As I was watching episode four of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, I couldn’t help but notice the music. I love the music in this series, but more specifically, I love that they brought Henry Jackman back to compose the show, allowing him to continue to build on the themes he first created in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War.
A few years ago, I stumbled upon a few YouTube videos and articles floating around the internet complaining that the Marvel Cinematic Universe didn’t have iconic themes. Iron Man, for example, didn’t have an anthem as instantly recognizable as those of Superman or Batman. And while that was true of the early MCU, I do not believe it is true of the movies today.
Certainly, outside of the Avengers theme itself, there’s nothing that exists in the MCU that is quite as catchy as John Williams’ fanfare for the man of steel. But that doesn’t mean the MCU is devoid of good music. In fact, the soundtracks for these properties are often some of my favorites for each year.
With that in mind, I’d like to discuss for a bit some of the most iconic music in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. For this list, it does not need to be something that is as hummable as a John Williams tune, but it does have to be something that identifies with a particular hero or thematic element in the franchise.
A Man Out of Time
Captain America was probably the first Avenger to receive his own truly recognizable theme. Alan Silvestri was brought on to score his first adventure, and Cap has benefited from Silvestri scoring three of the four Avengers movies that followed. In fact, watching Endgame, you’ll notice a lot of the themes from that movie originated in The First Avenger.
Cap’s second and third movies, however, came with a very different soundtrack. As Cap moved from World War II into modern times, Henry Jackman was brought in to give the story a score that felt more akin to a spy thriller than to a superhero event. But while these movies didn’t necessarily have a recognizable theme song (in fact, both movies had different anthems, though they complement each other well), Jackman did something that as of yet I hadn’t heard in any Marvel property: in place of a theme song, he gave the films a soundstage. Both scores sound uniquely their own, but they both sound-related; I think if you hear a song from either one, they are recognizable as a part of Captain America’s world, even if they aren’t the catchiest of tunes.
And that’s something that has really benefited not only Captain America, but also…
The Wingman and the Tin Man
As I mentioned earlier, I absolutely love the music in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. But what I love most about it is how Jackman was able to carry over his music from the movies in such a way that it makes the show feel like a proper sequel to the latter two Captain America movies without actually having Steve Rodgers in it (yet).
Not only does Jackman carry over his recognizable themes for Sam and Bucky, but he also weaves in themes from both movies at key moments. When Zemo shows up, we get to hear the music that accompanied him when he was using Bucky’s brainwashing against him. When John Walker is on screen, we get themes we recognize as Captain America’s, further playing with our emotions as we watch a man who is the opposite of Steve Rodgers parading around in his costume. Jackman expertly drops in musical queues from his previous movies to hint at how we should be feeling in each scene in the new show, and it totally works.
Personally, I think Henry Jackman’s scores in the MCU are some of the most underrated and perhaps some of my very favorite.
Long Live the King
Even Henry Jackman knows that it isn’t worth his time trying to write new music for Wakanda; Ludwig Göransson has already given the world of Black Panther such an iconic sound that when it came time for the Dora Milaje to kick some ass, it was Göransson’s own Dora Milaje themes that accompanied them.
With just a single movie, Göransson crafted such a soundtrack that has become instantly recognizable whenever it is heard, feeling synonymous with the statement “Wakanda Forever!” Not only is it iconic, but it is unique; no other movie in the MCU- or really anywhere else- sounds like Black Panther. And there’s no wonder why the likes of Henry Jackman and Alan Silvestri have deferred to Göransson’s Wakanda theme whenever introducing the nation or its characters in subsequent movies and tv episodes.
Though we will forever miss T’Challa’s presence in the MCU, as long as these themes continue to appear in the franchise we will never forget his impact.
Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man
Any theme music for Spider-Man was going to be a tough sell; prior to his MCU debut, the web-slinger had no less than three theme songs (at least one of which was already considered iconic, and that’s not even mentioning the animated theme tune that you’re already humming).
Michael Giacchino’s first MCU score came in the form of Doctor Strange (more on that in a bit), so when he was announced as the composer for Spider-Man: Homecoming I wondered what to expect; prior to this, we’d only had two composers score more than one character, and the results had been… varied (Silvestri, as mentioned, did an excellent job of scoring both Captain America and The Avengers, but I’d say Brian Tyler didn’t do as good of a job with Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, and Age of Ultron).
But this was Michael Giacchino we were talking about, and the dude’s a legend. If anyone could give Spider-Man a fourth theme and make it stand out from the rest, he could, and he did. He managed to capture a new side of the hero, embracing both Peter Parker’s abilities and insecurities. And more than anything, he made it damn exciting.
I’d say, however, that it wasn’t until his Far From Home score that he really made this music something really worthwhile. He managed to expand upon the themes he had already built while also bringing in some excellent new themes for S.H.I.E.L.D. and a stellar piece for Mysterio that plays well as both a hero theme and, slightly altered, a villain theme.
