I have this funny ability—play the soundtrack of a film I love, and I can probably tell you exactly what’s happening in the film at the precise point of the music you’re playing. If I’m having trouble remembering a line or exchange in a movie, recalling the soundtrack at that moment always helps me fill it in. I don’t think I’m alone in this. There are lots of soundtrack nerds out there, and there are plenty of people who respond well to the auditory cues that scores provide to visual media.
Which is why there’s a tiny little aspect about the Marvel Cinematic Universe that’s driving me nuts.
The big thing that Marvel sold people on when they started back in 2008 was continuity. It was the idea that all of their films would align into one big tapestry that would eventually collide in Avenger-like majesty. It’s something that they magically managed to pull off, and that’s a large part of the reason why people come back to their well again and again.
To have so many films operating under the same banner, the same story, constancy was key. The actors were signed on for more films than practically any film series preceding it, and choices in the lineup were made based on who was most likely to be a “team player.” Norton was dropped as Bruce Banner seemingly for this very reason, and it’s clear that the vetting process has gotten more rigorous since they began. Chris Evans’ refusal to be pinned down for the same number of films has rumors flying about his replacement, and it’s already been suggested that it is more probable for Bucky or Falcon to take on the Captain America mantle than it is for Marvel to immediately recast Steve Rogers. They want fans to feel comfortable with the familiar faces they’ve gathered.
That’s the name of the game, folks—consistency. So you know what confuses the ever-loving stuffing out of me? How that same consistency wasn’t applied to their soundtracks.
We can pretend this is no big deal, but it’s just not true. Soundtracks are lifeblood. They’re a key component to emotional investment. And, more important to an entity like Marvel and their Disney overlords, soundtracks are branding. If that’s the game you’re in, they’re one of the worst possible areas of a movie empire to neglect.
What exactly do I mean by this? Well, think about some of the best blockbusters Hollywood has ever produced… practically all of them have relevant, highly memorable soundtracks. Smart directors know how essential this is; George Lucas got John Williams to write the Star Wars soundtracks by telling him “I want the best and Beethoven is dead.” He knew that he needed someone with a strong sense of storytelling through music. And Williams has penned plenty of other soundtracks that do the same job—it’s hard to think of Jurassic Park or Jaws or Indiana Jones without their soundtracks. They are a core piece of the narrative.
This is not a hard and fast rule, but it does help if you’re intending to tell one long-arcing story. The Star Trek films do not have a single set of themes, but that’s because the Star Trek films have a more episodic nature. (And putting that aside, the Star Trek television shows have instantly recognizable music cues and themes.) Also, because Star Trek is using characters that come from a different medium, different rules will apply. But anthems are important to building a mythology. And that’s essentially what superheroes are all about; they are a form of modern myth.
When you’re dealing with well-trodden character, this becomes even more essential. Both Batman and Superman have been brought to screen over and over again, and every version of them has a distinct set of music that comes along for the ride. It dictates how that particular read on the character comes off—Adam West’s Batman sounds campy, Michael Keaton’s Batman is epic and exciting, Christian Bale’s has a slow burn and an eerie quiet at times. If you don’t differentiate them, these versions runs the risk of bleeding together. And if the soundtrack isn’t strong enough, you run the risk of losing the character.
I’m not making the argument that every fan will notice this. But some fans do, and it deeply affects how they experience movies. For example: I don’t need to watch E.T. to cry. If I hear the score, I’m instantly bawling. If I don’t enjoy a film’s soundtrack, I automatically like it less. And I’m willing to bet that a larger portion of the audience is swayed by this than they think. It’s part of what makes film a unique form of visual art, the expectation that sound accompanies it, that music will play an integral role.
Some studios understand the value of keeping the music under one umbrella—the initial Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy started with composer Klaus Badelt, but they switched to Hans Zimmer for the next films. This worked out just fine for them, as Zimmer had already worked with Badelt on the Gladiator soundtrack and did a great job contributing new material whilst retaining the original themes of the first film. John Williams didn’t sign on to write the soundtrack for every Harry Potter film, but he contributed an instantly recognizable opening theme. When Williams stepped down from the films, the studio made sure they had rights to that theme, so they could continue using it in every film. It was a string they used to tie the whole series together, even through a constant shift in directing styles and cinematography.
