Geek Cinema: Top-Ten All Time Pieces of Superhero Music
May 18, 2012 by     12 Comments    Posted In: Columns, Geek Cinema

Avengers Soundtrack CDIf the clothes make the man, then the music makes the hero. I’m a collector of film scores; love ‘em, love ‘em to death. I only buy the ones that really stand out, though, the ones that, when I see the film, I notice. With superhero films and TV shows so prolific these days we’ve been inundated with music that goes along with those costumed crusaders, so much so to the point where some of them are really starting to come off as generic. But in the art of superhero music composition, just as in any art form, there are those examples that stand head and shoulders above the rest.

First thing up front: this isn’t a list of the greatest pieces of Geek Cinema-based music of all time. Otherwise, this would quickly turn into the John Williams and Danny Elfman Super Fun-time Happy Hour. I’ve kept this list STRICTLY to superheroics, and I’ll tell you: it was a lot harder to parse this one down than it was my last list. Now I definitely had a few runners-up and honorable mentions, and I’d mention them but, well, that seems like a cop-out. A list of ten is a list of ten, and that’s it. Except when it’s a list of eleven. Read on, enjoy, and be sure to tell me what I got wrong in the comments section down below!

10.) “Cuban Pete” by Joseph Norman & Jose Norman – The Mask (1994)

Oh, yes, I know. The Mask we see in the Jim Carrey film is nothing like Big Head in the comics, with Tex Avery style pranks and a cute little doggie replacing the violent, murderous sociopath from the original books. And many comics purists HATE The Mask for being a textbook example of how to completely adapt the life out of a property. But I’ll be damned if the sudden breakout of “Cuban Pete” and the ensuing cop conga line isn’t a stand-out musical moment in superhero movie history, and puts on a none-too-subtle display of the kind of showmanship that costumed crime fighting (and Jim Carrey) are really all about. Also, it was kinda my own personal theme song in high school. I really loved Jim Carrey.

9.) “The Avengers” by Alan Silvestri – Marvel’s The Avengers (2012)

Maybe this still just has that new-score smell, and in a couple of months I’ll wish I had put something else on this list in its place. But I dig this piece of music so much that I’ve had it as my ringtone since the day the movie came out. It’s just like the film: as superhero scores go, this does nothing wrong while breaking no real ground. It is, though, perfectly appropriate old-school style accompaniment for the initial cinematic adventure of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.

8.) “The Glory Days” by Michael Giacchino – The Incredibles (2004)

The funny thing about Michael Giacchino’s work on The Incredibles is that, except for the few opening bars of “The Glory Days”, it doesn’t really sound like a traditional superhero score. It’s a jazz-orchestra score, inspired by lots of the scores written for late-60’s spy films, and that’s exactly what it sounds like. There’s several great tracks on the soundtrack (“Kronos Unveiled” and “100 Mile Dash” spring to mind) but it’s this opening track, with the initial crash of superheroics giving way to the jazzier, peppier, twinkle-toes sound that’s going to carry us through the film, that really sets up the melding of two worlds: superhero action and 50’s and 60’s-style subterfuge and intrigue.

7.) “A Dark Knight” by Hans Zimmer – The Dark Knight (2008)

There are very few cinematic experiences like watching The Dark Knight for the first time, knowing that with the film’s incarnation of the Joker there will be nothing movie-predictable about the plot and that chaos will rule the day. Hans Zimmer’s score is a driving, ceaselessly determined creature, slowly building over the course of two hours as the film’s tension is ratcheted higher and higher, screeching discordantly for the Joker and standing tall amongst the acres of Gotham’s despair as Bruce decides it his time to shoulder the woes and fears of the city. Now, while this is a great piece of scoring for the particular tonality of this adaptation, I wouldn’t necessarily call it the greatest pure Batman score ever produced. But while it may not be the score that Batman deserves, at this place and at this time, it is the score that he needs.

6.) “Go Go Power Rangers” by Ron Aaron Wasserman – Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers: The Movie (1995)

C’mon… you know you love it!

5.) “Spider-Man” by Paul Francis Webster and Bob Harris – Spider-Man (1967-1970)

Yes, okay, this song is pure 60’s goofy. And yes, you could argue that the theme to the old Batman TV show is even more iconic than this Spidey theme. That Batman theme, though, told the tale of a character the exact opposite of everything that Batman should be. Spidey? Well, Spidey IS a little goofy, a little silly, Marvel’s A-Lister treated as a B-Lister in the eyes of his own universe. Remember, it has only been very recently that Mr. Parker has fought side-by-side with the strongest heroes in the Marvel U. Your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, at his core, is a bit of a cornball and a throwback, a chatty mystery man who wears his heart on his sleeve. It’s his most humanizing trait, and it’s why this piece of music seems so much more a natural fit for the character than does the “serious superhero scores” that have been written for Spidey since.

