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.
08. The Spinners — “The Rubberband Man” (Avengers: Infinity War)
James Gunn’s use of pop music in the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise precedes the actual rag-tag group of intergalactic defenders. Yet, one of the best uses of Starlord’s Awesome Mix comes not from one of their own films, but Avengers: Infinity War.
In a film boiling over with characters, all with the baggage of different stories and styles from their respective films, an efficient introduction is a necessity for superfans and casuals alike. Luckily, armed with the feel-good jams of “The Rubberband Man,” the Guardians’ entrance passes with flying colors.
The song’s use immediately reestablishes the characteristics of each Guardian. Starlord is putting his heart and soul into a lip-sync performance, Drax is fast asleep, Gamaora is enjoying the tune in a way that makes it clear the concept of “enjoyment” is new to her, and Rocket looks annoyed as hell. All the while, a teenage Groot plays Space Invader. It’s a fun, effective way to prime the Guardians for their first encounter with an Avenger.
07. Led Zeppelin — “Immigrant Song” (Thor: Ragnarok)
For all of its laughs and colorful stylization, Thor is pretty beaten down by the climax of Ragnarok. The god of thunder has seen loved ones die, Mjölnir break, and his sister try to bring on the apocalypse. Soon enough, he’ll also see the complete annihilation of his homeworld, Asgard.
Furthermore, Hela has him by the throat — literally. He’s on the ropes. It’s not until his dad gives him a pep talk from beyond the grave does he regain his strength and awaken his full power. When he does, though, it’s an epic display of lightning, slow-motion, and Led Zeppelin.
Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” triumphantly blasts as Thor descends from the sky in a streak of blue electricity. The heavy-metal guitar riff acts as a quick shot of adrenaline before Thor effortlessly mows through hordes of Hela’s soldiers to Robert Plant’s iconic chant. It’s one of the most blood-pumping moments in the MCU and inspired everyone to collectively think, “Oh wow, I guess Thor is cool now.”
06. Spoon — “The Underdog (Instrumental)” (Spider-Man: Homecoming)
Spider-Man’s arrival to the MCU (thanks, Sony) brought a breath of fresh air. While Marvel films had started to branch out stylistically around the time of Homecoming, many of their heroes were occupying similar molds: The snarky rich guy who had to learn selflessness (Iron Man, Dr. Strange), the powerful fish-out-of-water (Thor, Captain America, Vision), the optimistic, charming goofball (Ant-Man, Starlord). Peter Parker, on the other hand, introduced a world that had yet to be touched by the MCU — high school.
Because of the necessity of this change of pace, from Earth-threatening, intergalactic conflicts to math class and the homecoming dance, it was important for Marvel to perfect the tone. A misplaced, outdated pop song or bland “school-time” scoring might shatter the believability of Tom Holland’s performance as a student, subsequently shattering the core appeal of Spider-Man. This is heightened by the fact that in the first high school scene of Homecoming, the music is presented as diegetic. Peter queues up a song on his iPod as he strolls into school.
With all of this considered, Spoon’s “The Underdog,” in this case stripped of its vocals, was an incredibly sharp move. It’s an established song that won’t feel outdated or too tied to a certain year. It’s recognizable, but not obvious; popular, but with indie-cred. Most importantly, it establishes a jovial, anxious but carefree tone for the rest of the film.
05. Electric Light Orchestra — “Mr. Blue Sky” (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2)
By the time James Gunn’s sequel to Guardians of the Galaxy was due, the series’ use of ‘70s pop and rock tunes was already legendary. Gunn knew the pressure resting on his shoulders to top, or at least match, the beloved soundtrack of the first film. As a result, Gunn revealed in a Periscope livestream that he had carefully chosen every song, specifically writing each into the script of the movie.
The hard work paid off because, by every measure, Gunn did not disappoint. Straight bangers like Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain,” George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord,” Looking Glass’ “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl),” and Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” are not only featured but instrumental to the narrative and thematic development of the film. (“You know, Peter, you and I, we’re the sailor in that song,” Ego says about “Brandy.”)
Of all the chart-toppers and cultural touchstones present on the soundtrack, however, it’s “Mr. Blue Sky” that stands out. The bubbly, vocoder-heavy song plays during the Guardians’ battle against a massive space squid, their first conflict of the film. Baby Groot starts the tune and dances along as the opening credits whiz by and his friends struggle to kill the monster. It’s such a fun time that when Drax lands on the speaker, abruptly ending the music, you want to join Groot in hitting him out of frustration.
04. Beyoncé — “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” (Doctor Strange)
A well-structured joke is a glorious thing. And for all of the (somewhat warranted) flack Marvel receives for being overly quippy, every now and then, a long-form, perfectly placed call-back gag reminds you of just how funny the MCU can be.
On the surface, when Doctor Strange makes fun of Wong for being humorless and unaware of Beyoncé’s legendary status, it’s a light-hearted throwaway line that hints at the different experiences and attitudes of the two characters. It’s par for the course for Marvel and, in particular, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Stephen Strange.
What puts this bit over the top is the punchline. After being denied magical resources in the initial conversation, Strange opens a series of portals to steal the books he was after. How does he get away with it when Wong stands guard? Well, Wong is engrossed in the world of the Beyhive, listening to “Single Ladies” through headphones while Strange sneakily gets what he wants.
03. Blue Suede — “Hooked on a Feeling” (Guardians of the Galaxy)
The ubiquity of the Awesome Mix volumes among Marvel fans is undeniable. Hell, the first volume sold 1.75 million copies and peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, becoming the first soundtrack of previously-released material to do so.
All this to say, we could very well do a list of needle drops specific to Peter Quill and the gang. Considering how instrumental to the character his music taste is, perhaps that’s even in order. For now, however, the song that is the most awesome of all the awesome songs on the first Awesome Mix is Blue Swede’s awesome “Hooked on a Feeling.”
Beyond the smile-inducing fun of the song, how it complements the weird, colorful world James Gunn created and perfectly encapsulates the film’s ironic humor, it acts as the first time the audience understands the importance of Quill’s cassettes. While he boogied to “Come and Get Your Love” in the film’s opening, it’s when Quill is on his knees begging for his Walkman and shouting song facts that the Awesome Mix’s meaning truly shines through.
02. Marvin Gaye — “Trouble Man” (Captain America: The Winter Soldier)
Pop culture has always been a fun aspect to explore through the lens of Steve Rogers. A man half a century removed from his time, his outdated senses and ignorance of cultural touchstones are comedic, telling moments reflective of the character’s adjustment. Watching him go from exclaiming, “I know that reference!” in The Avengers to fully understanding the complexities of modern society is one of the great meta-narratives the MCU has to offer.
His list of things to catch up on is an iconic, essential part of the character. It also allows for others to have character-revealing moments, as the audience gets to learn more about Roger’s colleagues based on what they recommend. Out of everything on his list, though, Marvin Gaye’s 1972 soundtrack for Trouble Man may be the most significant.
Recommended to him by Falcon, who claims that it’s “everything [he] missed jammed into one album,” it finally plays as Rogers wakes up in the hospital following his last encounter with Bucky in The Winter Soldier. Its cool, Motown groove plays over the fallout of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s collapse, and its lyrics hint at Rogers’ need to break the rules in order to “make it.” The song carries such weight that it’s even later referenced in The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, as Bucky, Wilson and Baron Zemo discuss the album’s merits.