“I guess every superhero need his theme music,” sang Kanye West seven years ago. The sentiment is right, the pronoun is … questionable. That Wonder Woman’s triumphant big-screen debut this weekend comes 39 years after Superman’s and 28 years after Batman’s is a travesty — her comic-book debut followed those of her fellow DC Comics heroes by three years and two, respectively. But at least she can claim to have at least one thing that Iron Man still doesn’t, never mind Black Widow: a memorable cue.
By way of example, take the teaser trailer for next year’s Deadpool sequel. It’s built around one major gag: The mutant mercenary witnesses a mugging and ducks into a phone booth to prepare for battle. But Lycra is clingy, and by the time Ryan Reynolds has shimmed into uniform, the victim is dead and his killer has escaped.
Mocking Deadpool’s ineptitude under all this is John Williams’ stirring march from Superman: The Movie — the first big-budget, big-screen comic-book adaption, from 1978. Its ad campaign promised disillusioned post-Vietnam, post-Watergate audiences, You’ll believe a man can fly. Williams’ Superman: The Soundtrack was one big reason they did.
Superman was a huge hit that spawned fast-declining sequels, but it did not produce a wave of films derived from comic books. The next big one took a little over a decade to arrive, but Tim Burton’s Batman became the biggest domestic hit of 1989. Although the movie’s first trailer, strikingly, featured no music at all, Danny Elfman’s brooding, Wagnerian score bat-signaled to audiences that this take on the character would be more gothic and less campy than the Bat-tusi-ing ’60s TV Batman that was — at least to people who didn’t read comics, where Batman was having a huge resurgence in the late ’80s — the version that had stuck.
(There was also, you know, a whole separate soundtrack album comprising “Batdance” and other original tunes by Warner Brothers recording artist Prince. Dig if you will the picture / You and I engaged in a mercantile act of corporate synergy.)
DC’s forever rival Marvel Comics tried mightily to get their heroes turned into hit movies, but for the longest time all they got were TV movies or unintentionally hilarious, low-budget versions that often didn’t even get released at all. That changed in 2000, when Bryan Singer’s X-Men x-ceeded Fox’s expectations for its gross. Then came Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, in 2002. I saw them both in theaters, more than once. I bought the DVDs. I eagerly awaited their sequels, which did not disappoint.
I could not hum a bar of music from either one to save my life.
Marvel stopped outsourcing its filmmaking and got into the game itself with 2008’s Iron Man, the start of a four-year campaign of solo adventures building up to 2012’s Marvel team-up The Avengers. The movie was written and directed by Joss Whedon, a man who likes musicals so much that he actually wrote the web series Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog (with his brothers Zack, a TV writer, and Jed, a composer) just to keep himself busy during the 2007-8 writer’s strike.
But even his superhero epic — scored by Alan Silvestri, whose credits included Back to the Future — sounded bland. Instead of all those post-credits scenes, The Avengers should’ve ended with a song with lyrics describing each hero’s special powers. There’s an excellent model for this: Paul Francis Webster and Robert Harris’ theme song to the mid-’60s Spider-Man cartoon. You know a tune has staying power when it’s been covered by The Ramonesand Michael Bublé. (Composer Michael Giacchino has hinted that the song will be paid homage in his music for Spider-Man: Homecoming later this summer.)
The two Guardians of the Galaxy films are each helped along by an “Awesome Mix” of ’70s FM. Loganended with “The Man Comes Around,” one of the last songs Johnny Cash wrote before he died. (It was perfect.) But these are exceptions. Clearly, a crisis is upon us. Superhero movies are everywhere. Superhero music is in decline. Who will help us? Who?
His name is Rupert Gregson-Williams, mild-mannered composer of scores for prestige television (Veep, The Crown) and film (Hacksaw Ridge). Last summer’s The Legend of Tarzan was the closest thing on his resume to a superhero film until Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins tapped him to write the music.
Well, most of it. Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman had already been introduced in last year’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. When she shows up in uniform near the film’s climax, composers Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL give her a distinctive riff. (It sounds like an electric guitar, but it’s actually performed on the electric cello by Tina Guo.) Gregson-Williams understood that his score would have to include that instantly memorable theme.
“That was a Wonder Woman that had arrived at the peak of her powers,” he says. “She knows her strengths, and the theme really reflected that. It’s rocking.”
I asked Gregson-Williams flat-out why so little of the music of our current era of superhero saturation has distinguished itself.
“There’s a generic language, musically, that’s grown up,” he says. “In the same way, there are other types of film — Westerns or sci-fi — where there’s a generic language which is difficult to shake off. And I guess it’s down to the depth of character that you’re writing for. If they have some depth, or if there’s something different about their powers or about their character or their emotions, I guess it would make it easier to shake that that language off.”
That’s fair. Superheroes, like characters in any genre, are defined by their conventions. And this is the first Wonder Woman movie, not the inflated sequel or the back-to-basics reboot.
My theory is that music is especially critical to superhero films — and I’ll include literary creations like Sherlock Holmes and James Bond, and cinematic homages like Indiana Jones in this category — because the character is larger than any one story. They’re fixed in perpetuity. A great score can help give them that immortality.
Superman had been around for 40 years when Williams sat down to compose; he’s been around another 40 since. In his music, Williams reflected perfectly that film’s balance of innocence and sophistication. Wonder Woman, happily, has that same cocktail of attributes; the same unabashed romanticism and the same understated romance. (Gadot and Chris Pine, who’s as fine a foil to her as Margot Kidder was to Christopher Reeve in Superman, have a chemistry that fairly bubbles.)
“Patty made a film that is much more on the classic side,” Gregson-Williams says. “And so we could get get involved with more lyricism and melody in parts for the score. With some movies, you back off melody because these days it feels like we’re trying too hard.”
The movie begins and ends in the present, but most of the story is set about a century ago, during the first World War. In fact, it’s in a trench warfare sequence that Princess Diana — Wonder Woman’s Amazonian name — first reveals her powers to the world. The title of this composition is “No-Man’s Land.” Gregson-Williams says it was important to nail that scene exactly, and that Jenkins sent him back to the composing board several times.
“That was an exciting moment to write,” the composer says. “It was quite painful to write because I didn’t get it right first time, or the second, third or fourth time.”
Getting it right came down to Jenkins directing the composer as she would an actor. “Patty would act out what Diana was thinking for every single move. That really instructed me, rhythmically and tempo-wise, how she wanted it.”
And of course, there’s a fine line between honoring convention and being a hack.
“There are certain moves, musically, that you can’t help but muster for a certain emotion,” Gregson-Williams admits. “And you can tear yourself apart by trying to find a new answer to that musical harmony that says to you: This is a beautiful and proud moment.”
Those moments are what we turn to this genre for, however. It’s the part when Superman takes flight for the first time. It’s the scene in Captain America: The First Avenger — my favorite Marvel movie, and the one that Wonder Woman most resembles — when skinny Steve Rogers throws himself on top of the grenade.
Not that camp or irony is all bad. I do miss the lyrics from the 1970s Wonder Woman TV theme by Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel — the funky encomium to the Amazonian who’s “fighting for her rights in her satin tights / And the old red, white and blue.” Does Gregson-Williams think lyrics might make a return to the super-music game?
“I don’t see too much future in it,” he laughs. “Certainly not from my pen.”