COMIC BOOK MOVIE SOUNDTRACKS: HOW WE WENT FROM EPIC TO AWESOME
My plan was quite simple. After recording our spoiler discussion of Guardians of the Galaxy 2, I was meant to sit down and write a spoiler free review. Many hours and much deliberation later I came to the conclusion that, at least to me, it felt like Chris and myself had spoke about everything that needed talking about. What more was there to talk about? But then I noticed something when watching our review and a lot of other reviews of this film. We didn't talk about the soundtrack. In fact a lot of other reviews I watched didn't. No one was praising the soundtrack. Why not?
When Guardians of the Galaxy first stepped into our lives, it did so with a swing of the hips and tap of the foot. The soundtrack of this film was so highly praised. Mixing Motown with Hard Rock, this film was bold but brilliant and clever with its choices of music. What really made it stand out was that it was doing what so many comic book films had never successfully done.
You see in the beginning, films had scores. Brilliant masterpieces that cupped you in their hands and carried you through the movie. Soundtracks so powerful that when you play them, you are instantly taken back to that scene, that very moment. None more so were better at it than DC. In 1978 they brought us SUPERMAN and with it a theme so iconic that some would argue that any new incarnation brought onto the silver screen is doomed to fail without having this song:
John Ottman brought the character to life through a symphony of chords and harmonies that will stand the test of time. A soundtrack that flew you through the air and bounced bullets off of your chest, that made you feel invincible. I actually find it quite similar in tone and structure to John Williams themes for STAR WARS and INDIANA JONES, with the blaring trumpets and quiet middle 8 sections. This was unusual. Superheroes did have themes but they were often campy songs like the 1966 Batman or the classic Spider-man cartoon. But most on film or TV were forgettable (like the Hulks opening theme) or just plain awful. Like 1986's HOWARD THE DUCK theme:
Yet Tim Burton did something unusual, he decided to bring Prince along to the party too. For the record, I HATE the Prince BATMAN songs. If you say you like them you're either lying or you are not taking into account that these songs are meant to link to BATMAN! It would be like me slapping IRON MAN's logo on the front of Adele's 21 album and saying these are IRON MAN songs now. The two are so far removed from each other, I will never understand why they tried to link them together, nor why people accept this.
Anyway, this decision to use Prince, and with a little help from TERMINATOR 2: JUDGEMENT DAY using Guns 'n' Roses, became part of a trend of using rock and pop musicians to help write the soundtracks to these films. Instead of relying on memorable scores, use recording artists! You can put scenes from your film in their music videos to help promote the film too! And that's what we had for years. Movies with scores that were very tame with the movie investing more in the recording artists songs to make the impact. In some cases it worked, like THE CROW. There's nothing wrong with what the orchestra did here but compare that to The Cure's song 'Burn', that was to be the main theme of the film, and it's no contest. Robert Smith, hands down:
In fact the soundtrack was jam packed with work from artists like Pantera, Nine Inch Nails and Rage Against The Machine all throwing their creative ideas in. Batman eventually got in on the action. After kicking Tim Burton aside because of his inability to make Batman friendly enough for McDonald's (that's a whole different story) a new director was brought in and with that a whole new take on the soundtrack. These songs went on to be hit singles, grammy award winners and personal favourites of mine.
Hollywood had a winning formula and you know what that means? They milked that cow for all it was worth. For some reason artists performing songs for a blockbuster film became normal. Yes, this had worked for James Bond for years but that was kind of that franchise's 'thing' and all the songs were kind of cheesey and samey (just like James Bond films actually).
With the standards of the films scores dropping so did the films quality. Most of the 90's (and those films from the first few years of the 00's that still thought that it was 1997) got films like JUDGE DREDD, SPAWN and DAREDEVIL which had totally forgettable themes and extremely similar songs making up their soundtrack.
Films like BLADE, MYSTERY MEN and STEEL started introducing dance music, hip hop (and whatever 'Smash Mouth' are) into our films soundtracks. How far removed had we come from the Man of Steel? Whether you liked the songs or the films, one thing was certain. The soul of comic book films had gone from the silver screen. If you wanted a great superhero theme tune you had to turn to saturday morning television.
