How A New Generation of Music Composers Changed Superhero Movies Forever
In the last decade, the sound of superhero movies became more atmospheric, more eclectic, and more punk rock. Here’s why.
Henry Jackman still remembers the “renegade” film score that changed superhero movies forever. The year was 2010. The movie? Kick-Ass.
Jackman would go on to compose music for Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War, and X-Men: First Class (among others), but he got his start in the genre with director Matthew Vaughn’s R-rated superhero satire.
“Matthew by his very nature has an unconventional, quite punk kind of attitude,” Jackman tells Inverse. “So, I think almost admirably, he’d convinced himself no kind of normal score would do the trick.”
It didn’t. The director and his team had loaded up the soundtrack with needle drops and electronica, but they were struggling to make a cohesive score. When Jackman came aboard, he suggested a simple solution: The movie needed a “traditional superhero theme” to balance out all the new innovations.
“I remember thinking, ‘Well, you’ve been torturing these poor guys,’” the composer says. “That’s all you need. You basically needed a superhero movie.”
Kick-Ass sits at that turning point between the traditional superhero movie score and a new age of experimentation. Alongside Jackman’s John Williams-esque main theme, the soundtrack features catchy songs ranging from electronic band The Prodigy to pop star Ellie Goulding. Needle drops, as this practice is known, would become an (often overused) staple of the superhero movie just a few years later with 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy, but Kick-Ass marked a new chapter for superhero movies — one that was hip, subversive, and sounded as cool as it looked.
Kick-Ass felt of a piece with the new and exciting scores of other superhero hits of the time, like Ramin Djawadi’s electric guitar-meets-big-band score for 2008’s Iron Man and Hans Zimmer’s moody, rock opera-esque score for The Dark Knight. Neither was beyond indulging in a triumphant melody, but they both were clear shifts from the traditional orchestral compositions that dominated superhero movies into the mid-aughts, like Danny Elfman’s Spider-Man score. Together, these scores represent a shift that reflects the diverse, ever-evolving landscape of superhero movies themselves.
Jackman pinpoints Zimmer’s score in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy as the catalyst for the change from the more traditional fanfare score to the atmospheric score, which felt like a direct rebuke of John Williams’ uplifting Superman theme. He describes the sound of those Batman movies as “minimalist meets Philip Glass meets electronica,” but adds that the composer also invented a sonic trick to set his score apart.
“Hans pioneered this thing that started with that ostinato,” Jackman says. “This is a totally different way of approaching it. These huge minimalist arcs of rhythmic ostinato energy with these really long, slow notes.”
An ostinato refers to a repeating pattern, something you can hear in Zimmer’s main motif for the whole trilogy, which consists of just two notes played by horns and accompanied by strings. Zimmer describes it as a “little nagging motif” meant to unsettle the listener and leave them with an unfinished feeling, which mirrors Batman’s never-resolved pain and guilt. When you listen to it alongside Williams’ Superman theme, they certainly feel like the “polar opposites” that Jackman describes them as. Where Williams’ Superman theme soars, Zimmer’s Batman motif trudges along. Superman is the bright surface to Batman theme’s gritty underbelly.
Kris Bowers, the composer behind Marvel’s Disney+ series Secret Invasion, agrees that Nolan’s take on Batman was “another huge shift to more atmospheric and dark” superhero scores. Bowers credits Zimmer and his collaborator James Newton Howard, who worked together on both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, for creating a “paradigm shift in terms of how people approach scores.” But for Bowers, the true turning point in the superhero movie soundscape was James Mangold’s Logan.
“That was one of the first superhero movies I remember watching and being like, ‘This doesn’t feel like your traditional superhero movie,’” he says. “Marco Beltrami did that score, and it’s much more sparse and intimate.” Bowers also names Ludwig Göransson’s hip-hop-infused Black Panther and Hildur Guðnadóttir’s haunting Joker as “pretty strong temples in terms of how people might approach scoring this genre.”
Bowers came to Marvel’s Secret Invasion after a career spent outside the superhero genre. (His resume includes Oscar-nominated movies like Green Book and TV shows like Bridgerton.) As a result, he’s had a chance to see the superhero movie soundscape evolve from the outside. It’s no longer the days of the iconic Superman theme by John Williams, or the darkly cool Batman theme by Danny Elfman.
Kris Bowers at the premiere of Secret Invasion.
Henry Jackman at the premiere of Captain America: Civil War.
Hans Zimmer the the premiere of The Dark Knight.
Ludwig Göransson at the premiere of Creed III.
The scores for superhero movies have become more atmospheric, more eclectic, more punk rock. This isn’t because composers are moving away from creating memorable superhero themes. Instead, they’re opening up movie scores to different genres of music. While Williams and Elfman were inspired by classic composers like Erich Wolfgang Korngold (whose credits include 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood), today’s composers might take influence from the synthesized drums of trap music.
“It's gone from very connected to the fanfares and triumphant melodies and themes from the classical world to now carrying in every genre you could’ve in the last several decades and any current music that’s happening now,” Bowers says.
“You could only do that ironically now because we’re all so bloody cynical.”
Jackman has a couple of theories on why this shift happened.
“When Richard Donner made Superman with John Williams, you have a style of filmmaking that is a little bit more comic book,” he says. “It’s got a veneer of storytelling safety.”
Superhero movies of that era were more sentimental and earnest. Three decades later, the triumphant, bright melody like Williams’ Superman theme would be wildly out of place with Nolan’s Batman.
“You could only do that ironically now because we’re all so bloody cynical,” Jackman says.
But is that the reason not every hero has the same iconic theme as John Williams’ Superman or Danny Elfman’s Batman? Maybe, but Jackman has a much more practical reason.
“Once you get into the Kevin Feige world, it has to be diverse,” Jackman says. “Nolan focused on Batman. Richard Donner focused on Superman. But Kevin has done everything from Cap 1, Cap 2, Cap 3, Iron Man, all the Avengers movies, Black Panther. This universe is so wide, you are going to die if you just hear the same thing over and over again.”
Jackman cites his score for Captain America: Civil War as an example. “If you have a theme for each character? That would be a recipe for disaster. There are 21 of them! The central concept isn’t 21 different people; the central concept is civil war,” he says.
Jackman’s score for Civil War climaxes with a thrilling and epic overture, one befitting Greek gods and war epics. It’s a huge shift from his work on Winter Soldier, which takes its cues from the Cold War spy flicks that inspired that movie, all synthy beats and paranoid electronica. It’s why he refrains from categorizing this current era of superhero movie scores with one specific sound or style — even if it’s tempting to just pick a handful of popular songs.
“Directors who are more interested in needle drops and mood often have really cool taste,” Jackman says. But he warns against sacrificing a simple, powerful score in pursuit of what sounds cool.
“The best thing you can do as a composer is just really take seriously the footage and the prospect in front of you.”