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The 10 best superhero movie needle-drops

By Emma Fraser
Birds of Prey

A well-deployed song can take a good scene and make it great, burning whatever is unfolding on the screen in your mind long after you have left the theater. Movies and music go hand in hand, which is why soundtracks are so essential. Superhero movies don’t just need CGI and incredible costumes to take these characters to other worlds: A pop, rock, or hip hop track can easily add another dimension. Over the years, heroes and villains from both Marvel and DC properties have fought and danced while killer bops have played over the action. In some cases, classic songs have been introduced to brand-new audiences or delivered a heady dose of nostalgia for others.

The trailer often sets the tone with a song that is meant to draw you in but then sadly never features in the actual movie. Logan sucked us in with Johnny Cash's emotional cover of Nine Inch Nail's "Hurt," and it would have been hard to recreate the impactful nature of this teaser. When the first look at Wonder Woman 1984 was released, one of the most talked-about aspects was the incredible use of New Order's "Blue Monday." It is hard to take a beloved song and breathe new life into it, but this trailer does just that. In the past, Wonder Woman's theme has been delivered via Hans Zimmer's score in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, followed by the emotional No Man's Land sequence in her first standalone outing. Rupert Gregson-Williams provided the score for this intense World War I-set moment, but the '80s will likely lead to a more song-focused soundtrack for the sequel.

Inspired by an expertly placed classic banger in Birds of Prey, we went back through the vault to find the 10 best needle drops in superhero movies.

Covering over 30 years of filmmaking, here are the 10 tracks that stand out. This list is not ranked; the order makes the most sense for the flow — click here to listen to the full playlist on Spotify.

Heart - "Barracuda" (Birds of Prey)

In 2008, Heart's Nancy and Ann Wilson sent a cease-and-desist letter to Senator John McCain’s campaign after "Barracuda" was played in reference to running mate Sarah Palin at the Republican National Convention. There were no such complaints with how Cathy Yan deployed this instant crowd-pleaser in 2020’s Birds of Prey. From the very first note as the newly formed squad prepare to take on Roman Sionis’ (Ewan McGregor) goons, it is clear this song choice is one for the ages — anthemic and empowering as Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) fights her way down the slide of the Booby Trap funhouse. No other song would do this moment justice.

The White Stripes - "Icky Thump" (Justice League)

Showcasing Aquaman's cool af aesthetic via the heavy guitar riffs of “Icky Thump” is one of the most memorable moments of Justice League, which sees Jason Momoa as Arthur exiting a bar after he has nonchalantly saved the life of a fisherman. Slugging the last drops of booze, he looks like he is starring in a whiskey ad as Jack White's lyrics accompany the instantly recognizable sleazy riff.

Led Zeppelin - "Immigrant Song" (Thor: Ragnarok)

Guardians of the Galaxy is not the only Marvel space adventure to lean into the 1970s for the big music moments. Taika Waititi throws down in style during the climactic big battle scene in Thor: Ragnarok when Thor (Chris Hemsworth) gets his powers back — and then some — while Led Zeppelin provides the electrifying (excuse the pun) budget-draining song choice. Whatever Marvel had to spend, it is worth every cent for the spectacle that follows.

AC/DC - "Shoot to Thrill" (Iron Man 2)

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is larger than life so it makes sense for the soundtrack to match. AC/DC released a 15-track album to coincide with the film, featuring songs that were in the movie. Originally appearing on the 1980 album Back in Black, "Shoot to Thrill" is one of the Australian rock band's most recognizable songs. Tony making his big entrance at the Stark Expo in Flushing, New York only adds to the spectacle and ups the energy levels in an instant.

