Comic book adaptations have long been bringing audiences some of the most iconic orchestral scores in movie history. John Williams’ theme for the 1978 “Superman” remains the one to beat, but then there’s Joe Harnell’s “Lonely Man Theme” piano ballad which has followed “The Incredible Hulk” from the small to big screen, or Danny Elfman’s brooding work on the 1989 “Batman.” Of course, it’s not just your usual, original theatrical scores which have played under some of the most thrilling moments of superhero cinema.
Beginning with that Tim Burton “Batman” movie, which yielded not only an album’s worth of Elfman music but also an entire Prince record, pop music has played an integral part in comic book movies. Needle drops of existing hits — from retro guilty pleasure throwbacks to up-to-the-minute chart-toppers — can provide as much pathos, bathos or theater seat strutting as the next orchestra. Here are the 15 best uses of pop music in comic book movies!
15. THE IMMIGRANT SONG (THOR: RAGNAROK)
It’s frankly amazing that it took three “Thor” films for Led Zeppelin to make an appearance in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Robert Plant’s lyrics regularly referenced Norse mythology; in fact, the most infamous biography about the ’70s rock legends is called “Hammer of the Gods,” after one of those lyrics. It’s such an obvious fit! Yet it’s only with the first teaser for “Thor: Ragnarok” that some Asgardian action was scored with the Viking howl of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.”
Obviously, it’s perfect. Watching Cate Blanchett’s Hela rain destruction down upon the Odinson’s Asgardian home while Plant screeches about destruction and pillaging couldn’t work better. “Immigrant Song” has appeared on film a couple of times before — a singalong lead by Jack Black in “School of Rock,” a brilliantly scary cover by Karen O and Trent Reznor for the opening titles of “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” — but none have worked as well as its “Ragnarok” appearance.
14. PEOPLE GET UP AND DRIVE YOUR FUNKY SOUL (SPIDER-MAN 3)
James Brown truly was the hardest-working man in show business. Unwilling or perhaps unable to simply rest on his laurels, he peaked in the ’60s with the truly classic run of singles “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” “I Got You (I Feel Good)” and “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” yet continued to tour and record new material endlessly. It’s to the credit of “Spider-Man 3” music supervisor Darian Pollard for digging deeper into Godfather of Soul’s catalogue for one of the most-maligned scenes in a movie that isn’t short of maligned scenes.
Director Sam Raimi has always been a fan of broad comedy, sneaking slapstick nods to the “Three Stooges” into even his bloody, brutal “Evil Dead” films. For some, he went too far with the comedy in the overstuffed third “Spider-Man” movie, and they’re mostly correct. One of the few moments that does work in that horrendously flawed film is the symbiote-infected Peter Parker strutting down a New York street decked out like an emo Tony Manero, set to Brown’s 1988 compilation album “Motherlode.”
13. BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY (SUICIDE SQUAD)
“Suicide Squad” is another comic book movie which received a fair amount of flack for any number of reasons, not least of all its obvious needle drop soundtrack. As the newly-formed group are sent out on their first mission — something of an army, if you will — it’s to “Seven Nation Army” by The White Stripes. These bad guys sure are freaky, huh? If that didn’t come through loud and clear, then Rick James’ “Superfreak” scoring the whole introductory sequence of the cast will certainly get you there.
David Ayer’s introduction to the DCEU was supposed to be big, bombastic and over-the-top, however. Some of the soundtrack choices are almost insultingly obvious, but others are just inspired in their unashamed lunacy. Case in point: Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which set the tone in those hype-building trailers in the run up to “Suicide Squad’s” release, and was used brilliantly in the Joker jailbreak scene, which cut between the ensemble in their cells in time to the operatic rock song.
12. ESCAPE – THE PIÑA COLADA SONG (WANTED)
One hit wonder Rupert Holmes’s easy listening earworm is based entirely around a punchline. It’s a joke in song form, with its narrator listing the reasons he wants to leave his wife through means of a personal ad… only to find himself meeting up with that very same wife. It’s mainly used as a joke, too, as it is in “Guardians of the Galaxy,” as part of an ’80s-centric mixtape made by Star-Lord’s mom. A few years before that, though, “The Piña Colada Song” had an airing in Timur Bekmambetov’s “Wanted.”
The adaptation of Mark Millar and J. G. Jones’s comic sheds a fair amount of its superhero trappings, but makes up for it with some bravura action scenes involving the much-mocked but pretty-cool concept of “bullet bending.” The first showcase of the dubious art comes during a car chase involving James McAvoy’s milquetoast office worker Wesley and Angelina Jolie’s master assassin Fox, which ends with their vehicle almost totally falling apart. The punchline, after the bullet-ridden action sequence that preceded it? Fox calming them down by playing the song on the car stereo.