4.) “The Lonely Man” by Joe Harnell – The Incredible Hulk (1978-1982)

I’m not talking about the opening credits here. No, I’m talking about the quiet, desperate version of the song that ended every episode of The Incredible Hulk. You know the one… as David Banner wandered off into the distance, after he A-Teamed some townie’s problem away, usually by smashing things, this winsome, mournful tune would begin. As he walks sadly away, a solo piano quietly conveys everything one needs to know about both Banner and the Hulk: more than brilliant, or angry, or big or strong, they are, together, misunderstood and very, very alone.

3.) “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Theme” by D.C. Brown & Chuck Lorre - Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1987-1996)

If you ever wanted me to pick out a soundtrack to my childhood, the opening track would be this tune. I was born in ’78, so I was 9 when Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles first hit the air in ’87, right in the children’s television wheelhouse. But forget nostalgia: the song is an undeniably badass action cue. Even at ages 9, 10, 11, and onwards, I’d make sure to get to the TV in time to see the intro, and I’d make a point to watch the end credits to hear the instrumental version. When you played a TMNT video game you’d be disappointed if every level didn’t unfold to some variation of this song. And to this day I’ll argue that the highlight of TMNT’s animated lifespan was the first five episodes of the series AND the show opener that played out with the theme. (From episode 6 on, the animation changes, and it’s a pale imitation of those first glorious moments.) Still in regular rotation on my iPod, there may not be a more recognizable piece of superhero music in the world than the theme to TMNT. (Fun-fact: Co-composer Chuck Lorre is TV production superstar Chuck Lorre, creator of Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory, among other credits.)

2.) “The Batman Theme” by Danny Elfman – Batman (1989)

Batman’s the only hero to make this list twice. Why? For starters, he’s the Goddamn Batman, that’s why. Also (and I haven’t done/am not doing the math on this) he’s one of the most adapted superheroes out there, if not THE most adapted, so you’ve got a pretty large sample size of music to pull from when you look into the Batman songbook. No other track, however, comes close to Danny Elfman’s seminal theme from Tim Burton’s first Batman film. The keynote address of Batman music, it’s the piece of scoring that basically all other Batman-based musical cues since both try to echo and must live up to. Heroism, darkness, brooding, and mystery are all encapsulated into two minutes and thirty seconds of music that has done as much to set the tone of the character over the two decades plus since its composition as has any storytelling done by anyone in comics, film, or television. This music IS Batman, just as…

1.) “Theme from Superman” by John Williams – Superman (1978)

… this music IS Superman. (Side note: Superman has made the number one spot on my first two lists, and I don’t even much LIKE that movie. Kind of shows how important it is in the grand scheme of superhero flicks.) I’m convinced that the sheet music for this piece of scoring came out of the Kryptonian womb with Kal El. I’m positive that when Shuster and Siegel were doodling what came to be the first Superman story, they were subconsciously humming this march. When anyone mentions the word “superhero” this is the bit of underscoring that begins playing somewhere off in the distance. Here is a piece of music that achieves perfect synchronicity with its subject; of course, John Williams has carved out a career with his ability to compose music that does just this. Parts one and two of his personal Holy Trilogy are the “Star Wars Main Titles” and “The Raiders March”. Part three, his iconic “Theme from Superman”, tells you everything you need to know about the character: he is hope, he is wonder, he is strength, he is goodness… he is a hero. He is Superman.

Tom Hoefner (@TomHoefner on Twitter) is a playwright, theatre director, college professor, and would-be novelist living in Brooklyn with his wife and daughter. His ACTUAL favorite piece of superhero scoring is “Green Suited Justice” by Andrew Barkan, from The Unlikely Adventure of Race McCloud, Private Eye, but he might be biased on that one. Judge for yourself:

Check out From the Casefiles of Race and Cookie McCloud, a blog of super-short stories chronicling the adventures of Race McCloud, Private Eye, and his 15-year old former-secret-agent-in-training niece Cookie:

0.) “Cult of Personality” by Living Colour – CM Punk’s Entrance Song (2011-Present)

If CM Punk isn’t considered a superhero, he should be. IT’S CLOBBERIN’ TIME!


12 Comments Add Comment

  • Tim Morse May 18, 2012 at 9:23 am

    Great list, and tons of “I haven’t heard that song in forever!” moments! I’d have o say that it is spot on for the last two in your list. The Batman and Superman themes are so iconic for our genre and so instantly recognizable that anybody who’s never seen a superhero movie will still know those two songs.

