One of my favorite scenes in any movie is from the 1988 indie Blaxploitation parody I’m Gonna Git You Sucka. The rookie hero Jack Spade, played by writer/director Keenan Ivory Wayans, asks his mentor John Slade (the inimitable Bernie Casey) why he’s being followed by a full-on band. Slade’s response is iconic: “They’re my theme music. Every good hero should have some.”
His words are not only prophetic, they’re integral to what makes a good hero film. Where would Superman be without the iconic theme whose onomatopoeia became shorthand for the briefs his early incarnations wore on the outside? What about The Dark Knight‘s insistent, ominous, two-note refrain to highlight rising action and stirring emotional resolve? Or how about those Avengers, with their intrepid march, at once inspiring and militant, telling the audience that the star-studded super team is on the way to save the day?
But what happens when the superhero in question represents more than just truth, justice, and the American way? What if the hero must also represent a break from the status quo his profession so often fights to uphold? What if, rather than inspiring the masses of the general audience, the hero is instead an inspiration to a very specific demographic of people who historically found themselves barred from representation in the pages of cape comics and on silver screens? That hero would also need a very specific theme song, not just representative of his mission but of his people, of his upbringing and his culture.
I’m happy to report that the soundtrack to Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, itself a different kind of superhero movie in more ways than one, understands this and services this idea as admirably as the film’s titular character does the legacy of his revered namesake. Like the Black Panther soundtrack before it, the film understands its cultural relevance, the moment it speaks to, and the world it must represent, and does so, making it one of the best hip-hop-oriented film soundtracks ever created.
In the film, Spider-Man isn’t the one we all know and have grown bored with. Instead, he’s a 15-year-old, Afro-Latino charter school student named Miles Morales. He hails from Brooklyn, he throws up graffiti stickers anywhere he can reach, he wears unlaced Jordans and he listens to the contemporary music any real-life kid of similar description would. That means the film opens with the soundtrack’s lead single, the Post Malone and Swae Lee collaboration “Sunflower,” playing right in Miles’ headphones. It returns again and again throughout the film, however, as a display of its meaning to the character; he uses it in crisis moments to relax, or when he’s in his room alone doodling in his notebook, just like any teen would their favorite song.