11. SHOOP (DEADPOOL)
“Shoop” is maybe the third most popular Salt-n-Pepa song, behind “Let’s Talk About Sex” and “Push It.” Being the third most popular song by an ’80s hip-hop trio makes it pretty obscure. And yet, it was a key part of that leaked test footage from Ryan Reynolds and Tim Miller’s pitch for a “Deadpool” film, and made it into the finished movie. Turns out the strangest part of the whole thing wasn’t an attempt to break the PG-13 barrier of modern superhero cinema, or resurrecting a bad character from “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” It was the soundtrack.
As with almost everything in “Deadpool,” it’s the subversive juxtaposition of the bubbly sweet with the horribly bloody which makes the song choice work. Pairing the nostalgic ’90s rap beats with the Merc With a Mouth’s bloody, balletic assassination of a string of bad guys absolutely should not work, and yet it somehow does. The track was carried over to the eventual “Deadpool” feature film, greenlit off the back of the leaked test’s online success, and repeated during the end credits.
10. PROMISED LAND (MEN IN BLACK)
One of the running jokes throughout the “Men In Black” movies, adapted from the Malibu Comics series of the same name, is the reveal of various eccentric celebrities as leading secret double lives. In the second film, King of Pop Michael Jackson is shown to be working for the organization. In the third, Andy Warhol turns out to be an MiB agent in disguise struggling to come up with more conceptual art (hence scrabbling for subjects like a painting of a Campbell’s Soup Can.)
It all started in the first film, when wizened Agent K, played by Tommy Lee Jones, finally allows Will Smith’s green Agent J to at last press the “little red button” on his car’s gear stick. In pursuit of the movie’s alien antagonist and faced with a tunnel full of traffic, the car is transformed to travel at superspeed and defy gravity, allowing them to drive on the tunnel’s ceiling, upside down. K cranks Elvis’s “Promised Land” and informs the incredulous J that Presley, no stranger to conspiracy theories over his demise, isn’t dead, he “just went home.”
9. UNDER MY THUMB (SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD)
Edgar Wright’s movies have uniformly great, pop-based soundtracks, and his underrated, endlessly inventive adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s “Scott Pilgrim” series of graphic novels is no exception. It may even have the best soundtrack of any comic book movie. It at least has the most soundtracks of any comic book movie, with separate releases for regular Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich’s original score and the tracks recorded for the fictional bands featured in the film, written by the likes of Beck and Metric.
The choicest of the pop picks in “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” is the extremely, almost hilariously literal use of “Under My Thumb” by The Rolling Stones, for a scene where Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Ramona is spirited away by Jason Schwazrtman’s evil ex Gideon… because he’s controlling her mind! He has her under his thumb, just like the song says! In the heightened video game-inspired reality of the movie, the song’s obvious inclusion is just silly enough to work as both punchline and heavy emotional gut punch.
8. ANOTHER ONE BITES THE DUST (IRON MAN 2)
The “Iron Man” soundtracks are uniformly great, echoing the heavy metal, swanky lifestyle of its titular lead. That is to say, it features a lot of slick rock music. Things got decidedly more pop in the sequel, when Tony Stark suffers a spectacular fall off the wagon (the franchise never got around to a straight adaptation of the classic comic storyline “Demon in a Bottle,” but it came close here) and does drunken battle with BFF Rhodey during a house party.
As an inebriated Iron Man and a furious War Machine utterly decimate Stark’s multi-million dollar bachelor pad, much of the soundtrack is consequently made up of smashing glass, firing rockets and collapsing concrete, with the Tony’s DJ, who is commanded to simultaneously drop fat beats as he beats up his friend. He obliges, with an appropriate/ironic megamix of Queen’s “Another One Bites The Dust,” Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock’s “It Takes Two” and Daft Punk’s “Robot Rock.” Play it at your next party, whether you own a suit of robot armor or not.
7. SWEET DREAMS (ARE MADE OF THIS) (X-MEN: APOCALYPSE)
Evan Peters is two-for-two for scene-stealing moments in “X-Men” movies. Since Fox hit reset on the whole franchise and catapulted it back to become a period piece, Peters has made two appearances at the supersonic speedster Quicksilver. In “Days of Future Past,” he helped out with a jailbreak, where time appeared to slow as he rocketed around the room, dodging bullets and taking down guards, all with “Time in a Bottle” by Jim Croce playing on his Walkman.
The follow-up, “Apocalypse,” moved the action to the ‘80s, where everything was bigger, brasher. Fittingly, the repeat of his save-the-day speedrunning is on a grander scale: the Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters is under attack, and he’s got a limited time to rescue all of its students. This time, he slips a more era-appropriate cassette in- the synth-lead pulsing pop of “Sweet Dreams,” Annie Lennox’s otherworldly and vaguely menacing singing voice slowly building the tension of another pitch-perfect superhero action scene.
6. CONFUSION (BLADE)
It’s hard to separate New Order from the Manchester music scene they came up in, where their legendary record label factory was based, and which most of the band were born and raised. Remixed New Order, meanwhile, is impossible to separate from Wesley Snipes in a leather trenchcoat slicing up vampires who are showering in blood from the opening action scene of “Blade.” Funny how a little tweak like that can change so much.
