This article is part of Consequence‘s Marvel Pop Culture Week, examining all the ways in which the MCU invokes our world’s pop culture and creates its own. Here, we’re taking a look at the MCU’s best needle drops.
As of May 2022, there are 28 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (excluding the six upcoming projects, multiple television shows, and the “One Shot” series). From Jon Favreau’s experiment with Iron Man in 2008 to Sam Raimi’s grand return to superhero flicks with this year’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, there are now hours upon hours of quippy dialogue, Stan Lee cameos, and epic CGI battles to satisfy our hunger for adventure.
And as much as Kevin Feige deserves credit for overseeing the direction of the MCU, building such a massive, beloved body of work takes an army of talented creatives. After facing some criticism for enforcing a rigid, overly-homogenous, albeit successful, tone between Phase One and Phase Two, Marvel wisened up and started tapping directors with strong, uncompromising visions.
The Russo brothers turned Captain America: The Winter Solider into a conspiratorial spy thriller, James Gunn snuck his Troma weirdness into Guardians of the Galaxy, and Taika Waititi reinvented Thor with his absurd kiwi charm.
With the expansion of voices came an expansion of stylistic decisions — a greater play with sound and visuals. Directors began to look for ways to distinguish their respective take on Marvel. Of these techniques, one of the most effective was the use of the powerful, always exciting needle drop. Each story grew to have its own relationship with pop music, as characters began to develop tastes that would then be reflected in their respective films. Think Starlord holding onto his dear Walkman or Steve Rogers playing catch-up with pop culture.
As our Marvel Pop Culture Week continues, we thought it’d be fitting to rank the 10 best needle drops across the MCU. Some films were almost entirely devoid of pop music, and others likely deserve a list all of their own, but for our money, these are the best instances of the Billboard charts and the MCU crossing paths.
10. Bonnie Tyler — “Holding Out for a Hero” (Loki)
A 1980’s renaissance fair, time-traveling multiverse cops, an as-of-yet unknown antagonist, and Bonnie Tyler — what a combination.
As the Time Variance Authority attempts to track down a Loki variant (Sylvie) wreaking havoc among different timelines, they find themselves at a 1985 renaissance fair. Forgetting that they were tracking a version of Loki, however, they wander straight into a mischievous, lethal trap set by Sylvie. “Will evil prevail,” the loudspeaker taunts, “or are we holding out for a hero?”
Enter Bonnie Tyler’s epic “Holding Out for a Hero.” The fast-paced piano ballad plays as Sylvie uses magic to turn the TVA agents against each other, taking them down one by one before hopping into another timeline. It’s fun, ironic, and foreshadows Sylvie’s complex motivations.
09. Think Up Anger ft. Malia J – “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (Black Widow)
Over a decade into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you might assume there’d be no surprises left to be had. Yet, the first scene of 2021’s Black Widow genuinely shocked audiences — and not because of a universe-breaking cameo or the introduction of a new, Thanos-style antagonist, but because of the bleak, gritty tone of the opening credits.
The film accomplished this in no small part thanks to Think Up Anger and Malia J’s slowed, menacing cover of the Nirvana standard “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” With dissonant string drones, long piano chords, and a bomb of a kick drum, it’s so dramatic that in another context — say, a trailer for Transformers 9: I Was a Teenage Megatron — it might come off tacky and cliché. Yet, the seriousness of the visuals brings out the emotionality and desperation of Malia J’s vocals.
It remains one of the best sequences of the film, as the rest of Black Widow considerably brightens up the dark tone. So even though the movie took 10 years too long to get made, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and the scene it’s housed within provide Scarlet Johanson’s only solo effort with one of the most memorable openings to any Marvel project.