"Spider-Man, Spider-Man, does what ever a spider can. Spins a web any size, catches thieves just like flies. Look out! Here comes the Spider-Man." I'm guessing you probably sang that in your head as you started reading, as it is hard not too. #Music has long been an important part of the superhero identity. Back when Superman hit screens in '78, legendary composer John Williams crafted a theme that would become an intrinsically part of the Man of Steel's identity.
For a while, the superhero theme was widely important. 2000's X-Men had creative motifs for each character and a significant score, created by Michael Kamen. The Sam Raimi Spider-Man films, composed by Danny Elfman, have distinct and memorable music. Everything was going as it should in the world of film scoring, until a couple of cultural phenomena happened: 1) the creation of the MCU and 2) film scoring quickly became a dying art.
The MCU Helped Kill Film Scoring
Throughout the history of filmmaking, one of the key aspects was the film's musical component. This was incredibly vital during the time of silent films and early talkies, but as the art progressed, the use of film scoring was progressing right alongside it. Key examples include: The Jazz Singer, Hitchcock's Psycho, Lawrence of Arabia, Star Wars, Forest Gump, Beauty and the Beast and many, many more.
Unfortunately, around the turn of the century, film scoring suddenly became less important. To some, the answer was to blame the studio heads and directors who didn't want the music to overshadow the film. To others (generally older composers), it was a lack of new, ambitious talent in the industry. Is either group correct, or are there are factors to contribute? Of course, there is a lot to debate on the subject, but one thing is clear: film scoring is a dying art.
It's a pretty widely accepted idea that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been front and center when it comes to unmemorable (sometimes even poor) film scores. With the predictability, lack of visceral effect and lack of memorability — compounded with the cultural shift in the industry away from noticeable music — the MCU has severely suffered in their film scores. Despite such talents as Alan Silvestri, Alan Menken, Ramin Djawadi and more, the MCU has largely failed to create lasting music.
What About DC Superheroes?
With the help of the incredible #HansZimmer, the DCEU has not suffered the same treatment of their film scores as the MCU has. However, aside from Man of Steel's theme and Wonder Woman's motif in Batman V Superman, the music has seen a similar decline in importance and memorability. Yet, within the past year, this trend among the superhero genre (although the problem exists across Hollywood) has seen significant improvements, and it seems we might just be turning around — superhero film scores may just be important again.
Modern Superhero Films Hold The Key
With the recent success of Wonder Woman, much of the focus (rightfully so) has been on Gal Gadot's impressive performance and Patty Jenkins outstanding directing. However, part of the success also lies in Wonder Woman's score, composed by Rupert Gregson-Williams. Gregson-Williams is the latest in a string of superhero composers who have revitalized the importance of music to the identity of superheroes.
Notable composers include Mark Giachinno (Doctor Strange and Spider-Man: Homecoming), Marco Beltrami (Logan) and, of course, Rupert Gregson-Williams (Wonder Woman). Add Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2's use of the Awesome Mixtape and suddenly you have a whole string of superhero movies in which the music is a hugely important part of the experience. In order to understand the importance of this shift, we should look at each film individually and what the composers did with the music.
Doctor Strange — Mark Giacchino
Doctor Strange was a pretty successful venture into mysticism, and the music matched. Unfortunately, Giacchino fell into some of the same holes as his fellow MCU composers. Whether that is because of studio control or other factor is unknown; however, the score lacked in several areas and was oftentimes overshadowed.
Fortunately, Giacchino made up for that fact with some seriously intriguing pieces. Two of the best pieces of the score, "A Long Strange Trip" and "Astral Doom," are creative and unique — and aren't largely overshadowed by the action or visuals happening on screen. Instead, the film score Giacchino creates is reminiscent of classic film scores in which the score is part of the overall product and not just a background sound to add noise.
While the score certainly lacks in certain areas, it is one of the stronger film scores in the MCU arsenal. Giacchino is also responsible for composing the music of this summer's Spider-Man: Homecoming, a short snippet of which we've already heard, and it is shaping up to be great!
