The Unique Relationship Between Licensed Music and Superhero Films

The World of Superhero films is almost entirely dominated by majestic and heroic scores that influence every frame of the scene. They bring forward the iconic traits of the characters. There have been great examples of this, like how iconic the Superman theme is from the Richard Donner films, or how well known Danny Elfman’s score is for Tim Burton’s Batman. These sounds resonate with people and have branched past the comic fandom into the mainstream, which is interesting given a more recent trend in superhero films. The use of licensed music as the main crux of the soundtrack. Licensed music refers to songs that are not a part of the score, such as the use of songs by popular artists. Film in general uses licensed music a lot and sometimes it is a crucial element to telling the story, but the use of it in superhero stories feels  particularly fresh over the past couple of years.

In Film there are two types of sounds that can be heard. One is Diegetic, which means that the sound emanates from the world the film is presenting. The other type of sound is Non-Diegetic, which means that the sound is coming from outside the world the film is presenting, With licensed music it can go either way.  This year we had 2 superhero films that gave us examples of both types of sounds.

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Deadpool was the first that really exemplified the use of both non-diegetic and non-diegetic sounds. He could be seen singing along to “Shoop” by Salt N Peppa earlier in the film and later in the film he breaks the fourth wall a few times to acknowledge that the music exists. The music in Deadpool is a character to itself and unlike a lot of other superhero films Deadpool’s iconic music doesn’t come from the score, but specifically from the popular songs that accompany that film. There is no iconic sound from that score, but everyone remembers “Shoop” and “X Gon’ Give it To Ya” by DMX as indicative of not only the film, but the character himself.

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The second film this year that relied on licensed music was most definitely Suicide Squad. The film is littered with some extremely popular hits in addition to original music created specifically for this film.  Most notably “Heathens” by twenty one pilots, which has since gone on to become a hit track in its own right. What makes this one different from Deadpool is that all of this music is purely non-diegetic. The sounds don’t come from the world or from any of the characters.  The music is just scattered throughout and for many people it worked. It worked so well that the film’s soundtrack filled with original and licensed songs by popular artists is still in the top of the charts.

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When I think of the relationship between licensed music and the superhero genre the film that best exemplifies that in recent years is most certainly 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy.  The film is one of the best entries so far in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, but it did something extremely unique. Unlike the last two films that were brought up the musical selection for the licensed songs were almost completely Diegetic.  The Awesome Mix Volume 1 tape that was presented in the story worked as the actual soundtrack for the film.  Essentially this meant that the music in addition to sounding great was also extremely crucial to the story. The music represented Peter Quill’s connection to his mother who had passed away from Cancer. This made the music have way more emotional depth , which reflected in the sales of the soundtrack. Awesome Mix Vol. 1 was certified Platinum. A status representing that this album alone sold over 2.5 Million copies. That is an incredibly impressive number considering the entirety of the soundtrack was all songs from the 1970’s.  This soundtrack resonated with people because of how it tied into the story of the film making it arguably iconic and important.

These examples almost seem to be a new trend in this genre of film. Each of these films had scores, but they were overshadowed by the licensed songs they chose to represent the film.  This may sound like a bad thing, but in these instances it was a great decision for them. They all did well because of it and it is interesting to see how this almost feels like a fairly new fad. Now films in this genre have used licensed music before. A notable example being Prince’s 1989  Batman soundtrack, but Elfman’s score has lasted longer than that Prince album while these recent films seem to have their whole sound hinged on non-score material even if each of them did also have instrumental scores. This newer trend in this genre is definitely interesting and with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 on the way that will continue this trend for sure.  It will be interesting to see if any other superhero films follow suit with it.

This could be perceived as a bad thing for people who enjoy the powerful scores of a film, but from my perspective it is just an alternate form of musical connection and enjoyment of that particular film. It is an interesting choice and so far the films have had the tone that was appropriate for this to be done.

So what do you think of licensed music being used in the superhero film genre? Let us know in the comments!

Christian Michael Stoic

Christian Michael Stoic

Christian Michael Stoic is a writer, filmmaker, and comic lover from Los Angeles, CA. Heroic Hollywood is his introduction into the world of Journalism which...