A couple of months ago Every Frame a Painting uploaded a vid about the Marvel scores. To be specific, it offered a theory why the Marvel themes are not memorable. I usually feel that the videos on this particularly channel are highly educating and interesting, but this one made me pause. I had a number of issues with the argumentation used. And I wasn’t the only one. This video followed a string of other ones, which examined the issue and the arguments. The end result was exactly the kind of discussion I would love to see more often on the internet, on topic, with a number of well articulated point of views which in turn made me consider some aspects I wouldn’t have thought about otherwise. And I naturally have my own opinion about the matter. But before I get to it, I’ll try to summarize the core points made in the various vids – I nevertheless encourage you to also watch them yourself. The first one, The Marvel Symphonic Universe, was uploaded on the 12.09.2016.
The arguments brought up here are:
- Marvel themes don’t cause an emotional response
- The music is too predictable and doesn’t challenge the expectations of the audience
- The dialogue distracts from the music.
- There is a trend in the industry believing that music in movies shouldn’t be notices.
- Producers encourage composers to imitate the temp music.
The arguments boils down to the Marvel scores being too safe – which is a common complain about different aspects of those movies in general, but let’s stick to the music for now.
Just three days later, on the 15.09.2016, the first rebuttal, A Theory of Film Music was uploaded by Dan Golding.
Golding agrees to the basic idea that the Marvel scores are forgettable, but disagrees partly when it comes to the reasons. This video points out that:
- The Star Wars Theme was actually created based on temp music.
- Temp tracks are not a modern phenomenon, but are as old as film music itself.
- Unoriginality is normal for film music.
and brings up the following points:
- The tracks used nowadays tend to be more recent.
- Hans Zimmer pioneered the use of digital music, which changed the process of creation.
- And lead to a tendency to use rhythms instead of melodies in movies
Dan Golding concludes that Marvel movies have a musical landscape but are different not in melody but through texture.
Just one day later Marvel Movies: The Thematic Continuity Issue added another thought to the discussion.
This video points out that
- the Marvel Cinematic Universe tends to change composers, which often use different scores in the different movies, thus not creating a thematic continuity in the music.
- The Avengers theme, which might be the most memorable of all of them, might have this status because Danny Elfman used Silvestri’s score in Age of Ultron, thus preserving the theme.
It concludes that the points made in the previous video essays are correct, but sees the lack of a thematic continuity within the scores of the MCU as the main reason for the inability of people to remember the scores.
Similar thoughts are voice in Why You (Actually) Don’t Remember Marvel Music, uploaded roughly one month later on the 19.10.2016.
This one is also a response to the first two videos, stating that both of them describe symptoms, but miss the point. In an argument similar but not quite identical to the one above, it points out that:
- The theme music of Pirates of the Caribbean is an example for a very popular and well known score which is both temp music and made by Hans Zimmer (for the record, he was the producer, not the actual composer).
- Star Wars, Harry Potter and Pirates of the Caribbean are all franchises which have been around for way longer than the MCU, and which have used the same theme music not just in all of their respective movies, but also for connected media, theme park rides and above all the general marketing.
This video concludes that the key to a score being remembered is above all repetition, not quality, and adds that the Marvel movies actually have a number of great tunes, pointing to the Thor score and the Avengers theme.
The latter is also in the centre of the last, but perhaps best rebuttal, The Avengers Theme – a video response to “The Marvel Symphonic Universe”, which was uploaded by HelloLillyTV on the 15.11.2016.
HelloLillyTV points to the comment section of the first video essay and how many said that that they, unlike the people in the video, immediately remembered the Avengers theme. This rebuttal argues further that this particular theme neither plays in the background of the movie, nor is it devoid of emotion. Based on the concept of repetition with association, it points out that:
- The theme consists of two distinctive parts.
- It is used multiple times through the movie in very specific key moments.
- It is shown in association which large scale shots, connecting the music with the notion of “greatness” early on.
- And is then played during the most iconic moment of the whole MCU, when the Avengers unite for the first time.
- It is also part of Age of Ultron and therefore part of a thematic continuity
This video then draws attention to the fact that while certain themes are actually used multiple times and very effectively in the MCU, they are next to never used in the marketing. There is even a supplementary video to make this point.
