A lot of people have watched the Every Frame a Painting video that claims that the Marvel Cinematic Universe doesn’t have much of a musical identity, and that has come to dominate the conversation about music and the use of music in the MCU, to I think the detriment of its film criticism because so many people just stop there where EFAP left the ball (in a surprisingly negative place for EFAP). That EFAP video deserves a proper rebuttal, but unfortunately I’m not a strong video essayist. I hope this prose essay might encourage some video essayists themselves to explore the ideas further.
EFAP spends a majority of its time particularly punching down on the first Thor film, which I think particularly speaks to that essay’s weakness. Like the character himself, Thor takes three movies, with three directors, and three very different composers to find his musical identity (it was inside Thor all along). In a weird way that does thematically speak to heart of the musical identity of the MCU: Marvel Studios has let each individual film find the musical identity right for its characters, their genre, and their arc in the series. I think it is a mistake to call this MCU approach “safe” or “boring”, as it has meant some risks and experiments that feel less risky in hindsight only because they’ve worked so well. As Thor illustrates, not every score has been incredible, but there are interesting heights in the series, perhaps most interesting because folks don’t notice how close to the sun they got.
Relatedly, a lot of people seem disappointed that the MCU didn’t constrain the musical framework enough that you can play any individual hero’s “theme” in any film and have it work. Certainly Star Wars has cast a large shadow (borrowed from Wagner) of endless repetitions of variations on the same leitmotifs that largely work in any context, and that’s an approach that something like the MCU could have taken. I think what the MCU has brought to theaters is a much more interesting tapestry than that approach would have allowed. Sometimes that’s discordant in juxtaposition, but the Avengers themselves don’t always work together perfectly, and that’s thematically appropriate as well.
Rather than focus on specific film scores, for me its easiest to center the discussion around some of the composers that have been assembled to back the Avengers on their journeys.
Alan Silvestri is a heavy hitter in the genre canon, having scored so many favorite films such as Back to the Future, The Predator, and more.1 Silvestri was brought into the MCU relatively “late” to the MCU to score Captain America: The First Avenger and The Avengers, the fifth and sixth movies to close out “Phase 1”. Yet, I feel like Silvestri clearly has to be addressed first when discussing the musical identity of the MCU.
Silvestri has been the most unifying force in the MCU musical identity, both directly and indirectly. First of all, as the composer behind three of the four Avengers team ups, and especially the first one, it was directly left to Silvestri’s expertise to bind together the tapestry. It is said in interviews that Silvestri tried very hard to find Themes or at least leitmotifs for each individual Avenger, and to find a way to bring full circle the musical identities of all of them into a cohesive, standardized whole. I find it fascinating that Alan Silvestri is probably counted among the fans disappointed there isn’t a universal musical framework for the MCU movies. But it also seems clear that it was Silvestri’s expertise that wound up convinced that it wouldn’t work and the MCU was better leaning into the diversity that defined its “Phase 1” than forcing future phases into a more unified framework.
Secondly, and perhaps, most importantly, Silvestri composed the Theme. I feel there is no better rebuttal that there is at least one memorable, hum-able, and sometimes ear worm infectious theme in the MCU than Silvestri’s Avengers Theme.
If you need a reminder, I particularly love the cover of the theme by Mariachi Entertainment System (and its then timely dedication to the passing of Stan Lee):
In addition to being a great cover, I love that the video directly juxtaposes two other beloved Marvel themes from previous decades.2 As many people claim to have never noticed the Avengers theme, much less agree with me that it almost directly produces goosebumps that heroic assembly is about to happen or is in the process of happening, I’m clearly not the only one that thinks the Avengers Theme will stand the test of time.
The Avengers Theme makes an appearance directly or indirectly in almost every MCU film following The Avengers. Some themes in the MCU want to be The Avengers theme when they grow up. (I’ll return to that.) Captain America’s themes are obviously directly related, because Silvestri built them that way.
