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What Makes a Great Superhero Theme in the Age of the Antihero

Composers like Danny Elfman and Lokis Natalie Holt discuss how superhero scores have embraced the dark side in the streaming era. Jared Leto as Morbius Robert Pattinson as Batman and Tom Hiddleston as Loki Graphic by Callum Abbott. From left Jared Leto as Morbius Sony Pictures © Marvel Robert Pattinson as Batman Jonathan Olley © Warner Bros courtesy Everett Collection Tom Hiddleston as Loki Chuck Zlotnick © Marvel © Walt Disney Studios courtesy Everett Collection

When the original Superman comic series was adapted for television in the early 1940s what audiences most associated with the Man of Steel was a string of phrases Look up at the sky! Its a bird its a plane! Originally inspired by Popeye the Sailor Man our hero from Krypton had superhuman strength and the power of flight lurking beneath his quiet disguise as journalist Clark Kent. But from the start there was a signature musical theme that helped bring writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shusters comic strip to life on the small screen. Superman the worlds first TV superhero burst through in full color with the backing of a mighty brass cavalcade—an intro by Betty Boop and Popeye composer Sammy Tim berg dubbed the Superman March. Every Superman theme—from the har pand brass driven opener for the 1950s TV show to John Williams classical horn succession in 1978s Superman The Movie—has in some way reflected the heros pursuit of truth and justice. But in recent years across film and television theres been a much messier group of superheroes to root for and an influx of tortured antiheroes who confirm that as a protagonist Superman is quite boring.

Where weve arrived with writing superhero themes is representative of a more human character less about being super and more about someone who arrives at being a hero says The Suicide Squad composer John Murphy. Now you have all these characters that arent necessarily noble. Theyre not like Superman or Wonder Woman. Theyre not that pure.

As audiences have acquired an affinity for these imperfect heroes and with the expansion of superhero titles on streaming platforms its created a space for less conventional soundscapes. The Batman movie theme composed by Michael Giacchino is as eerily imposing as the emo crusader revived by Robert Pattinson and otherwise soundtracked by Nirvana. Composer Jon Ekstrand built the theme for Morbius a biochemistturnedvampire played by Jared Leto around a haze of horror strings creating what he calls a monster score but with a superhero undertone. Later this year well see Dwayne The Rock Johnson as DC Comics godlike antihero Black Adam. And on TV theres an onslaught of Marvel titles like Loki with its seductively debaucherous operatic intro and score by Natalie Holt and the identitycrisis vehicle Moon Knight composed by Hesham Nazih. HBO Maxs Peacemaker starring John Cena as a disruptive killer and Suicide Squad defector wins bonus points for its delightful musical opening credits performed to Wig Wams Do Ya Wanna Taste It

The most memorable superhero themes create a marquee sound that functions as both a trademark and Pavlovian response for viewers Hans Zimmers gnashing Wonder Woman chords Alan Silvestris rallyingcry symphony for Avengers. Composer Danny Elfman has been scoring superhero films since 1989s Batman and 1992s Batman Returns later helming an array of Marvel titles and Justice League. In a good superhero score you come away with very clear musical identities Elfman says. In a drama you may give a theme for a character but its not going to follow a specific person around in the same way. In the superhero genre youre following the individual rather than just the mood.

Theres still a signature sound to heroism centered around brass and marching drums but antiheroes inevitably freshen the landscape enabling composers to paint shades of deficiency in their leads. For the latest Marvel installment Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness Elfman gave the score a retro horror feel to match director Sam Raimis gruesome rendering. The protagonist in Doctor Strange is a character we know and kind of love and is on the wrong path but it was important for this protagonists theme to be really heartbreaking and full of sympathy Elfman says. So its absolutely not a Darth Vaderesque villain type of thing. Its the other way around. The fun part of the score was writing something very tender but dark at the same time.

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