Music is as important to a movie as the actors, the director and the pictures on screen themselves. Our ears are always open and movies are constantly attending to our multiple human senses for entertainment.
Superhero movies in particular are pretty much required to have an accompanying character theme —or two or five— and it’s no coincidence that most of my favorite musical cues in motion pictures come from superhero films.
It’s simply part of a movie’s DNA. A soundtrack can make a good movie great (Pirates of the Caribbean), a flawed movie memorable (Jaws) and a great movie an all-time classic (Jurassic Park).
So while I’m no music aficionado and really can’t tell you all about that base, my ears are as open as my eyes when absorbing a movie.
Behind every note is a composer. Here are my favorites.
40. Craig Armstrong
Armstrong’s gallery isn’t as familiar to me and his Marvel score has been mostly forgotten along with the attached movie (The Incredible Hulk.) It was a dark, gloomy beat fit for the movie it was attached to, appropriately not lending itself to something too heroic.
39. John Powell
Powell is known for work on many animated films like How to Train Your Dragon, which he earned an Oscar nom for, as well as his folksy Shrek theme, which he conducted with Harry Gregson-Williams (Rupert’s brother, see below).
38. Kevin Kiner
Kiner is ranked right next to Powell as he also really just took John Williams original Star Wars theme and got to tinker with it. He stayed closer to Williams’ original melody, moreso repurposing the theme for The Clone Wars rather than needing to open it up like Powell for an entirely new cinematic film. His intro to The Clone Wars is a really cool variation of the OG theme.
37. Rupert Gregson-Williams
The Wonder Woman theme itself deserves to be far higher, but Gregson-Williams, not unlike Powell and Kiner with Star Wars material, had something ready for him to work with. Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL put things on a platter for the talented RGW to build on.
36. Bill Brown
The first video game composer on the list, Brown did the music for the unexpectedly fantastic Captain America: Super Soldier PS3 game and provided a worthy compliment to Alan Silvestri’s cinematic march. Standout track: the appropriately named “Hero.”
35. Jóhann Jóhannsson
The late Jóhannsson was victim to an accidental overdose in February 2018. His combination of orchestral and electronic factors was heard strong in his Oscar nominated work for Sicario, especially “The Beast.”
34. Ben Salisbury & Geoff Barrow
Salisbury and Barrow collaborated with Alex Garland to produce music for the epic Ex Machina and the not-as-good-but-still-good Annihilation. Their work is fittingly unsettling and creepy, prime for both Ex Machina (“Ava’s Theme”) and Annihilation (“The Alien.”).
33. Marius Vries
One of many to work on the…wait for it…kick-ass score for Matthew Vaughn’s…Kick-Ass, Vries’ portion of the soundtrack is just as good as any. He gets the big finishing number with “Flying Home.”
32. John Debney
Debney worked with Jon Favreau on two personal favorites, Elf and Iron Man 2. He also scored the football classic The Replacements. If I had to recommend a track of his, it would be “I Am Iron Man.”
31. Nick Arundel
30. Marco Beltrami
Predominantly on this list for his unique, somber Logan score, Beltrami’s work on the blink-and-you-missed-it zombie flick Warm Bodies is also worth mentioning. From Logan, peep “Forest Fight.”
29. Junkie XL
One of many, many protégés from Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control Productions, Junkie XL aka Antonius Tom Holkenborg has emerged in the techno-tronic genre. His work on Deadpool is fun, if not that memorable outside of “Maximum Effort.”
He worked in with his Jedi Master Zimmer on the criminally underrated The Amazing Spider-Man 2 soundtrack, which you’ll be seeing again towards the tippy top of this list.
Again with Zimmer, he composed Batman v Superman and helped elevate a messy film into something at least musically interesting. Highlights on the BvS soundtrack include “A Beautiful Lie,” “Their War Here” and, on display above, Wonder Woman’s theme born out of “Is She With You?”
Holkenborg was slated to score Justice League Part 1 —when it was a Part 1 at all— but was replaced at the last minute by the veteran Danny Elfman. That was the least of problems for DC’s team-up. Moving on.
