A superhero without theme music just some weird guy in spandex. In many cases, it’s the scores that help make superhero movies so memorable. There’s an awful lot to choose from, but let’s see if we can come up with a list of the ten best superhero themes.
Note: To help narrow things somewhat, we’ll be sticking with “Superheroes based on comic books.”
While it can be argued that the title character in Hellboy isn’t quite a “Superhero,” there’s no arguing the greatness of Marco Beltrami’s score to the 2004 film. Beltrami combines dramatic orchestra work with a quirky bass that helps evoke the dark weirdness of Hellboy’s world.
9. Incredible Hulk
Some audiences may have been disappointed in 2008’s Incredible Hulk film, but the score by Craig Armstrong was one of the highlights. With dark overtones and hints of Frankenstien, this theme helps to underscore the menacing monster lurking just below the surface.
After the death of X-Men composer Michael Kamen, director Bryan Singer chose John Ottman to write a new theme for the sequel, 2003’s X2. Ottman somehow managed to combine the theme from the original film with the theme from the 1990’s television series, and brought it all together nearly perfectly.
2012’s X-Men: First Class was something of a surprise success, which was partially due to its depiction of the character Magneto. Running the gammut from villain to hero to villain, Magneto is the heart of the film, and Henry Jackman’s theme perfectly fits the character’s determination and menace.
6. Man of Steel
Superman’s return to cinemas in 2013’s Man of Steel was, to put it mildly, a bit divisive. The score, however, was universally praised. Hans Zimmer traded in his usual dark, synthesized sound for a percussion heavy, soaring and epic theme that makes you feel like something incredibly important is happening right there with you.
5. Iron Man
Part of what made 2008’s Iron Man so exciting was that it broke the rules. The hero was a bit of a jerk, who admitted to the world that was indeed Iron Man. Ramin Djawadi’s score reflects that by sacrificing an orchestral theme for a driving soundtrack featuring drums and electric guitar. It may not be the typical superhero theme, but it fits the character, and the film, perfectly.
While they may have fallen out over the third film in the series, Peter Jackson’s decision to hire Danny Elfman to score 2001’s Spider-Man was a near perfect choice. Elfman was no stranger to superhero themes (as we’ll see below), and his dark quirkiness was a great fit for a spider-themed superhero. Everything is right there in the music, from the crawling of a spider to the excitement of swinging through the city.
3. Batman Begins
In 2005, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins showed the world that it was possible to have a more mature superhero film. Part of that was Hans Zimmer’s score, eschewing grand superhero themes in favor of ominous tones, electronic moodiness, and driving strings. With help from James Newton Howard, Zimmer managed to build an entirely new theme that perfectly fit its film, and one that nearly eclipsed what had come before.
It’s likely that none of the films in this list would exist without 1978’s Superman. The first modern superhero film, Superman followed through on its famous marketing tagline:
“You will believe a man can fly.”
We did believe, in part because of John Williams classic score, full of soaring highs and crashing cymbals. The theme is grandiose from its very first notes, building and building to a heroic crescendo that fits, and makes classic, its film.
Danny Elfman was still a relative unknown in 1989, but his score for Tim Burton’s Batman nearly made him a household name. Elfman’s theme helped to distance Batman from the character’s campy past, and built him a new world of foreboding cellos, eerie strings, and relentlessly driving percussion.
Starting with an air of mystery and ominous darkness, Elfman’s theme builds to a thunderous march that helps match the purposefulness of Batman. The theme fit the character so well, in fact, that it would be used or adapted in almost every depiction of him for the next fifteen years.
Honorable Mention: Avengers, Captain America, Thor, The Amazing Spider-Man, Watchmen