How Can DC Succeed Where Marvel Did Not?

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.

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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.

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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.

Matthew LaMar

A musician, gamer, roller coaster fanatic, and irreverent joker, Matthew graduated from William Jewell College in 2013 and lives in Kansas City. Matthew, an avid Royals fan, is also on staff at the SB Nation blog Royals Review.

4 Comments

  1. Mary Kate Monin on March 31, 2015 at 5:43 pm

    Although music and cinematography are extremely important in the realm of movies, I do not believe it is what most Marvel fans focus on when they examine the MCU. With DC and Marvel pitted directly against each other I believe Marvel usually wins not just because of execution, but also because of its message, which we have a responsibility to discuss as Catholics. With DC you find many visually gritty, dark stories. They range from Batman’s loss of his parents, resulting in a life of revenge, to the Watchmen’s reunion that ends in utter despair. It is hard to find inspiration without digging deeper when watching such films. They are interesting, but people tend to lean towards inspirational movies. Movies that Marvel releases tend to be more inspirational, and have a brighter attitude, even as the heroes fight villains they make all kinds of jokes along the way. That definitely attracts a larger crowd, especially a younger audience.
    Also, the many values that Marvel presents make its popularity even more positive. I have previously mentioned that Marvel is inspirational, which further pushes the ideas that it presents, valuable ideas like the dignity of the human person. In Captain America: Winter Soldier, our hero has plenty of opportunities to kill the villain attacking him, who was once his best friend. Instead, he chooses to let him live, and doesn’t give up trying to convert him. In contrast, we have Batman swearing not to kill anyone, but in Batman: Arkham Asylum, we see him easily throwing scoundrels out windows. Is that how our role models should act?
    Most of all, Marvel presents the proper Attitude-Awareness we should have towards our problems. Thor, in his first movie, constantly tries to reason with his brother Loki. He continues to try to do this into the Avengers movie, the most highly-grossing film in the MCU. This reflects what Matthew once said, “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother.” (18:15) Who wouldn’t want to teach their kids about being slow to anger?
    I believe Marvel ultimately draws larger audiences because it is more family-friendly. Because parents recognize the values I have listed above and their importance, even if the parents themselves are not Christian. Parents want their children to be inspired to become the right kind of heroes. DC releases movies upon movies but their audience is always narrowed based on the more explicit scenes they allow. Neither better music nor better cinematography can replicate the appealing values Marvel presents in their more family-oriented films.

  2. Michael M. on November 7, 2014 at 12:35 am

    Hm, I really enjoyed Guardians soundtrack, I laughed every. single. time. Of course, none of that music is original to the movie, and I do agree, the music is more like….its just there, nothing very important or to call home for. I agree, they really need to work on that, to make the movies more of a cinematic experience than just heavy duty graphics and fighting. They have to test the waters and add more to their already working model.

    Let’s see what DC does.

  3. Cooper D Barham on November 6, 2014 at 7:02 am

    Precisely the sort of thing I would have expected from you, Matt. A perfectly keen observation, capitalizing on one of those things you know best: music. I think you bring up a lot of strong points. I had never noticed this as a problem until just recently, watching The Winter Soldier. It took me that long to realize Marvel really doesn’t put much effort into their scores. I don’t know if keeping the same composure for each succession of a series is necessarily required (though obviously might help), but Marvel needs to stop holding back on getting some bigger names into the game. I mean, Nolan got Zimmer for all three Batman movies, and the first one didn’t even have that impressive of a budget.

    Altogether, good work. Thanks for the good thinking material. And welcome to the site. 🙂

  4. Michael Kirksey Jr on November 6, 2014 at 12:07 am

    Great article! It brings up an element to the MCU I never really thought about. Awesome!

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