Then finally someone took a stand. In 2000 Bryan Singer was finishing his first X-MEN film and wanted it to have a score. He approached John Williams and John Ottman to do it (imagine!) but due to scheduling conflicts they both had to decline. The studio began suggesting getting some artists to record songs (because that's what everyone did then) but Singer refused. Instead he got Michael Kamen (Lethal Weapon, Die Hard) and told him straight. Do NOT put songs in this film! Singer saw what we can all see now. Songs DATE a film. Singer wanted his film to be as everlasting as SUPERMAN was in 1978, having KoRn on the OST will not make that happen. Michael wasn't given much time to compose anything major, yet his work made the movie stand out from a lot of comic book films before it and at the time. Not only was this due to Bryan's fantastic direction and vision for the film, but the scenes now had nuance and feeling invigorated back into them.
Then in 2002 SPIDER-MAN came out and gave us our last comic book film with great songs attached to it. On top of it though Danny Elfman stepped up to the plate and gave us a powerful overture for our web head to sling scene to scene to. For me SPIDER-MAN 2 was a turning point for superhero films and their soundtracks. Because even though these songs were great, they just didn't match the magnitude or epic feel that we got from movie and the chorus of strings that pulled us through it. I mean, listen to these two, do you really think about the SPIDER-MAN film when listening to them?
Then in 2003 Elfman lent himself to HULK and composed a score for that too. No recording artists or songs. In 2004 HELLBOY came out, a film which prior to 2000 easily could have ended up soaked in Marilyn Manson songs or BLADE-esque rave music. Especially as they hired Marco Beltrami (composer for BLADE and that Resident Evil song that featured Marilyn Manson) but Guillermo del Toro got him to compose a score instead. Then came 2005 and there was a real game changer on the scene.
Hans Zimmer. In the world of superhero movies, these 2 words are all I need to say and you know what I mean. The game changed exponentially. All the pieces that were on the table beforehand were swiftly knocked off. BATMAN BEGINS saw superhero movies shaking off the stigma that comics are stupid and immature. Christopher Nolan wanted to show these superheroes and their stories are genuinely gripping and dark and there ain't no room in a film like that for some stupid Batdance. When you look back I find it really hard to fathom that this film came out the same year as FANTASTIC FOUR:
When you listen to these two it isn't hard to see why, by 2008, it was scores, scores, scores. The X-Men franchise was happily sticking with using composers and Christopher Nolan was continuing his trilogy with devastating effects on the rest of the comic book movie world. GHOST RIDER, the sequel to FANTASTIC FOUR and even the third SPIDER-MAN film fell flat in both tone of the visuals and the soundtracks (Snow Patrol, Sam Raimi, REALLY!?). The bar had been set by BATMAN, who could top it?
In 2008 the MCU began and with it came a different tone. Fun, imaginative and light-hearted without being cliché or cheesey, these films agreed that using bands to write songs was amateur and dated. We wanted our supers to have theme's baby...and we got them!
God, the Avengers theme is one of the best I've heard in years. I mean you just KNOW that song when you hear it. And that's the way it probably would have been for years until James Gunn walked through Marvel's doors.
He wasn't the first with this idea. Jon Favreau had touched on it using AC/DC and Black Sabbath briefly in IRON MAN and Zack Snyder kind of got the idea when he made THE WATCHMEN...although I feel people forget about his use of Jimi Hendrix and Nina Simone and focus on My Chemical Romance covering Desolation Row.
Now his influence can be seen making its way through the comic book movie world. DC tried it with Suicide Squad, which at times worked and at other times seemed like someone had left the music department my 'DAD ROCKS' compilation album I was going to give the old man for father's day. It looks like they are going to be trying it with JUSTICE LEAGUE if the trailer is anything to go by. actually it's almost now becoming a staple part of the trailers:
And even though DEADPOOL and LOGAN did it and knocked it out the park, it still has to be said that at the end of the day, the only one who is truly doing it right and better than anyone else is Mr James Gunn and I would like us all to take a moment to thank him. Because not only does he do fantastic scores to his movies that are grandiose and make you think of his films and are iconic to those characters and films that we know and love:
He also has managed to create two brilliant soundtracks to two brilliant films, and I just don't think that, when you look back at comic book films over the years, we are properly appreciating this newest one for how excellent it really is. In fact I'm genuinely struggling to decide which OST I prefer. It's easy to say the first one as that's the original and those memories are older and cut deeper, on the other hand when I put the second one on, I remember exactly what part of the film it's from and the joke I was crying laughing to at the time. And it has ELO and Cheap Trick on it as well...meaning if I had to pick, I would probably say the new one is better. Which still leaves me wondering...WHY IS NO ONE TALKING ABOUT HOW GOOD THE SOUNDTRACK TO THIS FILM WAS!?
Which did you think was better? Let me know in the comments below.
By Jay Burdett - @ProJub