In 2016, Tony Zhou, the creator of Every Frame A Painting — a popular (but sadly “dead“) film criticism channel on YouTube — took to the streets of Vancouver to ask passersby if they could hum him some music from famous films. While Harry Potter, James Bond and Star Wars all elicited confident responses, when he asked them to sing any Marvel movie tune, he was met with nothing but silence. “I’m the biggest Marvel fan that I know of,” one participant admitted. “I just… I can’t think of any of the songs.” Another even said: “I didn’t even know they had theme songs.” “Despite 13 films and $10 billion at the box office,” Tony concludes, “the Marvel Cinematic Universe lacks a distinctive musical identity or approach.”
You might be thinking: Who cares? I like to watch Marvel movies, not listen to them! But to think this would be to undervalue how important music has become in moviemaking. Would we still tear up when Jesse is abandoned by her owner in Toy Story 2 without that Sarah McLachlan song playing? Would Psycho‘s infamous shower scene still fill us with horror without the sound of those piercing violin strings? It also undervalues the specific role that music has played in superhero moviemaking from the very beginning.
John Williams’ Superman theme and Danny Elfman’s for Batman have become as iconic as the characters themselves; recognizable audio prompts that instantly put images in our minds of a soaring man in red-and-blue or a black-clad one perched atop a gargoyle. However, as superheroes began to dominate the box office again from the early ’00s onwards, there’s been a dearth in any memorable music to accompany their triumphant comeback — with perhaps the notable exception of Hans Zimmer’s work for The Dark Knight trilogy.
This problem has plagued Marvel Studios’ productions in particular, contributing to the cookie-cutter manufacturing critique that some have levied at the MCU in general. Sure, we know that an AC/DC song means Tony Stark is about to make an over the top entrance, while Spider-Man and the Hulk can borrow from their catchy TV jingles, but aside from that, why don’t beloved characters like Captain America or Thor have melodic cues as distinctive as DC’s Big Two? Alan Silvestri’s “The Avengers” theme might make your ears prick up in the moment, but as Tony Zhou’s video experiment proved, it isn’t sticking in people’s minds after they leave the movie theater.
In a crowded release schedule of capes and tights on the big screen, theme music should be playing an important supporting role in helping audiences differentiate one super person from another, rather than fading into background noise. This is why it’s encouraging to look back on 2018 — a bumper year for the genre — as the best year for superhero movie music in a long time.