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My Favorite 90s Superhero Cartoon Themes: A Musical Analysis

By Paulo Camacho

If you’re anything like me, you might have grown up in the 90s. If that is the case, you might have been raised on cartoons. You can likely remember the characters, your favorite storylines, and, of course, those iconic theme songs. You can probably hear them playing in your head, right now — some of the songs that helped shaped your childhood, from your favorite cartoons.

Seeing as we recently featured a post on our Facebook page about the theme from the Wonder Woman movie, I can’t think of a better place to start, than with the cartoons that became the predecessors to a genre of blockbuster films from the past decade: the superhero cartoon.

Here are a few interesting facts about some superhero cartoon themes that stood out in my own childhood:


Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

While there have been many iterations of TMNT, and its theme, over the years, the original 1987 series stands out as one of the best, if not the most nostalgic. After all, listening to the lyrics again almost gives one a clear picture of late 1980s culture. For such an iconic theme, spouting “Turtle Power” from certain “Heroes in a Half-Shell”, the writer of said theme is just as iconic, if not totally unpredictable: Chuck Lorre.

If that name sounds familiar, he’s the creator of such famous sitcoms as Two and a Half MenThe Big Bang Theory and Grace Under Fire. Apparently, his early days as a guitarist and songwriter pointed him toward an opportunity to pen the theme to the 1980s cartoon, only to lose out to — ironically enough — The Turtles. When the famous 1960s rock band backed out at the last minute, the show’s producers turned to Lorre, and gave him 48 hours to create a theme. The rest is Saturday Morning history. Fun fact: his dubious connection to the famous cartoon theme is even referenced in an episode of the Netflix hit show The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.


Batman: The Animated Series

Batman’s famous modern animated series, which ran from 1992 to 1995, will forever personify an entire generation of Dark Knight fans. Its film-noir style and major influence from the 1989 Batman film stood out from other cartoons of its time. One major feature that helped establish this darker theme came, naturally, from its theme song, originally composed by acclaimed movie composer Danny Elfman. Elfman actually turned down show developer Bruce Timm, when he was first approached about composing its theme. However, he changed his mind and composed a variation on the Michael Keaton / Jack Nicholson vehicle as the opening theme we know today.

Special mention goes to late American television composer Shirley Walker, who was approached by Timm to develop a theme song after Elfman turned him down. While her theme was ultimately shelved in favor of Elfman’s, it was later used as the main theme to the revamped second season of the series, subsequently titled The Adventures of Batman & Robin. Her theme carried many of the same dark, film-noir qualities as Elfman’s theme, while capturing a different, more heroic essence of the character, and the series, altogether. You can listen to her explain her means for creating the theme here — I suggest you give it a listen. For budding composers, especially, it’s a fascinating listen.


Superman: The Animated Series

This series ran after the iconic Batman series, from 1996 to 2000. But, the show’s theme song — like the show, itself — rather maintained the same themes that defined their characters. While the BTAS theme played off of a dark film-noir style straight out of the 1940s, the theme from “Superman: The Animated Series” mirrored a kind of hopeful, wholesome, All-American superhero that stood for truth, justice and the American way. Considering that it was also penned by the late Shirley Walker, this should come as little surprise.

From its use of Big-Band Brass, to the air of heroism in its melody, and a driving beat echoing wayward values of goodness, the STAS theme did its predecessors from the Christopher Reeves films justice. The cartoon was a near-flawless update to the Superman mythos, and considered by some as one of the best adaptations to the Man of Steel — and its theme reflected that, in many ways.


X-Men

If “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” helped define popular culture for adolescents in the 1980s, it can be said that the “X-Men” animated series did the same for many in the 1990s. The superhero serial from Saban Entertainment which ran for five years, from 1992 to 1997, put from page to the screen, quite possibly the most faithful interpretation of Professor Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters.

To help establish the atmosphere of the show, the showrunners turned to resident Saban composer Ron Wasserman to create a theme that best fit a cartoon that practically took pages of the iconic comic and threw them on a TV screen. The high-octane theme, combined with the various action shots of its heroes, set the tone for the kind of show adrenaline-junky preteens would look forward to every Saturday — myself, and my brother, included.


Spider-Man

No, I’m not talking about the famous Spider-Man theme from the 1960s — you know, the one that Michael Giaccino brilliantly remakes at the beginning of this year’s MCU hit, “Spiderman: Homecoming”, or the one Homer Simpson famously spoofs with “Spider Pig”. This is the theme that heralded the animated series that aired on FOX Kids between 1994 and 1998. Also produced by Saban Entertainment, the show featured an adult Peter Parker that, interestingly enough, still faithfully depicted the wall-crawler and the rogue’s gallery he famously faced off against in the comics.

For the show’s theme, it had two different composers, given dual credit for their contributions to the lyric-less song: the orchestral portion of the theme was composed by Shuki Levy, Kussa Mahchi and Udi Harpaz. The distinct metal guitar in conjunction came from an unlikely source: Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry. The combination of themes gave the series its character — a high-flying action-packed show that tried not to forget its classical roots.


Want to know how you can write themes like the ones you read about? Check out Picardy, where you can learn the basics of music composition!

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