May 052018

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.


May 042018

So, I was in a mood, so decided to escape with one of the most emotive film composers. He’s also one of the best; I only place Erich Wolfgang Korngold clearly above him. Williams’s music as made films work. Without the power of this themes, many of our modern film “classics” would just be nice. He made them something more. So, let’s get to the best. I will be counting franchises as a single entity.


#10 – 1941

Ah, time and fandom has not been kind to 1941, but if you want jaunty, military-type scores, it takes work to beat this.


#9 – NBC News

Yup, John Williams composed the NBC music theme, and it’s great. It was part of a package usable by related news organizations to give them a air of importance.


#8 – Harry Potter

Can you think of Harry Potter without hearing this music in your head? It is actually entitled “Hedwig’s Theme” which I find rather odd, but it has the right feeling of creepy and adventure so I suppose the name doesn’t matter.


#7 – Close Encounters of the Third Kind

1977 was a big year for Williams (more on that later). His beautiful score was needed for a film that picked a ridiculous pseudo-science topic that was all the rage amongst the stupid in the ’70s and wanted to elevate it to religious ecstasy. The music did the trick.


#6 – Fitzwilly

I’m guessing this is less well known. Fitzwilly is one of my favorite Christmas films and Williams’s score perfectly merges the upper class feeling with a touch of dishonesty and a lot of fun.


#5 – Raiders of the Lost Ark

If you are going to make an old fashioned heroic adventure, you need an old fashioned adventure theme. As soon as you hear this you know you are in for a good time.


#4 – The Olympics

Let’s face it, The Olympics aren’t really important, but they sure feel important with this music. Williams wrote at least four different pieces for four different Olympics. If I was separating out “songs” or breaking up franchises, he’d have two in the running from his Olympics works: Summon the Heroes (Atlanta) and Fanfare and Theme (LA), though the second is closer to an arrangement of a previous song, Bugler’s Dream.


#3 – Superman

No superhero score has come close to this one. And few heroic themes can compete. 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. Again, if I was looking at best Williams songs, this film would have three in the fight: Main Title March, The Planet Krypton, and the Love Theme.


#2 – Star Wars

Would Star Wars have become a cultural icon without Williams’s score? I doubt it. It embodies heroism, fun, and adventure. It makes things that would otherwise be silly seem reasonable and fun. It elevates everything. That opening announces that the cinema world has changed. Individual highlights include the Main Title, The Imperial March, Princess Leia’s Theme, and Duel of the Fates.


#1 – Jurassic Park

Of all of Williams’s works, this is the one I just sit and listen to. Of course it is amazing in the film. It has a touch of melancholy and a whole lot of wonder. Clearly Steven Spielberg had no interest in the “don’t play God” theme, but Williams put the nail in it. How can you not want to make dinosaurs that will kill you with that music playing. I want to create a few that will slaughter everyone right now.