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How music makes Captain America a hero and Superman a mope

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Warner Bros. always undermines its greatest asset

Marvel Studios

What does Marvel know that Warner Bros. doesn’t?

I recently explained why I thought Marvel was having such success creating “Superman” movies using Captain America, and there was some good discussion in the comments about how each series treated its lead characters. One comment stood out, and I thought it was worth sharing formally.

Ryan Thompson is a Ph.D candidate in Musicology at the University of Minnesota, where he specializes in ludomusicology, the study of game audio and the culture that surrounds it. He jumped into the comments of the story to explore how these movies explore their characters through music, and what that music says about each hero.

“The soundtrack goes a long way towards helping confirm this interpretation of the two characters,” he wrote. “Let’s start with Captain America’s theme, composed by Alan Silvestri:”

The opening trumpet melody (at 0:13) is purposefully written to recall Aaron Copland’s "Fanfare for the Common Man." The idea is that, at least as far as the MCU is concerned, Steve Rogers is the "Common Man," the idealized figure emerging in the wake of the second World War. This is only reinforced in The Winter Soldier, when the Captain America theme plays on oboe as Rogers descends down the escalator into the Smithsonian exhibit about his life.

Now, listen to Hans Zimmer’s Superman Theme, which appears in both Man of Steel and Batman v Superman.

“The slow piano introduction already seems to point toward a more introspective Superman, but the real deal-breaker is a villainous, brooding percussion layer entering around 0:40, and at 1:21 the percussion layer overtakes the work before the melody re-enters in the full orchestra,” Thompson wrote. “This is a Superman capable of greatness, but not defined by it, as evidenced by the theme’s turn into a minor mode around 2:06.”

You can compare this to the classic Superman Theme from John Williams which, as Thompson points out, also evokes Copland.

“As a final point, it’s worth a mention that Blake Neely’s theme for the CW Supergirl television show is a total home run, clearly participating in the tradition of identifying the character (in this case, Supergirl instead) with both Williams and Copland,” Thompson concluded. “By the end of the first phrase of the brass, you know this is a Superman theme.”

Music is yet another way that Warner Bros. goes out of its way to evoke a darker, less optimistic Superman, and it’s not a change for the better. I’m perfectly aware that this is a horse I kick with some regularity, but it’s telling how thematically cohesive Superman remains, from visuals to music, even if those themes go against what once made the character great.