    *Side note*: I play Bass in a band, and during our band practice on Wednesday, the entire band busted out in song for the TMNT theme, lol!

    *Side side note* My daughter is two now, but when she was just a few months old, the car we had only had a tape deck, and every time she would get fussy or down right mad, we’d pop in the Superman soundtrack and she would instantly get quiet. My wife and I were in awe at just how quick it worked. All she had to hear was the trumpets, and she’d be quiet through the rest of the tape.

    Very awesome!

  • Jason Newcomb May 18, 2012 at 9:36 am

    The Spider-Man series had incredible music through and through.

  • Chip Reece May 18, 2012 at 10:44 am

    Hahahaha @Cuban Pete! I totally forgot about that.

    I’d add that the Ghostbuster theme would be at the top of this list…somehow it makes it into my head almost daily…

  • Jason Martin May 18, 2012 at 3:02 pm

    Loved the Turtles growing up, so great to see it here. But, I absolutely loved the Partners in Kryme video they did.

    Also, of course Superman was gonna be first. There is no better score to accompany a hero, ever.

    And the Power Rangers…just excellent.

  • Jason Martin May 18, 2012 at 3:03 pm

    Also also, in reference to the TMNT theme…Donatello ‘does machines’? What does that even mean?

  • Danny D May 18, 2012 at 6:16 pm

    I was all ready to smack you if number one wasn’t “Superman: the Movie” by John Williams. Good job including it. Like you said, this score IS Superman, and this is what I hum when I think of Superman. The same goes for most other entries on this list. Even though I didn’t like the “Spider-Man” 60s ‘toon (show OR theme), I can’t argue that THIS is what people hum when you mention Spidey. And extra kudos for including “Go Go Power Rangers”. Horrible lyrics, but I’ll be damned if those guitar riffs don’t get you pumped and excited. The theme is actually JUST LIKE the Rangers… all flash and fun, no substance.

    Now to the objections (I’m surprised I’m the first to object to any of your choices). “Cuban Pete”? Really? I understand your personal bias for this (oh boy, DO I), but this doesn’t signify “superhero” for me. It signifies “Desi Arnaz” to me. I’m also a little surprised, but not too much so, that “X-Men” by Ron Wasserman and Shuki Levy (who also wrote “Go Go Power Rangers”!) isn’t on this list. I dislike the cartoon immensely, but this theme is the FIRST thing that comes to mind when I think of the X-Men. Really, it’s probably the best part of the show.

    Overall, good list. I’m gonna go now.

  • Tom H May 23, 2012 at 12:50 am

    @Chip: I LOVE the “Ghostbusters” theme. Who doesn’t? BUT… I wouldn’t call them superheroes. You add the Ghostbusters to the list, then you add the Men in Black (another great score), and then you add…


  • Tom H May 23, 2012 at 12:50 am

    @Danny – Bro, I hate EVERYTHING about that 90’s “X-Men” cartoon, even the theme. God, I hated that show.

  • Chip Reece May 23, 2012 at 12:57 pm

    Why did you guys hate that show? Besides the obvious cheese…

  • TomH May 25, 2012 at 12:28 am

    @Chip – I hated the episodic, miss-one-and-you’re-done plots, and I hated the melodrama, and I hated the low-rent (in comparison to BTAS) animation.

  • Danny D May 26, 2012 at 11:24 pm

    @Chip – there was a lot I disliked about “X-Men: the Animated Series”. As a big X-Men fan, I hated the awful animation (particularly on the heels of the AMAZING “Batman: The Animated Series”). The stories were either eye-roll worthy, or tried too hard to be faithful to the Claremont stories that they just became a mess. Also, as Tom mentioned, the bad melodrama (almost redundant when it comes to Claremont, sure) was just painful. I also hated the attempt at trying to cram in all the fan favorites into the show, and somehow making it NOT work. Later attempts at paying fan boy service worked MUCH better on “X-Men: Evolution” and the surprisingly terrific “Wolverine and the X-Men”. And also, while in my head the voice of Wolverine by Cal Dodd has become the basis on which all other Wolverine voices pattern themselves after, as a whole the voice acting is TERRIBLE. This is on top of the poor dialogue.

    Believe me, I wanted to like this show, it was just really hard too.

  • Chip Reece May 28, 2012 at 10:53 pm

    Gotcha! Yes, I agree with all said. I think somehow it holds a special place just at helping to educate me at a young age about the characters (if only on the surface).