Captain America: The First Avenger (Alan Silvestri)

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The final puzzle piece to fall into place for the Marvel cinematic universe before 2012’s The Avengers was Captain America. Though he’d been around since World War II, indeed before Marvel Comics was Marvel Comics, Captain America–like his stablemate Thor–had a very weak presence in other media. A few TV appearances, a 1940s series, and a disastrously bad 1990 theatrical film that was barely released…all of them seemed to suggest that audiences were uninterested in a character whose patriotism was passe in a cynical age. Marvel bet otherwise in 2011, putting accomplished filmmaker Joe Johnston at the helm of Captain America: The First Avenger, a tale that essentially took all the beats of the 1990 version but did them much better, ending with the titular super-soldier being brought forward to the present day. The film attracted good notices and more or less tied Thor in box-office receipts, but laid the groundwork for a sequel that would double those numbers.

Director Johnston had worked with a diverse stable of composers throughout his career, with an early partnership with James Horner for his first four films and later collaborations with Mark Isham, Don Davis, James Newton Howard, and Danny Elfman. Surprisingly, he chose someone he’d never worked with before instead: Alan Silvestri. Silvestri is probably still best-known to audiences for his work on 80s sci-fi classics Back to the Future and Predator, but he had been working steadily since, and had produced a series of old-fashioned action scores including The Mummy Returns and Van Helsing since the turn of the millennium. Called in with only seven weeks to score, Silvestri was asked to write a similarly old-fashioned score for Captain America.

Right away, in “Main Titles,” Silvestri teases a theme that he develops across the score, appropriately bold and noble and full of brassy patriotism. “We Did It,” “Triumphant Return,” and (for some listeners) the “Captain America March” present the theme in all its glory, although it is worked into a satisfying amount of the action music as well. While it won’t unseat the composer’s themes from the 1980s anytime soon, it is a breath of fresh thematic air in the Marvel cinematic universe which until then had largely had relatively milquetoast themes with even the best ones undercut either by their lack of use (Iron Man 2) or the uncomfortable inclusion of studio-mandated “modern” elements (Thor). The theme is perhaps closest to Michael Giacchino’s early music for the Medal of Honor video games (though the recent entries in that series have also suffered under dreadful “modern” scores) and the comparison is an apt one, with a sense of grand orchestral nostalgia amid all the derring-do.

The villainous Red Skull and his so-evil-even-the-Nazis-are-uncomfortable HYDRA organization get a motif of their own, though it’s muted in comparison to Cap’s theme which precludes any real theme vs. theme pyrotechics of the Danny Elfman style. Consisting of a series of sinister, ascending notes, it debuts in “Frozen Wasteland” for the film’s tie-in to Thor before being aired in “Schmidt’s Treasure” and “HYDRA Lab.” What the HYDRA motif lacks in punch and ability to go toe-to-toe with the main Cap theme, it makes up for in its consistent employment; in “Fight on the Flight Deck” it’s such a pleasure to hear a noticeable theme for a villain and a noticeable theme for a hero in an action cue at the same time. After all, if the heroes in the Marvel universe had been shortchanged by their thematic representation thus far, the villains had it even worse.

Though the lack of any facets of the post-Batman Begins superhero scoring doldrums is refreshing, Captain America doesn’t approach the level of Silvestri’s best action works and at times–particularly when the main theme is absent–seems more like the composer spinning his orchestral wheels than anything. A similar problem affected The Avengers, though the constant used of Cap’s theme does give this earlier score more structure. Still, it’s a little disappointing, and probably a function of the short time in which the score was written, that Silvestri’s action music is often merely functional. The lighter cues for conversation and introspection also lack the snap of a Rocketeer and contribute somewhat toward the album’s leaden opening.

A generous album was released along with the movie, though irritatingly its very best track–the “Captain America March” from the end credits, the best and boldest statement of the film’s main theme–was exclusive to the digital version despite the CD having more than enough room. More importantly, Silvestri impressed the producers at Marvel enough that he was chosen to score The Avengers the next year. With references to his Captain America theme in that film, Thor: The Dark World by Brian Tyler, and tracked in at times around Henry Jackman’s score for Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it is arguably the most enduring theme to come out of the Marvel cinematic universe thus far. For that, and for avoiding many of the pitfalls that bedeviled superhero scores throughout the Marvel cinematic universe and the 2010s, Captain America: The First Avenger earns itself a solid recommendation.

