In comics, a superhero’s most important asset is his (or her) iconic costume. This is how you know whose book you’re looking at, whether you’re two feet away or across the room.
In movies, the costume may well be supplanted by the musical theme of the character. When you have an instantly recognizeable sequence of notes that heralds the appearance of your character, THAT’S a movie superhero.
And the six below just might be the best superhero themes ever written.
The Avengers — The Avengers
While this may not be the most unique theme in the world, it sounds like the perfect musical interpretation of Marvel Studios’ movies. Since beginning the Avengers Initiative in 2005, they’ve crafted movies that take an optimistic, glossy view of the world. Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America fully embraced their comic-book roots to deliver a somewhat simplified — but usually enjoyable — brand of heroism.
The Avengers’ theme has an addictive “brand new, shiny” sound to it. It comes at you head-on, blaring its intentions from the get-go. Despite its simplicity, there’s a truly earnest quality to the recording. It may be sentimental, but it’s sincere.
More to the point, this thing gets stuck in my head really badly (particularly the bit that starts around 1:00 in the video), which means that it’s memorable despite not setting itself apart as much as the others on this list.
Hellboy — Hellboy
A lot of people prefer the second Hellboy to the first, which I get. The movie’s a bit bigger, the character work a bit more dynamic, and the story a bit smoother. One thing that always bugged me, though, is that they replaced Marco Beltrami’s kickass main theme from the first one.
One of the great things a theme can do is reveal multiple facets of the character it plays under. Hellboy is a demon from hell, but he’s a bit of a working stiff and his tastes in food, pets, and one-liners errs on the quirky side. Likewise, his theme sounds dark, with those unnerving horns playing the melody, but is often undercut by the unashamedly cool (guitar? dulcimer? something else?) riff that opens and ends this track, to remind us not to take anything we see TOO seriously.
Basically, the theme perfectly blends demon and gunslinger, and I dig that.
Phoenix — X-Men: The Last Stand
This is one that a lot of people may have forgotten — and rightly so, since that probably means they were trying to rid their memory of the horrendous movie they heard it in. That’s unfortunate, because X-Men: The Last Stand and John Powell’s score show a bit of a supply-and-demand pattern: While the movie hits rock bottom, Powell’s score soars.
And it soars highest whenever Jean Grey’s Phoenix alter-ego appears onscreen. Her theme is haunting, vaguely foreign, but it also speaks to the unlimited power of the Phoenix. And like Jean, the raw energy and torment of the theme is matched by its occasionally ethereal beauty. This, truly, is something we’ve never seen before (or, you know, would be if the movie didn’t blow).
Batman — Batman
Yeah, well… yeah. There it is. I remember when Batman Begins hit the streets, certain circles entangled themselves in fervent debate over the absence of this theme from Nolan’s movie. Though ithe controversy seems a little distant now, even the video I embedded has comments on it that trumpet Elfman’s superiority over Zimmer’s, even though they don’t prefer Burton’s movie to Nolan’s.
And really, who can argue? Sure, Zimmer’s soundscape is effective, and memorable in its own right, but Elfman really captures the dark majesty of the Caped Crusader in his theme. This is a theme that suits a man devoted to being the winged spectre of the night.
It doesn’t hurt that a variant of this theme formed the backbone of Batman: The Animated Series, either. For a lot of people, this theme simply IS Batman.
Superman — Superman: The Movie
But iconic as Elfman’s Batman theme is, how can I deny this one its superiority? Superman’s theme is one of the most enduring tunes of John Williams’s career — which is saying a LOT. Unlike the Batman theme, the Superman march has been used in front of every feature film starring the character since its introduction in 1978 (except for Superman III, I think, which surely doesn’t count). And it’s easy to see why.
The tagline for Superman: The Movie was “You’ll believe a man can fly,” but the unwritten clarification had to have been, “when this theme blares through the theater (or television once home video is invented in ten years or so).”
Oh, and the news broke earlier this year that Hans Zimmer will be the man composing the score for Man of Steel. Between following Elfman’s Batman and Williams’s Superman, the German’s got guts.
Spider-man — Spider-man
Yes, the last two entries have been icons, but that doesn’t mean everything. Despite all their power, Elfman’s take on Spider-man is my favorite superhero theme to date. It captures so many sides of Spidey’s nature, evolving from an eerie opening that reflects the somewhat disturbing mutation that granted Spidey’s powers, to a lyrical climax that evokes the full-tilt wonder of swinging through New York City.
Its instrumentation is also more contemporary than a lot of the most memorable themes, blending synthesizers and live orchestra with choir. The eclectic blend that perfectly suits the contemporary/classic dichotomy Spider-man has to deal with quite well.
James Horner’s theme for the new movie, incidentally, is pretty good stuff. He doesn’t top this, though, on any level. Man, I’m going to go watch those opening titles again…
What about you? Did I miss any of your favorites? List them below!