Music In Review: On the Schizophrenic Musical Nature of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

i love film music.  i pretty much always have.  Ever since i first started humming the epic music of John Williams’ Star Wars and Indiana Jones scores to myself as a child of less than 5 years old, film music has been my thing.  It was a key early stage in the development of my own separate identity from my parents, who strongly pushed me toward classical and jazz music (genres which i also absolutely adore).  They’ve never really completely understood my fascination with film scores, but it was a relatively benign direction for me to go in, especially early on in my life, because it was still mostly orchestral in nature.  The first CDs i ever owned myself were a collection of themes from Star Trek movies and the soundtrack from Jurassic Park.  Soon, though, those early beginnings would become a massive collection, spanning nearly 100 years of film and television and well over 100 albums.

i am also a huge comic book nerd, and when it comes to the two main comic book publishers, i bat for both teams.  i enjoy both Marvel and DC Comics for different, and often complimentary, reasons.  That being said, i have been following the developing Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) very closely (and am really looking forward to the coming DC efforts to bring the Justice League to the big screen), especially when it comes to the music being composed for the films.  What i have encountered musically has been both pleasing and somewhat disconcerting–pleasing in that i genuinely enjoy all of the scores for the films that have been released thus far, but disconcerting because, for the most part, they lack a certain sense of unity.

Part of the reason that the music for film series like Star Wars and Indiana Jones is so strong is that there was a single composer involved for all of the movies (in this case John Williams for both examples).  This allows for a unity of musical style that can be drawn upon, as well as thematic material that can be re-used across the entire franchise.  By contrast, a series like the Harry Potter films starts with a lot of these unified features.  The first three films were handled by one composer (again, John Williams), and insofar as style and thematic material, the unity is present and definitely felt.  However, the fourth through eighth films were handled by three different composers, and the musical style changes from one to the next; moreover, the thematic material established by Williams in the first three films is sidelined, only making very occasional reappearances.  This causes the entire series to suffer somewhat from a sort of lack of musical identity in my opinion.  This unfortunately is also the case with the MCU, to one degree or another.  While it’s true that each of the individual heroes has their own identity and each solo film has a totally different mood to it, almost to the point of feeling like different genres, and having different composers handling their solo films is somewhat appropriate in this regard, the fact is that a single composer for the entire series would be able to establish thematic material for all the characters, and then do some really cool work with counterpoint and interweaving of themes when they come together in the ensemble films.  What we are left with instead is a somewhat schizoid collection of very different sounds with few cross-film touchstones to take advantage of.

That being said, they are all good scores, and i enjoy listening to them all.  i just sometimes wish for a bit more stylistic unity.  Let’s take a look at each of the scores that have been composed thus far, as well as the films that have yet to be released…

Phase 1

Phase 1 of the MCU includes the films from Iron Man to The Avengers.  Phase 1 served primarily to introduce audiences to each of the main headliners in The Avengers by showing us what they could do on their own.  It also introduced, in the stinger after the credits of Iron Man, the idea that this would all culminate in the Avengers assembling for the first time to face a massive threat (which they obviously did in The Avengers).

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Iron Man (2008): Music composed by Ramin Djawadi.  The film that started it all, Iron Man is considered by many to be among the greatest superhero movies of all time.  It is probably my favorite of the Phase 1 films aside from The Avengers itself.  The score, on the other hand, is probably my least favorite of the entire MCU so far.  This is merely a matter of stylistic preference on my part; the score itself is extremely appropriate for the Tony Stark/Iron Man character, especially early in his career, featuring driving rock-influenced guitars and electronic elements that sometimes overpower the orchestral elements of the score.  There isn’t a whole lot of thematic material to be found in this score–Iron Man’s “theme” is little more than a repeated five note motif that crops up whenever something heroic is happening.  As such, it doesn’t really stick with you for very long after you turn it off, but it does make for some pretty damned good driving music…

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The Incredible Hulk (2008): Music composed by Craig Armstrong.  On the other hand from Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk is probably the least popular of MCU Phase 1 (and if i were forced to pick a least favorite film so far, this one would probably be it… which is not to say that i don’t like it).  However, i feel like Armstrong’s score to this film is kind of the unsung hero of Phase 1.  The musical style is perfectly matched, both to the feel of the film and the character itself.  It’s a dark and broodingly atmospheric score.  It’s still a little light on thematic material for my particular taste, but the recurring octave motif in the bass instruments sets the mood so perfectly, and, truth be told, the Hulk doesn’t necessarily need his own theme.  After all, how do you encapsulate such a force of nature within a theme song?  This is a good soundtrack to write to, especially if i’m dealing with dark or supernatural subject matter.

