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Comic-Con Dissects the Musical Anatomy of a Superhero

We attended the 8th Annual Anatomy of a Super Hero Panel and uncovered the multiple pains and stresses facing many modern film composers.
Comic Con Musical Anatomy Of Superhero
Brad Gullickson
By  · Published on July 28th, 2022

Welcome to Comic-Con Returns, our column celebrating San Diego’s mightiest comic convention and its revival after three long desolate years. In this entry, we break down the 8th Annual Anatomy of a Super Hero Panel and discuss the challenges facing modern film and tv film composers.

One exciting, overwhelmingly frantic conundrum of the San Diego ComicCon International is prioritizing which panels to attend. Four days of densely packed, back-to-back programs, from the Marvel Studios panel in Hall H to “Storyboards: The Unseen Art of Hollywood” to “Leather Craft for Cosplay and More,” scheduling the perfect con feels like 11th-grade calculus. And every attendee has obligatory panels for which they are willing to wait in line for hours, sacrificing precious time on the Exhibit Hall floor. For me, The Musical Anatomy of a Super Hero is one of those panels. 

This year marked the 8th Annual Anatomy of a Super Hero panel, and the Indigo Ballroom at the Hilton Bayfront Inn was pretty packed. Maybe word got out that last year, Michael Giacchino (Spider-Man: No Way Home, Thor: Love and Thunder, and so much more) called Matt Reeves on his cell before the announcement that he, indeed, would be the composer for The Batman. As it rang, he grinned conspiratorily to his rapt audience, “Don’t screw this up.” Of course, many show up hoping they may get a morsel of exclusive footage while the panelists share their musical excerpts, which is always a treat. Nevertheless, I show up to see the camaraderie amongst these panelists that have the super cool but weirdly specific job of scoring superhero movies.

As a musician, I may be biased, but composing music is one of those mediums that most don’t have the vocabulary to discuss with satisfying specificity. I got my master’s in music, so I had to take courses in theory, orchestration, composition, and arranging. Still, as a singer, I barely scratched the surface of translating the momentum of pure emotion into sound. However, I did compose a somewhat passable arrangement of “Rubber Ducky” for five trombones. 

Because of this, I’m sure it’s challenging to find a moderator with the expertise to conduct this musically anatomical conversation. But at San Diego Comic-Con, they have smartly circumvented that inconvenience by having a composer moderate the panel. And since he’s there and all, who better than Michael Giacchino? He could lead this analytical discussion in his sleep or, as he admitted at the start of this year’s panel, a tad hung over.

This year’s panel was stacked – Amie Doherty (She-Hulk: Attorney at Law), Natalie Holt (Loki, Batgirl), Christophe Beck (Wandavision, Ant-Man: Quantumania, Shazam: Fury of the Gods), Nami Melumad (collaborator with Giacchino on Thor: Love and Thunder, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds), and Christopher Lennertz (The Boys) – and we got plenty of inside baseball. For instance, when Lennertz shared the clip he brought from The Boys, we could barely hear his score under the ruckus of Soldier Boy getting his face bashed in by Homelander. Lennertz sheepishly explained, “There was music under there somewhere. I didn’t see the final mix, but obviously, the sound effects are really great.” Giacchino gently digs, “This is a sound effects panel, right?” but after that, the commiserating over having your hard work buried under rowdy fisticuffs became a recurring motif of their convo. 

One of Michael Giacchino’s excerpts included a scene from Thor: Love and Thunder that featured the infamous screaming goats, and Giacchino just shook his head, “One day they’re going to let us mix the movies we work on. Wouldn’t that be nice? What do you think? Any dub mixers out here?” Amie Doherty has had similar heartbreaks, “We need a support group. You kill yourself on an action scene for three days, and you’re so proud of it. And then you see the final product, and you’re like, ‘there’s music here, you wouldn’t know.'”

After each composer shares their clip, most of the Musical Anatomy of a Superhero discourse is audience Q and A, which can sometimes feel like a hot shower with a sunburn. Luckily, this time around, the questioners were never too starstruck to ask a thoughtful, coherent inquiry. In terms of ‘musical anatomy,’ the queries went only skin deep, sticking to the most obvious aspects of orchestration and theme. 