Logan — Marco Beltrami
While many superhero film scores rely on huge, wondrous symphonies and full orchestras, Marco Beltrami's approach to composing Logan was completely unexpected. One of my first takeaways leaving the theater was that Beltrami's minimalist score was a breath of fresh air and, surprisingly, it worked.
Logan proved many things about the superhero genre, mainly that bigger is not always better. Beltrami's score is simple, yet impactful. It follows Logan, Charles and Laura on their journey, and it manages to pull emotion from the audience. That visceral effect is one of the key components that has been largely absent from the superhero industry for a long time. Logan's score is brilliant and it stayed true to the tone and overall narrative of the film while still integrating itself as a vital part of the movie.
One of the many things Beltrami did really well when composing Logan was giving the characters distinguishable and memorable themes that had strong emotional ties to the individuals. Take for example "Old Man Logan," "Don't Be What They Made You," and "Eternum (Laura's Theme)" — all three of those songs played to the strengths and weaknesses of the characters, and did so masterfully without overpowering the scene or being regulated to the background where no one noticed.
Beltrami made an important decision to connect all of the characters musically, whether through using the same instruments for Laura and Logan's themes, inverting the Logan/Laura fight music to create the Logan/X-24 fight music, or repeating the same two-note ostinato throughout the film. In an interview with IndieWire, Beltrami talked about this connection, saying, “It’s very simple but I wanted it to be connected and all from the same family." Hats off to Beltrami for a magnificent, minimalist film score!
Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 2 — Awesome Mixtape Vol 2
Although composer Tyler Bates should be recognized for his original compositions for the film, what really stands out about the Guardians of the Galaxy score (this goes for both the first one and the sequel) is the use of the Awesome Mixtape. Director James Gunn and the rest of the creative team did an excellent job finding songs that fit with the tone, style, theme and characters of the film.
As a continuation from the first film, the Awesome Mixtape Vol. 2 is a collection of wonderful songs that Star-Lord has kept with him throughout his travels across the universe. They serve not only to inform about Quill's human origins and backstory, but they are also pivotal in telling us about his mother, his father, his daddy and other characters that play a role in the movie. It's a great use of already established music that pushes the plot and tells us a lot about the characters.
Wonder Woman — Rupert Gregson-Williams
Wonder Woman is perhaps one of the most influential and inspiring superhero films ever created. There is one scene in particular, being referred to as "No Man's Land," which is sure to go down as one of the greatest scenes of all time in a superhero film. During that scene, Gregson-Williams wrote an incredible piece that I believe will become as iconic as Superman's theme or as recognizable as John Murphy's "Sunshine (Adagio in D minor)," which is used in dozens of superhero (and other) trailers.
The piece is truly brilliant and it helps make the scene amazing. Seeing Wonder Woman tread across the land no man can cross — deflecting bullets and proving she is the hero the world needs — has filled audiences with awe. What is important is why Gregson-Williams wrote this piece the way he did. That scene could have been much more dramatic and aggressive, but director Patty Jenkins was keen on avoiding that sound. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Gregson-Williams discussed this particular scene and how he had to write it three or four times before he and Jenkins were happy with it (another sign that it's important to have a director who understands the importance of music to a film). In the interview he stated,
"It's the moment when she first understands some of the strengths she has as a superhero...It's a journey of understanding, rather than running across No Man's Land and going to beat it up."
It worked tremendously well and, along with the rest of the score, it is one of the most recognizable and memorable superhero film scores in recent memory. Gregson-Williams watched the films numerous times in order to understand all of the characters, and that understanding correlates the film score we got.
The big trend here is what the composers are choosing to focus on in their scores: characters. Think back to the earlier examples of Superman, Spider-Man, and X-Men — part of the success there was that the music was tied to the identity of the hero. In much the same way, Gianchinno made the music important to the characters of Doctor Strange, Beltrami's minimalism lent itself to the intimacy of Logan's relationship with Charles and Laura, the Awesome Mixtape — although largely pop songs — informed the audience of who these groups of outcasts and misfits are (and who they have grown into since their first outing), and Gregson-Williams utilized his musical prowess to showcase who Diana is and what it means to be a hero. That is what is important; that is why film scores have become relevant to the superhero genre again — a return to the focus of the character.
What is your favorite superhero score?