Soundtracks to comic book movies used to kick ass. The right combination of original songs, inspired covers, and curated classics can breathe life into otherwise blatantly commercial popcorn flicks. What separates comics from real life is tone –- color, texture, and feel — and bringing pen-and-ink creations into the realm of live action can be a tough sell. But the right tunes can pull ink right off the page, channeling the spirit of the hand-drawn art that was so cool in the first place — color and shadow painted with guitar and backbeat.
The best soundtracks are legitimately good albums, fun to listen to while invariably conjuring the imagery of the comic and the movie. They have added value as a time-capsule of songs, taking you back to the summer — it was usually summer — when you saw something so huge and glossy and gaudy and fun, you couldn’t wait to get your hands on the soundtrack and listen to “Batdance” on repeat. And that was the thing — for the most part, these were massively mainstream records, in some cases topping charts, dominating the radio, and selling millions of copies. Movie studio bean-counters won, and we did, too.
Sadly, these days you’re less likely to get a sweet album than a stiff collection of orchestral cues that wants to be the Superman theme without sounding too much like the Superman theme, or some horrible assemblage of polished post-grunge turds. A recent New York Times article talks about several underlying shifts in comic book movies over the years, with lots of discussion of things like “corporate appropriation of fan culture” and “diminishing creative returns.” Film critic A.O. Scott summarizes the current state of superhero cinema: “The scrappy underdogs and pulpy tales have turned into something else, and I wonder if some of the fun, and much of the soul, has been lost.” Soundtracks aren’t explicitly mentioned, but I can’t help wonder if some decent fucking music wouldn’t go a long way in the heart-and-soul department.
With Spider-Man topping the box office, Bat Man about to break records, and Comic-Con kicking off this week, let’s take a look at 10 of the best comic book movie soundtracks, and remember a time when these things were amazing.
The genre mashup was one of the best soundtrack trends of the ’90s. Judgment Night set the standard by pairing rock and metal bands with hip-hop artists. Like all good ideas that made money, it was worth revisiting, an observation not missed by Immortal Records exec Happy Walters, who was responsible for both soundtracks. Spawn tapped the sudden mainstream interest in electronica and slammed it headfirst into metal and hard rock, with often awesome, often strange results. We got the famous pairing of Filter and The Crystal Method, Marilyn Manson rubbing up against The Sneaker Pimps, Slayer trading fire with Atari Teenage Riot, and the muted, atonal rage of Henry Rollins stepping into Goldie’s drum-and-bass ghost world. Spawn, as a movie, lacked bite. But the soundtrack had teeth and then some: the album debuted at #7 on the Billboard charts and would sell over 500,000 copies.
9. Batman & Robin
Batman & Robin’s soundtrack — much like the movie itself — is all over the place. R. Kelly sings about Gotham City in “Gotham City.” Meshell Ndegeocello covers the Lieber and Stoller classic “Poison Ivy” for, well, Poison Ivy. And the Smashing Pumpkins turn in two versions of the same song (both pretty cool), because they’re the Smashing Pumpkins and that’s the kind of thing they do. There’s a scattershot schizophrenia to the album that matches the movie’s lack of focus — remember all those characters? Uma as Poison Ivy, Ah-nuld as Mr. Freeze, Clooney’s Batman, Chris O’Donnell as Robin, Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl?! — but the songs (and their videos) are ultimately more memorable than the movie itself. (The original audio does not exist online paired with the original video; the version above is the original demo of the same song.)
8. Men In Black
It’s hard to take seriously these days, but back when it came out, this thing was an interstellar juggernaut. Will Smith picked up the mic on two tracks and won himself a Grammy in the process. While the title track wasn’t half bad, the rest of the roster was stellar: Nas, Ginuwine, A Tribe Called Quest, The Roots, Snoop Dogg, De La Soul, and unbelievably, this marked the recorded debuts of both Alicia Keys and Destiny’s Child.
7. Weird Science
Based on a ’50s EC comics series (along with Tales From The Crypt), Weird Science is the stuff of nerd legend. We’ve got John Hughes at the height of his teen-comedy powers (Weird Science came out between The Breakfast Club and Pretty In Pink), we’ve got a geek-quest of mythic proportions (to create the perfect woman, maybe have sex with her), we’ve got Chet, and we’ve got a killer soundtrack full of ’80s new wave and cock rock. Oingo Boingo, whose bandleader Danny Elfman would go on to score a handful of the other movies in this list, contributes the schlocky title track alongside originals from Wall of Voodoo and Kim Wilde, and ’80s classics from Killing Joke, OMD, Van Halen, and The Lords Of The New Church.