So, where do I stand in this battle of sometimes conflicting and sometimes overlapping arguments? Let’s start with my thoughts concerning the first video.
I am a big admirer of Every Frame a Painting. I especially love the videos in which the staging and the camera work in movies are taken apart, since they really opened my eyes and made me realize what is possible to convey just on a visual level, what a difference something as simply as a movement in the background can make. Those videos made me more critical towards modern movie creation, including some issues with the MCU I didn’t notice beforehand. But this particular video essay is, in my honest opinion, one of the weaker ones, because it is very manipulative and bases the conclusion on the connection of two barely related issues.
From the very beginning this argument stands on very shaky grounds. A collection of random people being asked any question is always a little bit problematic when it comes to formulating a thesis. For starters, the group of people presented is way too small to be in any way representative, and as a viewer I am unable to judge if really every person who was asked actually made it into the video. I am giving Every Frame a Painting the benefit of the doubt here and assume that there wasn’t a person who did remember the theme but was cut out of the video to preserve the intended impression. But even then this is far from a remotely scientific group. In addition, I think it would have been interesting to play the Avengers theme to a number of people to test if they would have recognized it, or confused it with other themes.
Another aspect I noted about the essay are the scenes which were picked to make the argument. Instead of identifying the main themes of the movies and discuss how they are used, most of the scenes discussed are fairly random moments. I have to admit that I think the argumentation here is a little bit odd. Yes, playing a “funny” music for a funny scene is an expected choice, as is the high note for suspense. But that is kind of the point. Film music is to a certain degree codified, meaning we connect a certain kind of music to certain situations or feelings. The last rebuttal I linked, the one by HelloLillyTV, even gives a great example for this when it points out that the trailer for Age of Ultron feels more like the advertising for a horror movie. And this impression is nearly entirely based on the music alone. Age of Ultron does have a number of moments which are reminiscent of horror movies sprinkled through the more jokey and action-packed scenes, but none of the more obvious ones made it into the trailer.
There is one “main score” which is briefly touched upon in the video essay by Every Frame a Painting, and that is Silvestri’s Triumphant Return. The complain here is that the useless narration hides the movie, followed by a demonstration how the scene would work without it. And yes, it works beautifully, thus proving that the score elevates the scene in question considerably. But the narration is actually not useless at all, it is needed to bring the whole audience on the same page. Let’s pretend that someone in the audience hasn’t seen The First Avenger, or doesn’t remember the movie all that well and is also not particularly informed about the comic book lore. Without the narration he would be able to gather that Steve is remembering his past in the military, but he had no idea what Bucky actually means to Steve. So when Bucky looses his mask later in the movie, said audience member would not gasp in surprise, he would ask “Who?”, confused about Steve’s strange reaction. But independent from the question if the narration is needed in this particular scene or not, the same score is used earlier in the movie, during the jogging scene, with no narration at all (unless you count “on your left”).
My point is that the MCU is too large to make a sweeping statement about it based on a few randomly picked scenes. You would at the very least need to look at the way one movie as a whole is scored, or how a specific score is used in different movies within the MCU to make at least some sort of judgement about it – and yes, that is my roundabout way of saying that I really like the argumentation of HelloLillyTV, which does the former with The Avengers and then the latter with the main theme of the respective movie. But more about that one later. Let’s examine first the statement that the Marvel scores don’t take risks, as well as the more general claims concerning the current trends in film music.
For starters, I don’t think that any of those trends are actually that current. As Dan Golding rightly points out, using temp music has been common since the very beginning of film making. What also has been around since the start is the need to find a balance between the different elements of a scene. Meaning, what the audience is supposed to notice in any given scene is not necessarily the music. Unless you watch a musical or something along the line of Fantasia, the most important element of a movie is usually the plot, and the music is, along with the visuals and the dialogue, only there to serve the story. Consequently it shouldn’t be the main feature in any given scene unless the director wants it to be.
