Superhero movie soundtracks (or, more accurately, the orchestral scores) give superhero films their soul. Without the music, these films wouldn’t be nearly as powerful, inspiring and uplifting as they are. And while a good score won’t make a bad movie good, a good movie is made exponentially better by a good score.
What is it about film music that moves us so? Well, there are books that purport to explain how and why music, in general, can reach deep into those deep, primordial parts within us that words often cannot. I’ll leave it to the experts to do the explaining. But while, as a musical layperson, I can’t explain the precise mechanics of how music works on our brains, I don’t have to fully understand it to reap its benefits. Nor do you.
In that spirit, I offer my list of the ten most inspiring superhero movie scores with sample tracks and links to where you can purchase the albums if you like what you hear. Mind, this isn’t the list of the ten “greatest” superhero film scores but the ten most “inspiring.” Some good music isn’t on this list. For instance, the excellent scores by Danny Elfman, perhaps the most popular composer for the superhero genre, weren’t included for this reason even though I like his work.
I use the music in this list for all kinds of situations: when I’m contemplating a certain virtue like strength or courage; when I need a little kick of motivation to go the extra mile; when I feel run-down, discouraged or defeated; and very often when I’m writing the content for this site. All of the scores here get frequent rotation on my playlists and are an essential part of my spiritual and psychological arsenal.
This is music to invigorate, motivate and speak to your inmost being. It aids me in my personal journey and I believe that if you listen to it with the conscious intent to inspire yourself in some way, they can aid you too.Composer: Ramin Djawadi (2008) Label: Lion’s Gate Records
Ramin Djawadi‘s playful and by turns serious score matches the alternating jocularity and sincerity of the title character. The “flying” passages quite effectively translate into music the sense of freedom, fun and exhilaration that a man flying without a plane must feel.
The score is punctuated with an industrial-metal grind (not overdone, thankfully) and electronica effects that conjure up images of powerful machinery, cool technology and of…building. Building what? That’s up to you. What is it you want to build? A work of art? Your body? A career? Whatever it is, turn this baby on in the background as you go about doing so.
Playful as it is, this score isn’t just all fun and games. There are also moments of profound personal epiphany as in the track “Vacation’s Over.” But not too much profundity. This is Tony Stark we are talking about, after all.
Composer: James Newton Howard (2000) Label: Hollywood Records
James Newton Howard’s contribution to superhero film music counterbalances much of the bravado of the genre with more subtle musicianship. The score for Unbreakable, at first listen, isn’t as instantly appealing or impressive as the other scores on this list, but that’s partly why I’ve included it.
The listening requires a bit more work for much like the film itself, the score eschews conventional superhero tropes and instead traces the quiet, internal journey of a man gradually moving from fear and compromise to, in the track “Orange Man,” self-realization. Those who give this score the time and attention will be rewarded, especially if they’ve seen the film and have a point of reference.
Composer: Basil Poledouris (1987)
Label: Varese Sarabande
Though you might not have thought of him that way, RoboCop, in many ways, is very much a superhero, albeit one that operates from within the law (usually). Basil Poledouris’ superb synth-laden score is a prime example of why the composer is one of my favorite composers in film music (His score for Conan the Barbarian is one of the true masterpieces of fantasy and action film music).
Unlike the scores to many contemporary action films, this one doesn’t seek to pummel your senses. There is real heart here. The quieter passages, like “Home” and “Betrayal” capture Murphy’s humanity and confusion while the action sequences convey the thrilling sense of justice being exacted and wrongs being put to right, of a man whose life is destroyed by the system but then turns the same system upon itself.
Listen to the spectacular track below and just see if it doesn’t make you feel like kickin’ some major ass.
Composer: Henry Jackman (2011)
Label: Sony Classical
First Class has the best score of the five X-Men movies thus far, with an intelligent mix of grandiosity and subtlety. The theme melody is marvelous, adding layer upon circular layer to itself and building to an uplifting crescendo.
Tracks like “First Class“ and “Cerebro” instill an inspiring sense of wonder, adventure and discovery, appropriate for a film about two pioneers of the mutant race traveling the world to find others of their kind. Jackman even borrows, sparingly, some elements from the spy film genre which works well given the movie takes place at the height of the Cold War and portrays CIA machinations.
“Would You Date Me“ and “To Beast or Not to Beast“ evoke the sadness and loneliness of being irreconcilably different. When the melody from these two downbeat tracks comes together with the upbeat First Class main theme in “X-Training,“ the results are something magical. And for sheer badass swagger to get you through an annoying day, you can’t beat Magneto’s recurring motif which recalls the heavy metal strut of Djawadi’s Iron Man.
