominent rhythmic ostinato across the orchestra. Odd time signatures like this help to keep us on the edge of our seat, much like the iconic 5/4 tune does when we're watching Tom Cruise scale the outside of a building to save the world. What I love about this score is that it's not a superhero cliché, it's a spy/heist cliché. By taking this kind of suspense music that audiences are all too familiar with and putting it alongside Scott Lang shrinking down to the size of an ant, Beck leaves the audience with a different experience of cinema than they might be used to.
Joaquin Phoenix doesn't play a superhero in the gritty 2019 film, Joker. Nor does this film resemble other comic book films in any way. But it does tell the story of one of Batman's greatest adversaries and anyone who has seen this could tell you just how gripping the haunting sound of those celli are. Hildur Guðnadóttir is not a 'superhero composer' and it's fairly obvious in this movie. She's better known for scoring drama and war films. In likeness to The Dark Knight, Hildur's Joker theme is just two notes. However, the similarities end there. A cello duet makes up the majority of the film's underscore and there's a much greater focus on musicianship. Close microphones capture each intimate detail in a way that just hadn't been done before in the realm of comic book soundtracks.
I could go into great detail about a number of other film scores that I have come to love. But for the sake of time, and the length of this blog, here are just a few more honourable mentions:
Marvel fans will be familiar with the catchy songs released alongside WandaVision in early 2021, but even more so, the soundtrack is completely centred on the love between the two main characters. I think that makes for a unique superhero theme! It seems the MCU is a little more experimental with the sound of their TV shows than their movies, because the TVA theme from Loki gives the show an original identity. Speaking of TV shows, Jessica Jones hit superhero fans with a refreshing bucket of water in the style of a jazz, investigative score - quite a departure from the Hollywood orchestra sound I mentioned earlier. A more recent entry is the Egyptian-set series, Moon Knight, for which the studio actually hired an Egyptian composer. It's a lovely fusion of ethnic influence and epic heroism. Last but not least, I was blown away by Daniel Pemberton's bold take on Bird's of Prey. If the others I've mentioned weren't wild enough for you, perhaps a combination of electric guitars, synths, electronic drum kits and distorted vocal nonsense will do the trick.
I have explored a wide-range of comic book inspired media throughout this blog. I suppose my intent was to draw your attention a little closer to the staples often found in superhero music. With this in mind you might find a greater appreciation for those themes that use them well, and also those that completely break out of the box.
I've talked about how the sound of heroes tends to put the melody in the brass section (specifically the French horns) and how common it is to use the flat VI chord as a way of inspiring awe. If I had to add a third hallmark to our list of superhero theme tropes, I would say that it's character. Other genres of film may be written about an specific idea (think Don't Look Up) or lined with themes of political/social issues, but comic book films are more often than not, about the character of the hero. In a recent interview about his work on Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Danny Elfman said "You tend to, in a superhero genre, follow characters with themes more closely". This means that characters in this genre tend to have their own motifs that regularly come back and help drive the story.
"You tend to, in a superhero genre, follow characters with themes more closely"
I strongly encourage you to take a journey through the playlist of superhero music that I have collated throughout writing this blog. You'll find it linked below. And I would love to hear from you what your favourite superhero theme is in the comment section on Facebook. Thanks for reading! Have a great day.
- Jordan Stevenson