Thus said, if music is used, it should enhance the scene in question. If you just can take out the music, like Every Frame a Painting did in the Ironman scene, and it doesn’t really make difference, than it might have been better to not use a score in the first place, since the focus should be on the dialogue anyway. The example from the Thor movie on the other hand is simply a matter of taste. Yes, you could have used a more attention seeking score to replace the more conventional one, but I actually wouldn’t have, because I feel that something too grand for the setting would have overwhelmed the scene. This feeling might, btw., be related to the fact that the score Every Frame a Painting added instead is, just like the Avengers theme, used for big fighting scenes and large spaces through the movie. So, yes, I am sure if I go through the whole MCU I will find a number of music choices which do nothing to enhance the scene, as well as a few I would personally disagree with. But I’ll skip the rant about the lack of Heavy Metal in Ironman 3 for now, and focus on the idea that the music choices in the MCU are too generic.
I mentioned before that Every Frame a Painting mixes two different issues. One is the question if the MCU has a theme people can hum on the spot, the other is the question if the themes of the MCU are particularly memorable. Those two questions aren’t necessarily related to each other, though, since a score doesn’t have to be hummable in order to be memorable. If someone would ask me what soundtrack I consider particularly remarkable, one of the ones I would point to is this one:
But I wouldn’t be able to hum this one if my life depended on it. And, to address the notion in Dan Golding’s response that the use of digital music is the reason why certain themes aren’t remembered that well, the theme doesn’t become more hummable if it is played by a full orchestra either.
What it nevertheless is, though, is unusual, remarkable and perfect in every way for the movie it which it is used.
This in mind, I am inclined to dismiss Dan Golding’s complain about the Hans Zimmer style of scoring movies. Yes, using rhythms instead of melodies is a bit of a trend in Hollywood, a trend which was born out of an unusual choice which then became mainstream. I am currently (mostly) sick of it, too, but I don’t think that either approach to movie scoring is in any way superior. And the MCU itself is a great example for it. Or, to be specific, the Captain America Franchise.
This piece is easily my favourite score in the whole MCU. It is a very compelling – and melodious – tune, and it is used to perfectly in The First Avenger. The moment I hear it I have immediately a bunch of associations, most of which originate from the scene above: Steve Rogers, practically back from the dead, having managed the impossible, finally accepted by his peers and superiors alike, the hero of the day. This is truly a triumphant return and it is no accident that this piece is used very briefly in The Avengers when Cap turns up in full costume, back in Germany and again standing up to yet another tyrant in yet another triumphant return. It is also no accident that it turns up again at the very beginning of The Winter Soldier.
Nothing about this scene is accidental, but especially not the way the theme rouses in connection with buildings and monuments which do stand for the American Ideal more than even the Lady Liberty. And Cap fits perfectly into this picture as yet another symbol of said ideals, but also of a time long gone by. It is a poignant choice that the theme plays again in the museum, in connection with a view on the past, which focusses more on the heroics of Captain America than the experiences of Steve Rogers. It is also quite deliberate, that the actual main theme of the movie is this one:
Take a Stand is more or less everything what Triumphant Return isn’t. It’s not a rousing, slowly swelling melody, but a fast staccato of rhythm building up to climax, which sounds as if someone just hit the table with his fist to make everyone present listen to him. And I love it. It is perfect for this movie exactly because it is so different. The contrast between the sepia-tinted world of pure heroism seen through a lens of nostalgia to our way more complicated, hectic and cynic reality is reflected in the way those two score pieces are used in the movie.
Which brings me to the idea that the MCU has an issue with thematic continuity in its scores. Well, this is kind of correct if one looks at the MCU as a whole, especially within the Ironman franchise, in which not only every movie has a different composer, but the third one doesn’t even fit remotely into what came beforehand. With the two Thor movies, it is kind of a shame that those soundtracks are different, but at least they are tonally in the same ballpark. Ironman 3 just switches to a different tone, bit without the narrative connection which make the change in The Winter Soldier so brilliant.
I admit, I would love it if each Superhero in the MCU had his or her own theme. The Captain America franchise does this to a certain degree. Aside from Triumphant Return and Take a Stand, the Winter Soldier theme is another one which sticks out, and carries over from The Winter Soldier to Civil War. But what Civil War lacks in my opinion is a clear theme for Ironman, which can play in contrast to Cap’s theme. But that is not the fault of Henry Jackman, he couldn’t use a theme like this because there was never one established for Ironman beforehand.
