Comic books and cinema diverge in plenty of ways, but the ability to use music in the latter may be the most immediate aesthetic difference between the two mediums. Films and comics can often reproduce each other’s visual touchstones; some comics, especially action-oriented ones, could serve as storyboards for their cinematic adaptations, and even other aspects of sound, like dialogue, narration, and effects, can be approximated on the page or easily translated into a movie frame. But comics do not, as a rule, include much musical accompaniment. While some comics have explored specific musical subcultures, the best the rest can do is sneak in some song lyrics emanating from a drawing of headphones or a radio, or possibly offer playlist suggestions to accompany the reading experience.
Adapting comics to the screen, then, presents the opportunity to add sensory dimension to beloved characters, especially superheroes. Think of the grandeur of the John Williams theme for the 1978 Superman, or the Danny Elfman music from the Tim Burton Batman pictures. Those two composers come to mind because their superhero scores remain some of the most recognizable pieces of comics-related music (outside of the litany of pop songs written about or alluding to Superman), even after the number and overall quality of comics movies has spiked in the 15 years since the first X-Men movie. Though there has been some notable and recognizable superhero music, like the X-Men themes by Michael Kamen and John Ottman, and Hans Zimmer’s iconic work for the Dark Knight trilogy, a lot of it bleeds together due to sheer volume, even when the individual work is strong—just as sometimes happens with the movies themselves, now that Marvel Studios produces ultra-successful and mostly good variations on their formula every year.
But before Marvel emerged as its own production force, there was a rush of comics films inspired by the success of X-Men and especially the 2002 Spider-Man, and with them came a rush of superhero soundtracks as tie-in material. Superheroes had received the pop treatment before: Prince contributed ill-fitting songs to Batman, and after Siouxsie And The Banshees provided the sole pop song for Batman Returns, the Joel Schumacher films went for the full-on marketing assault, spawning several hit singles as well as multiple songs named after Batman mythology written with tenuous-at-best understanding of said mythology. (See R. Kelly’s “Gotham City” from the Batman & Robin soundtrack, quickly accruing three strikes in its description of Gotham as “a city of justice, “a city of love,” and “a city of peace”). It was really Spider-Man, though, that restarted the comics-movie-soundtrack juggernaut. The Spider-Man album continued with the Schumacher-Batman nomenclature of “music from and inspired by,” an unwieldy asterisk affixed to albums that gives permission for them to contain a mix of end-credits jams, score bits, incidental pop songs, and whatever else the unholy alliance of movie studio and record label could jam together to reflect the hip music of the day.
These alliances provide a fascinating window into what executives in the entertainment industry think mainstream comic-book heroes should sound like, a thought process that results in the dude from Nickelback speaking for teenage outcast Peter Parker on “Hero,” the hit credits song from Spider-Man. Nickelbacker Chad Kroeger’s collaborator on “Hero” was Josey Scott, lead singer of the band Saliva, and this partnership was like a comics crossover that eventually launched an apocalyptic event series with ramifications across a universe—one that contains not superpowered heroes and mutants but practitioners of early-’00s bro-ternative rock. As studios hastily exercised their rights to various comic-book properties, often from character goldmine Marvel, they struggled with how to present these characters in the broader pop-cultural landscape, away from the insular world of comic-book shops.
The film version of Daredevil would have been shot before Spider-Man came out, but it certainly wasn’t finished when Sam Raimi’s film broke box-office records in the summer of 2002, and it seems entirely possible that its soundtrack counts as the first major spawn of Kroeger and Scott’s “Hero.” Outfitted with the more easily digestible (and non-committal) moniker of Daredevil: The Album, this collection of vaguely mookish, semi-aggro mainstream rock music, assembled in a post-Napster scramble, now looks like a dastardly plot to kill rock ’n’ roll, comic books, and movies in one fell swoop. It was released on Wind-Up Records, whose biggest act, Creed, had already begun its descent from massive popularity by 2003. But plenty more Eddie Vedder-like voiced bros circled around the Wind-Up offices, ready to jump into the Marvel Universe and become the next Guy From Nickelback (though that band hailed from the Roadrunner label).
Daredevil: The Album doesn’t exclusively feature Wind-Up artists (the company must have lost some kind of bidding war with Island for custody of Saliva), but it does feature a murderers’ row of reasons that a lot of people stopped listening to rock radio around 2003: Fuel, The Calling, Nickelback, Hoobastank, and Drowning Pool all contribute cuts. Drowning Pool, by 2003 missing their original singer (he died the previous year), enlists Rob Zombie to help with “The Man Without Fear,” the token song that’s explicitly about the superhero who stars in the movie. Sample lyrics: “COME ON, COME ON, COME ON, COME ON! DAREDEVIL!” If it sounds like a particularly cranked attempt to get people excited to run out to the mall and see a superhero movie, that’s the riled-up tone of this sort of rock, pitched somewhere between the epic self-pity of emo and the more overt aggression of nu-metal and rap-rock. Many of the songs on Daredevil: The Album sound like a calculated attempt to start a vengeful mosh pit, without the passionate release of a band like Nirvana or even Pearl Jam.
