Between Marvel, DC, Dark Horse and everything in between, audiences have been bombarded with movie after movie based on popular superhero characters from comic books. In the early days of comic book movies (read: Batman and Superman), it was easy for each character to have his or her own distinctive theme music playing when they first entered the screen, much like a professional wrestler entering an arena. While John Williams is easily the most prolific composer to have ever worked in Hollywood, he’s not the only person to provide the world with memorable themes from superhero movies.
As more and more superhero-themed movies hit theaters over the next decade (close to forty in the next few years alone) composers will release hundreds of new songs and themes to match up with them. Of the hundreds of tracks already in circulation, most, while appropriate within the context of a scene, have become mostly forgettable by all but the most avid of cinephiles. In an in-depth video by the folks at Every Frame a Painting titled The Marvel Symphonic Universe, they explore why most Marvel superhero themes aren’t memorable (an argument for a later time), but that got us thinking, “What ARE the best musical superhero songs to ever be released?”
To that end, we give you the 15 Best Musical Themes from Superhero Movies…
***Note: You’ll find links to playlists on Spotify and YouTube containing all 15 selections at the end of this post.***
15. Ant-Man – “Theme from Ant-Man”
Composer: Christophe Beck
Beck has been writing quality music in Hollywood since 1993, which is why Marvel tapped him to produce the classical score for their tiny movie, Ant-Man. Beck more than delivered on his contract by writing 26 different tracks that highlighted the scenes they were attached to quite nicely. Unlike a lot of musical soundtracks, Beck kept the majority of his offerings on the short side (most clock in between one and two minutes in duration).
We chose “Theme from Ant-Man” for our list, because with its fast, staccato tempo, percussive spy-like mood (appropriate for what is essentially a superhero heist movie) and powerful horn section, we feel it really captures the overall tone of the movie. While listening to it, you can almost see Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) running with the ants or flying acrobatically astride Ant-Thony.
14. Iron Man 3 – “Can You Dig It?”
Composer: Brian Tyler
During his nearly-two decade long composing career in Hollywood, Tyler has written the musical scores for many recognizable movies, including: Rambo, The Expendables, Battle: Los Angeles, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He’s no stranger to superhero movies either, having also provided the soundtracks for Constantine, and Thor: The Dark World. He’ll be a busy bee in the coming months, as his work schedule is highlighted by big-budgt upcoming projects like Fast 8, The Mummy and Power Rangers.
While most of his tracks for the Iron Man 3 soundtrack heavily feature an overdriven guitar, while incorporating a more classical style, it’s his “Can You Dig It?” track that really stands out to us. Written more like a lyric-less rock song than an actual symphonic ensemble, Tyler deftly blends a rock band feel with an entire orchestra, giving the song a peppy, feel good beat — which made it very appropriate for the end credits in which it’s predominantly featured.
13. Deadpool – “Maximum Effort”
Composer: Junkie XL (Tom Holkenborg)
Holkenborg is widely known for his industrial musical tracks behind some great action films, but fans generally recognize him as Junkie XL. The Netherlands-born composer’s tracks on movies such as Divergent, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Mad Max: Fury Road really enhance each scene they are attached to, and usually stand out during high-paced action sequences. He even has some spectacular tracks on Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and will be adding his own flare to the upcoming Justice League soundtrack.
Listening to his “Maximum Effort” track for Deadpool (the title itself is a stellar throwback to the lead character), you can feel the energy level bursting forth in every note. The high-intensity industrial tune fits every aspect of Deadpool as a character during a scene where he’s battling bad guys on the highway. There are other great musical moments in Deadpool, but this track is the one we like the best.
12. Iron Man – “Fireman”
Composer: Ramin Djawadi
When compared to many other composers on this list Djawadi, has a relatively young Hollywood career, but it’s no less impressive. Not only has he scored movies (including the superhero movie Blade: Trinity), but he’s found success scoring a litany of television shows, such as Blade: The Series, Prison Break and Flashforward, as well as Game of Thrones, The Strain and HBO’s upcoming Westworld adaptation. The 41 year old from Duisburg, Germany has clearly left his mark in the industry.
The Iron Man soundtrack as a whole works very well when listened to against backdrop of a scene, but individually, there aren’t many aspects of the tracks themselves that stand apart from each other. Scenes of Tony’s test flight in the Mark II and his interaction with the F-22 Raptors have great music behind them, but they’re essentially all riffs on the “Fireman” track played during the scene where Tony escapes from terrorist cave — which is why we chose it for this list.
11. Big Hero 6 – “First Flight”
Composer: Henry Jackman
Though his time in Hollywood only encompasses 10 years, Jackman has managed to compose quite a few amazing theatrical soundtracks. The classically-trained Englishman’s first big project was scoring Monsters vs. Aliens for Dreamworks, and he got his first crack at a superhero movie with Kick-Ass a year later. Jackman makes his first appearance on our list with his score for the animated film, Big Hero 6.
