I was recently playing a bunch of superhero scores, and I started thinking about how the quality of a musical score has nothing to do with the quality of the movie it appears in (idea for a future article: 10 brilliant scores for crappy movies). I also played the game Lego Batman 2 with my son which features heavily both Batman and Superman, brilliantly interweaning both of their iconic film scores. In recent years, Marvel has definitely taken the lead at the box office, but who wins the music battle?
For the purpose of this article, I’ll stick with movies and TV shows, and I’m more interested in the highlights than the low points. (I guess I’m a glass half full kind of guy).
In the blue corner, we’ve got the venerable DC Comics, part of the Warner Bros empire. Its origin goes back to 1934 when National Allied Publications was created, but a few years later, they were purchased by the Detective Comics Inc who went on to introduce in 1938 Action Comics featuring Superman, probably the most widely known superhero of all time. The year after, in Detective Comics #27, Batman was introduced and the company’s cornerstones were laid. Other heroes would join the roster, most notably Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Arrow and Green Lantern.
In the red corner, we’ve got Marvel Comics, part of the Disney empire. The modern day Marvel was established in 1961, but the company can trace its origins back to 1939 as Timely Publications, and later Atlas Comics. Most of their characters can be traced back to the titles launched in the sixties, most of them created by Stan Lee, along with artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. Their most notable characters include Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, Captain America and Iron Man.
SUPERMAN – DC Comics
Superman’s media career started very early in the 40’s with radio serials and a fantastic series of short animated films by Fleischer Animation. He made the jump to the big screen in 1942 in a series of serials, then TV in 1952. Never really absent from popular media throughout his history, he was notably featured in a 4 film series starting in 1978 with Christopher Reeve in the title role, two TV shows (The Adventures of Lois & Clark and Smallville) as well as two more movies in the 21st century. For a full list of his media appearances (and it’s a big one), check out Superman in Other Media on Wikipedia.
1- The first piece of music devoted to Superman was the Fleischer cartoons’ theme. (The radio show did not have a title theme but did coin the tag line “Up in the sky! Look! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superman!”)
The theme has an old fashioned heroic feel, and plays well against the visuals. I like it.
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2- “You’ll believe a man can fly” was the tagline for the 1978 Superman movie directed by Richard Donner. The year before, Star Wars had completely changed our expectations of a summer blockbuster movie, but Superman completely lived up to our hopes. The special effects were great, and the casting of Christopher Reeve was perfect. But for me, what made Superman fly was John Williams’s theme. A theme that might just be the best piece of film music of all time. Its multiple sections allowed Williams to score Superman’s action differently depending on context, and to build up the excitement.
The first fanfare sectionis played slowly, and serves as the majestic theme to the character. The build up section that comes afterwards is the call to action. And then there’s the main part of the theme. Every boy whoe ver heard that wanted to tie a towel around his neck, put his fist forward and run around the house pretending he’s flying. Come on, admit it. You want to do it right now. And then there’s the lyrical part of the theme that explores the human side (by adoption) of Superman. It’s also the Love Theme (from Superman’s point of view.).
Even the show Smallville had no choice but to use this music for its finale where Clark Kent finally becomes Superman.
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3- Speaking of Smallville, the show went in an entirely different direction for its theme by using a rock song that really dates the show now. Pass.
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4- After an attempted continuation of the film series with Superman Returns, Man of Steel rebooted the franchise, cutting off all ties to the old version. Hans Zimmer became the only composer (to my knowledge) to score both Batman and Superman with a theme that doesn’t try to out heroic Williams, but goes for quiet intensity (and there’s quite the Vangelis vibe in parts). It worked well with the grimmer version of Superman, but ultimately fails to stick with the listener. Too bad: Superman deserves something epic. Are John Williams’ shoes to big to fill? How do you follow perfection?
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Spider-Man – Marvel Comics
Spider-Man has also accumulated a long musical trail over it’s 51 year existence. But we need to start at what I think is the character’s first musical representation: the 1967 cartoon series
1- It embodies the swinging (pun intended) sixties perfectly as well as the character’s irrelevant humour. And it describes in 60 seconds exactly what Spider-Man is. What a great song!
Even the Ramones covered it.
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We’ll forget the short lived live action TV Series of the 70’s, and skip the many animated series and go straight to the movie adaptations.
2- Danny Elfman scores the first 2 live action series. By this time, his superhero pedigree is well established (has any composer scored more super powered heroes than Elfman?), but he manages to come up with a theme that’s more subdued, but has a slight tongue in cheek tone that fits the character well.
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The rebooted Spider-Man franchise brought us scores by James Horner and Hans Zimmer. Horner’s score was good, if only a little generic. And no one expected an actual melodic theme out of Hans Zimmer after his Batman movies, but he actually came up with something cool. Combined together they give another point to Marvel.
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He's also a regular contributor at the very rad site Montreal Rampage