How John Williams Changed Superhero Movies in 5 Minutes

The iconic main title overture of 'Superman: The Movie' is still one of the best starts to a film franchise.

Superman Movie Title
Warner Bros.

Five minutes. That’s all it took. Five minutes and 40 years later, we’re still humming John Williams‘ theme from Superman: The Movie, still thrilling to Christopher Reeve swooping out of the night sky to catch Margot Kidder, still begging for the next Superman movie to bring the music back. The power of association and identification is something many covet, yet it seems so difficult to attain today, especially when it comes to the modern myth of superheroes, with their liberal use of high adventure and fantasy.

Of course, Superman as a character is regarded as the whole catalyst for the medium of comics as we know it. So it’s unsurprising that before Williams came numerous screen and television adaptations of the Man of Steel, with each one musically different enough. Yet they all still remained within the same tone, partially because the majority of film composers were reading from the same hymn sheet, that of Vienna in the 19th century.

Sammy Timberg‘s sprightly brass march for the 1940s Fleischer Studios cartoons feels like a jumping off point for Mischa Bakaleinikoff‘s score for the 1948 Columbia serial as well as the theme for the 1950s television series Adventures of Superman, which was composed by Leon Klatzkin. Timberg’s score also feels like it had a certain influence on Williams, being the first to use a crucial part of the 1978 movie theme that I’ll expand on shortly.

One of the things that make the Superman opening title sequence and its music such a success is its build-up of anticipation. Richard Donner‘s prelude set-up immediately pays tribute to the comic origins of the character and the literal jump from page to screen, with a young boy narrating his reading:

“In the decade of the 1930s, even the great city of Metropolis was not spared the ravages of the worldwide depression. In the times of fear and confusion, the job of informing the public was the responsibility of the Daily Planet, a great metropolitan newspaper whose reputation for clarity and truth had become a symbol of hope for the city of Metropolis.”

The jump comes from a dissolve from a drawing of the famous Daily Planet building with the globe on top to the real thing, at least in Donner’s universe — it’s notable that the dissolve comes after the word “truth,” with Donner’s motto for the film being “verisimilitude,” which itself means truth, adhering to the realism of the work. All behind this, Williams’ orchestra is tinkling away with mysterious tones, building and building the audience’s expectations until the camera flies over the moon, the curtains part, and the first credit flies at you, almost coming out of the screen.

It’s here, in space, that Williams raises the anticipation even further, with a transitional timpani roll that essentially tells you, “This is where it really begins.” More percussion echoes across the star field as Marlon Brando’s credit flies over, first two hits, another two, then four, then four again, multiplying. The strings quickly flare up before four huge notes of brass accompany Donner’s name, and as the S-symbol enters the screen and flies away, the entire orchestra is in sync. The brass is matching the percussion hits and vice versa, your hair is standing up on your neck and you’re just biting your nails waiting for it, the atmosphere electric and the tension unbearable. And then it happens.

The orchestra speaks.

This is where Williams inherits the mantle, where he imbues the spirit of Timberg, Bakaleinikoff, and Klatzkin, and where three chords appear at the core, the height of the theme. As the title majestically glides into view, the orchestra says “Su-per-man,” the three chords rising up into flight, underlying the character’s primary power as well as reminding the audience that they themselves are at this moment hurtling through the galaxy. From here, the film is set out for you musically. You know you’re going to be seeing a picture full of heroism, of bold actions, and perhaps even an old-fashioned sense of bravery. But it doesn’t stop there.

What Williams does is something that can make title sequences even more useful than ever, which is use it as a Trojan horse to get the main musical themes of the film (which themselves often translate to the thematic elements of the narrative) into people’s heads. While the main title cue is presented as one complete element, it’s actually made out of four different themes that Williams introduces; the main theme, the “B-theme,” the fanfare, and the love theme. The main theme is obviously the dominant strain and the container for all the themes, but the others are used as both interludes and connective tissue.

The second theme to appear is the B-theme, which is a lot softer and more lyrical than the “A-theme,” being more representative of Superman’s kindness. This subsequently segues to the fanfare, a motif used for building up the appearance of Superman with its climbing notes often scoring the opening of the shirt with the costume underneath. This is memorably used for the first appearance of the character at the Fortress of Solitude as well as his debut rescue of Lois Lane at the Daily Planet. Speaking of Lois, the next theme to appear is the love theme, a wonderfully flighty piece that forms the musical basis of one of the most important scenes in the film, the “flying sequence,” as it is known.

Following this, the main theme comes crashing back in with all its spectacle and ceremony, Williams playing it out with a powerful yet somewhat tongue-in-cheek finale that brings our journey to a close, with the audience arriving at their destination: the planet Krypton. However, they should now be ready not only to witness what is still one of the greatest superhero pictures but also to recognize the themes presented. Due to the nature of the character’s growth over the film, Williams uses them sparingly, putting snippets and hints here and there and only unleashing them fully when Superman has been revealed to the world.

The Superman sequels repeat the title formula to varying degrees of success, with budgets dwindling until 2006’s Superman Returns, which used the 1978 sequence and music almost verbatim. Even 1984’s Supergirl, which is scored instead by Jerry Goldsmith, had a go. However, many other superhero and fantasy pictures utilized the concept, with Superman’s stablemate using it memorably in Tim Burton’s neo-gothic enterprise Batman (music by Danny Elfman), along with films such as 1980’s Flash Gordon (music by Queen and Howard Blake) and 1981’s Condorman (music by Henry Mancini).

Sadly, most contemporary blockbuster movies don’t seem to favor title sequences, preferring to place them at the end of the film, known in the industry as “main on end.” Because of their placement, they tend to repeat images from the film and reflect the events, rather than an attempt to preclude. That means title sequences like Superman‘s are a rarity, which is one theory as to why that one has endured for so long. Four decades on, it’s still considered the greatest superhero musical score of all time, and a legendary title sequence.

All that in five minutes. Even the Man of Steel couldn’t do it that fast.

Freelance writer and podcast from the home of Tom Jones. Loves film music, cuddling, and the cinema of Lucio Fulci.