I have been a huge fan of the recent Marvel series of movies. They've in fact been the films I most anticipate on any given year. Yet they have all been continuously proving a massive disappointment (nearly) every time, and that is in their music.
The biggest strength of the Marvel saga is that each entry builds on or uses a unified continuity just like the comic books from which they originate. However in a move that almost implies the designers of this movie universe only know how to write comic books, the music of this universe is anything but unified. Yet in film, and especially a franchise, music is such a huge part of the identity and story telling of the project. I'm really left confused as to how this was overlooked in the creation of this saga.
When we look at other successful franchises some of the most memorable as much so because of their music as their direction, acting, and/or plot. Think of series like Lord of the Rings, Back to the Future, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and the Matrix. I bet you when you really reflect on how you picture these particular films part of that is in musical form. Compared to other franchises that were strong in all but music I bet the aforementioned ones strike you as more unified series, even if they contain as many or more weak entries.
Whether it is fair or not, having a good and unified musical identity throughout films of a series can elevate it from a good franchise to a great franchise.
This is why I am very disappointed by the Marvel saga. With such a unique setup of a film a year, and otherwise coordinated creative efforts, why couldn't a dedicated film composer have been brought into really unify the saga's music scape? I think of the Lord of the Rings in particular as a counter analogue for this. Sure it only had three films (at moment), but Middle Earth has arguably the most dense and rich musical identity of anything put to film (and the preview music in the Hobbit trailer really hints that this is going to be built on). With even a fraction of this effort by a competent composer just imagine what the Marvel movies themes could have been...
Right now I'd be impressed if you could hum me a single Marvel hero's theme. None of the themes for this new generation have any staying power (apart from maybe Captain America). This is a total shame. Batman and Superman both benefit from very strong and memorable themes (by Danny Elfman and John Williams) that they can't shake to this day decades after they were written. The Marvel films overall can't even remotely compete with these, that alone on underscore (mind you I wouldn't claim either Batman or Superman had amazing underscores, but their themes are definitely classics in movie scoring) (okay and Hulk is very impressive on underscore).
There is a single glimmer of hope for the Marvel franchise in just over a week or so. After five films with five different composers, we are finally going to see a repeat performance by one in the form of Alan Silvestri on the sixth entry Avengers. In my opinion Silvestri definitely delivered the best of the Marvel scores, and if he can keep that quality up for Avengers we might have the start of a descent musical direction for the later saga. Sure it is late, but better than not at all. They also need to keep him on for all the future films. Which I'm not sure we're going to get...
Still a score enthusiast can dream...
A quick review of the Marvel saga soundtracks:
Iron Man by Ramin Djawadi
The most miserable intro to the saga's score legacy. This score by Hans Zimmer knockoff/clone Djawadi (okay in his defense he was mentored by Zimmer) we get a very simple and unimpressive score for a very complicated sci-fi hero.
Part of the blame should goto director Jon Favreau, who according to the sources I've read, asked for a score playable entirely on electric guitar with minimal accenting by other instruments. Okay on paper this sounds "cool", but when you really think about it this is music that a kid could play simply by picking up a guitar. It is not impressive or grand enough to capture in scope the story of a film, that alone a great one like Iron Man.
The only part even worth mentioning is the sequence where Stark builds the first armour in the cave. Though it's really not worth the whole album to listen to.
The Incredible Hulk by Craig Armstrong
From what I understand this movie's score owes a lot to the 1980's Hulk TV show, but I didn't really grow up with tit so that appeal is lost on me.
I would say this score is the most psychological of the Marvel saga, and very impressively captures the deeper parts of Dr. Banner and his struggle with the Hulk. The underscore to this film is very strong, and definitely tells and amplifies the story.
However the lack of a proper or powerful theme for the titular character in my opinion brings this one toppling down. While I appreciate the effectiveness of the underscore, giving the Hulk a "theme" of looping swelling strings with brass accents was not really what the character needed. If that looping had built into a powerful (dare I say anger?) defined theme this would be right up there with Captain America.
In fact that is my final word, had this type of underscoring been combined with Captain America style themes and fanfare I think we could have had the greatest superhero score ever made. Sadly without the theme Hulk's score doesn't come across as a superhero album. Which just makes me anger...
Iron Man 2 by John Debney
I suspect either Jon Favreau and/or the studio were underwhelmed by the score for Iron Man 1 in hindsight, and so Favreau brought in his usual composer John Debney. Debney is a veteran at entering musically failing franchises and trying to breath some life into them.