And then we have the Marvel lineup. In which not one of the heroes has displayed a consistent theme or even soundtrack style. We’ve run the gamut of composers, heard a variety of takes and techniques. And the soundtracks have all been good, though some were much better than others. But they do not stand together as a vernacular. And that makes sense when you note that nearly every film has employed a different voice to back it up; the first Iron Man film had a score penned by Ramin Djawadi. The second was by John Debney. The third was by Brian Tyler, who, interestingly, seems to be the only one of the three to develop a central theme for the character himself (complete with the sound of metal-working and the ability to be stylized with different tempos and instrumentation).
Which brings us to another interesting issue—in movies, specific characters, locations, romances, battles (etc.) often have their own themes. Princess Leia, the Batcave, Rick and Evie, fighting zombie pirates, they all have specific themes that can be used to great effect… especially when they’re recalled. But the individual Marvel heroes do not have their own themes, or at least they don’t have ones that are ever reused. (Sure, Cap has one, but that’s a meta one used for the purpose of promoting war bonds, not an actual theme for the character himself.) It’s a shame because the reintroduction of themes usually provoke stronger emotional reactions and ties. We see this within the structure of single films all the time; the main title track also used when Charles Xavier’s team of teens are learning to use their mutant powers in X-Men: First Class is brought back and clarified when Erik Lehnsherr lifts Sebastian Shaw’s submarine from the water in an incredible show of focus and strength. Using this technique across more than one film adds more depth; hearing the theme for the Shire in the Lord of the Rings trilogy whenever the hobbits thinks of their home is a devastating move. It reminds the audience of what they’ve left behind, what they stand to lose.
So it’s odd when the mighty thunder god Thor has one theme in his first outing… and then an entirely different one in the second. In terms of overall strength, you might even say that the soundtrack for Thor: The Dark World had one up on its predecessor. But that doesn’t change the fact that the lack of overall coherency in the music is off-putting. Going forward, you might have expected to hear these themes come up and collide a little in The Avengers, that it would’ve been part of the fun, but instead the tentpole film had an entirely singular soundtrack.
As I mentioned, most of this is down to Marvel employing different composers for every project—literally none of their central characters have had their multiple films scored by the same person. The first person to make any crossover at all was Alan Silvestri, who penned the soundtrack for both Captain America: The First Avenger and The Avengers proper. And unsurprisingly, those soundtracks have the most in common in terms of style and pacing. But he’s not writing the Age of Ultron soundtrack. That, instead, is going to be Brian Tyler (who wrote the score for Iron Man 3) with additional assistance from Danny Elfman. An intriguing lineup for sure, but the real question that begs answering is—will the Avengers theme that Silvestri composed translate over into the second film? Because if it doesn’t, that will be just another place where the chance to create a cohesive narrative through music is dropped.
I’m not claiming that this is a quick’n’easy task; there is no way you could have just one composer constructing the soundtrack for all of these films. There are too many of them, several in production at any given time these days. But there are ways that this could be improved across the Marvel Cinematic Universe—like getting the rights to cross over certain themes film to film, the same way the Harry Potter theme was retained through their movies. And making each character’s theme consistent across the board could actually help Marvel when their actors eventually bow out and pass their roles to newcomers. Either the scores could maintain character themes to acclimate the audience to a new actor, or they could create different themes to mesh with the fresh faces. It’s a win-win, but only if there’s a tapestry to begin with.
It’s not essential to ever moviegoer, and I get that. But if you’ve got a film series that’s meant to be on par with the heavyweights—Star Wars and Indiana Jones and Back to Future and so many more—then you might want to step it up in a key place where these films have always dominated.
Emily Asher-Perrin does find it very confusing to have two perfectly agreeable, totally different Thor soundtracks for one version of Thor. You can bug her on Twitter and Tumblr, and read more of her work here and elsewhere.