Film score compilation albums used to be big business for soundtrack labels, allowing fans to pay for just one CD and get all of the highlights they had been craving. In an age where we can easily buy the individual theme tracks we want, compilation albums have to work harder to warrant a purchase or even a stream by score fans. The Czech Philharmonic Orchestra’s latest compilation entitled Ultimate Superheroes arrives featuring all of our favorite iconic hero themes, including some from just last year, and with the allure of hearing less synthetically manipulated orchestral performances than the original albums may provide.
For the most part, the album is a resounding success. The trickiest part of these compilation albums is the selection of tracks to cover, and Ultimate Superheroes nails that. Of course the classics are here, such as John Williams’ theme from Superman and Danny Elfman’s theme for Batman, but it is the inclusion of more recent themes that is most exciting. Having Ludwig Gorannson’s end titles from Black Panther and Tyler Bates’ theme for Guardians of the Galaxy makes the collection feel like an accurate survey of all the best superhero themes up to this moment. Adding in some deeper cuts that only fans of film scores will know, such as Steven Price’s work for Suicide Squad and Ramin Djawadi’s original Iron Man theme, are also a nice touch that makes the album feel more thoroughly researched and less like a quick cash grab.
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The performances of all of these themes range from rollicking to slightly under-powered, but never losing what makes each of the pieces enjoyable. The best of the lot are those pieces where the original recording was electronically manipulated, making the small brass sections still feel like an improvement due to the additional clarity in sound. “Task Force X” from Suicide Squad is perhaps the biggest beneficiary, if only because this is our first chance to hear a straightforward orchestral take on it. The orchestra’s performance of the theme from Ant-Man is another winner, making its choice as the album’s opener a no-brainer.
More challenging are the tracks that have always been more straightforward in their orchestral rendering. The original recordings for Superman, Batman, and even The Avengers have become so ingrained in pop culture, and were recorded with very large and powerful brass sections, making many of these compilation recordings stick out in their relative lack of oomph. Under conductor Robert Ziegler, the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra does a serviceable job with the two former themes, avoiding embarrassment with competent renderings of them, and does a pretty great job with The Avengers. That track is less densely orchestrated than the others, which benefits the smaller scaled orchestra here, and is presented in an enjoyable suite arrangement that appears to be new. Fans may be surprised to find themselves revisiting this track when they need their Marvel music fix.
The album ends with perhaps the two strongest tracks, suites from Thor: Ragnarok and X2: X-Men United. The former is enjoyable as a fun representation of that score’s catchy main theme devoid of any of its electronics. While those retro synths were great in the film, it is not bad to have this more traditional rendering as well. The “Suite from X2” somehow feels like a more powerful performance of that piece than the original film recording, finally illuminating the power of John Ottman’s writing for that project. Only the odd pacing of the orchestra’s performance of the final notes of that theme detract from their most robust playing on the set.
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Detracting from the set is the anonymous art design and several egregious labeling errors. The cover art looks outdated in its simplistic color and font, with no information on either the orchestra or conductor. Even I had to do research to figure who was playing on this album, which is a bit odd given the orchestra’s well-known status as a creator of these compilations. Adding that in would be more of a selling point than a detraction, letting people know that this is not another cover album done by some guy using only a synthesizer.
For casual and serious film score fans alike, Ultimate Superheroes is an easy recommendation to help round out the genre’s representation in your library. It is a diverse collection of tunes, and generally good performances elevate it above many similar releases, and serves as a nice reminder of just how good the superhero genre is at inspiring our greatest composers.
Ultimate Superheroes: Music to Save the World To is now available from Sony Music Masterworks.