Few characters fire our imaginations more than our favourite comic book heroes – but what is a superhero without a spine-tingling score to give them an identity and purpose? And what a rich history of superhero scores it is, everything from Gothic powerhouses to turbulent electronic textures and rousingly patriotic anthems.
In fact, compiling this list was a decidedly tricky task given the sheer variety on offer, eclectic scores like John Powell’s underrated Hancock and roaringly exciting ones like Brian Tyler’s Thor: The Dark World hitting the cutting room floor, so to speak. With that in mind, here are the 25 greatest superhero scores that embody the unforgettable spirit of these pop culture icons.
25. Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm (Shirley Walker, 1993)
The Dark Knight has been treated to a range of different approaches by a multitude of Hollywood’s finest composers (more of which, later). One of the most shamefully underrated is the late Shirley Walker’s lavishly engrossing score for this classic nineties animation, a feast of dark-hued emotion that can easily stand ground with the likes of Danny Elfman’s pioneering work. In fact given Walker’s background as an orchestrator on Elfman’s scores, she was almost certainly more influential on the overall tone of Batman than many realise.
See also: Shirley Walker, a Music In Film special
24. Ghost Rider (Christopher Young, 2007)
Yes, we all know it’s not one of the greatest superhero movies of all time and as ever, Nic Cage’s hairpiece deserves its own starring credit. Even so, the perennially underrated Young’s expert fusion of Gothic bombast (echoes of his Hellraiser masterpieces), Ennio Morricone-style Western inflections and rocking attitude perfectly captures the anarchic attitude of this undead, hell-dwelling, motorbike-riding hero.
23. The Phantom (David Newman, 1996)
One of the lesser nineties comic book actioners was certainly graced with one of the genre’s greatest scores. Best known for fare lighter fare like The War Of The Roses and Matilda, composer Newman here acquits himself more than admirably, drawing on the robust nature of Danny Elfman and Jerry Goldsmith whilst mixing in just the right amount of tongue-in-cheek fun. Billy Zane’s purple-suited hero may not be remembered much nowadays but the score deserves a second lease of life.
See also: revisiting The Phantom
22. The Dark Knight (Hans Zimmer, James Newton Howard, 2008)
The scores for Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy have come in for flack (not all of it undeserved) for wallowing in murky ambience and volume at the expense of a strong identity for the Caped Crusader. The score where it did all come together was this one, fusing the terrifying, buzzing strains of Zimmer’s Joker ‘theme’ with the steadily escalating tragedy of Newton Howard’s material for Harvey Dent. The central Batman theme is still unforgivably dull but there’s enough intriguing stuff around it to make the score worthwhile.
21. The Incredible Hulk (Craig Armstrong, 2008)
Widely regarded as one of the lesser movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Hulk was at least treated to some awesomely intelligent score work from Craig Armstrong, a composer best known for his lushly romantic collaborations with director Baz Luhrmann. The robust score proves Armstrong is the equal of his more celebrated action contemporaries, capturing both the human and brutish sides of Bruce Banner with engrossing flair whilst weaving it around a host of other ideas for the supporting players.
20. Hellboy II: The Golden Army (Danny Elfman, 2008)
Replacing Marco Beltrami (more on whom, later) for Guillermo del Toro’s fantastical sequel, genre veteran Elfman returns to the multi-faceted whimsy and wonder of much of the early portion of his career. However at the same time the complexity of the orchestrations is very much reminiscent of his late period work, often emphasising subtle motifs over clearly identifiable ideas. Nevertheless, there’s little denying that Elfman brilliantly captures the quirky, no-nonsense personality of Ron Perlman’s horned hero.
19. Judge Dredd (Alan Silvestri, 1995)
You can always rely on action veteran Silvestri for beefy and adrenaline-pumping themes, whether it’s the joie de vivre of Back To The Future, the suspense of Predator or the awe of The Abyss. Here, he gets under the skin of the 2000 AD comics anti-hero by fashioning a muscular, militaristic no-nonsense action extravaganza that’s far better than the somewhat crass movie deserves. Unlike a lot of contemporary action scores, this one is complex, sophisticated and listenable all at once.
See also: looking back at Judge Dredd
18. X-Men (Michael Kamen, 2000)
Die Hard and Lethal Weapon maestro Kamen would appear to have been the perfect choice to bring the X-Men to life in their highly influential big screen debut, given his skill with large-scale action set-pieces. Nevertheless the creation of the score was fraught, Kamen (niftily credited as K-Men in the movie) clashing with director Bryan Singer and being forced to dial down his thematically rich approach. Nevertheless the ethereal, otherworldly and strange nature of the ensuing music is the perfect intellectual fit for representing the mutant characters: a blend of the sinister and compassionate where humanity and alienness sit side by side.