One of the best things that can be said about Daredevil, the Mark Steven Johnson film that the soundtrack accompanies and that Drowning Pool cheers on, is that it only includes some of these songs. In fact, the movie opens with a full-on orchestral score, eventually slipping in strains of hard rock as it stutters along, attempting to tell an origin story, a crime story, and a love story in a single 103-minute hatchet job. Ben Affleck is often roundly mocked for his grim-faced performance as Matt Murdock, the blind lawyer with heightened senses who moonlights as the costumed hero Daredevil, but no one in the movie’s cast can really be blamed for Johnson’s clumsily written take on the comics material, which amalgamates a bunch of bummers—dead dad, physical limitations, thirst for revenge, Catholic guilt—into an attempt at a darker, more psychological superhero movie. Daredevil does offer the novelty of showing a superhero in more physical pain than most, but Johnson amps up the superheroic feats to the same degree, making the suffering more of a pose than a story choice. (The recent Netflix TV series makes better use of this idea, and, for that matter, almost all Daredevil-related ideas). Its pop music reflects that music-video version of suffering.
In that sense, at least one of Matt Murdock tragedies does land. The movie’s version of Daredevil’s blindness (depicted, cartoonishly even for a comics adaptation, as more or less functional sight with some textural limitations) means that Murdock is cursed with the terrible ability to hear dozens of Wind-Up recording artists. Actually, the music in Daredevil is mostly non-diegetic (audible to the audience but not within the world of the movie), but it’s funnier to assume otherwise, and pretend that Murdock gets psyched for court by listening to “Won’t Back Down” by Fuel and that burgeoning assassin Elektra Natchios (Jennifer Garner) gets pumped for battle by listening to “Bring Me To Life” by Evanescence.
If Daredevil: The Album can claim a success story, Evanescence is it. “Bring Me To Life” (and fellow soundtrack cut “My Immortal”) appeared on their debut album Fallen, released just weeks after Daredevil, but simultaneous exposure on a major superhero movie soundtrack must have helped the songs and the band, even if they were poised for a breakout anyway. In the context of Daredevil: The Album, Evanescence does indeed stand out, if only as a break from the throaty male growls that dominate most of the rest of the record. They fit in with the Wind-Up crowd, but nonetheless manage to sound here like a Phoenix rising from the ashes of nu-metal and bro-rock simply by virtue of adding a female voice to the mix. When Elektra suits up (the suiting up in Daredevil owes a surprising amount to Schumacher’s version of Batman) and trains for vengeance in her inexplicably sandbag-filled apartment, with Amy Lee’s aggressively yearning vocals blasting away, the movie takes on a kind of cheesy grandeur that is, at very least, a culmination of the cheesiness that precedes it. For all of its missteps, Daredevil is somewhat true to comic books—just not particularly to Daredevil comic books, which are often, crucially, quite good. The film and soundtrack versions create an authentically second-hand experience; they don’t evoke the best Daredevil stories so much as the consumption of them. It’s easy to imagine an angsty teen blasting Evanescence while devouring dark and gritty Daredevil comics, nursing adolescent crushes on Amy Lee, Matt Murdock, and/or Elekra Natchios.
It follows, then, that Evanescence would figure heavily into Elektra: The Album, the Wind-Up soundtrack that accompanied the spinoff feature Elektra, released in early 2005, shortly after Daredevil completed its journey from mixed-review $100 million grosser to general punchline. Garner’s Elektra, killed off in Daredevil, is revived by another blind guy (Terence Stamp!) and trained in the assassination arts, which mainly involve lurking around the various forests where Fox insists at least some portion of its superhero properties must be shot. Eventually she takes it upon herself to protect two people from a gaggle of bad guys.
Whatever Elektra’s faults (and it has plenty), its approach to adapting comics characters is more painterly than Daredevil’s, with effective use of inky-black shadows that sometimes cast its heroine entirely in silhouette and CGI that’s still intrusive but less smothering than that of its cinematic sibling. In other words, it’s not especially crass for a movie where a sometimes-bustier-clad Jennifer Garner fights magic ninjas. As if to demonstrate that semi-classiness, the film makes almost no use of its Wind-Up roster. Of the 15 tracks on Elektra: The Album, exactly one plays in the background of exactly one scene, while a few more turn up over the end credits (although those credits seem to list more songs than are truly audible in the actual movie). Most galling to any hypothetical fans of Daredevil: The Album (and they may not be so hypothetical; by fall of 2003, the record had gone gold), Evanescence doesn’t make the cut. The band’s song “Breathe No More” is on Elektra: The Album, but not featured in the movie; even the heroine’s OCD-influenced training exercises pass by Evanescence-free, and fellow Wind-Up signee Megan McCauley gets the first credits slot.