Rating: starstarstarstar

The Avengers (Alan Silvestri)

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Five years and five movies in the making, “Phase One” of the Marvel cinematic universe culminated in 2012’s The Avengers, the first true big-screen superhero team-up in the vein of a comic book crossover. With a cast of stars drawn from every movie in the series thus far (except the ever-troublesome Hulk, who was recast for the third time and debuted with barely a mention of his previous film), Marvel took the gutsy step of handing the production over to geek god Joss Whedon. Whedon was well-known for his TV work from Buffy the Vampire Slayer through Firefly, but The Avengers was only his second film. Still, acting as both director and collaborating screenwriter, Whedon was able to create a film so deft and balanced that The Avengers became the third-highest-grossing film of all time on its release and received better critical notices than any other Marvel film since Iron Man.

In constructing a score for The Avengers, director Whedon had plenty of options open to him, as each of the five setup movies had been scored by a different composer: Ramin Djawadi, Craig Armstrong, John Debney, Patrick Doyle, and Alan Silvestri. Whedon’s only previous film, the 2005 Firefly-concluding Serenity, had been scored by industry veteran and perpetual underdog David Newman, who had plenty of superhero experience of his own though his output had been tapering off through the 2010s with an increasing emphasis on the concert hall. In the end, though, it was all about theme: Marvel and Whedon wanted a grand old-fashioned theme to tie their film together, and only one of the previous Marvel composers had provided such a theme and used it in their film consistently: Alan Silvestri. On the strength of his Captain America theme and an enthusiastic recommendation from The First Avenger director Joe Johnston, Silvestri got the gig.

In discussions with the producers, Silvestri was instructed to stick with a theme for the Avengers and only a theme for the Avengers. Post-Batman Begins concerns about music being “intrusive” led to the producers’ dismissal of a leitmotivic score in the John Williams vein in favor of a score that had an “old-fashioned” theme in a more contemporary and “less intrusive” framework. Silvestri was allowed to pen a motif for Loki, the main villian, and to make sparing use of the theme that got him the job from Captain America, but mostly in fragments or short bursts to avoid being “intrusive” or competing with the main Avengers theme.

And, to be fair, the Avengers theme that Silvestri wrote fits the bill: it’s brassy and bold in a way that not many superhero themes are post-Batman Begins, and almost completely devoid of synths and other electronic accoutrements (though with a very large and very contemporary percussion section at times). Teased in “Tunnel Chase,” the theme explodes to the forefront in the “old-fashioned” way that Whedon and the producers wanted in “Assemble” before being sent off with a bang in the end credit suite “The Avengers.” The theme is an excellent one, but it is not used as often as it might be: it is frequently teased but only appears in full muscular form in a handful of key moments. The feeling that one gets from this, especially after the much more integrated theme for Captain America in Silvestri’s previous Marvel assignment, is that Silvestri is holding back from full-on action a la The Mummy Returns or Van Helsing–exactly what the producers wanted.

Speaking of Captain America, his theme is heard in some of the titular superhero’s most superheroic moments, though never in anything resembling the punchy “Captain America March;” true to the producers’ demands, the theme never competes with the Avengers theme. Though Silvestri was explicitly allowed to write a motif for the villainous Loki, it is a complete non-entity in the film and on album, mirroring the disappointing lack of thematic identity for the character in Patrick Doyle’s Thor (the character would need to wait until Brian Tyler’s Thor: The Dark World for an even somewhat memorable motif). Oddly, the only other bit of overtly thematic scoring goes to the Black Widow character, who gets a Slavic-tinged idea in the CD-exclusive “Interrogation,” the lengthy “Red Ledger,” and (briefly) “I Got a Ride.” While it’s nice that the only female hero on the team was given a theme of sorts–something John Debney had failed to do in her Iron Man 2 debut–once again the feeling one gets is of a composer holding back, scoring with the parking brake on.

It goes without saying that, given Marvel’s desire not to have Silvestri use themes for each hero, that none of the previous films’ themes by other composers are used in any way whatsoever. While this makes sense in some cases–especially since Iron Man had already been given two different sets of thematic material–it’s disappointing that Silvestri couldn’t have at least tipped his hat to one of the themes in much the same way that his own Captain America theme was given a brief shoutout in The Dark World. It also means that Silvestri’s fully-orchestral and skillful music for the remainder of the film, despite some highlights, feels oddly anonymous and neutered. It’s leagues better than a lot of the sound design and sonic wallpaper that has become de rigueur post-Batman Begins, but the scoring pales in comparison not only to Silvestri’s aforementioned fantasy action music but superhero scoring from the post-Superman and post-Batman 89 eras.