When people think of “that song from Big Hero 6” they generally referring to the emo/punk song “Immortals” by Fall Out Boy. While it’s a great song in its own right, it doesn’t quite reach the bar set by most of Jackman’s classical tracks from the film. We could easily pick any number of tracks to emphasize, but it’s through “First Flight” that audiences can feel that pure exhilaration Hiro felt the first moment he gets to fly around San Fransoyko on Baymax’s back.
10. X-Men: First Class – “First Class”
Composer: Henry Jackman
While Jackman’s effort on the Big Hero 6 soundtrack is excellent, it falls just behind his other score on our list. Though he’s provided the soundtracks to Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War, it’s his work on X-Men: First Class that is the most impressive. In Big Hero 6, Jackman kept the music lively and fun (it’s animated after all) but for this project, he really let his classical training shine through, which is why we’ve put this track in our Top 10.
Throughout the three and a half minute track, titled “First Class”, Jackman makes grand use of the string section to drive the song (something typically done with the percussion section). He then craftily layers long horn swells overtop to give the whole piece a grandiose feel. Finally, as the song near completion, he ramps up the energy by bringing in a drums and overdriven electric guitar, while the other components of the track continue playing their original segments. It’s like a mutant version of “Row Row Your Boat”.
9. Captain America: The First Avenger – “Captain America”
Composer: Alan Silvestri
It’s possible that the only composer in Hollywood with a music career longer than Alan Silvestri (and still working today) would be the iconic James Williams. In fact, Silvestri and Williams scoring styles are so similar that general audiences often credit Williams with providing the iconic soundtrack for the Back to the Future franchise, when in fact, it was Silvestri who actually provided the score.
While he’s done every genre and subgenre imaginable, the prolific composer (he has a 120 titles to his name) didn’t get a chance to score a superhero movie until Joss Whedon asked him to join MCU franchise, starting with Captain America: The First Avenger. Though it’s almost the last one on the album, the “Captain America” track is a beautiful blend of dramatic horns, cymbals, and a hefty percussion section, all laid over strings that combine the opening and ending song credits into one complete tune. It’s majestic and properly conveys the spirit of the movie in less than four minutes.
8. Batman Begins – “Molossus”
Composer: James Newton Howard/Hans Zimmer
Howard is one of those composers who have become a staple to filmmakers in Hollywood. Over the course of his three-decade long film career, Howard has composed the scores for every type of movie genre including: Pretty Woman, The Sixth Sense, and I Am Legend. However, the duo of Howard and Zimmer outdid themselves with the score for the first film in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Saga, Batman Begins. It was the first time in the superhero subgenre that the soundtrack was just as popular as the film in many regards — not just one or two special tracks, but the entire album.
Choosing just one song from this score is tough to do, because they’re all fantastic. An argument can be made that either “Vespertilio” (the movie’s opening track) or “Barbastella” are better pieces musically, but “Molossus” ties both of those previous tracks together in a way that fully resolves each of them. Whether it’s the driving percussive beat of the bass drums and tympani or the slow-building horn swells, this track leaves a dark, heavy impact on the movie. Fun fact: The tracks are titled after species of bats.
7. X2: X-Men United – “Suite from X-Men 2”
Composer: John Ottman
The modern age of superhero movies started in 2000 with Bryan Singer’s adaptation of X-Men. Had it failed (which it did not, obviously) then it’s possible we wouldn’t have a plethora of superhero movies to even discuss right now. However, its success paved the way for Sony to make Spider-Man and additional X-Men titles. While Michael Kamen’s score for that film was adequate, it was little more than background music for individual scenes. It wasn’t until the sequel, when John Ottman was brought in, that the movie received anything resembling a theme song.
Ottman had worked with Singer on past projects, so this was an easy collaboration for the pair. Since that time, he’s provided the excellent scores for a total of 8 superhero movies — to say he’s qualified would be an understatement. His track, “Suite from X-Men 2” makes the Top 10 because it’s a full-on traditional orchestrated masterpiece. He starts off by giving audiences a memorable theme to associate with the film during the opening credits. He then softly brings it down, allowing the tune a second to breathe, just before a dazzling horn section drives it all back home.
6. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – “Is She With You? (Wonder Woman theme)”
Composer: Hans Zimmer/Junkie XL
We’ve previously discussed Junkie XL/Tom Holkenborg’s musical movie creations, but now it’s time to discuss one of the best classical composers in Hollywood — Hans Zimmer. With nearly 200 titles to his name, Zimmer has given so many fantastic contributions to the world of cinema that we had a hard time limiting it to just 15 when ranking them. Most accomplished composers (Elfman, Williams, Silvestri) have a particular style and sound that’s generally associated with them, something Zimmer has managed, for the most part, to avoid during his long career.
For Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Zimmer composed an excellent, robust score that superbly followed the ebb and flow of the many complicated scenes designed by director Zack Snyder. For her grand entrance into the movie (the first time the audience sees her in battle armor), Zimmer collaborated with Junkie XL to create a powerful, high-energy track — “Is She With You? (Wonder Woman’s Theme)” — that hits listeners in the face with a thunderous bass drum rhythm and an electric cello played by world-class cellist Tina Guo, mixed with classical symphonic orchestration.
