Listen, Bud: Nine Super-Hero Cartoon Themes Worth Remembering [Music Week]
When superheroes make the transition from comics to TV animation, it’s always interesting to hear what kind of theme music they get. Songs with lyrics that explain who the heroes are can be fun, but they can also go awry. Instrumental tracks can be boring if you’re not careful, but if they’re well-executed, they can do a great job of creating just the tone you want for your cartoon.
I’ve put together a chronological list of nine memorable theme songs from TV superhero cartoons. Obviously I can’t include them all, but I expect to see in the comments which of your favorites I’ve left out. I also limited myself to superheroes who came from comics, so the jazz-inflected glory of Space Ghost, for example, doesn’t make the list.
Some of these songs are good, a couple are bad, and almost all of them are completely ridiculous. In the over-the-top world of superhero cartoons, that’s as it should be.
The Mighty Thor (1966)
This song is short and silly, as all the 1966 Marvel Super-Heroes themes are, but there’s real sense of wonder about it. An awe at this God of Thunder who comes to us from “across the Rainbow Bridge to Asgard.” It sells Thor as important and powerful, and more than just a super-hero.
Captain America (1966)
If you’re not paying close attention, this short theme might sound jingoistic. But it’s not, because it’s not about America, it’s about Captain America. It’s about how Cap always wins because he’s fighting for what’s right. It’s also about how he has a shield that he throws around, which is important exposition.
Iron Man (1966)
The dueling styles of this theme really make it work: jazzy for cool cat Tony Stark, and boomingly heroic for Iron Man. He’s one of the most powerful Avengers, but at the end of the day he’s also a stylish rich guy in a snazzy suit. “A cool exec with a heart of steel” indeed.
Everybody knows this song. Even if you’ve never seen the 1960s Spider-Man cartoon, you can probably sing it. Heck, the Ramones covered it. “Is he strong? Listen bud, he’s got radioactive blood,” remains an incredible line, even if it fails to answer it’s own question. The song is fast-paced and catchy, and for a goofy cartoon theme, you can’t do much better.
Swamp Thing (1991)
Remember that time they made a children’s cartoon based on an Alan Moore mature readers horror comic? It didn’t last long, and this theme song is probably the most memorable thing about it. Memorable chiefly because it’s a rewritten version of “Wild Thing,” the 1966 hit by the Troggs. Actually, it doesn’t even sound like somebody rewrote, as much as improvised new lyrics on the spot. It’s so baffling, that much like Swamp Thing, it’s AM-AY-ZING.
Batman: The Animated Series (1992)
Obviously this was going to be on here. Composed by Danny Elfman, it sets a cinematic tone for a cartoon that turned out to be far better than the movies (also featuring great music by Elfman) that preceded it. And the animated sequence that accompanies it tells you everything you need to know about Batman, without any words at all.
This other instrumental theme from 1992 goes in the opposite direction. I wouldn’t call it a great piece of music, but I will forever associate it with the X-Men. It sounds like the rush to battle, which is perfect for this opening sequence and the cartoon as whole. It also sounds like 1992, as it should.
Fantastic Four (1994)
Getting back to theme songs with lyrics, we have this disaster from 1994. It works hard to get its point across— Reed Richards is elastic / Sue can fad from site / Johnny is the Human Torch / The Thing just loves to fight— but as a song, it’s almost unlistenable. It’s not so much pop as a poor pastiche of pop.
Teen Titans (2003)
Now this, this is great pop music. For a cartoon directly inspired by Japanese anime, hiring the Japanese pop duo Puffy AmiYumi to do the theme song was an inspired choice. The result isn’t just a great Teen Titans theme song, it’s honestly a really fun high-energy pop song to listen to.