The Avengers was also the start of a relationship between Marvel, Disney, and Intrada Records: on all future Marvel releases, Intrada would provide a deluxe CD product at a premium price for collectors, while a digital album filled the iPods of everyone else. In this case, Intrada’s physical album features substantially more music, and some lengthened cues, compared to the digital download; it therefore stands as the preferred version of the music despite a $10 price difference. Be sure to avoid the “Avengers Assemble” coaster, which doesn’t feature a note of Silvestri alongside a group of pop songs which, if they appeared in the film at all, did so for three seconds on a jukebox blaring behind an alien space battle whale.

The Avengers winds up being a difficult score to characterize. On the one hand, it features perhaps the best theme of any Marvel movie to date. On the other, the theme’s sparing use and the relative anonymity of much of the supporting material–out of fear of being “intrusive”–makes the score feel like a missed opportunity. One wonders what Silvestri might have produced if he’d been fully unleashed on the project, or if the film had been during a different paradigm of superhero scoring. As is, it’s recommended for that glorious theme but a bit underwhelming elsewhere. Silvestri, despite scoring such a successful film, did not seem to get much of a career boost from The Avengers; he would be passed over for Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Avengers: Age of Ultron, with only a few mediocre scores for regular collaborators to fill out the remainder of the decade. As with James Horner and Avatar, the success of Silvestri’s thematic approach made little headway against the current Hollywood scoring trends.

Rating: starstarstar

Thor: The Dark World (Brian Tyler)

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Bowing the Thanksgiving after Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World was the second post-Avengers Marvel cinematic universe sequel, and compared to its immediate predecessor it had a very difficult development. Original director Branagh passed on the project, and two more would-be helmers briefly warmed his chair before the studio settled on relative newcomer Alan Taylor, a veteran of several highly-regarded TV series but with a thin film resume. Casting was still another headache, as was writing, and the project turned into something of a revolving door for high-profile comings and goings. It’s a miracle that the final product is as enjoyable as it is, mashing up Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Portal 2, and the original Thor for another tale that is never afraid to let its ponderousness be deflated by its tongue in its cheek. It was successful to the tune of a bit more than its predecessor, but wound up getting lost in the scuffle between the popular Iron Man 3 and the acclaimed Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

The second Thor suffered its share of development problems on the scoring stage as well. Patrick Doyle bowed out with Kenneth Branagh to work on the latter’s disastrous Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit after some early talks, and director Taylor then settled on an unconventional choice: Carter Burwell. The cerebral Burwell was in the midst of his greatest period of box-office success due to his overachieving scores for three of the five risible Twilight films, but it was clear from the beginning that Marvel was nervous about his ability to carry a holiday superhero blockbuster. Indeed, Burwell was unceremoniously rejected from the project as it entered post-production and replaced with the composer who had been the producers’ choice all along: Brian Tyler. Tyler, fresh off his well-received score for Iron Man 3, thus accomplished the Hans Zimmer-like feat of scoring two superhero movies in the same calendar year.

Despite–or perhaps because of–the relatively short timespan in which he had to write it, Thor: The Dark World has many of the same building blocks as Iron Man 3. It combines a resounding theme for the hero with a scoring approach that seeks to merge the Remote Control “wall of sound” characteristics expected of all post-Batman Begins superhero scores with more traditional orchestral modes. Essentially, Tyler does his best to subvert the dominant Hans Zimmer superhero scoring paradigm while remaining outwardly loyal to it, an approach that worked so well for Iron Man 3 that it led to Tyler almost single-handedly taking over the Marvel cinematic universe. As such, the sound is “bigger” in almost every way compared to the original Thor: greater use of choir, a bigger-sounding ensemble beefed up with more synths, and hyperbolic actions sequences that out-rowdy the rowdiest parts of Thor–and, unlike Doyle, Tyler seems completely at home writing in this mode.

