Music sets the mood for an overall film experience. With the exception of “Batdance” used in Tim Burton’s first Batman movie (yes, I said it), superhero movies, on the whole, have been pretty lucky with their soundtracks, appropriating music both original for the movie and songs borrowed from other albums and artists that capture the mood and the spirit of the story. I think most people who saw the first trailer for the film Guardians of the Galaxy were a bit jarred to hear “Hooked on a Feeling” by Blue Swede, but it fit. The song lets the viewer know right away what kind of movie the audience will be watching, juxtaposing whimsy and neck-break action. I’ll raise my hand and admit that I downloaded that track and “Spirit in the Sky,” which was used in later trailers, because of their use in Guardians and the emotions and feelings they elicit when paired with the images on screen.
With that in mind, I decided to look at some superhero films that appropriate songs from other artists that capture the spirit of a particular scene, emotion, or overall message of the stories. Read along for 5 songs that enhance comic book movies!
“Back in Black”/”Shoot to Thrill”, AC/DC—Iron Man/Iron Man 2
Iron Man was the first film that Marvel Studios rolled out, and from the first scene the filmmakers wanted to show the world that they were coming out of the gate at full steam. As a caravan of Humvees makes its way across the desert, AC/DC’s “Back in Black” blares over the scene, instantly letting the audience know that this movie was going to be firing on all cylinders. Further, it gave viewers a peek into the character of Tony Stark, the man who would wear the armor, alerting them to the fact that Tony Stark is Larger Than Life. AC/DC plays a role yet again in the second series of the franchise toward the beginning of the film, as “Shoot to Thrill” blasts in the background when Tony, in the Iron Man suit, flies to the gaudy and extravagant Stark Expo. At the end of the previous movie, Tony announced to the world that he is Iron Man, and the use of “Shoot to Thrill” highlights that he has no intention of slowing down.
“The Times They Are A-Changin’”, Bob Dylan—Watchmen
In the graphic novel Watchmen, writer Alan Moore pulls from a variety of works of poetry, literature, and music to highlight a theme of each chapter of the story as well as the overarching themes of the tale as a whole. In the graphic novel, Moore uses Bob Dylan’s lyrics from “The Times They Are A-Changin’” to highlight the turn of the clock and to show that time stays still for no one, even superheroes. Director Zac Snyder uses the entire song in the introduction to the movie adaptation of the comic book, coupling it with scenes of superheroes past and their exploits and changes, leading up to the story’s present day. Again, the song’s use helps to hammer home what is being shown on the screen and alerts viewers that the tale they are about to experience is about generational shifts. The lyrics and instrumentals also gives a hint to the often-melancholy air that hangs over the film.
“Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head”, B.J. Thomas—Spider-Man 2
In Spider-Man 2, when life presses down on Peter Parker, the spectacular Spider-Man, and the weight of the world becomes too much for him to bear, Peter begins losing his powers due to a mental block. Without his spider-abilities, he no longer feels responsible for every injustice and crisis the world doles out onto the public. He tosses his costume and his Spider-Man identity and works to rebuild the rest of his life that he’d let fall by the wayside while playing superhero. In a montage that make me beam every time I see it, “Raindrops” plays over a montage of Peter putting his life back together: participating in his college classes, fixing his scooter, and walking with his head held high as he glides down the sidewalk. The song mirrors how much more free Peter feels without the albatross of Spider-Man around his neck to make him feel responsible for the world’s ills. And really, the song and montage are a nice break to the oppressive bleakness and despair that characterized the first part of the film.
The Banana Splits theme song—Kick-Ass
When the diminutive Hit-Girl goes on a murder spree through Rasul’s den of thugs to save the titular hero from getting his ass kicked, the theme to the children’s series The Banana Splits, as played by The Dickies, is juxtaposed nicely with the carnage spewing in the scene. The music is fast-paced and the use of the lyrics from a children’s series is obviously meant to be both funny and jarring to the audience. Further, however, I get the idea that the director wanted to illustrate that the heroes of the four-colored world of cartoons and comic books with which most of the public is familiar would not come out as cleanly through a melee if let loose into our world.
The Human Beinz cover of “Nobody but Me”—Kill Bill Vol. 1
This one is a bit of cheat, as, strictly speaking, the Kill Bill movies aren’t superhero films, but they might as well as be. The character arc of Beatrix Kiddo, the Bride herself (played by Uma Thurman), plays out like classic superhero fare: a woman who “dies” and is reborn as a superhuman killing machine seeking vengeance and, to a lesser extent, justice. And her powers are never more evident than in Kill Bill Vol. 1 when Beatrix seeks out O’ren Ishii for the attempt on her life. Donning a yellow jumpsuit (an homage to Bruce Lee’s outfit in Game of Death) that might as well have a B stylized emblazoned on the front, Beatrix mows through Oren’s henchmen, the Crazy 88 with her “super weapon,” her Hatori Hanzo sword. Music and film see a perfect marriage when Beatrix goes on a kinetic killing spree as the Human Beinz’s cover of “Nobody But Me” plays over the action. The choice is song is perfect for a number of reasons. First, it acts a clever wink to the fact that, through the bloody mayhem, Beatrix will be the only “body” left as maimed parts fly everywhere. Further, the fast beat of the music while Beatrix flies through the air makes the scene almost play out like a dance. The song’s words are also wink to the audience that “nobody but [Beatrix]” can do what she pulls off in the scene, giving us more reason to cheer her on. Finally, the lyrics are a nod to the sheer unstoppable force of nature Beatrix has become in her vengeance, as she works to ensure that she will be the last of the 5 left. There’s a reason that song is on my iPod now. The memory of that scene with that music gets me pumped and makes me a run a hair faster than I normally might.
Johnny Cash’s cover of “Hurt”—Logan
20th Century Fox recently dropped the first trailer for March 2017’s Logan, which will tale a future story of an aged Wolverine from Marvel’s X-Men, seemingly at the tail-end of his time on Earth. Inspired by the comic book story “Old Man Logan,” director James Mangold paired the footage with Johnny Cash’s rendition of Nine Inch Nails’ haunting ballad “Hurt,” which is all about regret, despair, and the thirst for second chances. As Hugh Jackman’s weary Logan flashes across the screen, Mangold makes clear that here is a former Wolverine who sees the stretch of his long life and, despite the good he’s accomplished during those years, can’t help but choke on what he sees as his shortcomings. It’s the most moved I’ve ever been by not just a comic book trailer, but any trailer, period, and the clips still linger.
Sweet’s “Ballroom Blitz—Suicide Squad
Whatever your thoughts about this summer’s Suicide Squad, you have to admit that the trailers for the film did a phenomenal job at pulling in potential viewers, and big credit for that goes to the music. Of the various songs making an appearance in those clips, none were as effective as the use of Sweet’s “Ballroom Blitz.” The song itself is high-octane at its finest, which is a perfect match for a film featuring manic, high-energy characters like the Joker and Harley Quinn.