The Sounds of the Superhero: The Greatest Comic Book Film Composers

On a breezy summer night in 2012, I stood with my dad and brother as we waited to enter the movie theater in a line that snaked behind the building itself. As my younger sibling and I stood there, we couldn’t help but attempt to predict the things we were about to witness on the big screen. Slowly the time neared the midnight hour, and the line began to file into the theater. We sat in our seats, still giggling in utter excitement for what we believed would be the movie event of our lives at the time. When the credits rolled, and the popcorn was all gone, I left the theater bouncing off the walls and couldn’t help but pump my fists in the air. Already I was rehearsing the same punches, throws, kicks, and blasts that I had just gloriously witnessed. All the while, I found myself humming the theme that would give me a new sense of adventure as I progressed through my life: the all too familiar and mesmerizing melody of The Avengers theme.

Music might not always have spoken words, yet it always speaks to people on levels beyond comprehension. It’s an amorphous form of art that has inspired, transformed and uplifted so many individuals. This is especially true in the film industry, as music has been integral to film from the beginning. Sometimes, music is just as important as the movie being presented; and often, there are messages embedded within the notes, tunes, and crescendos that dialogue and visual aesthetic alone simply cannot communicate.

Comic book films have not always been known to have the most memorable scores, but there are a few composers and films that stood the test of time to become the greatest pieces of superhero composition we have. The following examples are ones I believe that have defined music in comic book films. 

Walker

Shirley Walker

If I had one word to describe Shirley’s work in the musical field, it would be “authentic.” Many recognize her themes from the 1993 animated classic, Batman: Mask of The Phantasm, where her score not only fits its main character’s larger-than-life presence, but it complements that other-worldly feeling of the reasoning behind Batman’s sole mission: to become Gotham’s legend of the night. Along with her adherence to Batman’s mission, Shirley also managed to showcase the emotion behind every action that he took as Bruce throughout the movie. When he felt pain, the music amplified it. When he was triumphant over his enemies, Walker’s score boomed with the Dark Knight’s victory. When danger approached, you could count on the tune to shift in favor of the oncoming evil.

What was most unique of all in Shirley’s work for Mask of The Phantasm was the deafening choir voices echoing in the background. They sang in a strange language that mimicked the raw feelings of the corresponding dramatic scenes. Only when you listen closely to the mystifying songs of this ensemble can you make out what they are really saying: their own names backwards. This subtle yet effective detail is something that set Shirley apart from the other composers of her time. Beyond what Shirley Walker was able to accomplish in her score for this classic cartoon, she injected her own passion into a musical domain where male composers tended, and still tend, to dominate.

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“My education in film music came from watching tons of films.”

Danny Elfman

Danny Elfman is a staple name when it comes to comic book film scores. Whether it be 1989’s Batman and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, there’s no denying that Elfman’s work has helped shape what comic book movies often sound like.

Elfman’s work with Spider-Man, specifically, built upon the iconic themes that previous shows had founded. At the same time, Danny created his own future nostalgia-inducing themes using personalized melodies and crescendos. Elfman was able to create music that felt just as heroic and just as spectacular as Spider-Man himself. His Spider-Man theme will continue to be a timeless sensation as it ages.

Similarly to Elfman’s before mentioned Spider-Man score, Batman 1989’s score is just as nostalgic to many fans. His creative theme for the Dark Knight captured the gritty and grounded feeling no other superhero film to that point had been able to pull off. The theme continues to fit other versions of live-action Batman as well, even making an appearance in the recent Justice League movie. It’s this sense of great nostalgia that has made Elfman successful, bringing a whole new layer to the franchise for superheroes. His unique compositions continue to be the inspiration for many other works in the genre.

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“There’s a very basic human, non-verbal aspect to our need to make music and use it as part of our human expression. It doesn’t have to do with body movements, it doesn’t have to do with articulation of a language, but with something spiritual.”

John Williams

It’s no secret that John Williams is one of the most revolutionary composers of the century. His work on films like Jurassic Park and Star Wars resulted in some of the most recognizable themes in the history of cinema. Among these themes is another that has remained one of, if not the, most beloved superhero score of all time – Superman.   

For years, Superman lacked an iconic theme that rang true with audiences around the world. That is, it did until John Williams stepped up and composed his original score for the 1978 Superman movie directed by Richard Donner. While Christopher Reeve embodied the Man of Tomorrow from the Golden and Silver age comics, Williams created a theme that encompassed the thrilling, awe-inspiring concept of Superman. The elated chords and notes are grand, courageous, uplifting, and almost raise you off your seat, as if you were flying along with Superman himself.