On the other hand, though, a rule like this might limit the composers too much. There are narrative but also stylistic reasons why Henry Jackman switched from Triumphant Return to Take a Stand. This choice doesn’t just reflect the change in the character, but is also a way better fit for a movie, which is not a wartime adventure put a political thriller. It would have been difficult to have the more patriotic tunes of The First Avengers present through the whole movie without undermining its themes. For similar reasons Jackman went for a less rhythmic and instead more epic score for Civil War, to reflect the tragic aspect of a larger than life conflict.
And no, it is not at all hypocritical of me to complain about the musical changes made for Ironman 3, while praising the ones in The Winter Soldier. I truly dislike the soundtrack for Ironman 3, and not because I think that the music chosen or the scores are in any way bad, but because I consider them a change which is not carried by the narrative. I feel that it is jarring.
At the end of the day, I don’t think that there is a thumb rule for the right way to score a whole universe. While a consistent musical line has a lot of merit, the decision what works and what doesn’t has to be made on a movie to movie base to a certain degree. Thus said, I am very pleased that Silvestri will score Infinity War, since switching composers isn’t exactly helpful in keeping a consistent tone.
But consistency or not, I don’t think that the use of specific themes within the movies is the deciding factor for it become ubiquitous. I agree with HelloLillyTV that marketing and advertising has a way bigger influence on which music pieces we connect to which movies – to a certain degree. While everything which is said in the video is correct, there simply are scores and songs which click with the audience better than others.
See, the trick with playing the score from Gladiator, which one of the videos used? Didn’t work on me. It didn’t work even though I have never even watched Gladiator, nor did I pay any attention to the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise after movies two and three were such a giant let-down. I still like the first one and consider it the best pirate movie ever made, but overall, there wasn’t a lot of marketing which could push me into remembering that particular score more than other scores I listened to in the last years. I nevertheless noticed immediately that the score which was played to me was not quite the theme from Pirates of the Caribbean, because I love that score. I have loved it from the moment I first listened to it. It was an instant ear worm for me. You could play other music pieces a hundred times to me or connect them to a very emotional moment, and they wouldn’t stick with me that way.
Another score I love even though it is not part of a particularly popular or successful franchise, but was used in exactly one critically not particularly respected movie is the one from The Man in the Iron Mask. And I am obviously not the only one who felt that way about this melody considering that Yagudin used this this score for the ice dancing performance which won him the Gold medal. A lot of people love this score and might even be able to hum it.
I don’t think that it is really possible to explain completely why some melodies connect with the majority of people while others doesn’t. The marketing is certainly not the only aspect one has to consider. For example there are a number of animated TV shows with themes which are repeated again and again and due to the repetition, people watching those shows will most likely at least recognize them. But I just need to do this:
and a number of my readers will have this damned song stuck in their head yet again (and no, I am not sorry, I spend the last week trying to get the title song of Moana out of my head and I am really in the mood to share some of my suffering. Just be glad that I didn’t mention It’s a small world…ooops). There is really no obvious reasons why this particularly theme song has such an effect. It is not like Duck Tales had a longer run than other TV shows, or that the opening is particularly well animated. Some unique word combinations in the text certainly helped to create trigger words for the theme song, but otherwise, there simply is something about the tune which makes it memorable.
All this said, the marketing is certainly the best explanation why people don’t connect the MCU immediately with a particular theme. But it is also an observation which doesn’t really address the quality of the actual MCU soundtracks (though all videos which went for the repetition argument as explanation did praise specific scores in the MCU). Let’s disconnect the whole argument from the question why the MCU scores aren’t hummed on cue, and go back to the question if the MCU soundtracks are generic or not.
There is an underlying complain in those first two videos essays which does have some merit: That there might be a systemic problem with the way movies are scored. But I don’t think that the points brought up in those videos are new at all. As Golding rightly points out, temp music has always been used. Likewise, there have also been trends in film music. In any given time period it is possible to point to a number of movies which followed a specific trend, and to a number of movies which ignored said trend or set a new one. The main reason why film music is codified in the first place, why we associate certain tunes with certain emotions, is because we connect said tunes to certain kind of scenarios. And this connection is older than movies themselves, you’ll find the same kind musical cues in the opera or the ballet.
It is true, though, that digital music has changed the way movies are scored. But again – is that really a bad thing? Since the scores now can be changed more easily, the composers can bring in their ideas way earlier, instead of having to score the movie after it already has been finished. Every approach has, at the end of the day, its upside and downside.