It’s not especially surprising that a comics movie wouldn’t have much to do with its own soundtrack album, but it does make listening to Elektra: The Album a curious experience. The lousy album version of Daredevil very much brings to mind the lousy movie version of Daredevil, because they come from a similar impulse—a compatibly misguided idea of what ticket-buyers will find cool and alluring. Elektra: The Album, with faceless bands like 12 Stones replaying the same dun-dun-dun-dun-dun guitar riffs, is much more of a Daredevil sequel than the movie it’s based on (with additions like Jet and The Donnas serving as the requisite sequel variation on the Wind-Up formula).
Landing in between Fox’s attempts at mounting a Daredevil franchise was Lionsgate’s grubby middle take on The Punisher, the 2004 version starring Thomas Jane. At very least, the Punisher is a character wholly suited to the mookish stylings of Wind-Up. As such, the most remarkable thing about Wind-Up’s The Punisher: The Album is that it somehow manages not to include the Drowning Pool song “Bodies,” which featured prominently in the movie’s trailer. In its place is another Drowning Pool song: “Step Up,” which has the temerity to feature lyrics that have nothing to do with any bodies hitting the floor. Lyrical warnings about stepping up leading to getting knocked down do not cut it; the Punisher should only be sated by bodies on floors.
What’s more, poor “Bodies” substitute “Step Up” doesn’t even play during The Punisher. While the appropriately punishing soundtrack cuts are a better match for this vaguely dopey character, the movie itself, like Elektra, doesn’t seem to have much use for many of them. In fact, its most prominent use of non-score music is a comic fight scene set to a selection from the opera Rigoletto. So the second-most remarkable thing about The Punisher: The Album is that it assembles a barrage of aggro-rock that the filmmakers apparently deemed too graceless to bother using for a character whose superpower is a bunch of guns coupled with a simmering, murderous rage. Then again, maybe they just couldn’t tell the songs apart enough to make selections; the post-alt growling on this album is so prevalent that the smallest variations come as minor relief, like the way the singer from Trapt sounds almost Broadway-ready before the chorus of “Lost In A Portrait” kicks in, or how Ben Moody sounds, however briefly, a little like late-period Billy Joel. Either way, The Punisher, while uneven and not especially good, does make its case for being above the fashionable rock music of the period. It’s less of a full-tilt exploitation movie (both in the gory genre sense and the opportunistic exploitation-of-comics-fans sense) than, say, the self-satisfied and grotesquely dull Punisher: War Zone.
By that movie’s 2008 release, though, mook-rock was firmly out of vogue, with the harder-core (and practically classic-rock) likes of Slipknot, Rob Zombie, and Slayer taking over soundtrack duties, though The Punisher: The Album veterans Seether and Hatebreed do reappear. Really, Marvel soundtracks—and most non-musical blockbuster soundtracks in general—had begun their retreat into niche territory right around the time Elektra flopped. A final Wind-Up/Marvel record, Fantastic Four: The Album, was released a few months after Elektra: The Album, but it doesn’t have quite the same dunderheaded vibe as its predecessors, focusing more on pop-punk like Taking Back Sunday, Sum 41, and Simple Plan.
When the next round of second-tier superhero movies hit in 2007, the Fantastic Four sequel didn’t bother with the pop soundtrack treatment; even more amazingly, there is no Ghost Rider: The Album (both movies received score releases only). Meanwhile, up in the rarefied air of Spider-Man blockbusters, the franchise’s pop music evolved somewhat with the times, as soundtrack producers continued their attempt to pin down what the Peter Parker experience might sound like. With Parker growing from high schooler to full-fledged adult over the course of the Raimi Spider-Man trilogy, the soundtracks had plenty of opportunity to evolve with the character; instead, they wind up evolving only with executives’ understanding of where rock music might be going.
