From the age of TV’s first superhero, Superman, to the unstoppable Avengers, these superheroes have all come with one defining feature: an epic film score and theme. But musically, how is this achieved, and are superhero themes dying out?
An Introduction to Superhero Music
When I think of superhero music, one of the first things that comes to mind is Superman. John Williams, a pinnacle figure in the film score industry, created a heroic and noble theme that excited its listeners and, most importantly, was highly memorable. Looking at a more modern example, Alan Silvestri’s Avengers theme is probably the most recognizable Marvel leitmotif and is, again, a powerful musical moment.
There is, however, a noticeable change when it comes to these superhero themes. We have certainly seen a shift in compositional approaches when it came to superhero film scores. The primary focus has been having less memorable musical moments and capturing the true atmospheric essence. Scores like The Dark Knight by Hans Zimmer and Black Panther by Ludwig Göransson are worlds apart from John Williams’ Superman but still can capture the essence of the character and the atmosphere of the world they live in.
Let’s return to the first instance of Superman on the big screen. Released in 1978 with John Williams as the dedicated composer, this was far from disappointing. With Williams’ recognizable style of standout leitmotifs and epic use of the orchestra, he was able to compose something to remember. Now, how does he do this?
In most scores, the main melodies lie within instruments that significantly impact the brass section, in this case. John Williams places Superman’s central theme in this section, which has a particular timbre piercing through the orchestral texture. On top of that, this aligns with the fanfare approach to superhero themes. This theme accompanies the film’s opening titles, reflecting Superman’s movements, further reinforcing the relationship between Superman and the central theme.
Another example that has a memorable melodic theme is found in Joss Whedon’s Avengers Assemble, which was composed by Alan Silvestri. A little over three decades after the release of Superman, this series has a leitmotif that speaks volumes about the epic nature of the Avengers crew. Like Superman, this fierce fanfare-like instrumentation is still integrated with the other orchestral instruments.
The theme that everyone associates the Avengers with (found at 1:04 in the below video) is played by none other than the French horn, a key instrument in the brass family that is heavily used in superhero scores due to its versatility, from playing lonesome melodies to bold and broad phrases.
The Build-Up and the Payoff
So, we have our memorable melodies, but what about the build-up? To have the payoff of the melodic climax, it needs to earn its peak energy through textural build-up.
Notice that in many film scores, the strings play a vital role in setting the pace through ostinatos, continuously repeating musical phrases. In this case, the strings will play an arpeggiated chord in a steady yet driving rhythm, acting as both the harmonic foundation and the energy moving forward.
Let’s go to our video game example of Marvel’s Spider-Man score. John Paesano composed both scores, which are both robust and extraordinary. I think Paesano successfully structures these initial themes to make the climactic moment earn its spot for optimal satisfaction and epicness.
In the Original Game Soundtrack, Paesano starts small, allowing some space for the music to grow. John Williams does the same in his Superman theme, enabling the payoff to feel right. The initial track opens statically in the first Spider-Man game to add some atmosphere.
We then hear a French horn, the first instance of the central theme here. The texture slowly builds; the dynamics get louder, and more instruments begin to thicken the texture, perfectly segueing into the classic driving string ostinato.
String ostinatos are a staple tool when composing any film score. I know something is on the horizon whenever I hear this type of texture. It’s the beginning of a thrilling journey, both anchoring and driving the music forward.
The strings will play arpeggios, which outline the harmony, providing a solid foundation for our central theme to blossom. With interjections of percussion and brass accents, the anticipation begins to grow until we hear a fully-fledged theme, enough to give us goosebumps. In the trailer for the first game below, we hear the ostinato before Spider-Man explodes into action. The effect it has, followed by the excellent orchestration of the theme, pays off successfully.
This is similar to the newly released second game. Again, we hear the all-too-familiar string ostinato, setting the atmosphere and eventually leading to an explosion of brass goodness. This soundtrack also blends both Peter Parker’s theme (heard in the first game) and Miles Morales’ theme (from Spider-Man Miles Morales) together, and like the cut title, they are “Greater Together.”