For Iron Man 2 he succeeds and delivers a very listenable score. There are moments of brilliance, but sadly they just don't unify. The villain gets a powerful theme at the opening of the film which is never again visited for any real effect. The music for any individual scene is functional, but compared to that of the whole none of it fits together.
Of particular disappointment the moments with Nick Fury, S.H.I.E.L.D., and the first real mentions of the Avengers we get no particular theme. Not even a hint of something later films or composers could pick up and flesh out in later films. This was a real opportunity for Favreau, Debney, and the Marvel Studio in general and they botched it completely. Fury's music has no more urgency or punch than any of the other underscore. Also at the end of the credits where we get a glimpse of Thor's hammer, nothing resembling a Thor theme can be heard... Come on Marvel! These are when you plant the music identity for future films, and really unify your musical scape!
The action music in Iron Man 2 is the highlight, and while not entirely original, it is very functional and exciting. Especially the sequence of Iron Man fighting the Drones you get one of the single track highlights of the Marvel franchise. Sadly the rest of the score doesn't match it, but it is definitely worth tracking down this piece of music.
A bitter sweet outcome of Iron Man 2's music is that finally at the END of two films Iron Man gets a strong complex theme like he deserves. Painfully this was only used in the end credits, and is only alluded to in the Drone and end battle. Still it is there, and hopefully it can be built on and carried on in Avengers and beyond...
Thor by Patrick Doyle
In a single word this score is soothing, and that is not good when you're a movie about the kickass God of Thunder! Some score critics adored the intelligence Doyle injected into what was structurally a Zimmer knockoff score (probably by request of the studio). While I can agree Doyle did a good job making the music stand above a typical modern Zimmer score, that came at the cost of excitement.
There is just something about this music that takes the suspense and excitement out of pieces that are trying to invoke these qualities. I think part of it is Thor's theme. Yes he has one, but there is nothing Viking about it, and worse it feels sentimental. Instead of conjuring a berserker warrior, I hear an apathetic Cop with this music.
This (out of place if you ask me) melancholy feeling of the theme taints the whole score, and again makes the whole thing soothed or relaxed in feel. The action is never urgent, and the triumph is always subdued. Perhaps the most illustrative point in the film for this is when Thor defeats the Destroyer. The music on its own is as exciting as a guy finally finishing the income taxes to save the family farm. It doesn't capture a dude flying through the air destroying an unstoppable robot!
My favourite score (and sequence from the film) of Thor breaking into the Hammer complex is fun, but it too has just enough of the sharpness taken off by sentimentality that it isn't all it could be.
So to me this is a good score, but it just isn't Thor's. I guess the problem is I have a real fondness for Viking based movie scores (13th Warrior and How to Train Your Dragon), and I expect Thor to have a sound like this. Furthermore while they didn't have to capture that exact Viking sound, no where in the initial character of Thor do you get the sense of loss or grief his theme conjures throughout this film. Sure at the end when he's lost his girlfriend across the universe, but this should have been a sad variant on his theme. Not the basis of it...
Captain America The First Avenger by Alan Silvestri
From veteran composer Silvestri we get the strongest (but still not perfect) score from the Marvel saga. Captain America has a fairly defined, appropriate, and memorable theme and the underscore makes full use of it throughout.
It is in the style of classic early 2000's era Silvestri, and follows the same formula as his other action classics Mummy 2 and Van Helsing. This does make the score a little predictable, but it is highly functional. Not to mention very fun to listen to!
Captain America's weakness is its underscore. Yes its underscore defiantly works, it doesn't have the complexity or depth of Hulk's. Had we got a score that combined a theme with the bang of Caps with an underscore as intelligent as Hulk's we probably would have had a genre changing score. At moment Captain America is Silvestri's Superman march, and I mean this in more than metaphor. Structurally Captain America is based on the same march formula employed by John Williams (though not invented by Williams... as everyone keeps trying to claim), and thus you have to say Captain America has to take second place (even if I feel its middle section knocks Superman's middle out of orbit).
I am curious to see in Silvestri's Avengers effort if he can carry on the strong theme for Captain America while creating equally strong (or adapting the old) themes for all the other characters, AND come up with an Avengers theme that mixes and communicates the team's component characters.
Needless to say up until this point the Marvel movies' scores are all over the map. One is truly terrible, two don't quite live up to or match their characters, one is nearly perfect minus a strong theme, and one has a great theme but doesn't quite transcend functional underscore.
I'm hoping Avengers at least starts to try and unify the franchises sound. After this I would love to see Silvestri made the permanent Marvel composer, but there is no guarantee of this afterwards anyways.