Thursday, February 17, 2011

Superhero Scores

I'm a sucker for a good superhero score. A good superhero score should be distinguishable from a mere action movie soundtrack. The hero should have an appropriate, easily identified musical theme that describes his or her character. If the hero is tragic or dark, (e.g., Batman, Wolverine, Ghost Rider) his theme should reflect it. If the hero is powerful or inspiring (e.g., Superman, Spider-Man), you should be able to tell from his theme. And it always helps if the villain has a strong theme as well.

Up until a few years ago superhero movie scores seemed to be dominated by a few composers; most notably John Williams (Superman (1978)) and Danny Elfman (Batman (1989), Batman Returns (1992), Spider-Man (2002), Spider-Man 2 (2004), Hulk (2003)). However, in recent years a number of decent to excellent composers have contributed to the growing body of superhero scores. One of my favorites is John Ottman (X-Men 2 (2003), Fantastic Four (2005), Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007), Superman Returns (2006), Astro Boy (2009)), who has become increasingly well-known for his superhero music. Even Hans Zimmer has gotten into the game. Zimmer was already popular for numerous film scores before he composed the music to Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008) with James Newton Howard.

While surfing for mp3 albums, I came across the music of Christopher Drake. Drake has scored a number of direct-to-video animated movies based on DC characters. This includes the film Batman: Under the Red Hood, which I've mentioned before, and Superman Batman: Public Enemies. These movies may have gone directly to DVD, but there was no scrimping on the soundtracks; they could easily have accompanied any big budget summer film.

Batman: Under the Red Hood:
The score is exciting, energetic, and fits the movie well. Despite the fact that Red Hood is similar in tone to The Dark Knight, Drake didn't borrow from the popular film's music. Nor did he produce another 'variation on a theme by Elfman' like the music used in Batman: The Animated Series. His music is unique but perfectly appropriate for the character and story.

What really sets Drake's music apart from Zimmer's and Howard's Batman scores is a memorable theme for the titular character. Don't get me wrong, The Dark Knight is one of my favorite movie soundtracks, but does anyone really remember Batman's theme from Batman Begins or The Dark Knight? Believe it or not it's the same in both movies, but it's not particularly catchy. In fact, the Joker and Two-Face both had more memorable themes than the hero did. For Red Hood Drake was given the unenviable task of writing a new theme for one of the best known comic book characters; a task which he did very well.

Superman Batman: Public Enemies:
Unfortunately, I haven't seen this movie yet, so I don't know how well the music fits the movie, nor can I identify repeated musical cues with any particular character. However, as a standalone work this is another fantastic score. Like Red Hood, Public Enemies has an energetic and driving theme. Although Drake didn't use Batman's theme from Red Hood, there are several cues that could easily fit the character. Superman seems to be represented by a soaring theme with choral accompaniment (John Ottman used a similar approach in Superman Returns). Once again Drake resisted the temptation to replicate the well-known musical themes of popular comic book characters and instead wrote his own music. Fortunately his music works very well for the characters.


  1. Thanks for the tips on new composers! I too love basking in soundtrack music, though I don't think I'd broken out superhero scores from the rest. I'll have to think about that as I listen through my collection!

    A while back, I came across a site which offered streaming soundtracks. May be overtaken by Pandora at some point, but this site was around before them. That introduced me to a whole new batch of soundtracks. Well, and to be fair, so has Pandora.

    Some composers which have stood out to me include Harry Gregson-Williams (Antz, Narnia) and John Powell (Bourne trilogy).

    I'd be interested in hearing (reading) what methods you find useful to identify new scores/soundtracks, and how you go about acquiring them for your collection!

  2. I have a list of favorite composers: Hans Zimmer, Danny Elfman, James Newton Howard, etc. I surf on a regular basis to find out if they'll be releasing anything soon (for example, I just heard that James Newton Howard will be scoring the upcoming "Green Lantern"). Otherwise I use Amazon's recommendations to find new composers. Amazon recommended Christopher Drake's music based on my purchase of several superhero scores.



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