Bring on the bad guys!
Composer: James Horner (1996)
Label: Hollywood Records
If ever you need convincing of Aaron Copland’s indelible influence on American film music, you need look no further than the next two entries on this list: James Horner‘s score to a forgotten gem of a superhero movie, The Rocketeer, and Alan Silvestri’s Captain America.
The Rocketeer movie, while fun and likable, didn’t quite have the makings of a classic, but the score is among Horner’s best and shows why he’s among the most cherished composers in the industry, taking fluffy popcorn movie material and turning it into a stirring and beautiful musical portrait of a more innocent, hopeful and optimistic time in American history.
Keep a tissue handy.
Composer: Alan Silvestri (2011)
Label: Walt Disney Records
Similar to the score for The Rocketeer in its nostalgic celebration of Golden Age Americana,Alan Silvestri’s score for Captain America is far superior to his merely serviceable score for The Avengers.
From the subdued trumpet fanfare that poignantly opens the first track to the delightful John Philip Sousa-esque march and the aptly titled “Triumphant Return,” this is music that perfectly, and quite movingly, captures the spirit and ethos of Captain America, evoking themes of strength, courage, liberty and sacrifice.
In trying times, turn on this music and imagine you are drawing upon the same wellspring of inner strength as the Captain. Know that you can be as strong as he.
Composer: John Williams
Label: Rhino/Warner Bros.
One of the most recognized film scores in cinematic history, this is without a doubt the most unabashedly bombastic score on this list. But if you’re John Williams, bombast is a good thing.
This is, in many ways the quintessential superhero film score. But just as with Superman himself, the score is not without its quieter, more vulnerable moments as well as its moments of warmth and romance. The score becomes all the more affecting when you think about the heroic way that Christopher Reeve lived the years of his life following his crippling accident.
Listening to this music with the volume turned up truly brings out the Superman within you. An absolute must for any collection of inspirational music.
Composer: James Horner (2012)
Label: Sony Classical
James Horner’s moving score to the Spider-Man reboot (and his second on this list) serves as a nice contrast to Williams’ Superman, highlighting the contrast between these two character archetypes: Superman being a kind of Übermensch; Spider-Man being the Everyman.
And while in your best moments you may feel like Superman (and, yes, the archetype does live within you), most of the time you probably feel just like an ordinary joe. But that does not lessen your greatness one bit – quite the contrary in fact.
More than any other score on this list, this is music that evokes the yearning, the struggles, the everyday heroism and, ultimately, the glorious triumph of the little guy. And, for that reason, it touches and inspires me on a somewhat more intimate, personal level more than the score for Superman.
Listen to the track “Promises/Spider-Man End Titles” below and hear what I mean.
Composer: Patrick Doyle (2011)
Label: Buena Vista Records
If I could sum up this score in a phrase, it is this: the triumph and eternal resurrection of the human spirit. Doyle’s score for Henry V (also for director Henry Branagh) has always been one of my favorites and this one brings with it the same sense of nobility and majesty. But whereas the score for Henry V was earthy and grounded, this one has wings to take you as high as you want to go.
The quiet passages are so beautiful they’ll make your heart ache and then, in the moments when Doyle pulls out all the stops, you’ll feel as if your heart is soaring through the stratosphere.
When you’re feeling weak, discouraged or down on your luck, try listening to“Earth to Asagrd” or “Thor Kills the Destroyer.” It will make you feel like you can overcome all adversity and accomplish anything.
Composers: Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard (2005-2012) Labels: Water Tower Music / Warner Records
Danny Elfman’s scores for the Tim Burton-Batman films (as well as for Spider-Man and Hulk) are entertaining and are among the best in the genre, but I don’t find them particularly inspirational.
Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard’s scores for the Nolan Batman trilogy, on the other hand, traverse a wider, epic emotional landscape, from grief and despair, strife and turmoil to, finally, death and rebirth.
Although the same themes and motifs recur throughout the scores for all three films, they are different enough to warrant having them all. The first score for Batman Begins lays out Bruce Wayne’s complex psyche and his search for meaning. An edgy sense of dread permeates the second score for The Dark Knight, appropriate for a film with a psychopathic terrorist as its villain. And a sense of dire urgency, desperation, victory and transformation in the third score brings this trilogy of scores to its breathtakingly cathartic conclusion.
Dark, brooding and magnificent enough to make you weep (particularly “Rise,” which stunningly captures the essence of the entire trilogy), this is sonic alchemy for transmuting those blacker emotions of fear, anger and despair into something heroic and redemptive.