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Iron Man 2 (2010): Music composed by John Debney.  The second sol0 movie for this character and the second composer to handle his music.  Personally, even though the first movie is better than the second, i think Debney’s score is an improvement over Djawadi’s work for the first one.  For one thing, he finally composes a theme for the character.  The rock-inspired and electronic elements are still present here, but they are more balanced with the orchestral and thematic material.  It’s still not quite the Iron Man soundtrack the world has been waiting for.  The character theme is a little too generic heroic to quite fit Stark’s offbeat attitude, and to be frank the rest of the score suffers from a similar sort of generic action feel, but there are some really standout compositions to be found within.  Whiplash’s villain theme is excellent, and the scoring for the Monaco action setpiece is a particular standout from the album.  Also, the Stark Expo theme is a total earworm that you will catch yourself humming all day once you’ve listened to it.

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Thor (2011): Music composed by Patrick Doyle.  Why doesn’t Patrick Doyle get more attention?  He certainly deserves more than he’s gotten.  The man has been composing film scores for about 25 years now, and he does really excellent work.  He is among my favorite lesser-known film composers.  As such, his score for Thor does not disappoint.  With heroic brass melodies played over contrapuntal string ostinatos, he creates a feeling that is akin to epic fantasy, especially for the Asgard sequences, but he also maintains the emotional center of the film with the music accompanying Thor’s banishment from Asgard, as well as the quieter scenes in the film in general.  With the exception of The Avengers, which i almost to consider to be in a class of its own, this is probably my favorite score from Phase 1.

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Captain America: The First Avenger (2011): Music composed by Alan Silvestri.  Finally!  A character who gets an actual, honest-to-goodness theme!  By far the most widely-known composer to have done anything for the MCU, Silvestri’s score for Captain America is yet another perfectly-matched musical accompaniment to the film’s “World War II war movie” tone.  i’ve been a fan of Silvestri’s work ever since i learned his name (in connection with the Back to the Future trilogy), but some of his more recent action work has felt a little too overblown and over the top for my taste (The Mummy Returns and Van Helsing stand out to me as the most egregious examples).  Luckily, this score is nearly perfect.  Captain America’s theme fits the character’s earnest heroism like a glove, and the darker brass tones that accompany HYDRA often utilize harmonies that sound much like the music that accompanied the old adventure serials of the ’30s and ’40s.  It’s a fun score to listen to, and it sets up groundwork for some of the next film’s score.  Also, “The Star-Spangled Man” is just as catchy and unkillable as the Stark Expo theme from Iron Man 2.

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The Avengers (2012): Music composed by Alan Silvestri.  Finally!  A little bit of stylistic consistency!  Alan Silvestri returns to compose what is without a doubt my favorite score of the entire MCU to date and one of my favorite scores from the entirety of 2012.  As perfectly as the last score fit Captain America, this score for The Avengers fits even better.  His theme for the Avengers themselves is absolute perfection, and he deploys it perfectly throughout the film.  After the first statement of the theme during the title drop at the very beginning of the film, it goes away for most of the movie.  Little hints of it crop up here and there, especially during the attack on the Helicarrier, as the heroes begin working together more and more, but there isn’t another full statement of the theme until an hour and a half later, when they finally come together as The Avengers just before the climactic battle… and then it’s interwoven throughout the action sequences that follow.  It’s a simple and obvious thing to do, but it’s still damned genius.  Also, Silvestri brings in an occasional statement of Captain America’s theme from the previous film to accompany Cap’s shining moments.  It’s probably Silvestri’s finest work to date.  So now that we’ve got a composer who has turned out two great scores for subsequent MCU films, are we finally going to establish a series composer and get some more consistency and interwoven thematic material?  Because that was the one thing i felt was missing from this film.  Cap had his solo theme featured, but none of the other heroes had their own thematic material aside from the team theme.  So Silvestri’s taking over, right?  He’s going to make this all a consistent whole?  …why are you laughing in that evil manner?

