The Marvel Cinematic Universe is an amazing accomplishment. A meticulously planned web of films, and now television, that had mined decades of rich character history and comic book lore, the MCU has taken the already popular superhero films and morphed each event into a chapter in a gigantic, interwoven tale. In essence, Marvel has taken what is best about comics—their serial nature, unending story opportunities, and interconnected characters and events—and successfully married it to the pure excitement that is big-budget film making.
It was a fantastic decision, both creatively and financially, to carry out the MCU the way it has been done. Through this universe, Marvel is able to tell grander stories, reach broader audiences, and advertise its great backlog of characters and content to great commercial gain.
DC Comics, after botching a fair number of its own properties with a haphazard approach, released their plans to emulate Marvel in the middle of October. In addition, just last week, Marvel released their schedule for their next slate of movies, which includes sequels to Captain America, The Avengers, and Guardians of the Galaxy as well as some new faces such as Black Panther.
Whether or not DC’s heralded entry to this particular party is successful or not hinges upon a variety of reasons. However, if they play their cards right, DC can do something right in which Marvel has failed. Yes, the MCU has been a fantastic example of creativity and execution, but it has missed a giant opportunity to make its films truly remarkable. Marvel has, so far, failed at putting together a cohesive film music plan, and it has negatively impacted their movies.
Film music can be classified into two sections: soundtrack and score. A soundtrack is songs or music used by the filmmakers in the movie, but written outside the context of the film and not for the film. A score, on the other hand, is music specifically written and composed for the film itself. Its value will always be intrinsically tied to the film, which is part of what makes evaluating film scores as legitimate pieces of art music extremely difficult.
Music is extremely important to how a film works, more so than many people realize. American composer Aaron Copland, whose famous works include Fanfare for the Common Man, Rodeo, and the Academy Award-winning film score for The Heiress described how film music works in a 1940 essay. According to Copland, film music makes the film better by:
- Creating a more convincing atmosphere of time and place.
- Underlining psychological refinements—the unspoken thoughts of a character or the unseen implications of a situation.
- Serving as a kind of neutral background filler.
- Building a sense of continuity.
- Underpinning the theatrical build-up of a scene, and rounding it off with a sense of finality.
It is my favorite description of film music because it’s both succinct and incisive. Film scoring is important because it accomplishes a variety of important tasks that can’t be quite carried out the same otherwise.
Two things out of Copland’s list are particularly relevant to Marvel’s set of movies, even more than others. The first is creating a sense of time and place, and the second one is building continuity. The MCU’s main characters are a billionaire genius playboy, a scientist who turns into a green monster when angry, a hammer-wielding alien, and a supersoldier from WWII. Continuity and place are extraordinarily important, and a great score ties everything together. There are more things going on in The Lord of the Rings trilogy than have ever happened in any three-movie set out of the MCU, yet Howard Shore’s musical masterpiece holds it together perfectly.
At its core, music is subjective, and you may disagree with me. However, I have two pieces of evidence that Marvel has generally dropped the ball as far as film score. My first piece of evidence is a question: do you remember any snippet of music from any MCU film? Do you remember feeling moved by the music itself? My guess is no.
The second piece of evidence I have is merely a statistic, and that is this: none of the eleven films in the MCU have even been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Score, a Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score, a BAFTA Award for Best Film Music, or a Grammy Award for Best Compilation Soundtrack for Visual Media.
When you look at the list for who was chosen to do the scores for each film, I think a lot of the problem stems from the consistency, or lack thereof, throughout. Take a look. Here are all the films in the MCU, their release year, and composer:
Iron Man (2008): Ramin Djawadi
Iron Man 2 (2010): John Debney
Iron Man 3 (2013): Brian Tyler
The Incredible Hulk (2008): Craig Armstrong
Thor (2011): Patrick Doyle
Thor: The Dark World (2013): Brian Tyler
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011): Alan Silvestri
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014): Henry Jackman
The Avengers (2012): Alan Silvestri
The Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015): Brian Tyler
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014): Tyler Bates
Simply put, it’s a mess. To begin with, Alan Silvestri is the only truly accomplished composer on that list, and it’s no surprise that his two movies are the best-scored out of the bunch. The Avengers is actually quite a good score, and it’s the only movie that sticks out to me. None of the other composers are well-known commodities or particularly experienced. To be fair, all of the scores are perfectly competent and function within the film.
But can you imagine what Star Wars would be without John Williams’ iconic score and replaced by a merely functional one?
The other thing, the one that really bugs me, is the stunning lack of consistency across any facet, be it vertical or horizontal. None of the franchises with multiple movies has or will have the same composer for the set. Furthermore, only in 2013 did any composer write the score for both Marvel movies for the year.
It would be a logistical nightmare, considering the scope of Marvel’s movies and their frequency of release, to get one or two composers for the whole thing. However, it shouldn’t be terribly difficult to get continuity within a franchise—Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and its sequels are a good example of the good things that happen within a comic franchise with the same composer.
Another solution would be simply to employ more well-known and more experienced composers to write for the films. Guardians of the Galaxy pulled in $753 million in the box office worldwide, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier pulled in $714 million. Don’t tell me you can’t afford a household name.
The frustrating thing is that we’ve seen Marvel do great work when it sets their mind on making music be an integral part of the experience. Guardians of the Galaxy works so well in part precisely because of its emphasis on music—the classic rock soundtrack that, if changed, would disrupt the whole feel for the film.
Can you imagine what would happen if Marvel applied that same level of care to the scores for its films? It would be amazing. They have the perfect canvas for a musical masterpiece, spanning huge swaths of emotional tone. So far, they’ve not done it well. It’s there for the taking.
Perhaps DC can.