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How to Compose a Superhero Theme, According to the Musicians Behind Avengers, Iron Man & More

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It’s hard work composing a superhero theme song; that’s what Hans Zimmer gave as his own explanation for leaving the genre behind. After spending over a decade of his career working on Batman-related compositions, from The Dark Knight trilogy to Batman v Superman, Zimmer now plans to compose for other genres. But how do the composers for other superhero franchises feel about the task set before them?

The Nerdist spoke to composers for properties like Iron Man, Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy and Star Wars Rebels, and although all of them had different creative processes, they all agreed that the concept of composing for a fantastical hero comes with a certain set of pressures. Brian Tyler, who composed for Avengers: Age of Ultron and Iron Man 3, pointed out that the category of “superhero” can be a bit reductive:

The thing I found right away is you really can’t approach it from the perspective of “I’m going to do a comic book movie,” because I’ve found these characters are reflections of what we want to be or [what we] fantasize about. [To compare Thor and Iron Man,] One is snarky and funny and one is literally a god. I would never write a piece of music that’s the same for a demi-god as some guy.

Still, there’s something unique about the power fantasy that superheroes evoke, and the musical accompaniment tends to reflect that spirit. Even Tyler uses the word “fantasize” to describe that phenomenon, which is a concept that comes up again and again among the composers. Tyler Bates, composer for Guardians of the Galaxy, described superheroes as “iconic, larger than life characters [that] embody qualities we all wished we could possess.” Kevin Kiner, who’s written music for Star Wars Rebels, echoed the sentiment: “It’s large, it’s fantasy. We’re not doing a little art film. Nothing’s wrong with those, but this is different and it’s broad.”

What’s noticeable to me in listening to the themes by some of these composers is that in a lot of cases, they aren’t necessarily noticeable, even if they do still manage to be powerful. In a talk-heavy movie like Age of Ultron, for example, the music has to take a back seat to the dialogue, while still upping the emotional stakes. Tyler cited Vision’s theme as one example of a song that isn’t a typical superhero fare:

As you can hear in the track, the Vision’s song is almost spooky; it doesn’t have a hook or a melodic through-line to center the listener. It’s unnerving, full of tension and uncertainty. Tyler, the composer, described it this way:

He’s the first character in that universe that you don’t really know what side he’s on. You have this guy who’s literally two minutes old and is born in this movie with this knowledge of humanity. It’s Machiavellian in a way. You don’t have this really heroic thing going on … his main theme is an adagio. It’s not your typical bombast, look how muscley this guy is; it’s more of a mystery.

It still makes a lot of sense to me that Hans Zimmer felt exhausted by composing for Batman. Batman is an exhausting character, and he doesn’t allow for nearly as much nuance as the full breadth of “superhero” allows. There are a whole lot of different directions you can go within this genre, and not all of the results are classic melodic-driven theme songs, either.

What are your favorite superhero themes?

(via Nerdist, image via Classicalite)

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