Many fans of Patrick Doyle were disappointed that his noble brass theme for Thor was not used by Tyler; stories vary, but either Tyler or the producers were unwilling to pay the re-use fees associated with the theme (and, to be fair, it’s doubtful that Burwell’s rejected score used it either). Tyler’s new theme often gives the primary ascending melody to a gigantic choir set against brass. One can hear some echoes or influences of the original theme within it, and if it’s perhaps not as strong as Doyle’s, Tyler uses it much more consistently and weaves it more deeply into his underscore. A rising secondary phrase within the theme is used almost as much as an accent, again almost always either taken up by or supported by a full chorus.

One of the major problems with the original Thor was its lack of thematic attention to the villains of the piece. With the slightly ridiculous addition of Dark Elves into The Dark World, Tyler does make some basic attempts to portray their depredations. Cues like “Lokasenna” and “Origins” combine a vague motif of snarling menace with a world music approach reminiscent of Tyler’s own Children of Dune with strong echoes of Howard Shore’s epochal scores for his own elves. Loki’s thematic representation is sneaky and subtle with harp accents (“The Trial of Loki,” “Shadows of Loki”), and while it’s certainly more recognizable than Doyle’s efforts at the same, one wishes that Tyler could have developed it into a fuller theme.

Much of the lengthy album is given over to muscular action cues that feature Thor’s theme, or variations thereof, in straightforwardly crowdpleasing fashion. There are no musical winks to the audience for some of the more goofy moments of the film, and no equivalent to the glorious “Can You Dig It?” from Iron Man 3, but it’s always tuneful music crafted with consummate skill. Tyler’s one concession to goofiness is in “An Unlikely Alliance,” where he inserts a brief blast of Alan Silvestri’s theme from Captain America for one of the film’s funniest moments–interestingly, the actual score for Cap’s own sequel has none of the theme, making Tyler’s use of it, in retrospect, a bit of a last hurrah. The album also concludes with one last piece proving Tyler’s increasing grip on the Marvel universe: a whirling, James Horner-esque fanfare for the Marvel logo that combines beats from Tyler’s two Marvel scores.

Much like The Avengers before it, Thor: The Dark World was primarily a digital release, with a physical CD pressing from boutique label Intrada intended primarily for collectors at a slightly higher price point. Unlike The Avengers, though, Intrada’s platter has no extra music; the digital-vs.-physical issue being solely a personal preference in this case. Tyler did fine yeoman’s work on Thor: The Dark World, especially considering the short time period he had to write it and the pre-production teething problems the film had. If his theme for Thor himself is a tad weaker than Patrick Doyle’s, the composer makes up for it with excellent integration of the motif into a score that’s comfortable in its own skin and has a set of stronger–if still somewhat underdeveloped–secondary themes. With 2015’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron next on his docket, Tyler proved with Thor: The Dark World that his ability to please producers and score collectors alike with Iron Man 3 wasn’t a fluke.

Rating: starstarstarstar

Thor (Patrick Doyle)

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In many ways, the Norse superhero Thor was the wildcard in the “first wave” of films set in the Marvel cinematic universe. He had never had the pop culture stature of the others and his presence in other media had been thin, an issue compounded by a silly-looking costume and connection to a mythology that was at best little known and at worst associated with wackos. In seeking to bring him to the big screen, therefore, Marvel spared no gravitas. They enlisted respected Shakespearean director Kenneth Branagh to helm the picture, lined up a supporting cast of Oscar winners led by Anthony Hopkins as Odin, and put $150 million at the filmmakers’ disposal. To nearly everyone’s surprise, the resultant film was a hit: Branagh and his screenwriters found an excellent balance of tongue-in-cheek humor to lighten the occasionally leaden mythology, and the film sported a crowdpleasing performance by Tom Hiddleston is the villainous Loki. Not only did the resultant Thor light up the 2011 box office, it arguably had more impact than any other on the Marvel cinematic universe, with several of its characters and themes becoming crossover hits and mainstays across the wider franchise.

Branagh had collaborated with Scottish composer Patrick Doyle from Henry V in 1989, when Doyle was still working as an actor as well as a composer, and their collaboration had remained strong ever since. Doyle had scored virtually every Branagh movie since 1989, but was also in the midst of a renaissance of fantasy scoring brought on by his impressive music for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire in 2005. As a result, his recent resume was littered with titles like Eragon and The Last Legion which seemed to dovetail nicely with Thor‘s expected melding of high mythic fantasy and superheroics. As such, Doyle’s inevitable assignment was met with both anticipation and trepidation by fans: many were hoping for a work which would meet or exceed Goblet of Fire, while others feared that he would be rejected and replaced like Mychael Danna on Hulk for failing to write music to the producers’ post-Batman Begins expectations.

