BATMAN VS. AVENGERS: BATTLE OF THE SOUNDTRACKS
The Dark Knight Rises opened at midnight, and it’s an all-but-guaranteed blockbuster. The fourth real Batman movie1 represents an epic showdown between two powerhouse forces: not Batman and Bane, its two main characters. And not the biggest comic book companies, who are about to slug it out as we see whether D.C.’s Batflick will outgross Marvel’s Avengers, which displaced the previous Batmovie as America’s third-highest-grossing film of all time4.
No, this is a different kind of faceoff. And it could affect every major tentpole movie you see for the next 20 years. In this heated battle, every little advantage counts. This isn’t about fistfights the size of a city; this is about soundtracks.
Dark Knight features an avant-garde score by veteran composer Hans Zimmer, whose body of work includes the Pirates of the Caribbean series, Rain Man, and Sherlock Holmes. The Avengers, on the other hand, despite its intergalactic scale, employed a well-established soundtrack strategy that’s very earthly.
Aiming for crossover success, Avengers didn’t just assemble Earth’s greatest heroes. It attached itself to the first proper Soundgarden single in 15 years, “Live to Rise.” The tune was part of a proper “soundtrack” album, Avengers Assemble, which, as the standard disclaimer says, features “music from and inspired by” the movie. Listen close, and maybe you’ll hear some during it.
If Dark Knight Rises’ theatrical gross comes up $5 million short of Avengers’, you can be studio executives will take a good, hard look at the music options when it’s time to assemble the Justice League for a big-screen adventure.
SCORE VS. SOUNDTRACK
Both a soundtrack and score do their share to enhance a movie.
The score method of using original accompanying music is older than movies. A score may help make a popular movie downright iconic (think John Williams’ Superman theme).
But carefully selected songs can do just as much — or more — to help a film carve out a place in your heart and mind.
The proper soundtrack album can help it carve out a spot in the marketplace, too. When done right, the music enhances the film, and the film enhances the movie.
Plenty of superhero movies are in the soundtrack business. And plenty aren’t. The divide is nearly even, and one reason might be because it’s not clear how much the pop songs contribute to a movie. When a soundtrack is done right, it lends a lot to a movie’s art and commerce.
With comics movies, The Crow soundtrack (1994) stands as a pinnacle of pop songs as an integral part of a movie. The movie completed its dark mood with songs by A-list artists (Stone Temple Pilots, the Cure, Pantera, Rage Against the Machine) and enhanced scenes with deep cuts, covers, and leftovers from bands of various stripes, from Helmet to For Love Not Lisa. Soundtrack supervisors Jolene Cherry and Leslie Reed are credited with not only compiling the mix but sequencing it. Even without the movie, it’s a helluva album.
Back when people bought albums, The Crow Original Motion Picture Soundtrack moved 3 million copies, achieving triple-platinum status. The movie grossed $50 million at the US box office. These are theoretical numbers, but at $15 a CD, the soundtrack would have grossed $45 million—nearly as much as the movie’s theatrical run. It was a perfect match of music and movie. Every rom-com and indie flick has an obligatory soundtrack, but with a certain type of movie, the right songs truly give it wings.
“Certain film genres work very well with rock and metal,” says Dave Rath, the current Roadrunner Senior Vice President of A&R, who helped assemble the platinum soundtrack album to 2002’s Spider-Man. “Action, horror, thriller and certain period pieces have benefitted over the years from the right soundtrack.”
Some movies — and labels — do it better than others.
THE SUPER SOUNDTRACK
“A good soundtrack album should keep the experience of the film alive through the music,” explains Rath. “It should match the emotion of the film.”
Since 1986, Hollywood has produced 32 movies based on Marvel Comics properties, and 13 of them use rock music to set the mood. Half the 20 top-rated superhero movies at Rotten Tomatoes — an online reviews aggregator & user-ratings compendium — use rock music, and six spun off a soundtrack album.
Of Rotten Tomatoes’ 27 top-rated superhero flicks, 20 incorporated rock music to some degree, whether it’s a My Chemical Romance Bob Dylan cover (Watchmen), original songs mixed with alt-rock chestnuts (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), or a rolling-credits rock single borrowed from a current album (Thor, the Foo Fighters’ “Walk”).
The Crow flew a long time ago. Just as the director Sam Rami’s 2002 Spider-Man movie redefined that a superhero movie could be, its soundtrack nailed one formula for an accompanying album.