Tim Burton’s first Batman movie is certifiably insane. Like its protagonist, it’s an explosion of color, violence, and new jack hysteria. Prince wrote an entire album for the soundtrack, full of glossy ballads, funked-up dance tracks, and schizophrenic samples. “Batdance” might be the most batshit song ever to become a bona fide Billboard No. 1 single. The single — which is a cut-up of every other song on the album, plus yet-unreleased songs off Prince’s next album — became wildly popular in the wake of the film’s success, and the album went on to sell almost three million copies in the US alone. Sadly, Prince doesn’t allow his music on YouTube, so the closest we can get to sharing is this abbreviated dance performance by a Prince impersonator, set to the original track. Fittingly insane.
5. Tank Girl
Lori Petty as Tank Girl was all spunk and spitfire, a winking hooligan with a troubled past but an eye for a good time. Fitting then, that they brought in Courtney Love to throw together a punk-and-glitter, alterna-whatever soundtrack. Devo redid their own “Girl U Want,” Hole turn in “Drown Soda,” which would later surface on the Ask For It EP, and, most interestingly, Paul Westerberg and Joan Jett team up for a run through “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love”.
4. Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World
Scott Pilgrim’s soundtrack is an oasis of joy in a sea of misery, a bar of soap floating down a river of sewage, a worthy soundtrack in an age where no one else remembers how to properly soundtrack a movie. This is literally one of the only decent comic book movie soundtracks to come out in years. They got it right by bashing out an irreverent batch of in-movie songs like “I’m So Sad, So Very, Very Sad” and “We are Sex Bob-Omb”, performed by in-movie bands like Crash and the Boys and Sex Bob-Omb. In reality they’re mainly written by Beck, with a couple by Broken Social Scene. Metric contribute the single “Black Sheep,” with an alternate version sung by actress Brie Larson appearing in the film.
3. Judge Dredd
Judge Dredd the movie could have been awesome. Instead, it came out awesomely bad: a fail of hilarious scope and size, rendered amazing by ridiculous scenery-chewing performances. It’s so bad it had to be intentional. It had to be. Somehow, someone miscalculated their approach to the soundtrack and mistakenly made it good. Alan Silvestri (famous for the scores for Predator and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) fills half the album with the most bombastic orchestral work of his career, while the front half is rendered fantastic by one of the best late-period Cocteau Twins songs and a stellar contribution by The The, among others.
2. Batman Forever
The Batman Forever soundtrack is THE quintessential big-budget superhero movie soundtrack, more or less providing the template for all superhero soundtracks to follow. The difference here is that the songs were either chosen with care, or just came out right, for whatever reason. Seal dug up his then-minor hit “Kiss From A Rose” and was able to turn it into an ever-lasting ballad, the kind of thing we’ll see on reality singing competitions for decades to come. U2 were at their post-Zooropa weirdest when they recorded “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me”; the song saw them dabble in heavier guitars and gunked-up electronics, but it sticks due to the chorus melody — a surprisingly subtle refrain, in a song that seems anything but. Further contributions from Mazzy Star, Nick Cave, Sunny Day Real Estate, the Flaming Lips, Brandy, Method Man, PJ Harvey, and Massive Attack prove the musical coordinator had earned his salt with an oddly dark, atmospheric collection of songs.
1. The Crow
And then there’s The Crow. Everything about the production clicked into horrible place (for better and much, much worse) to ensure the film and soundtrack were both tragic classics. There’s the backstory of the comic itself, in which artist/creator James O. Barr channeled the pain of his fiancée’s death into a gothic revenge story, complete with quoted lyrics from Joy Division and the Cure. There was the death of lead actor Brandon Lee during filming that mirrored the death of the main character and gave birth to an unwitting icon for mopey teens everywhere. And there was the soundtrack: a mix of goth, industrial, metal, and alternative that set the tone for the mayhem and pain that would happen onscreen. Highlights include a classic Stone Temple Pilots song, the absolute best late-era song from the Cure (“Burn,” which includes lines quoted back from the comic, coming full circle with Barr’s creation), and a simmering Nine Inch Nails take on the Joy Division classic “Dead Souls.” Pantera covers Poison Idea, Rollins Band cover Suicide, and Violent Femmes, Helmet, Medicine, and the Jesus and Mary Chain make this thing a tortured piece of history and a classic album in its own right.
What did we miss? (And no, Mylo Xyloto doesn’t count!)