A top 10 list of superhero film scores is ever-so-slightly more meaningful than many other cinematic top 10 lists because it gives you the 10 scores to listen to–because that’s it. There are 10 good ones. After that, we’re pretty much done and even at 10 we’re starting to get a bit wobbly at the end (though the quality rapidly rises). Recent years has given us an amazing number of excellent superhero films, but not scores to go with them.
I evaluate superhero scores a bit differently than film scores in general in that they require memorable themes (instead of it just being a really good idea). A good superhero score can’t just be backing for the action. It needs to encapsulate the hero. The score needs a melody that defines the hero, or the villain, or the love interest, or perhaps the hero’s home. Better yet, all three, though unlike Star Wars, it is hard to find a score that does more than one of these. And I’m talking about an easy to recognize, catchy theme here. The score needs more than that theme, but without it, it fails.
I’m looking at original scores here, so Guardians of the Galaxy doesn’t make the list. And don’t expect to see a sequel on the list that just rearranges themes used in the first film.
#10 – Supergirl (Jerry Goldsmith)
Goldsmith was given an impossible task: follow John Williams’s Superman score. Be like it, but different. He does an amiable job. His Supergirl theme is not as hummable as it should be, but it is decent, and the whole of the score works nicely as an imitation.
#9 – Captain America: The First Avenger (Alan Silvestri)
Silvestri did his homework. After listening to this I want to go sell some war bonds. We’re not going subtle here; this is all heroism and patriotism rolled up in an orchestral ball.
#8 – Wonder Woman (Rupert Gregson-Williams/Hans Zimmer/Junkie XL)
Gregson-Williams took the catchy electric-cello theme that Zimmer & Junkie XL had created for Wonder Woman’s overlong cameo in Batman vs Superman and made something artistic with it. His score has all of the goodness of Zimmer, with 80% less crassness.
#7 – The Incredibles (Michael Giacchino)
Jazzy and retro, this may be the most listenable score on this list separated from its film. Where it suffers is from being so derivative. John Barry turned down the job and it does sound like Barry’s understudy showed up to make as “Barry-like” a score as possible. But it has a nice swingy style and tells us who these folks are and what this world is.
#6 – Thor (Patrick Doyle)
Hey, what do you know, a score with multiple musical themes. Boyle’s work has all the heroics and twice the grandeur, while also being the most emotional score on this list.
#5 – The Shadow (Jerry Goldsmith)
This score stands out over others I rate higher because it has a greater influence on its film. Only my #1 has more. At times it feels like the film was written around the score. Luckily that works. The music feels more pulp then the rest of my choices, as it should, and is one of the two where darkness mingles with the heroism.
#4 – The Avengers (Alan Silvestri)
We all know it: The Avengers form a ring as the camera sweeps around them and the music soars. This is THE cinematic superhero moment. It doesn’t get better or more iconic and it wouldn’t work without the musical theme. This is heroism.
#3 – Batman (Danny Elfman)
And here’s our other score with a touch of darkness. That makes sense since the character of Batman was based on The Shadow. I like the themes better in the previous few entries, but Elfman’s overall score is such a perfect fit for Burton’s Batman that it rose a few ranks. (I did not take points off for the pop-rock songs that shouldn’t have been inserted into the film.)
#2 – The Mark of Zorro (Alfred Newman)
Yes, Zorro is a superhero, and no, that doesn’t let in every adventure hero. He has skills beyond human capabilities, he wears a costume complete with a mask, he has a secret identity, and he fights for goodness. If Batman is a superhero, then so is Zorro. And The Mark of Zorro‘s score is wonderful. Its only failing is being a bit repetitive, but then so are most scores.
#1 – Superman (John Williams)
There was never a question. Williams‘s Superman score stands as the greatest of the genre and nothing comes close. It’s easy to forget what a mess the film is. Part of that is due to Christopher Reeve, but the rest is the score. After the amazing opening, somehow I can even take post-acting Marlon Brando seriously for a few moments. There are so many great themes running through this score, including Superman’s (Main Title March), Lois’s, the villain’s, and even the Planet Krypton’s. This earns its top spot and I doubt it will ever be beaten.