Today, John’s iconic Superman theme is often the first thing anyone thinks of when the heroic figure comes to mind. It’s part of the reason why Donner’s film succeeded and is part of the reason why Superman is so iconic today.

Zimmer

“If you talk to any director, they’ll say music is fifty percent of the movie.”

Hans Zimmer

When it comes to modern movie music, Hans Zimmer’s work is pretty much the perfect example of peak craftsmanship. The way he crafts his beats, bass notes, and escalating crescendos is something no other composer has been able to mimic. It’s these skills that have allowed Zimmer to reinvent what accompanying music to comic book films should aspire to capture.

Christopher Nolan brought a new kind of Batman to the big screen with The Dark Knight Trilogy, one that was darker and more philosophical than most audiences had expected. Along with a different Batman, Hans invented a fresh slate of music to help characterize the vigilante. While being dark and gritty in nature, his music also grasped the intense emotions of the story. The scores in all three entries are bold, daring, and refined nearly flawlessly in its fullness.

Zimmer was then exposed to the world of Superman with Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel in 2013. After the more down-to-earth approach he took with the previous Dark Knight movies, it seemed like Hans wanted to try a different method in this situation. And different it was. Man of Steel’s soundtrack is an explosion of fresh and bombastic grandeur. When this was combined with Snyder’s immaculate iconography, the perfectly-paired amalgamation allowed the scenes to fully immerse you in the world Clark is experiencing. It’s subtle when appropriate, and epic when it needs to be while still carrying layer upon layer of raw emotion. I often listen to the soundtrack for competitions, school work, or when I simply need a lift in my spirits.

Batman v Superman gave the world its first movie with both Batman and Superman on the big screen. Zimmer retained his bombastic themes from Man of Steel, and managed to infuse another powerful attribute into the new themes. The music that plays throughout the course of the film radiates with the feeling of godlike beings being manipulated by an individual with vile intentions. It quite frankly grabs your attention and holds onto it, while still having the same emotional touch to it.

Hans Zimmer’s wasn’t afraid to make a change when it came to music. He dared to invent something everyone could recognize, relate to, and admire all at the same time. His work continues to be just as exciting and emotional as ever, sparking others to do the same with their passions.

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Rupert Gregson-Williams

Most were excited to hear that Rupert Gregson-Williams would helm the daring task of Wonder Woman, and oversee the composition for the female lead. Needless to say that he did not disappoint in the slightest.

Remember those posters that were released for the film before it hit theaters? The ones that said “Grace,” “Wisdom,” and “Wonder?” Those are the exact words that I would use to sum up Gregson-Williams’s stellar work for the movie. His ability to meld together graceful notations with feelings of both wisdom and wonder was amazing to hear for the first time. It also packed an energizing sense of power that could make anyone feel like they could take on the world, as dark and cynical as it may be. Gregson-Williams even managed to weave in Zimmer’s previously mentioned theme, solidifying it as the modern melody for Wonder Woman.

Gregson-Williams is set to score this year’s Aquaman, and I personally couldn’t be more excited. I’m certain that he will carry over the same level of power in his compositions, and give Jason Momoa an equally heartstring-tugging experience.

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Ludwig Göransson

Marvel Studios created a worldwide phenomenon with Black Panther, and much of its originality and creativity is credited to the composer for the soundtrack, Ludwig Göransson. The score was vibrant, fresh, and best of all, full of cultural influence. Wakanda was a completely different place than what most viewers had seen from a movie before. It had similar structures of African tribes, but incorporated a special present-day aesthetic as well. Ludwig’s score only enhanced that experience as the story unfolded. The dynamic effect of the soundtrack’s various songs deepened the intimacy of Ryan Coogler’s adaptation.

By far my favorite moments are when you can hear the voices of African tribesman singing in the background. It’s such a breath of ethereal warmth that pays respectable tribute to the real-life tribes that Black Panther is based upon. These cultural influences created a unique body of musical work that will surely carry Marvel ahead into its new phase of cinematic comic book glory.

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I still hum the same theme that played over the speakers when I watched the very first Avengers film, just as I sing a few of the previously mentioned scores to myself often. It’s the music that people connect to almost as strongly as the story or characters. It’s the music that connects the characters to the people watching. It’s the iconic, bombastic, authentic, vibrant, cultural, classic, and even revolutionary music that people remember the most. Next time you walk into a movie, excited about what you’re about to see, try thinking about what you are about to hear because sometimes, it’s the music that can make all the difference. Sometimes, it’s the music that stays with you more than the action, romance, drama, and imagery, as it enhances all of them to provide a movie-going experience that is exciting, enriching and super like its heroes.

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