28. Mark Mancina
The animated Tarzan gets remembered for its Phil Collins content, but we must remember that the soundtrack was done as a team along with Mancina, who also wrote music for Moana.
27. John Carpenter
The unusual director AND composer combo, Carpenter’s Halloween has become a classic in the horror genre. Personally, I think it’s a little overrated and inflated by the times, but there is absolutely no denying the haunting power of that piano.
26. Lalo Schifrin
25. Ludwig Goransson
Ryan Coogler’s collab absolutely kills it with the Black Panther soundtrack. The playlist comfortably runs more than a dozen tracks deep, but, at least to me, doesn’t have a clearcut, definitive theme like some of the albums ahead. Goransson’s Venom work is uninspired, but we’ll always have the hip hop gold that is Killmonger’s theme.
24. Ramin Djawadi
Iron Man’s theme has an epic build-up appropriate for the MCU’s feature debut. Djawadi is mostly known for a little side project called Game of Thrones, but I’m here for his work on Iron Man. He also does good stuff on Pacific Rim too, though I couldn’t, in good concious, recommend that film.
23. Mark Griskey
Griskey is a video game veteran, working on several of my favorites. He’s a go-to for Star Wars video games, scoring The Force Unleashed and its sequel, The Old Republic, as well as many Marvel games like the acclaimed Ultimate Alliance.
22. John Murphy
Murphy’s insane theme from 28 Days (and Weeks) Later was abnormally reused in Kick-Ass for Big Daddy’s theme. I suppose it is indeed that good. Murphy added a few more tracks to Kick-Ass, like “The Corridor",” but nothing surpasses “In the House, In a Heartbeat”/”Big Daddy Kills.”
21. Mark Mothersbaugh
Whip It. Whit It Good. From the band Devo. That’s Mark Mothersbaugh at the mic. Thor: Ragnarok would have been lying to itself if it didn’t sign on a composer willing to make some weird sounds. Like “Everything Is Awesome!!!” from The Lego Movie. Ragnarok’s soundtrack is super catchy and super Taika Waititi. “Parade,” “What Heroes Do” and if you dare, “Grandmaster’s Jam Session” are just ridiculous.
20. Patrick Doyle
Doyle’s Thor score seemed to get outmatched in perception by the follow-up Thor music from Brian Tyler and Mark Mothersbaugh. Doyle’s theme is the most poignant of the three, very easy on the ears but also triumphant as Hel when you come to “Thor Kills the Destroyer,” which I’m sure you can guess what it’s about.
19. Klaus Badelt
Another Zimmer product, Badelt claims sole credit on the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Zimmer’s name is on the following three movies (neither worked on the forgettable fifth film), so unless I get the chance to ask in person, it’s hard to know where Zimmer ends and Badelt begins. Even still, the Pirates theme is so fantastic that Badelt gets high marks. “He’s a Pirate.”
18. Jerry Goldsmith
Back in the 60s, 70s and 80s when Hollywood movies were finding their footing, Goldsmith was the man you wanted to make the sounds for your film. His library of work is incredible. Planet of the Apes, Star Trek, The Omen, Total Recall, Poltergeist, Alien, Rudy…Jerry Goldsmith is behind so many of the best music ever put to movies, with his Planet of the Apes tune one of my all-time favs.
17. Christopher Young
Another composer who already had his theme in place from a prior artist, Young came onto the studio-battled Spider-Man 3, replacing Danny Elfman. Why Young still has such a high rank is because of what he added to Elfman’s iconic Spidey theme. His cues for Sandman and Venom, joined together for a super super villain theme, are spooky and reflect his horror roots alongside Sam Raimi.
16. Ennio Morricone
Morricone’s treasure is, without question, “The Ecstasy of Gold” from The Good, the Bad & the Ugly. Also worked with Quentin Tarantino on The Hateful Eight, but “Ecstasy of Gold” has become as prolific outside of movies as it has within cinema.
15. James Newton Howard
Newton Howard has scored over 100 films. Some of my favorites are from the extremely underrated animated Dinosaur, I Am Legend and I also enjoy his Fantastic Beasts theme. The cream of the crop, though, is his partnership with Hans Zimmer on Batman Begins and The Dark Knight.