The Pump Panel remix of their single “Confusion” changes the song so much that any elements from the original track are almost unrecognizable, warped into a repetitive wall of thumping noise. It’s great! And it makes the instrumental remix absolutely perfect for the barnstorming introduction to “Blade,” the drums in sync with the strobe lighting which helped make that scene one of the most iconic action sequences in comic movie history.
5. CAN’T SMILE WITHOUT YOU (HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY)
Guillermo del Toro is not a man afraid of cheese. His “Pacific Rim” brings a warm, somewhat corny “everybody work together!” message along with its mechs-vs-monsters mayhem, some fairytale magic among the nightmares and fascistic violence of “Pan’s Labyrinth,” and was recently behind the Netflix kids series “Trollhunters.” Even in the darkest of places — the places where most of his films dwell — there are still patches of light to be found.
You could say that’s the whole message of his two “Hellboy” movies: even those who look like monsters are still, at their core, people like you. In the second of the comic book adaptations, “The Golden Army,” that message is encapsulated in a single, unexpected, joyful scene. Hellboy and best pal/fishman Abe Sapien are nursing unrequited crushes. Despite their grotesque appearances, Hellboy does what any forlorn man does in that situation: gets drunk and croons Barry Manilow’s “Can’t Smile With You,” swaying gently, arm around his buddy, commiserating.
4. BLUE (IRON MAN 3)
Tony Stark is one of the coolest superhero alter egos to appear on our cinema screens thus far. He dresses well. He has fancy toys. He has impeccably styled facial hair. His patter is charming and Joss Whedon-quippy. He’s played by Robert Downey Jr. and his patented Iron Man armor has all the sleek curves and lines of a sportscar, with add-ons much more impressive than satellite radio or rack-and-pinion steering. The soundtracks of the “Iron Man” films, therefore, are mostly as cool as the man himself.
Black Sabbath’s titular heavy metal freak out appeared in the first movie, and AC/DC provided almost the entire score for the sequel. So it’s no surprise that everyone was taken aback when “Iron Man 3” opened with the ‘90s Euro-trance cheese of Eiffel 65’s “Blue.” It was a canny choice: it immediately indicated that the first scene of the film was a flashback (to a time when that song was popular) and a reminder that after the departure of Jon Faverau, we were now in the hands of arch ironist/smart ass Shane Black.
3. FIRST TIME EVER I SAW YOUR FACE (X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST)
Eiffel 65 did a great job immediately letting audiences know that “Iron Man 3” would be kicking off in a different spot than expected. “X-Men: Days of Future Past” takes that gag to the extreme. Trapped in a dystopian future with no hope, Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine gets catapulted back in time (thanks to new and unexplained mutant abilities possessed by Ellen Page’s Shadowcat) with the hope that changing the past can make for a better tomorrow.
The movie uses a whole bunch of signifiers to make the ‘70s setting he winds up in ring true — fashions, the political situation underscoring the plot — but the first hint at something being up? The music. Logan awakens on a waterbed. The hotel room he’s in is decorated in a particularly tasteless kind of brown. He’s awoken from his woozy slumber by Roberta Flack’s sensual 1972 cover of the folk standard “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” Textbook.
2. HOOKED ON A FEELING (GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY)
Using a pop song in a film is always a gamble. Filmmakers are looking to piggyback on the existing success of a record, while at the same time hoping to supersede the associations the audience already has with it. When you hear the song used in the film, you want them to thereafter associate it with your film and the scene it was used in. “Guardians of the Galaxy” doubled down on this bet by using a pop song which was already associated with another movie.
Blue Swede’s cover of “Hooked on a Feeling” featured on the soundtrack of “Reservoir Dogs,” Quentin Tarantino’s directorial debut, which cornered the market of nostalgic, easy-listening soundtracks 20 years before Star-Lord arrived on our screens. Yet that brilliant, bizarre “ooga chaka” intro became a cornerstone of the film’s marketing campaign, and is now more likely to recall the scene where it features — of the eponymous team being led into jail, sized up and hosed down — than of a bunch of well-dressed crooks in a warehouse. The gamble paid off.
1. THE TIMES THEY ARE A-CHANGIN’ (WATCHMEN)
Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore’s iconic “Watchmen” was always going to be divisive. There was no way such a beloved, influential deconstruction of superheroes, which made its way into the mainstream and onto TIME’s list of the best fiction books ever, could please everybody in its leap from page to screen. One thing we can all agree upon, however, is that the opening titles are absolutely incredible.
Shot in Snyder’s beloved slow-mo, the credits play out over footage of the alternate American history of “Watchmen,” with costumed heroes taking down mobsters, forcing the surrender of Japan during World War II, and playing a part in the Kennedy assassination. The weight of history is even heavier thanks to the inclusion of Bob Dylan’s classic protest ditty “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” which were also excerpted in the original comic. This was perhaps the closest the movie ever got to capturing the spirit of its source material.
Did we miss something? What song makes your top of the comic book movie pops? Make your DJ requests in the comments!