2004’s Spider-Man 2 soundtrack muddles its way through a lighter version of the trends reflected in the Wind-Up albums, mixing bad mainstream rock (Train and Hoobastank), pumped-up pop-punk (Yellowcard and Taking Back Sunday), and apparent superhero mainstays Jet. Its big single was “Vindicated,” a Dashboard Confessional song that attempted to recast Spidey in a then-semi-fashionable emo light, an approach that makes more sense than Nickelbacking but seems better-suited for the pandering, vaguely whiny approach of the Amazing Spider-Man series. 2007’s Spider-Man 3 embraces indie rock and mainstream approximations thereof with songs by The Flaming Lips, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Walkmen, Snow Patrol, The Killers, and an encore from the unkillable Jet. All of these acts existed around the time of the second movie, when Parker might have been going through a college rock phase, but even if he’s just a presumed late bloomer, the songs have little bearing on what’s happening in the movie. (Taken as even a subtle reflection of Parker’s changes, all that can be gleaned is that he listened to exactly what was most popular on rock radio a year or two before his movies came out, taking the everyman aspect of his experiences perhaps too far). Tellingly, the best (and oft-reviled) musical bits of Spider-Man 3 are far more retro, and more reflective of Sam Raimi’s sensibilities: Mary Jane and Harry Osborn bopping around a kitchen to “The Twist” (which, granted, does appear on the soundtrack), Symbiote-infected Parker taking over a jazz club with hilariously jerky smarm, and Mary Jane’s torchy, somewhat tenuous singing. Most of the songs on the accompanying CD are more souvenirs of late-stage superhero soundtracking than of Spider-Man 3 in particular. A year later, Marvel Studios took back control of its cinematic legacy with the first Iron Man movie.
Since then, a few token pop songs turn up in a few Marvel Studios productions, like the AC/DC cuts in Iron Man 2. The most soundtrack-oriented comics movie so far, of course, has been Marvel’s Guardians Of The Galaxy, where classic rock songs were used not just in the trailers but the title sequence, several crowd-pleasing moments, and, eventually, as an emotional linchpin. Yet despite the affecting story reasons for Starlord’s Awesome Mix Volume One and the fun it provides along the way, the songs themselves tend toward the obvious; even the “Awesome Mix” title is basically cribbed from Boogie Nights. Compared to other comics adaptations, the use of pop music in Guardians is inventive. Compared to other movies with distinctive soundtracks—movies by Martin Scorsese or Wes Anderson or Danny Boyle, for example—it’s rudimentary.
This has often been the case for pop soundtracks to blockbuster movies; a list of the best compilation soundtracks ever made would probably not include many movies that grossed over $150 million domestic. Though Marvel Studios makes more polished and successful popcorn entertainment than so many other companies, and are far less prone to employing dated embarrassments like Puddle Of Mudd, their productions maintain that tradition in terms of pop music.
Comics fans and moviegoers alike deserve an experience more galvanizing than the retrospectively amusing gooniness of a Wind-Up record or even the easy familiarity of Awesome Mix Volume One. X-Men: Days Of Future Past dipped a toe in that water with its “Time In A Bottle” scene (though that’s more a left-field choice in the context of superheroes than in soundtracks broadly), and Zach Snyder’s text-faithful misinterpretation of Watchmen never seemed more in sync with its material than when it used Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” over an opening-credits montage of superhero history. Though some of the other music choices in Snyder’s film are on-the-nose both thematically and as adaptation (taking cues directly from the comic), at least they exist in a world where rock music and comic books can intersect more meaningfully, where music can actually push or pull a sequence of images along, rather than providing 15 or 20 seconds of cursory mood-setting or generic noise.
Sometimes the basic tools have been there in the artists hired to soundtrack the margins of these movies: The Walkmen have no real connection to Spider-Man 3, but imagine a version of Spider-Man bold enough to set a high-flying action sequence (or scene of teenage turmoil) to The Walkmen’s “The Rat,” cut together with the propulsion of a Scorsese picture. Or, further afield, imagine a superhero movie dreamy or noisy enough to blast My Bloody Valentine rather than orchestral boilerplate. Even for pure fun, the trailer for Guardians Of The Galaxy uses “Hooked On A Feeling” in a more propulsive way than the actual movie. Intensity doesn’t have to come exclusively from shots of buildings falling over or airships plummeting through the sky.
So as big comics-based movies feel increasingly indebted to their source material and/or parent companies, Marvel and other studios shouldn’t forget how idiosyncratic those sources can be. The formal stylizations of many comic books aren’t just noticeable but often personal, based on the whims of their writers and artists; the same should be true of their film equivalents, especially when adding elements, like music, that the source materials can’t realistically provide. Right now, pop music and comics can seem weirdly incongruous, even though they have similar youth-culture roots and (apart from a handful of music superstars) similarly niche-driven fanbases. The Marvel/Wind-Up crossover saw big studios fumbling through the process of matching images and music, envisioning the worst possible ways that these two forms of pop aesthetics could overlap. But one big, stupid failure shouldn’t discourage more and better experiments in giving comics movies a sound of their own.