17. The Crow (Graeme Revell, 1994)
Not all superheroes are kiddie friendly, and not all superhero scores play by the conventional rules. Revell’s brooding, churning score for this infamous Gothic extravaganza is an atypical entry on this list, mixing dark romance with grinding industrial rhythms to reflect the story’s essential themes of resurrection and revenge. It’s a complex, difficult score but one that does justice to the memory of star Brandon Lee who was notoriously killed in a shooting accident on set.
16. Thor (Patrick Doyle, 2011)
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has seen a multitude of different composers pass through its ranks; sensitive Scotsman Doyle here reunited with close collaborator and friend Kenneth Branagh for the enjoyably tongue-in-cheek story of the Norse God of Thunder (Chris Hemsworth). At times, Doyle appears to struggle reconciling his lyrical voice with the needs of the more processed modern-day action score; he’s on much safer ground with the swooningly romantic material for Thor and love interest Jane (Natalie Portman).
15. X-Men: The Last Stand (John Powell, 2006)
Less thoughtful than Michael Kamen’s sole X-Men score but more memorable and richly realised than John Ottman’s efforts, it’s a shame that Powell’s old-school soundtrack was utilised for one of the franchise’s weaker entries. In fact, it’s probably the most old-fashioned out of all the X-Men soundtracks, mixing up a multitude of different themes with a rollicking mixture of action-oriented and emotional material, cementing Powell’s status as one of the great film score voices of the modern age. Would that the more recent X-Men movies had his input.
14. Spider-Man (Danny Elfman, 2002)
Sam Raimi’s web slinging wonder was, along with X-Men, responsible for spearheading the current superhero movie boom. And key to the first Spider-Man’s success was the soaring score by Elfman, a potent mixture of his grandiose Batman overtones with the more contemporary, modernistic textures of his late 1990s work. The central theme for our hero Peter Parker remains one of Elfman’s most rousing but tensions between him and Raimi on Spider-Man 2 meant the third score was completed by Christopher Young.
13. Supergirl (Jerry Goldsmith, 1984)
You can’t help but feel sorry for Jerry Goldsmith. Whereas his contemporary and friend John Williams got to make his mark on the first Superman movie, Goldsmith was stuck with this lumpen, campy effort that possessed not one ounce of Supes’ sophistication. But lack of merit never stopped the legendary Goldsmith from over-delivering on a project and that’s exactly what he did here, fashioning a more light-hearted but equally engrossing counterpoint to Williams’ more celebrated work, a fun and beautifully sweeping score that’s way better than the naff movie deserved.
12. Iron Man 3 (Brian Tyler, 2013)
Traversing the divide between Hans Zimmer’s processed, controversial superhero sound and the rip-roaring Golden Age scores of old, Tyler’s Iron Man effort performs the accomplished feat of being both modernistic and old-fashioned at the same time. Honouring the tongue-in-cheek humour of Robert Downey Jr.’s hero whilst also giving his journey a suitably epic sweep, Tyler hinges everything on the sort of rousingly bombastic theme Tony Stark deserves; its fabulously swinging rendition over the end credits meanwhile is a riot. It was this score that paved the way for Tyler’s Thor: The Dark World and Avengers: Age Of Ultron.
11. Batman Returns (Danny Elfman, 1992)
Tim Burton’s Batman sequel saw him, in the wake of the success of Edward Scissorhands, liberated from studio interference and able to conjure a far more personally twisted world on-screen. The wintry, fairy-tale nature of Batman Returns informs the somewhat different approach Danny Elfman took with his score, one possessed of a more whimsically offbeat nature than its muscular predecessor. With themes for Batman, Catwoman and The Penguin all in play, it’s perhaps more a more ambitious work even though the chilly tonality of the various ideas does occasionally make it more repetitive.
10. Captain America: The First Avenger (Alan Silvestri, 2011)
Director Joe Johnston’s Captain America origin story remains one of the pulpiest, most visually distinctive and flat-out entertaining Marvel movies to date. He also made the inspired choice of getting Silvestri on-board, a veteran of melodic, old-school action as heard in classics like Back To The Future and Predator. The composer’s characteristically muscular writing feels like a throwback to a different era of film music, an old-fashioned approach that is absolutely perfect for bringing Chris Evans’ patriotic Star Spangled Man to life.
9. Ant-Man (Christoph Beck, 2015)
The ‘revolving door’ of composers throughout the Marvel Cinematic Universe has led to an eclectic if scattershot array of scores that vary wildly in quality. However, it was Frozen composer Beck that gave the music of the franchise a real kick in the pants, drawing on the heist movie stakes of the storyline to conjure a deliciously retro accompaniment that, ironically, is the most refreshing and original score heard in a Marvel movie to date. With overtones of past masters like Lalo Schifrin, John Barry and Jerry Goldsmith, Beck’s music is a rigorously old-fashioned delight.