The Spider-Man soundtrack spawned the hit “Hero” by Chad Kroeger, singer of a then-hot-new band called Nickelback. And it scored another successful single with “Bother,” a ballad initially credited to Slipknot singer Corey Taylor, which later appeared on the debut LP by his Stone Sour side group5. The rest of the disc was filled with tracks by other Roadrunner artists and from and then-affiliated labels Island-Def Jam and Sony.
“The success of the Spider-Man soundtrack was a direct result of a lead single perfectly matching and actually adding to the experience of the film so much so that it extended that experience beyond the theater,” says Rath. “The use of ‘Hero’ in connection with the film added another dimension to the campaign. The song’s emotion added that extra bit of magic dust that brought people to the film. And the quality of the film drove people to buy the album. The two elements fueled each other’s success. That’s exactly what a soundtrack album should do.”
INTERLUDE: SONGS “INSPIRED BY”
With soundtrack albums, sometime the songs an essential part of the movie—think The Crow or Pulp Fiction. Sometimes they’re entirely removed from it. Earlier this year, a spring blockbuster yielded the album Hunger Games: Songs from District 12 and Beyond, which featured songs by artists who may have seen the movie, but don’t appear in it.
The rock-song comp formula is simple, in content and goal: Fire up some synergy between one market and another. But after a big single or potential anthem is locked in to a key moment in the movie, that leaves some space to fill if you’re going to sell a soundtrack album.
“The ‘inspired by’ songs should support the theme of the film and round out the album,” says Rath. “They must match the emotion of the film as much as the lead single does. You’ll rarely see curveballs on a soundtrack album. Rather than see ‘inspired by’ tracks as a necessary evil, we’ve always seen it as an opportunity to expose new artists and new or unreleased tracks by established artists.”
MISSED OPPORTUNITIES VS. MASS MARKET
Successful superhero movies prove that a once-niche product can find true mass appeal. Sometimes. The hard rock that might enhance a comic book flick can also limit its appeal. The films that do use rock songs have missed some opportunities that will make metalheads wince.
Both modern-era Punisher movies featured hard rock soundtracks, but neither used Megadeth’s thematically appropriate “Holy Wars… the Punishment Is Due.”
In 2011, Thor grossed over $180 million in the US. The tale of a longhaired, warhammer-wielding Norse demigod6 could have been cooler, though. Metal Blade Records tried its best to place a track by Viking metal band Amon Amarth.
“We did pitch Amon Amarth music for the Thor movie and received a great response from an executive at the studio [Marvel],” says Metal Blade executive Mike Faley. “Although no one track was chosen for the film, they liked the synergy of the band’s image with the Thor theme and the fact the band would be touring the USA during the release of the movie. This would allow cross promotion between Amon Amarth and the movie. The final decision was up to the director and higher-ups who ultimately used different songs instead. It was very disappointing since there was so much potential for all of us to maximize both the band and film’s exposure.”
Would an audio cameo by Amon Amarth’s “Twilight of the Thunder God” have edged Thor over the $200 million mark? It could have cultivated some goodwill among the 15,000 fans who bought Surtur Rising in its first week.
But the Foo Fighters song came from an album that moved 235,000 its first week. As the Avengers-Batman showdown demonstrates, when you’re staging a Hollywood movie, you’re playing for all the marbles. And going for mass appeal is the conventional move, since niche music seems to yield niche results.
Some movies need all the help they can get. And some can’t be saved.
CAN ROCK MUSIC MAKE A MOVIE ROCK?
The 2004, Wind-Up Records’ The Punisher soundtrack album went gold — designating 500,000 copies shipped — with a mix of Drowning Pool, Nickelback, Puddle of Mudd, Damageplan, Slow Chemical, and Atomship.7 In 2008, the heavier Punisher: War Zone8 soundtrack (Lion’s Gate Records) didn’t score any precious-metal distinctions, but it was a solid comp featuring Rob Zombie, Slayer, Hatebreed, Rise Against, Machines of Loving Grace, and others. The Punisher reboot raked in just over $10 million in the US. If the admirably cult soundtrack helped the movie find some extra exposure, it didn’t help the movie find much.
On the other hand, sometimes when you go big, sometimes you miss big.
The low point of superhero soundtracks might be the abysmal 2003 adaptation of Marvel’s Daredevil (which was helmed by director Mark Steven Johnson [Ghost Rider, Elektra, Simon Birch]).
