***Warning: this post contains hot takes.***
I know I’m not the first person to notice that the music of superhero films has been less than stellar since the Marvel renaissance began with Iron Man back in 2008. Heck, the last iconic superhero soundtrack was probably the score from Tim Burton’s run on the Batman franchise. Ask me to hum the John Williams Superman theme, and I can do so pretty easily. Ask the same for the X-Men films, though? Every time I try to hum the theme from The Avengers, I invariably slip into The Fellowship of the Ring. With only a few exceptions, most superhero soundtracks all sound like the same old summer blockbuster fare: excellent at setting a tone, but not exactly something you’ll be whistling on quiet afternoons.
The only exception for a while there, if you ask me, was Hans Zimmer’s score to The Dark Knight – specifically, the Joker’s theme. Unfortunately, that song, while a brilliant piece of soundtracking, doesn’t make for a terribly listenable track on its own. Its most memorable feature is a single note played on the cello with such excruciating deliberation that my fists ball up just thinking about it. The Joker’s theme sets a mood, but it’s not a “theme song” in the traditional sense.
As far as I can tell, we’ve only had four movies with soundtracks that can possibly come close to reaching the same level as the classic John Williams/Danny Elfman scores for Superman and Batman. The first two of those movies – Guardians of the Galaxy and its sequel – are full of wonderfully iconic tunes, but both are disqualified on account of plagiarism.
The most recent of the four, Black Panther, has some of the only songs I can actually remember at all after leaving the theater. The theme songs for the two maincharacters (I stand by my claim that Wakanda, not T’Challa, is the actual protagonist of BP) are powerful pieces built around some absolutely ridiculous* rhythms. That said, I think my favorite track plays over the closing credits. The film ends with throngs of people chanting the name of their king, returned to power: “T’Challa! T’Challa!” It’s moving and operatic and over the top and I love every bit of it.
Despite my effusion, though, Black Panther‘s score is so new, and the buzz so high, that it remains to be seen whether the songs will actually endure beyond the current craze.
And then there’s Wonder Woman, the last one, the song I expect to have the most staying power, but also the one I’m most ambivalent about.
On the one hand, the Wonder Woman theme originated with the movie Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, which has only and exactly two good things in it: Jeremy Irons and the savage electric cello theme that accompanied Wonder Woman’s first big screen appearance. When you get down to it, the song itself is all slashing rhythm and wails. It’s an excellent piece to accompany a thrilling action sequence, but it doesn’t really say that much meaningful about Wonder Woman herself.
I mean, John Williams’s Superman theme is dramatic and triumphant, befitting a man who has all the power in the world and chooses to do the right thing. You can almost hear the word “Superman” shouted during the song. Meanwhile, Danny Elfman’s Batman theme is dark and brooding, but it still has those victorious brass notes in there, indicating a man who uses the darkness to fight for justice. These songs are really about their subjects in a way that most soundtrack pieces aren’t.
Not being the biggest Wonder Woman fan, there are three things I know about her from general nerd osmosis:
- She is a powerful warrior from a tribe of warrior women.
- She has a magic lasso that makes people tell the truth.
- She came to the “world of man” as an ambassador of love and peace.
The Wonder Woman theme really captures that first bullet, but, if you ask me, there’s nothing in those notes that really says “truth” or “love and peace.”
All that said, though, the song itself has grown on me, thanks in large part to the inspired work of Rupert Greyson-Williams, who managed to build a pretty workable soundtrack for Wonder Woman around what is arguably just the hook to some arena rock piece. I’ve also gotta give props to one of the major inspirations for the song: cellist Tina Guo, whose performance legitimately rocks my socks off. Add to that some great think pieces that analyze the Wonder Woman theme much better than I can (here and here), and I think I finally get exactly why the song works so well and remains so memorable when other superhero scores fall flat. I’m not convinced we’ve managed to create anything nearly as simple and fundamental as the Superman or Batman themes from the 80s and 90s, but we’re certainly close.
The Wonder Woman soundtrack reminds me, strangely, of the history of superhero costumes. When superhero comics were born, they got costumes that were all simple shapes and primary colors. As comics consumers developed more sophistication, they demanded a bit more verisimilitude in the pictures on the page. Costumes developed seams, laces, buttons and snaps, but they kept pretty true to the original flashy designs, for a time. Eventually, though, all those colorful costumes gave way to armor with shoulder blades, leather jackets, and a notable lack of red briefs worn overtop blue tights. Comic book designs seemed to want to be seen as anything but the the colorful daydreams of children.
Similarly, the scores for superhero films draw little inspiration from the earnest adventures of Christopher Reeve or Michael Keaton (or, for that matter, Adam West). The goal doesn’t appear to be “fun” as much as “action.” That’s not necessarily a strike against the superhero score, but it isn’t exactly a distinction, either.
The truly great thing about the Wonder Woman soundtrack is that it takes the grimdark Batman v. Superman track – which is powerful but seems embarrassed to own its source material – and manages to build something somehow optimistic and inspirational. I don’t think the Wonder Woman theme is on quite the same level as the Williams or Burton theme songs. At the end of the day, it’s really just a song that’ll get you hyped up to deadlift a truck at the gym.
…actually, that sounds pretty cool. Good enough!
* – “Ridiculous” here being a word that means “intricate and powerful.”