5. Spider-Man – “Main Title”
Composer: Danny Elfman
Having touched the musical scores of over 100 different projects during his career, there’s very little chance anyone isn’t familiar with the work of Danny Elfman. Often cited for his many collaborations with Tim Burton, his compositions generally have a dark tone about them, with a sprinkling of light, peppy moments scattered throughout to break things up. He would go on to score Spider-Man 2, but the more-than-serviceable Christopher Young was brought in for Spider-Man 3.
For this movie, as he did with Batman, Elfman decidedly chose to created a theme song for ol’ Web Head — a recognizable tune that was sustainable enough to extend throughout key moments of the film that audiences could quickly associate with Spider-Man. From the staccato bongo beats, to the blistering low brass, to the haunting choral voices, his “Main Title” theme playing during the opening credits is a great example of what a superhero theme song should be.
4. The Avengers – “The Avengers”
Composer: Alan Silvestri
There’s no doubt that when discussing Hollywood composers, Alan Silvestri’s name is near the top of the list, so it should be no surprise to see him crack the Top 5 in our list. While his work on the Captain America: The First Avenger soundtrack was amazing, he didn’t really give any of the characters one unified sound until The Avengers. While many people could choose “Assemble” as the most memorable track from the movie’s score, it’s very fleeting and doesn’t completely highlight the quality of the tune.
We picked “The Avengers” as the best track from the movie (played during the end credits) because it recalls the team’s theme song from earlier in the movie. It easily reminds listeners that the Earth now has a mighty band of warriors and heroes to protect it from virtually any threat (alien or domestic) that may try to harm us. Silvestri does a really nice job of mixing massive horn swells and an incredible string section with unique percussion sounds here, ensuring that any listener will quickly associate the tune with Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.
3. Man of Steel – “What Are You Going to Do When You’re Not Saving the World?”
Composer: Hans Zimmer
Hans Zimmer is easily one of the best composers in the Hollywood, so it’s not surprising to see something created by him as one of our Top 3 selections. While many fans will undoubtedly debate the merits of Zack Snyder’s vision for the DCEU with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice for years to come, virtually no one can deny how powerful Zimmer’s score is throughout the shared universe’s first installment, Man of Steel. However, for this score, he needed to create something that could stand on its own, without the shadow of John Williams’ iconic Superman theme looming overhead.
“What Are You Going to Do When You’re Not Saving the World?” begins playing during the final moments of the movie and leads into the end credits. Zimmer slowly builds the tension for the first part of the song, using sober piano notes to guide listeners on a musical journey that mimics Superman’s. As the song continues to build, it becomes so musically complex that your brain may find itself questioning whether it will be able to handle all the layers. But finally, he brings it all together for a robust, hard-hitting, theme that fits nicely alongside the modern take on the Last Son of Krypton.
2. Batman – “The Batman Theme”
Composer: Danny Elfman
After the Superman franchise took a nosedive in the ’80s, Warner Bros. turned to its other big name hero to save their box office bacon – Batman. With Michael Keaton under the cowl, Jack Nicholson behind the makeup and Tim Burton behind the camera, the studio only needed turn to Danny Elfman as composer to complete the team. Elfman did more than just deliver an amazing score for the movie: he created an iconic theme song for the Caped Crusader that has yet to be matched.
Using a blend of traditional orchestra (which includes woodwinds, brass and percussion), with choral voices layered on top for a haunting effect, Elfman has created a truly unique theme song for Batman. The theme endured for years, and a version of it was even laid over the infamous opening sequence of the beloved ’90s TV show, Batman: The Animated Series.
Much like the onscreen battle that took place between the two comic book titans this summer in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (but with less “Martha!”), Elfman’s “The Batman Theme” from the 1989 film went up against Williams’ Superman theme for superiority, but in the end wound up as number two on our list — though truthfully, either track could be in either spot.
1. Superman – “Theme from Superman”
Composer: John Williams
At 84-years old, John Williams is quite possibly the oldest active composer working in Hollywood today. Since 1956, he’s provided the iconic soundtracks to many of the most popular movies in the world, including: The Star Wars franchise, The Harry Potter franchise, Jaws, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, and the Jurassic Park/World franchise. His outstanding cinematic musical reach is unparalleled, having won over 100 awards during his lifetime, including five Oscar wins.
Because of his brass heavy marches and beautiful use of the woodwind section (a component modern composers often neglect), his style is often compared to great composers such as John Philip Sousa or Aaron Copland. There was some debate about whether Williams iconic, almost legendary, “Theme from Superman” should reside at the number one or number two spot on our list. While placing the track at the top may seem a bit cliché, all you have to do is listen to the song to realize the accolades are genuinely earned.
You can hear all these great songs via a playlist on YouTube (HERE) or Spotify (HERE). Did we miss any songs from superhero movies that you felt deserved to be on our top 15 list? Are there any songs on here you disagree with? Tell us about it in the comments section.