On the earworm front, I do know a trick to get the Avengers Theme stuck in an MCU fan’s head. There’s a particular pregnant pause in the Theme that people always want to hear resolve (used to great effect in particular in Infinity War where it doesn’t resolve exactly satisfactorily), and just a surprisingly few notes lead there. (Studies show it’s that seeking a tune to resolve that is often a strong cause of earworms.)
The first composer to leave a mark on the MCU was Ramin Djawadi. Djawadi is best known today for some really exciting stuff on Westworld, but also projects like Game of Thrones, and Pacific Rim.
The Iron Man films are something of the opposite case from the Thor films. Where the Thor films took three directors, three composers, and three films to find their musical voice: Iron Man films know their musical identity from the very first film. Even with two directors and three different composers, across the three films, they all feel like Iron Man film scores.
I think a key to that musical identity is something that is often overlooked, but becomes a recurring theme in the MCU, and it seems something that Djawadi was very aware of in setting the template in the first Iron Man: Iron Man has a theme, and practically everyone is aware of it. The theme for Iron Man was written by Ozzy Osbourne and performed by Black Sabbath. A lot of the score of the first Iron Man seems to be very intentionally building up to that iconic “I am Iron Man” moment.
The score does nearly everything shy of a complete deconstruction and/or reorchestration of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man”. After Djawadi’s work on Westworld we can wish we had gotten a full orchestral treatment of that song in the score, being without something so very direct, it’s easy to pick out a lot of indirect clues in the score. (It’s a great suggestion for any future Iron Man films, Disney’s Marvel Studios could afford the fees to do a full reorchestration unlike the Marvel Studio skunkworks that made the first Iron Man. While we are making such wishes, maybe find an excuse for a Wild West time travel plot to get a Player Piano version as well.)
Iron Man establishes from early in the MCU direct ties between the chosen soundtrack and the film’s score. It’s easy to miss character themes when they are pop songs. Not every Iron Man film licenses Black Sabbath, but the shadow it casts on the scores carries through all the same.
It was somewhat controversial at the time for a superhero film to use a “rock” soundtrack instead of something more classically “soaring”/”superheroic”, and the MCU’s Producers themselves saw it as a risk, according to interviews. It was also a risk of being too “on the nose” to license a pop song like “Iron Man” from Black Sabbath for the soundtrack. The MCU has taken soundtrack and score risks from the very first film, and it worked so well most people didn’t notice. (Fans were likely too busy being entertained to notice the risks musically.)
Tyler Bates has a resume full of mostly action films and action franchises such as John Wick. Bates tackles arguably one of the tougher roles in the MCU, in the two Guardians of the Galaxy films, simply because they are so soundtrack-first. Star Lord’s “70’s Dad Rock” mix tapes dominates the films so much in the viewer’s conscious mind, that it is almost easy to forget they even have a score.
It’s easy to argue that the scores can rest on being somewhat “generic action film” scores as that 70’s Dad Rock does so much of the heavy lifting. But they do make some risks, and arguably setup some of the music games that other cosmic MCU films will play with. (Between the score and soundtrack of Guardians, it seems somewhat obvious with hindsight how most of the rest of MCU cosmic almost “must” settle on 80s/90s synth-heavy fun, kind of splitting the difference between Guardians and the rest of the MCU.)
I have one particular piece to the Guardians scores that I particularly think people most often overlook, which is that they contain maybe the second most important theme. The Guardian of the Galaxy team theme, which I argue is particularly great because it sounds so much like it was written to sound like it wants to be The Avengers theme when it grows up:
It’s slightly less harmonious, maybe a little bit more discordant. Just like the Guardians team itself. I think it says a lot about the MCU that where themes make the most sense, it’s in describing a team.
If there has been a major risk in the MCU, differentiating the MCU from past superhero films, it has been in putting together team ups. I don’t feel it should be surprising that teams are so important to the MCU’s musical identity.