Safe to say, I cannot wait to hear what he has in store for No Way Home and anything else he might be inclined to do for the MCU.
The Minor Players
Christophe Beck’s theme for Ant-Man was, quite possibly, the closest thing any of the heroes had received to an actual “superhero theme song” at the time it was released. And in and of itself, that was fine.
Then, when Ant-Man and the Wasp came out, he found a way to build upon that theme to create one for the Wasp as well, and it was beautiful.
But you’ll notice that neither of those themes are what I’ve added as the YouTube clip accompanying this entry; no, instead, I’m including Beck’s Wandavision theme.
You see, with Wandavision- as with the Ant-Man films before it- Christophe Beck has done what only Silvestri and Jackman have done with the MCU: he’s created a connective soundstage that feels recognizable even between different heroes. Though Wanda’s theme is very different from those of Ant-Man or Wasp, it all feels like it is a part of the same thing, and that is something that the MCU has really lacked until now. I’m hoping that with the release of properties like Wandavision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Marvel is finally embracing the idea of having the same composers coming back again and again to do sequels and new projects. Because the MCU really benefits when the music can connect the different franchises together.
(Also, “Agatha All Along” was catchy as hell)
Oddly, one of the other most iconic bits of music in the MCU has nothing to do with any characters. Instead, it has to do with the objects that some of those characters are after: The Infinity Stones.
First appearing in Captain America: The First Avenger, this tune accompanied the Tesseract whenever it showed up on screen. Then, it reappeared in The Avengers as Loki used the Tesseract to wreak havoc on Earth. It wasn’t until Infinity War, however, that the true meaning of this song became apparent, as it began to pervade the discussion of not only the Space Stone but other Infinity Stones as well, even becoming interwoven into Thanos’ themes at times.
The Infinity Stones were the glue binding the first 22 movies of the MCU together, and this song proved to be the connective aural tissue that helped us identify whenever these rocks were going to be playing an important role.
The Heroes Without an Anthem
With all that said, there are a few Marvel heroes who, sadly, have not been given this level of treatment in their soundtracks.
The most notable is Iron Man. Having a different composer for each of his films, Tony Stark never gained a theme that was truly iconic. Sure, Brian Tyler’s “Can You Dig It” from Iron Man 3 was catchy as hell, and Michael Giacchino crafted a theme for Tony in his Spider-Man scores that felt very Holst-inspired and came back to hit some very emotional moments in Far From Home, but nothing ever really stuck with the character in a way that anyone (besides a music nerd like me) would instantly recognize.
Likewise, while Starlord and the Guardians of the Galaxy are very well-known for their repurposed classics- Redbone’s “Come And Get Your Love” will forever be linked to those movies now- they are kinda light on having their own iconic theme (but when you’ve got “Hooked on a Feeling”, what more do you need?).
Other heroes are simply too new to know how their themes will be revisited in films to come; Captain Marvel, for example, had a good theme, and it was resurrected in Endgame, but I don’t think it is one that has become an earworm we can’t stop listening to, at least not yet. And others we haven’t heard in so long- like Hulk’s theme from The Incredible Hulk- that we’ve forgotten them altogether.
Honestly, I think the biggest thing that stands in the way of some MCU properties having iconic soundtracks is the lack of repeating composers. Like Iron Man, Thor has found a difficult time finding his anthem, having swapped composers for each of his movies (although he did share Brian Tyler with Tony Stark).
And though I’d say Giacchino’s theme for Doctor Strange was very iconic (and his use of a harpsichord in crafting Strange’s music has carried over into other scores referencing the character, such as Alan Silvestri’s Infinity War and Christophe Beck’s Wandavision), it is hard to say whether that theme will get to continue in upcoming movies, since he’s being replaced with Danny Elfman for The Multiverse of Madness (and let’s hope that Elfman’s score leans more towards his Spider-Man and far away from his Justice League).
Earth’s Mightiest Heroes
Of course, if we are talking about iconic music, we have to talk about the song. Arguably one of the most recognizable superhero themes today, hearing it in 2012’s The Avengers for the first time was one of the very first times I recall hearing a theme that resonated with these films. Alan Silvestri struck gold here, and every time it has shown up since (even when it was kinda mutilated by Brian Tyler and Danny Elfman), it has accompanied a very major moment in the Avengers’ cinematic journey.
From the arrivals of Captain America and Thor in Infinity War to the immortal Portals sequence in Endgame, this is the most iconic theme in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and it is the one theme that resonates throughout the other properties within the franchise. It is the anthem of the Avengers, and frankly, it doesn’t matter if the individual heroes don’t all have their own recognizable themes, as this one is good enough for all of them.