Orchestration questions always intrigue me, ever since I learned that Giacchino used discarded airplane parts as percussion instruments when composing the score for Lost. Musical composition for a standard orchestra comes with a fairly set palette of sounds, so it’s always fascinating when a composer includes a timbre off-menu. Ever since Camille Saint-Saëns’ score for L’assassinat du Duc de Guise in 1908, film score composers have been trying to capture that perfect, evocative sound. Something different. And it’s not always easy.

Michael Giacchino described having a moment of orchestration epiphany spoiled by Natalie Holt, “I was thinking of this project that I was working on, and I was like, ‘oh, I’m going to do something different with this project… I know what I’m going to do. I’m going to use a theremin, and I’m going to do this thing.’ And then I was like, ‘oh, Loki’s on tonight. I’m going to go watch Loki.’ And then I was really pissed off when I watched it because I was like, ‘dammit, Natalie [used the theremin].’ And I had to figure out something else.” Then, Holt corrected him with smug delight (or maybe I was just smug on her behalf). “No, that the Norweigan folk fiddle, the Hardanger.”

Because they are constantly scouring their brains for something new in the realm of superhero scores, these composers become magpies for noise, keeping a cache of aural treasures for future use. For example, Christophe Beck mentioned he has one recording tucked away, “It’s sitting on my hard drive. It’s been there for ten years. It’s called, all caps, ‘THE MOST AWESOME SOUND EVER CREATED.’ And it has not found a home yet, but I’m determined.” 

Others borrow timbres from other cultures. For example, Christopher Lennertz has been trying to sneak steel drums into his scores, but no dice, “I’ve tried to get steel drums in probably seven or eight different comedy scores. […] I keep trying. And almost always, they’re like, ‘I love everything about this cue. [But] What’s that Caribbean stuff in the back? Why is there reggae here?’ One of these days, somebody’s going to let me put steel drums in.” Natalie Holt empathized, “I’ve got the same thing with a Gamelan [an indigenous ensemble of Indonesia]. I’ve been trying to get that into somewhere creatively. I even recorded it. And they’re like, ‘no, don’t like that.'” Then it was Giacchino’s turn to be smug, “I used a Gamelan in [The] Batman. It’s hidden underneath all those sound effects, so you can’t hear it.” I could hear it, Michael, and I high-fived myself for my A in ‘Introduction to World Musics.’ 

Nami Melumad offered a unique method of sourcing new tones. She farms them herself using sampling software, “I’m a flute player, and I record my flute a lot. And you can, with Kontakt, create a virtual instrument from your samples. And there is a lot of them sitting there waiting for something. It might appear on Star Trek at some point because I can boldly go where no man has gone before.” Melumad got a big laugh with that line, considering she is the first female composer to add to the Star Trek legacy. 

 I cannot wait until the 9th Annual Musical Anatomy of a Super Hero panel. My only critique is that the dissection of the music of Superhero films doesn’t go deep enough. I would love to see footage of the actual musicians at recording sessions bringing their compositions to life or if they played some stems so we can isolate and hear the different layers of musical texture. I would absolutely keel over and die of enthusiasm if they opened up a file from their notation software and threw that on the big screen. They could highlight repetitions of motifs or illustrate how they created different harmonic sonorities and explain their intent. “Anatomical” is right in the title, so let’s crack open these opuses and get our hands dirty. 

One of the many beautiful things about the bigness of San Diego Comic-Con is that there is programming to scratch virtually any nerd itch. Clearly, The Annual Musical Anatomy of a Superhero reaches one of mine. A legion of tinkerers manifests our pop culture. It doesn’t matter if you are a trained musician or not; there is inspiration to be found in starting with nothing but an idea and noodling until you have invented something that ignites our imaginations. And we humble fans get to saunter up to the mic and ask our questions that all boil down to, ‘How’d you do it? How’d you make us believe in Superheroes?’ Parts of the process may be ineffable but evidently not impossible. Because those dorks with the microphones did it. 

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Lisa Gullickson is a freelance writer and podcaster. When she's not clickety-clacking on Film School Rejects, you can find her talking comics and self-care on Comic Book Couples Counseling. Accepting words of affirmation on Twitter: @sidewalksiren (She/Her)