Garbage - "Only Happy When It Rains" (Captain Marvel)

Sometimes the obvious choice is not the best one, as demonstrated by the Captain Marvel soundtrack. Setting the big fight sequence to No Doubt's "Just a Girl" is easy point-scoring but ultimately comes off as a hollow "girl power" gesture — Clueless also used this song in a far more subtle way back in 1995. Dripping in nostalgia, Carol's Nine Inch Nails shirt and the songs that play throughout the movie ticks many boxes for anyone that grew up in this decade. The closing credits choice of Hole's "Celebrity Skin" is inspired, but it is Carol's (Brie Larson) motorbike moment that has the best music cue. Garbage is a quintessential band from this era (see also, the Romeo + Juliet soundtrack), so the choice is a no-brainer. And what it lacks in the bombastic nature of a huge fight sequence, the use of this song to trigger memories of her former life via the bar jukebox underscores the tether music provides.

Redbone - "Come and Get Your Love" (Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers: Endgame)

As with Iron Man and Captain Marvel, Guardians of the Galaxy excels at turning to the familiar to boost a soundtrack. Going one step further, Guardians uses Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) Walkman to tap into the wistful feelings attached to that particular art form. Making a playlist is easy, but creating a great mix tape requires hours of work; ensuring it will fit the cassette runtime and acquiring songs is not just a click away. One of the defining songs is Redbone’s upbeat "Come and Get Your Love," which showcased Quill’s mode of walking (and dancing) through life. The reprisal in Avengers: Endgame from Rhodey (Don Cheadle) and Nebula’s (Karen Gillan) point-of-view is a fun callback to this song that further highlights how effective the Guardians soundtrack is.

Prince - "Partyman" (Batman)

In a 1992 interview, Tim Burton referred to the Batman soundtrack as an "unholy alliance." Burton's issue wasn’t with Prince — "this guy you respect and is good" is one of Burton’s remarks about the legendary singer — but with the clash of style. Burton's Gotham is drenched in the gothic signature we know so well by now, which didn't blend with Prince's brand of funk. However, it can be argued that this disruption from the Joker is perfectly represented by the banger that is "Partyman." Jack Nicholson breaking out some sweet moves clad in his silk finest as one of his henchmen plays it on a boombox is the ultimate messing with the mood. We wouldn’t want it any other way.

Vince Staples (feat. Yugen Blakrok and Kendrick Lamar) - "Opps" (Black Panther)

We shift from a soundtrack that was at odds with the director's vision to one that fits seamlessly into Ryan Coogler's Wakanda. The Kendrick Lamar-curated album of original music took the Marvel soundtrack to new heights. A lot of the songs don't feature in the film, but one striking moment comes during the post-casino sequence. A good car chase requires a track to match, which is exactly what Klaw (Andy Serkis) asks for: "Put some music on. What do you think this is, a funeral?" As Okoye (Danai Gurira) stands on top of the car with her red dress flowing in the wind, the beat is timed perfectly to her throwing her weapon.

Post Malone, Swae Lee - "Sunflower" (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse)

The Post Malone and Swae Lee track, released two months before Spider-Verse even hit theaters, captures the chaotic mood of Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) getting ready for his new school. A needle-drop doesn't need to be a surprise to be effective, and this moment of Miles singing along is highly relatable — particularly when he mumbles the parts he doesn't know. In the past, the Spider-Man franchise has delivered a cheesy rock anthem courtesy of Chad Kroeger’s 2002 hit "Hero" to represent this character. Spider-Man 3 also committed a crime against Saturday Night Fever, or at least that's how the reaction to Tobey Maguire doing his best Travolta suggested. But in Spider-Verse, music is part of the texture of Miles' life and the movie aesthetic, breathing new life into both.

Bob Dylan - "The Times They Are A-Changin'" (Watchmen)

Is an opening title sequence a needle-drop? Whether it is or not, this moment set the tone for a movie that never quite lived up to the striking use of Bob Dylan, flipping through the years of the Minutemen of the past to the present. This introduction to the world of the Watchmen is a master class. Choosing such an achingly familiar song with political undertones to play over these images is vital to its effectiveness. And this Bob Dylan '60s classic almost makes up for what Zack Snyder does to Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" later in the movie. Never has one movie demonstrated the do's and don't's of using iconic songs in such a succinct manner.