14. James Horner
Horner’s contributions to a fellow James, James Cameron’s blockbuster giants Titanic and Avatar are well documented, but the late, great musician’s work on The Amazing Spider-Man is brilliant. “Main Title (Young Peter)” acts as a suite to that album and is worthy of the Horner name.
13. Christopher Drake
The best video game soundtrack, in my opinion, comes from Drake. The spinoff Arkham game Arkham Origins wasn’t as popular as the flagship three from the main Rocksteady studios, but while the game isn’t as notorious, Drake’s themes for a younger Batman, Joker and Gotham City have stayed the test of time.
Around the same time as the game, Drake also concocted the theme for Batman: Under the Red Hood, a 2010 animated movie focusing on one of my favorite DC stories, perhaps because of its semblance to the Winter Soldier arc. He also did the music for both parts of the animated Dark Knight Returns, a perfect adaptation of Frank Miller’s legendary Batman versus Superman comic and my favorite animated superhero feature of all time.
12. Matthew Margeson
By himself, Margeson reimagines the 80s in spectacular fashion for Eddie the Eagle. He also teamed up with the amazing (and upcoming) Henry Jackman on the Kingsman films, those soundtracks nothing short of legendary.
11. Monty Norman
A pair of absolutely iconic themes here from the next two artists. Norman for James Bond…
10. Bill Conti
…and Conti for Rocky.
9. Christophe Beck
A good song, lyrical or instrumental, is one you can hum for days on end and not hate the world for it. Beck’s Ant-Man material, and the rare MCU musical continuity supplied for the sequel, is one of the more fascinating hero themes I’ve ever heard.
8. Tyler Bates
The triumphant main theme for the Guardians of the Galaxy was kind of discovered by accident. Director James Gunn (prior to his exile) likes to score his movies before filming, a very unusual and unpracticed technique. He got a clip from Bates to use for the movie and decided then and there that was the one he wanted for the money shots.
Known for their Awesome Mix soundtracks, Bates delivers the instrumental goods on Guardians. Check out “The Kyln Escape,” “The Final Battle Begins” and “The Ballad of the Nova Corps.” From Vol. 2, he starts hot with “Showtime A-Holes.”
Bates also produced some edgy, vibing stuff for the Deadpool sequel and both John Wick films, partnering on the Wick’s with Joel J. Richard.
7. Danny Elfman
Elfman is well traveled, his strong kinship with Tim Burton a driving force behind his project selection. He’s done several superhero films, starting with the original Burton Batman and also helping Shirley Walker conduct the theme for Batman: The Animated Series on TV.
He turned in a good Hulk score, a fantastic Men In Black theme and cashed a check on Justice League after replacing Junkie XL at the last minute. He was also brought in late on Avengers: Age of Ultron, and has several great additions to Alan Silvestri’s Avengers theme, like “Heroes Unite,” “New Avengers - Age of Ultron” and the similarly scripted “Heroes” and “It Begins.”
But most of all, he helped get the superhero ball rolling with his score for the first two Spider-Man movies.
6. Michael Giacchino
Speaking of Spider-Man, the busy Giacchino scored Spider-Man: Homecoming for Marvel Studios right after composing for Doctor Strange. Most composers have a certain style that carries from film to film, but Giacchino is as versatile as it gets.
An Academy Award winner for Up, the man known for his track list puns has produced music for all of the following blockbusters since 2015: Jurassic World, Inside Out, Zootopia, Star Trek Beyond, Doctor Strange, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Spider-Man: Homecoming, War for the Planet of the Apes, Coco and Incredibles 2.
Just some of the best from his collection: “Master of the Mystic End Credits” and “Go For Baroque” from Doctor Strange, “Academic Decommitment” and “Bussed a Move” from Spider-Man: Homecoming, “Hope” from Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, “The Ecstasy of the Bold” from War for the Planet of the Apes, “Married Life” from Up, the main theme from the modern Star Trek series and so many more…
It’s not just anyone who is picked to carry on the legacy of names like Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams, but Giacchino was the man for the job, taking over the Planet of the Apes and Jurassic Park franchises, as well as continuing Star Wars in Rogue One.
