You really only need three things to become a superhero: A cool costume, a catchy name, and a killer soundtrack. Okay, that last one isn’t required, but it certainly helps. Birds of Prey is the latest comic-book romp with an album of “music from and inspired by the motion picture,” an exhilarating musical companion to the film stacked with songs that pair superbly with punching bad guys.
Of course, superhero movie soundtracks have substantially raised their game in recent years, with Guardians of the Galaxy‘s glorious needle-drops and Black Panther‘s sweeping, Kendrick Lamar-curated album, in particular, taking blockbuster musical accompaniment to new heights. But there are numerous gems throughout the genre’s history, and they often work just as well (if not better) separately from the movies for which they were commissioned. With Birds of Prey taking flight in theaters Feb. 7, here are EW’s picks for the best superhero movie soundtracks ever. As a certain super-team might put it, you’re welcome.
Tim Burton‘s Batman essentially defined superhero movies for a generation, but Prince‘s oft-maligned soundtrack is typically seen as a mere curiosity in the musician’s vast discography. While the album features a few duds (“Batdance,” oof), it’s a fun and funky lineup of dance jams, and the occasional ballad, that showcase the Purple One in his ’80s prime. “Electric Chair” slaps as hard as anything from 1999 or Purple Rain, and energetic tracks like “Vicki Waiting” and “Partyman” more than make up for limp duet “The Arms of Orion.” It’s also simply impressive how completely Prince seemed to disregard any notion of tonal consistency with Burton’s moody film. If you have to hurl your LP copy at advancing zombies, so be it, but otherwise, this one deserves another listen.
The Crow‘s soundtrack, on the other hand, is the very definition of tonal consistency. Extremely ’90s in the best way (Exhibit A: Stone Temple Pilots, Nine Inch Nails, and Rage Against the Machine one-two-three in a row), the album embodies the dark, intense mood of the film, which tells the tale of a rock musician who rises from the grave to avenge his fiancée’s rape and murder. It also functions as an alternately rollicking and unsettling ride through the industrial, gothic, and alternative rock and metal of the time, while slipping in some Easter eggs for fans: The Crow creator James O’Barr scattered references to the Cure and Joy Division through his comic book series, and while only the former band appears on the soundtrack, the album also includes a cover of Joy Division’s “Dead Souls,” courtesy of NIN.
Anyone remember Steel? The 1997 bomb starred Shaquille O’Neal as DC Comics character John Henry Irons, a military weapons designer, who resigns after seeing the damage his creations can do and forges a suit of armor to become the superhero Steel. (Does this sound…slightly familiar?) The movie flopped hard with critics and at the box office, but the soundtrack is a right good time, a fun smattering of ’90s hip-hop and R&B that, much like The Crow, captures a musical moment in time. Shaq was never a top-notch rapper, but he acquits himself well on “Strait Playin'” (originally released on his album You Can’t Stop the Reign) and “Men of Steel,” whose significance extends beyond the soundtrack or film: the track brought West Coast (B-Real, Ice Cube) and East Coast (Peter Gunz, KRS-One) MCs together to showcase the newfound peace between the two hip-hop scenes.
Spawn: The Album
How to top The Crow soundtrack’s coterie of heavy-metal stars? Spawn‘s solution: pair metal artists with electronic artists! Behold a resultant album featuring the Butthole Surfers paired with Moby, Metallica with DJ Spooky, and Marilyn Manson with British electronic group Sneaker Pimps. EW’s 1997 review described the soundtrack as “a rich cache of new subgenres and crossover possibilities,” and the songs remain fascinating, oddly alluring experiments more than two decades later, even as electronica has come to dominate popular music. The blazing industrial hip-hop of Kanye West‘s Yeezus might be the closest comparison point.
You might object to how the film utilized some of the songs (setting a sex scene to Leonard Cohen‘s “Hallelujah” is certainly a choice), but there’s no denying that the soundtrack to Zack Snyder‘s Watchmen is a great collection of iconic tracks. There’s little point in calling out highlights, because every song is a highlight: from Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” to Jimi Hendrix‘s “All Along the Watchtower,” from Billie Holiday’s “You’re My Thrill” to Bob Dylan‘s “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” which accompanies the film’s superb opening credits sequence. (Admittedly, though, this is part of the problem with the movie: Iconic needle-drops lose some of their effect when every needle-drop is iconic.) And Dylan devotees might turn up their noses at it (guilty), but My Chemical Romance‘s cover of “Desolation Row” boasts a hard-rocking swagger that’s hard to resist.