(I think a direct one-two counterpoint of this theme and The Avengers theme is maybe the one obvious missing mashup game that Alan Silvestri could have attempted in Infinity War or Endgame.)
Michael Giacchino is possibly one of the hardest working nerds3 in Hollywood scores right now. His resume includes everything from some of the best of Pixar and Disney, to being the “house” composer for a lot of Bad Robot’s efforts. Whether or not I plan to buy it, when I see that Giacchino scored a film I look up the score album, because his track titles are full of dad jokes, groaner puns, and sometimes raw, informative commentary on the film that adds its own interesting layer. Giacchino’s contributions to the MCU include Doctor Strange and Spider-Man.
Doctor Strange is one of my least favorite MCU films and most favorite MCU scores. Giacchino seems to have a lot of fun hamming it up with elements from the trippier, more acid-coated and world-hopping, B-Sides in the catalog of The Beatles, and it’s basically perfect for the character. The score does a lot to keep the film trippy and more light-hearted.
Spider-Man: Homecoming acknowledges from the studio titles immediately at the start of the film that everyone knows Spider-Man has a theme song and can hum along. Giacchino welcomed home Spider-Man to the MCU with exactly what every fan wanted: a full reorchestration of the 1960’s TV theme (juxtaposed as/with the modern Marvel Studios theme). The score doesn’t use that theme directly anywhere else in the film, but again like Iron Man you can hear that it feels related and perhaps in service to it. (The score does more directly evoke Silvestri’s Avengers theme several times.)
Very Honorable Mentions
In lieu of an unreadably lengthy essay, allow me to condense in passing some of the other composers that I absolutely could have devoted ever more paragraphs to:
- Black Panther’s Ludwig Göransson and the collaboration with Kendrick Lamar
- Thor: Ragnarok’s Mark Mothersbaugh, and Taika Waititi realizing/discovering that Thor’s theme is Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”
- Captain Marvel’s Pinar Toprak
- Mike Post’s Theme from Caged Heat
- Christoph Beck’s work on Ant-Man and Ant-Man and the Wasp
- Brian Taylor’s Phase 2 the Good, the Bad, and the Repetitive “trilogy” of Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, and Age of Ultron. The most direct proof I can offer that a “cohesive framework” or “single composer” would have probably have been a poor choice for the MCU. Though I still like these contributions more than my snark here suggests.
Admittedly, most of the best scores are most of the more recent, but the “one movie at a time” spirit that allows them to play and to risk, encourages a game of oneupmanship. It’s almost to be expected that each film be better musically than the last. I also don’t think that it would have happened without a lot of that “DNA” going back all the way to the experiments and risks of “Phase 1”.
What I Consider The Keys to the MCU Musical Identity
I think there are a couple key takeways from the MCU musical identity:
- Capital-T Themes used more than once are generally more for Team Ups.
- Where MCU heroes have Themes, they are sometimes pop songs. (Iron Man has Black Sabbath. Thor finds Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”. Spider-Man remembers his TV Theme. Star Lord has 70’s Dad Rock.)
- It’s harder to divorce the scores from the licensed soundtracks in the MCU, than a lot of similar other genre works.
- There are a lot of different composers and the focus is typically “one film at a time”, but there are still some grand risks in the service of individual films, and they do all seem to be in conversation with each other, even if not as directly as some fans wish.
There’s a lot of variety in music genres. I think there are more gems and hits than misses. I understand where people are coming from when citing EFAP and calling the MCU musicly drab, but I do not agree.
Admittedly, a reason as well that the Avengers films’ soundtracks may sound generic. Silvestri defined so much of the genre’s sound over the decades that a lot of scores sound like Silvestri. ↩
When the X-Men finally show up in the MCU, I very much expect them to bring the 90’s TV Theme with them. That would fit the MCU well. ↩
Said with 💖 from a fellow nerd that wrote nearly 2.5k words on this topic for this article. ↩