5. Brian Tyler
For me, Tyler has delivered two of the biggest home runs of any movie soundtrack. Those would be back-to-back MCU movies Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World. The sounds here are similar yet not at all alike, giving Iron Man and Thor amazing themes and redefining the previous entries into the extended Marvel Studios universe.
The titular titles for both movies are the first to check out, with “Isolation” from Iron Man 3 and “Into Eternity” from Thor: The Dark World providing a respite from the conquering and giving the heroes a softer touch.
Tyler stuck with the MCU for Avengers: Age of Ultron but his dynamic duo is definitely the previous two. Can You Dig It?!
4. Alan Silvestri
It was obviously crucial for Marvel to attach a winning number to their highly anticipated team-up in 2012. After knocking it out of the park with the victorious notes of Captain America: The First Avenger, Silvestri moved seamlessly into The Avengers and went from home run to grand slam.
His theme for Marvel’s superhero team has become as memorable and entrenched in cinematic history as the movies themselves. For all of Silvestri’s work, and there’s a lot of it (like Back to the Future), his legacy is tied to the magic of the Avengers movies and their sequels.
3. Hans Zimmer
Zimmer could be third, he could be first. His combination of instruments and modern electronic technology has changed the movie music industry. Where Silvestri is tied to the Avengers, Zimmer’s name will forever by synonymous with Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy.
Musical continuity isn’t as prevalent in Marvel movies, especially with the episodic nature of the MCU, but the three Batman movies from Nolan seem to be just as much Hans Zimmer’s baby as they are belonging to Nolan and Christian Bale.
Zimmer’s work in the monumental Batman trilogy evolved tremendously through the three movies, while also keeping a through-line theme for the hero. Few have matched his work when it comes to villains, too, his tempos for the Joker, Bane and then Electro in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 some of the best in the business for any character, good or bad.
With all that said for The Dark Knight trilogy, Zimmer also knocked it out of the park for Superman in 2013’s Man of Steel and did his best to save Batman v Superman. In-between those DC movies, he worked on the just mentioned Amazing Spider-Man 2, providing one of the most underrated superhero scores ever, clouded by the inauspicious reputation of that film.
Zimmer’s extensive gallery extends to other Nolan films Inception and Interstellar. Everything he touches is gold, from The Lion King to Rush to Chappie to Pirates of the Caribbean to Sherlock Holmes. The man is incredible.
2. Henry Jackman
Taking a cue from Zimmer for The Winter Soldier, Jackman delivers the rare compliment of an iconic villain theme as well as the obligatory hero’s theme. He also scored the next Cap movie, the pseudo-Avengers Captain America; Civil War, creating numerous memorable themes for an array of different heroes, not to mention the titular super soldier.
Both Kingsman movies have the same main theme, but just like Zimmer tinkered with his Batman themes for the sequels, Jackman and partner Matthew Margeson only made their trademark Kingsman theme better in the sequel, Kingsman: The Golden Circle.
1. John Williams
What is there to say about the man, the myth, the legend and the maker himself. His bombastic Superman theme, his adventurous Indiana Jones cue, Jaws, Jurassic Park and even kicking off the Harry Potter franchise.
Williams has obviously done a literal lifetime’s worth of movies, but like George Lucas, he will certainly be remembered for Star Wars. As those movies have evolved, so has the legendary Williams. He’s scored all eight episodes and also contributed a track to Solo.
It’s not possible to top the original main theme, the opening and closing numbers, but Williams has given every Star Wars movie something worthy of its own.
From the original trilogy, the themes for Han, Leia, Yoda and the twins suns of Tatooine and the victory tune from Return of the Jedi are not to be challenged. The theme of Darth Vader and the Empire, the “Imperial March” speaks for itself.
From the prequels, “Duel of the Fates” from The Phantom Menace and “Battle of the Heroes” from Revenge of the Sith might be the coup de grâce of Williams’ entire catalog. His entire Star Wars collection is nothing short of history.