Iron Man 2
The Iron Man 2 soundtrack is little more than an AC/DC sample platter, offering several of the rock icons’ greatest hits alongside some lesser-known songs. Fortunately, it works perfectly well in that regard. The record features most of the essential AC/DC tracks — “Highway to Hell,” “Shoot to Thrill,” “Back in Black,” “Thunderstruck,” “T.N.T.” — and the remainder is well-curated. (Deep cuts “If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It)” and “Evil Walks” make for a great one-two punch smack in the middle of the album.) It’s an hour of top-tier hard rock that reminds you what made AC/DC so great: wailing vocals, thunderous guitars, and a good old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll spirit.
Guardians of the Galaxy: Awesome Mix Vol. 1 & Vol. 2
Guardians of the Galaxy set a new standard for superhero movie soundtracks when it hit theaters in 2014. Director James Gunn‘s handpicked tracklist of ’60s and ’70s hits (integrated into the film through Peter Quill’s beloved mixtape) infused the cosmic adventure with a uniquely groovy sensibility, evident from the moment Quill (Chris Pratt) starts bopping to Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love” in the opening minutes. The soundtrack album, dubbed Awesome Mix Vol. 1, was also a massive commercial success, achieving platinum certification and becoming the first soundtrack without any new songs to top the Billboard 200 chart. (It even reportedly sold 11,000 copies on cassette. Such was the power of Guardians.)
If it couldn’t match the original in sales, 2017’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: Awesome Mix Vol. 2 one-upped its predecessor in ambition, with a mixture of iconic classics (Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain,” George Harrison‘s “My Sweet Lord”) and some deeper, weirder cuts (Looking Glass’s “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl),” Silver’s oddball obscurity “Wham Bam Shang-A-Lang”). Vol. 2 also features perhaps the high point of both soundtracks: Cat Stevens‘ heartrending “Father and Son,” used pitch-perfectly on screen as well.
Black Panther: The Album
And then, less than a year after Guardians Vol. 2, Marvel changed the soundtrack game again. Director Ryan Coogler recruited Kendrick Lamar to produce songs for Black Panther, and the hip-hop superstar ultimately curated an entire album of original music that transcends, yet works perfectly in tandem with, the film. From Lamar and SZA’s soaring, Oscar-nominated “All the Stars” to Khalid and Swae Lee’s mellow love song “The Ways” to the pounding, ferocious “Opps,” the multi-Grammy-nominated record (including for Album of the Year) is a sonic adventure through African music, trap, and cutting-edge pop and hip-hop. Lamar presides over the whole affair, weaving through tracks like a regal emcee (and MC). This is the gold standard for not just superhero movie, but all movie soundtracks going forward; it’ll be hard to top moments like Lamar’s A-plus verse on “King’s Dead” (written and rapped from the perspective of Michael B. Jordan‘s villain Killmonger), and The Weeknd‘s crooning vocals on album closer “Pray for Me.”
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse‘s soundtrack was designed to sound like something the film’s teenaged protagonist, Miles Morales, might listen to, and accordingly, the album mixes established stars (Post Malone, Nicki Minaj, Lil Wayne) with up-and-coming musicians (the late Juice WRLD, Brooklyn-based rapper Thutmose). The result is an exuberant collection of pop, hip-hop, and R&B tracks that reflect Miles’ multicultural background (take the Minaj-featuring “Familia,” for instance) and the animated film’s equally exuberant, game-changing take on Spider-Man and superhero storytelling. Malone and Swae Lee’s chart-topping, Grammy-nominated “Sunflower” is a standout, of course, but “What’s Up Danger,” by Blackway and Black Caviar, ranks as the movie’s best musical moment, accompanying Miles’ first triumphant leap from a rooftop.
Birds of Prey: The Album
Like the film it accompanies, Birds of Prey: The Album is a blast of feminine empowerment, featuring an all-female lineup of artists and a tracklist stacked with defiant lyrics and themes. “You want me to be a little more ladylike?” Megan Thee Stallion sneers on lead single “Diamonds,” while Charlotte Lawrence croons an unfond farewell to a certain Clown Prince of Crime boyfriend with “Joke’s on You.” It’s a gleeful pop-rap album that revels in the patriarchy-smashing spirit of the film and its titular crew of antiheroines, a spirit perhaps best summed up by one track: Jurnee Smollett-Bell, as Black Canary, covering James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.”