8. The Incredibles (Michael Giacchino, 2004)
Who said all superhero movies had to be live-action, or even based on a pre-existing source? Brad Bird’s Pixar classic remains one of the genre’s most entertaining as Mr. and Mrs Incredible, along with their super-powered children, are coaxed out of retirement to tackle a dangerous threat. Accompanying every moment of super-strength and stretchy limbs is Giacchino’s wonderful pastiche score, a brassy, ballsy blast that sounds like the best John Barry score that John Barry never wrote (the latter was asked to do the movie but turned it down).
7. The Amazing Spider-Man (James Horner, 2012)
Although the late noughties offered a wealth of superb superhero scores (as this list hopefully demonstrates), the artificially bulked up approach of Hans Zimmer and his cohorts was also having a detrimental effect. Arriving like a breath of fresh air was the late, great Horner’s music for director Marc Webb’s arachnid reboot, a richly satisfying blend of memorable melodies, exciting action and soothing romance. Defying any current trends in contemporary blockbuster music, Horner’s work is singularly melodic and robust, a throwback to classic scores of old.
6. Unbreakable (James Newton Howard, 2000)
M. Night Shyamalan’s deft and atmospheric riffing on comic book conventions revolves around Bruce Willis’ enigmatic David Dunn, who may or may not be a superhero, and his brittle-boned opposite Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson). Although regular collaborator Newton Howard’s eerie music is understandably devoid of the bolder trappings usually associated with the genre, in its own discreet way it fashions a distinctive superhero identity of its own, steadily building a sense of purpose and brilliantly capturing the emotional arc of Willis’ character.
5. Hellboy (Marco Beltrami, 2004)
The horned Hellboy doesn’t play by the rules of the usual superhero with his devilish visage, wicked sense of humour and cigar-chomping attitude. Blending a host of genres together, including Western stylistics and opera along with a rousing central theme, Scream composer Beltrami mirrors the unpredictable and irreverent nature of our central character brilliantly. It remains one of the most varied and creative superhero scores of the modern era, Beltrami working closely with director Guillermo del Toro to give Hellboy a distinct musical identity.
4. The Rocketeer (James Horner, 1991)
Following its initially disappointing reception, in recent years Joe Johnston’s retro comic book blast has come in for a warm re-appraisal, its tone clearly influencing the more recent likes of Tomorrowland. Key to the film’s impact is the soaringly exciting score by Horner, surely one of the best-ever musical depictions of the wonder of flight, and the kind of unashamedly bold score that used to be so prevalent in this genre. When it comes to sheerly rousing fun it’s hard to beat Horner’s central theme, one of the greatest pieces in an extraordinary career.
3. The Shadow (Jerry Goldsmith, 1994)
It says a lot for Goldsmith’s formidable abilities that he only scored two comic book movies in his career yet indelibly left his stamp on the genre. His very best is undoubtedly the score for this somewhat underrated, kitschy actioner, one based on Walter B. Gibson’s 1931 creation and with Alec Baldwin in the starring role. Proving once again that he was the best action composer in the business, Goldsmith’s Gothic powerhouse of a score expertly walks the divide between spine-tingling wonder and self-aware camp, a thunderously exciting creation that demands more attention than it gets.
2. Superman (John Williams, 1978)
Audiences had never seen anything like Richard Donner’s Superman when it rolled around in the late 1970s, everything from the cutting edge wire work to Christopher Reeve’s endearing central performance working in absolute harmony. Although some of the effects creak when compared to today’s output, Reeve’s performance and, especially, Williams’ majestically inspiring score continue to invest the movie with a sense of gravitas and emotion that few others can match. Anchored by that iconic central theme that’s pure adrenaline in and of itself, Williams’ soundtrack is one of two key pinnacles in the annals of music written for comic book movies.
1. Batman (Danny Elfman, 1989)
Looking back on it now, the appointment of Danny Elfman as the keeper of the Batman flame was an incredible risk, a plum assignment for a relatively green composer fresh from a rock and roll background with relatively few score credits to his name. That only serves to make Elfman’s engrossing achievement all the more incredible, the composer (working around songs from the late, lamented Prince) throwing caution to the wind and fashioning an indelible central theme that brilliantly captures the tortured complexities of the Caped Crusader. The tone of Elfman’s first Batman score – brooding yet keenly aware of its pulpy comic book origins, robustly exciting yet suitably tongue in cheek – was to prove enormously influential on virtually all superhero scores in the subsequent decades, as well as Elfman’s ensuing work with director Tim Burton. Even today, the score resonates with the same sense of freshness and excitement as when it was first released.
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