Phase 2

Phase 2 of the MCU consists of the films dealing with the aftermath of The Avengers, chronicling what happens with our individual heroes up to and including The Avengers: Age of Ultron.

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Iron Man 3 (2013): Music composed by Brian Tyler.  So… the third composer in three solo ventures for Iron Man.  And it’s not Alan Silvestri either, so so much for that consistency thing i was seeking.  Still, i’ve enjoyed Brian Tyler’s work up until now, so i went into this ready to be impressed… and i was.  Iron Man has a new theme, and this one feels like it fits!  Clanging percussion, a driving rhythmic feel, melody carried in the lower brass… this is the Iron Man theme we’ve all been waiting for for the past five years!  The rest of the score is great, too.  The action cues work, and the quiet moments carry the emotional content of Tony Stark’s battle with PTSD from the events of The Avengers as well.  And then there’s “Can You Dig It,” the music that plays over the end credits, which is the Iron Man theme remixed into a rock feel, complete with Hammond organ and wailing trumpets.  This is, without a doubt, my favorite score from the solo Iron Man films thus far.

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Thor: The Dark World (2013): Music composed by Brian Tyler.  Brian Tyler is back for Thor’s second solo outing.  While i miss Patrick Doyle here, i had to concede within the first few minutes of the film that Tyler’s score is also a very good fit for the character.  None of Doyle’s original thematic material is preserved, but it is replaced with a French horn-driven, chorus-supported, bombastic hero theme that once again feels just as at home in an epic fantasy film as a superhero movie.  As much as i want to stay faithful to my support of Patrick Doyle’s film scoring career, i actually like Brian Tyler’s theme for the character a bit better.  The rest of the score is equally well-constructed, and Tyler even brings in Silvestri’s Captain America theme for a brief moment when Loki assumes the form of Steve Rogers for a few seconds, which seems to bode well for at least a modicum of thematic consistency in the MCU from this point forward.  It’s a really good score, and Brian Tyler even composed a musical cue to accompany the Marvel Studios logo, which i’m wondering will continue to be used in future MCU films, despite the fact that it uses a little bit of his Thor theme from this film.  So Silvestri is gone, at least for the moment, but Brian Tyler has done the music for the first two films of Phase 2.  Does this mean that he will be taking over to set the musical tone for the rest of Phase 2, just as Silvestri did at the very end for Phase 1?

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014): Music composed by Henry Jackman.  Well, so much for that Brian Tyler idea i had last movie.  It’s starting to feel like Marvel Studios is just messing with my head and heart for the fun of it.  i can’t speak to the quality of the music for this one, because it hasn’t come out yet, but of the Phase 2 films that have yet to come out, this one is currently worrying me the most.  It’s not Brian Tyler, and it’s not Alan Silvestri.  So what’s going to happen?  Henry Jackman is one of the better new composers to hit the scene in the past few years.  i particularly enjoyed his work on X-Men: First Class.  But will he keep Alan Silvestri’s theme from the first Captain America film?  Now that it’s been used or referenced in no less than three MCU films, i think it would be a mistake to discard it in favor of something completely new.  i hope Jackman chooses to keep the theme and just do his own arrangement of it to make it his own.  At least give me that much consistency.  Please?

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Guardians of the Galaxy (2014): Music composed by Tyler Bates.  i don’t understand why so many people seem to be discounting this movie months before it’s even released.  Granted the Guardians of the Galaxy aren’t exactly A-List Marvel characters, but as someone who’s actually read the comics, they are a lot of fun in an almost Firefly/Serenity sort of way.  Plus, this film is going to be a major tie-in for the build-up to The Avengers 3, because it’s going to be about the Infinity Gems and Thanos trying to assemble the Infinity Gauntlet and all of that very important stuff happening at the opposite end of the galaxy while the Avengers are going to have their hands full with Ultron.  Tyler Bates should turn out a pretty good score for this film.  i think his style will suit the mood that this one is likely to have, as well as the comparatively strange setting(s) in which it will be taking place.

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The Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015): Composer not yet announced.  And here’s the big question mark of the moment.  Will Alan Silvestri be back?  If not, will we still get that awesome theme from the first film arranged by someone else?  Once again, if one of those two things doesn’t happen, i think it will be a serious artistic mistake on the part of the studio.  i have so many questions about how this score will turn out, and the way this film series has toyed with my expectations and emotions so far, i’m almost afraid to hear the answers…

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