But there is one thing one always has to consider when it comes to film music: Every movie is a collaborative effort. A musician who works on his next hit single or creates something for the stage has, at least theoretically, all the freedom in the world to realize whatever idea occurs to him. A musician who works for the movie industry is limited from the get go by the movie he is working for and might get limited even further when directors already have been influenced by temp music, want music in the background and not in the forefront, or aren’t really open to any new ideas from the get go, because they want to follow a trend instead of doing something experimental.
But those are all aspects and concerns for the movie industry in general, not just for the MCU. So, how much freedom do the composers in the MCU actually have? The fact that music themes often don’t carry over to the next movie actually points in the direction that they have a lot creative freedom. Seen as a whole, the MCU offers a rich collection of very different music pieces. Just listen to this collection (once you have an hour of free time):
Naturally not every soundtrack is necessarily on the same level, but overall, there is a lot of quality in the MCU. In addition, if there is a recently released movie which really shines when it comes to the use of music, it is Guardians of the Galaxy.
The most obvious counterargument to this statement is that Guardians of the Galaxy sticks out, because it uses songs which already were popular, and nobody remembers the score. Well, first of all, a lot of movies use already established songs and music pieces, but that doesn’t automatically make it a good use of said songs. In fact, using even good scores and songs can end up annoying and distracting for the audience, if they are used too on the nose (*cough* Suicide Squad *cough*). The songs in Guardians of the Galaxy work so well not because they were already popular beforehand, but because they have an important function in the story. They provide an emotional connection to the protagonist, serve as a constant reminder of his traumatic past, while simultaneously spreading a sense of fun and a little bit of nostalgia – meaning they deliberately trigger a sad memory and a happy emotion. But they are also only one half of the soundtrack and only take centre stage whenever there is a narrative opportunity to play a song in-universe. Otherwise the movie does rely on a score, which, yes, gets overshadowed, just like most of the songs which are used in the movie ore overshadowed by Hooked on a Feeling, which was used in the marketing. But it is nevertheless a score which takes the centre stage in the scenes more than ones. For example here:
And naturally here:
And let’s not forget this scene:
Did you notice how the movie switches from the song, which is played in-universe, to the score? I could write a whole essay about the way Guardians of the Galaxy is scored and take apart every single scene just to point out how much the music enhances the experience and often adds a second layer to a moment.
To summon up my thoughts:
- I don’t agree that there is necessarily a problem with the MCU scores in general, or that Marvel limits the creativity of their composers too much.
- I do think that more coherence and some sort of symphonic connection in the MCU movies (not the TV shows) would be a neat idea, especially if it leads to each hero having a specific theme. But I don’t think that it is absolutely necessary, it is just a personal preference.
- I nevertheless prefer it if Marvel sticks to the same composer within a franchise as much as possible, unless there are good reasons for a change.
- Using the scores, especially the Avengers theme more often in the marketing is a good idea, but this is an aspect which would improve the marketing of the MCU as a whole, not the quality of the movies themselves.
At the end of the day, the movies in the MCU are like every other movie: They do some things right, and some things which don’t quite work. Some of the scores are remarkable, some are forgettable and generic. Sometimes a scene is scored perfectly, and sometimes you wonder what exactly the composer was thinking or why there even is a score at all. If you ask me, the movies which have the best scores are The First Avenger, The Avengers, The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy. The one movie which has a score which annoys me is Ironman 3 (and again, more in relation to the previous scores, on its own it is perfectly fine). Btw, the TV show with the best title sequence is in my opinion Jessica Jones, even though I don’t even like the melody (if you can call it melody) used, but it is one which really sticks out. Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. deserves a lot of love for its scores, too (and a lot of hate for having the most annoyingly to write title), one which especially stuck out to me was the tune used in the Parting Shot scene (fans of the show will know immediately what I am talking about). And then there is naturally the exceptionally use of songs in Luke Cage.
I for my part look forward to what the MCU will deliver in the future, weather people are able to hum the Avengers theme or not.
Puh, I never thought that this would end up being such a beast of an article. But then, this seems to happen to me quite often when it comes to this particular blog. Anyway, I hope a few of you made it to the end. Feel free to share your own thoughts about this topic, I would be quite happy to continue the discussion or little bit. Or list your own favourite scores and/or soundtracks in the MCU.