The movie somehow fucked up a can’t-miss property by — among other missteps — casting the wrong guy from Good Will Hunting, then unspooling sequences like the one where the hero sits in a sensory deprivation tank and cranks up Evanescence. Evanescence also pops up in an Elektra training sequence. The flat movie’s emotional resonance hinges on fans being really into active radio rock.
In Daredevil, the popular songs can’t help the listless movie, and the music doesn’t make the cheaply lit scenes any deeper. Wind-Up Records’ soundtrack compiled incidental cuts by Nickelback, Fuel, Chevelle, Moby and Nappy Roots featuring Marcos Curiel of P.O.D.. Talk about casting a wide net. “Come get your big American rock and roll superhero movie, kids — these superhumans are just like you!” Today’s hot rock is yesterday’s news. Nearly ten years later, the soundtrack is a good reason to turn the flick off the next time it pops up on FX.
A year earlier, Spider-Man #1 had grossed over $400 million (and holds a Rotten Tomatoes score of 89%), while Daredevil took in a hair over $100 million US (45% RT rating). But the Daredevil soundtrack did go gold, and maybe some of that movie’s last $3 million gross had something to do with Amy Lee fans who dug Elektra.
Superhero movies and marketing have come a long way since then.
In 2008, Iron Man marked a shift into a true golden age of superhero movies. The movie prominently used AC/DC, Black Sabbath, and Suicidal Tendencies from its trailer to its credits. Only the Suicidal song appeared on the soundtrack album — using all those iconic songs costs a lot, you know.
2010’s Iron Man 2 used Stark Industries technology to recalibrate a rock soundtrack album in the form of a respectable AC/DC compilation. For the youth market, it served as a good intro to the band. For old fans, the deep collection was better than a best-of. Released by Sony as a Wal-Mart exclusive, the classic-cuts comp is the only recent superhero soundtrack to go gold.
The Avengers soundtrack didn’t move Hulk-sized numbers — according to Nielsen SoundScan, it moved 27,286 copies its first week, which is solid for the marketplace. And Amazon gave away the Soundgarden single free for a week, not to mention unauthorized downloads. But when it was time to break off an extra $80 million at the box office, maybe a Top 4 Rock Single helped.
Time will tell on the final score between The Avengers and The Dark Knight Retires. But if that Soundgarden song is any indicator, we’ll remember Bruce Wayne as the champ.
Should more movies use more rock music? Do you hate when a soundtrack is full of songs that aren’t in the movie? Are you too old for superhero movies? What’s the best soundtrack? Tell us in the comments section.
1: Dark Knight Rises is the third in director Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, which follows 1966’s full-length adaptation of the Adam West TV show; some people like the 1980s-’90s Batman movies, but fuck ’em all, including the first one2. If you want to include Mask of the Phantasm and say it’s a real Batmovie, we won’t argue that particular point.
2: On film site Rotten Tomatoes, the campy 1966 Batman: The Movie outscores Watchmen (at 80% “fresh” over 64%); 1989’s Tim Burton crapball scores 71%3
3: Yes, this author is completely hateful toward Batman ’89 and is, in fact, irrationally going out of his way to slam it.
4: Released worldwide in April, The Avengers has grossed over $611 million to date in the U.S. alone, according to Internet Movie Database (IMDB). The previous Batmovie, 2008’s The Dark Knight, similarly surprised the world when it raked in $533 million in the US , outgrossing Star Wars and landing behind Avatar and Titanic. That’s box-office dollars, not ticket sales, we know.
5: The video accompanying “Bother” cast a curious light on the source material: If we’re interpreting it correctly, the clip reveals that the old dude from Metallica’s “Unforgiven” video was transported out of his cement cell, into a promotional short by a Slipknot side project (where he finally meets his demise), via the power of a Spider-Man ring.
6: Marvel.com describes Thor as a lowercase-G god; feel free to argue whether he’s a demigod in the comments section.
7: The Punisher only grossed around $33 million in the US, its Rotten Tomatoes rating is 29% today, and nobody remembers Atomship’s “Time for People.” Except you big Atomship fans, of course. You’re right: it was a tight jam, whatever.
8: Rotten Tomatoes rates Punisher: War Zone at 26%, but Patton Oswalt dug it, so there’s that.
D.X. Ferris wrote the 33 1/3 series book about Slayer’s Reign in Blood, writes & draws the webcomic Suburban Metal Dad, and runs Pentagrammarian, the world’s only heavy metal grammar & usage website (that we’re aware of). You can follow his bullshit on Twitter here, here, and here.