Over the years, memorable and impactful themes have decreased as capturing the atmosphere has become more focused, making the music not “stand out” as much. Additionally, paving the way for not composing a happy superhero theme results in much more emotional depth to the character, particularly to antihero protagonists.
An example is in The Dark Knight trilogy, directed by Christopher Nolan and composed by Hans Zimmer, a pioneer in 21st-century film music. Batman himself as a character is somewhat different from Superman or Wonder Woman. However, within the DC Universe, Batman is still a superhero tackling crime and making Gotham City a better place.
Zimmer employs the string ostinato technique, yet the texture built around it sounds much darker. But still, can you see why this technique is so great? There’s still that element of anticipation even though the overall sense of the cue music is gloomier. When we compare this to Superman, we feel that there is more to Batman as a character and that the Superman theme lacks some depth. However, that signature heroic sound still exists here with the brass section’s heavy presence. It’s certainly not your classic superhero vibe, but composers can still create an impactful superhero theme with the right orchestration and build-up to maximize the payoff.
Broader Influences and Album Soundtracks
Another unique example of differing approaches is Ludwig Göransson’s score to Black Panther. This score is also a great example of an atmospheric approach and taking influences outside the realm of a traditional orchestra for authentic representation. Furthermore, Black Panther incorporates a soundtrack album separate from the film score, collaborating with renowned music producer Kendrick Lamar.
Black Panther’s theme per se is widely separated from what we heard from the Superman theme music. It’s firstly much more beneath the surface and not as in-your-face as the fanfare. Secondly, not only is it made from traditional Western orchestral forces, but Göransson utilizes instrumentation from West Africa.
This links to the setting and origins of Black Panther, the fictional region of Wakanda. Göransson perfectly balances Western traditional and African instrumentation, extending his creative practice to traveling to West African villages and visiting local musicians for authentic recordings and representation.
Black Panther, as mentioned, had an original soundtrack album curated by Kendrick Lamar, as a symbol of Black Excellence. It adds a different yet thrilling flair to the storytelling. The use of soundtracks in superhero films has become another evolving approach to storytelling. In this scene from Black Panther, the score perfectly transitions into the soundtrack and adds significant dialogue to “put on some music” further to add depth and excitement to the car chase.
Using soundtracks isn’t necessarily a brand-new technique. Inserting a song into a specific moment can still be a catalyst for driving emotion; of course, it must be the right choice! But making films that heavily use soundtracks has become a method that drives popularity. An example of this would be Guardians of the Galaxy.
The use of soundtracks in this phenomenal series is nothing short of fantastic. Using songs from the classic era of the 80s, all the way up to the noughties (eras nostalgic to many viewers) adds some tongue-in-cheek in addition to those emotive scenes. This is also a valuable way to engage the audiences with music they may already be familiar with, making the viewing experience much more pleasurable.
Where are the Superhero Themes?
Following the diversion away from leitmotif-driven scores, where are the superhero themes? Will they ever make a reappearance?
Likely, film composers are still more in tune with creating soundscapes and being much more nuanced with their approaches, primarily because film scores aim to enhance emotion and not be overly invasive.
In the Marvel Universe, it is known that superhero themes aren’t so present anymore. As demonstrated in the video below, people struggled to recall any music from the Marvel universe, indicating that much of it is forgettable and somewhat stagnant.
Personally, the only theme that strikes emotional impact is the Avengers theme. Within this phase of the MCU, the Avengers theme acts as the glue of the universe. In the final act of Endgame, we hear the ever-so-familiar Avengers theme at a crucial moment when the “Avengers Assemble” in their final battle against the deviant warlord Thanos. It ties it all together and excites us, and I screamed when I saw this much-anticipated moment!
But this feeling of film music and character themes is slowly morphing into a blended landscape. It is buried too deeply within the story or lacks any outstanding presence, weakening the viewer-to-character connection. Either way, any art form undergoes development where rules are bent, and new approaches arise. Could this be the end of epic and memorable superhero themes?
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