Sometimes I just have to talk about music. It’s my love, it’s my passion, But unlike my other series of blogs that I do here, I feel like if I go too far in-depth, I’ll just lose people’s interests. It’s hard to say. It’s just so subjective. As with anything, I don’t want to bore you good people to tears, so you can tell me if you want more or not. So I may not do this one nearly as often, even though I could probably blog up a bluestreak about 1,000+ years worth of music. Regardless…
It’s specifically the film scores for the Marvel Cinematic Universe that spurred this one. I mentioned previously, we’ve recently learned that Alan Silvestri has been officially announced as the composer for Avengers: Infinity War, Parts 1 and 2. For a composer to be announced so early in the game is rare. In the past, I’ve only ever seen that done with Star Wars or Indiana Jones, wherein it’s the presumptive conclusion that John Williams will helm, as has been announced with Episode VIII and Indy 5. Typically a composer is one of the last people chosen to work on a film, and theirs is among the last contributions to the finished work.
Also typically, but not always, directors and composers form collaborative teams over time, as with Steven Spielberg and John Williams or Tim Burton and Danny Elfman. With the Russo brothers helming Infinity War, I’d have laid money on Henry Jackman for the musical duties given their collaboration in the past on Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War.
Bringing in Silvestri leads to all manner of conjecture. One possibility is that Henry Jackman has decided he’s done scoring superhero films. It is possible to achieve burnout or to want other kinds of projects, so that’s not beyond the realm of possibility. Another thought, and I think this more likely, is that Marvel has decided the music needs a more cohesive feel to help bind their universe together. The different composers they’ve used have all put their imprints on the MCU’s musical soundscape, but there’s been very little in the way of cohesion. This could be a potentially bigger concern caused by the lack of soundtrack sales spurred on by lack of name recognition or lack of theme recognition. Let’s take these points one at a time.
Warner Brothers Animation has always had a first class methodology for scoring their projects, going all the way back to the days of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies. Moving into their modern catalog, you might remember Batman: The Animated Series. Composer Shirley Walker created a variation on the main theme composed by Danny Elfman for Tim Burton’s Batman projects. Walker was the main composer on the series, but not the only one. There were a number of composers that went on after Walker’s passing to score Superman, Batman Beyond, Justice League, and Justice League Unlimted, and they continue to this day to rotate the roster for their animated feature releases. Because these composers have worked together, they each have their own distinctive styles, but they play off one another really well, offering a diverse but consistent palette of sound. This, I think, is something Marvel should have been considering for the MCU right out of the gate. When they signed their lead actors for X number of films, they should have been collaborating with composers as well. It wasn’t until Phase Two that any consistency began to happen, thanks to hiring Brian Tyler. Good idea, but too late in the execution after Phase One was already out in the wild.
The other point is that while many of the scores for the MCU’s various entries have been solid, most of them have been unmemorable at best to the minds of the average movie goer. Film score composition has evolved, just as every other genre of music has done. Most of it is atonal, minimal, and somewhat generic. Part of this I can blame on the path of classical music, part of this can be blamed for computer synths needing dumbed down music to register for samples and demos, and part of this can be blamed on Hans Zimmer, who came to prominence as young would-be composers were learning their craft at the same time the computer became the tool of choice. It was a perfect storm of mediocrity. They basically copied Zimmer’s style, which has degenerated considerably over the course of decades, and transposed it into the computer. The result is uninspired because any score can go over nearly any genre of film anymore. What themes stand out from the MCU to date? I can’t speak for everyone, but most seem to echo my own sentiments that the truly recognizable themes are Captain America’s theme, the Avengers theme, and the helicarrier theme, all composed by Alan Silvestri. Most people may not be able to tell you what those themes are, but they’ll know them if they hear them.
Compare that with, say, the Star Wars film scores. Many people can readily identify which themes accompany which characters and ideas. Why? Part of it is because John Williams established the leitmotifs early on with rather catchy tunes. Repetition did the rest, and let’s face it, most of us have watched these films 500 times. Consider, how many times do you hear “The Imperial March” or the Force theme played in those films? Silvestri’s themes are in much the same spirit as this, calling on specific ideas and characters that reinforce what you’re seeing on screen. If you listen carefully, you can hear Silvestri’s theme practically say “Captain America” in musical notation, just as John Williams did with Superman back in ’78. Many of the MCU’s other composers aren’t doing any of this, at least not at the conscious level. I have the feeling somebody at Marvel figured it out. It’s not to say that there isn’t some style to be had in each of the soundtracks. It’s just that it all got lost. That just won’t do.
Consider, have you ever watched a movie without the musical soundtrack? It makes a world of difference, more than you might know was possible. There are some films where the lack of a soundtrack is a key component to ratchet up a different experience. There are some DVD and Blu-ray releases where the opposite is true, where you can set the movie to play with only the film score and none of the dialogue or sound effects. Again, I’ll reference the ’78 Superman for that as a prime example.
I have high hopes for Silvestri’s work on Infinity War. I’ve been a fan of his since I first became aware of his name on Back to the Future. Even his lesser scores have been far and away better than most of what the MCU has put forward. That’s unfortunate since there are some talented composers working at Marvel right now. They’re just not being harnessed and directed correctly.
We’ll see what the future holds, but right now, the ideas are free-flowing. More down the line as things develop, if anyone’s interested.