Good music can make or break a superhero movie.
It’s not hard to understand why the Marvel Cinematic Universe has become king of the superhero movie hill over the past decade. These movies consistently deliver terrific superhero spectacle, hilarious banter and, most importantly, compelling characters that continue to evolve from one film to the next. But there’s one area in which the MCU continuously falls flat. These movies rarely have superhero-worthy soundtracks. Luckily, Black Panther suggests that trend is finally changing.
Music is one area where DC has continued to reign supreme. Early films like 1978’s Superman and 1989’s Batman set a strong example. Both feature iconic scores crafted by some of the most legendary composers in Hollywood. John Williams’ “Superman March” and Danny Elfman’s “The Batman Theme” each perfectly embody their respective heroes, to the point where they’ve basically taken on a life of their own beyond the movies. That high bar continued in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, with Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard building a completely new but no less captivating take on the Caped Crusader and his world. And even as the DCEU has struggled in many areas, it’s continued to give us some pretty great superhero music. In particular, Zimmer’s work on Man of Steel is some of the best of his career (even if the film around it is deeply flawed).
For whatever reason, Marvel Studios has never seemed able to measure up in this regard. With most MCU films, the music is functional but rarely memorable. It does what it needs to do in terms of establishing mood and tone, but it rarely leaves a very lasting impression. Apart from Alan Silvestri’s Avengers theme, how many MCU leitmotifs would the average moviegoer even recognize upon hearing? Everyone can hum the melody to “The Superman March” or “The Batman Theme” or “Is She With You?” (Zimmer and Junkie XL’s Wonder Woman theme from Batman v Superman). How many people can do the same for Iron Man or Thor or Captain America?
For a long time, only the Guardians of the Galaxy movies really stood out from a musical perspective. And even there, it’s not the actual score that stands out in the Guardians films, but the way they mix in various ’70s pop tunes. It’s really only with Thor Ragnarok and Black Panther that the MCU has started putting as much priority on sound as it does visuals.
The common thread with both Thor Ragnarok and Black Panther is that neither film has tried to beat DC at its own game. The goal with these films wasn’t to craft traditional orchestral music and booming superhero marches. Instead, both films focus on different styles of music that give them a unique personality and sense of style.
With Ragnarok, composer Mark Mothersbaugh drew inspiration from synth-heavy ’80s music and musicians like Jean-Michel Jarre. Familiar musical cues from past Thor and Hulk movies were still there, but the whole movie took on a much more eclectic and lighthearted feel thanks to Mothersbaugh. Director Taika Watiti might not have been able to get the late Freddie Mercury to provide music, but Ragnarok stands out for the same reason cult-classic ’80s films like Highlander and Flash Gordon do.
With Black Panther, it’s obvious that music was a key component when it came to finally bringing Wakanda to life. Like Mothersbaugh, composer Ludwig Göransson didn’t simply opt for the traditional orchestral approach to scoring Black Panther. Instead, he drew heavily from the music of countries like Senegal and South Africa and crafted music that truly honored the rich history of the African continent.
On top of that, musician Kendrick Lamar was tapped to curate an entire soundtrack album for Black Panther. While only a handful of those songs actually made their way into the film itself, they nonetheless served to give Black Panther a strong sense of identity that draws from both the American hip-hop scene and traditional African music. Many critics have praised Black Panther: The Album for functioning as a perfectly good album independent of the actual film. How many Marvel movie soundtracks can make the same claim?
With any luck, Ragnarok and Black Panther are the start of a new trend where Marvel filmmakers place increased importance on music and work to more closely integrate sound and imagery. The MCU may not yet have a reputation for delivering musical greatness like the Star Wars and DC cinematic universes do, but that could very well change in the years to come.