In fact, Doyle did both: he attempted to meld the melodic strength of his prior fantasy (and non-fantasy) scores with something that listeners and producers would feel was “cool.” In the post-Batman Begins world of mega-budget superhero scores, “cool” meant taking on many cues from the textual and often synth-based scores of Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control studio. So the finished score for Thor includes both a strong central theme for the superhero and liberal doses of percussion fronted in the sound mix, synth accents and pulses, and hyperbolic choral outbursts very different from those of Doyle’s earlier works. As such, the introduction of Doyle’s potent theme for Thor in “A New King” features not only a malleable 5-note theme on noble heroic brass, but also copious electronic squeaks and a capably orchestrated version of the Remote Control “wall of sound.”

The same is true throughout the major action cues, from “Frost Giant Battle” to “The Compound” to “Thor Kills the Destroyer:” Doyle’s theme, well-orchestrated, surrounded by what seems to be imitation of a completely different scoring methodology and coexisting uneasily with it. It’s hard not to get the feeling, listening to Thor, that Doyle was writing far outside his comfort zone in his attempts to write in the mold of Hans Zimmer and Remote Control. It’s unclear whether it was studio interference or the specter of Mychael Danna’s 11th-hour rejection from Hulk for writing music outside the current superhero paradigm, but this incongruity hangs over the entire album. For every thrilling action beat, there’s a moment of lifeless wall-of-sound churning, and for every redemptive fantasy cue like “Earth to Asgard” there’s the dull churning of “Loki’s Lie.” Speaking of Loki, the lack of a unifying musical thread for such a compelling villain is a further misstep, as is the general lack of a love theme.

About 70 minutes of Doyle’s music is available on the commercial score album, thankfully free of any incongruous songs or a vapid “music from and inspired by” platter. On album, the key to enjoying Thor on its own merits is probably tempering expectations; while the work can’t hold a candle to the composer’s brilliant Goblet of Fire, it does blow the weaker Marvel cinematic universe scores like Iron Man and Captain America: The Winter Soldier out of the water. While Thor: The Dark World would follow in 2013, Patrick Doyle followed director Kenneth Branagh to Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, an ill-fated project that wound up as one of both men’s greatest career disappointments, leaving Brian Tyler to extend his growing dominance over the Marvel universe instead.

Rating: starstarstar

Hulk (Danny Elfman)

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Despite being one of the most recognizable superheroes in the Marvel stable, and headlining a popular and highly visible 1978-1982 cult TV show that puttered on with sequel movies until 1990, the Incredible Hulk took until 2003 to come to the big screen. Going through a similar development hell to the one that bedeviled Spider-Man in the same time frame, the project bounced from director to director, producer to producer, before landing in the lap of Chinese filmmaker Ang Lee. Lee had just shepherded Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to the big screen and boatloads of awards, and clearly the producers at Universal and Marvel felt that if Lee could get American audiences excited about outwardly ridiculous wuxia, he could do the same for the outwardly ridiculous Hulk. Instead, Lee turned in a soggy movie that clumsily tinkered with the character’s origins, had no clear villain, a dearth of action setpieces, and a very unconvincing CGI Hulk. Though it launched star Eric Bana into a profitable Hollywood career, and some critics lauded the movie’s thoughtful pacing and use of split-screen “comic book panels,” audiences deserted Hulk in droves after a promising opening. The concept was therefore given the Hollywood “reboot” treatment a mere five years later with The Incredible Hulk, with no better results. The big green guy would have to wait until The Avengers for a creative team that truly understood him.

Among the agonies of Hulk‘s protracted development and production schedule was its score. Lee originally hired his friend Mychael Danna to score the film; they had been collaborators as far back as 1997’s The Ice Storm and 1999’s Ride With the Devil. From the standpoint of producers and fans, there could scarcely have been a more incongruous pairing if Lee had hired Tan Dun to return from Crouching Tiger; Danna was principally known for intimate dramas like Ararat and exotic scores for projects like Monsoon Wedding. When Danna’s complete score was played to picture, the music was tinged with an Arabic sensibility, full of Armenian duduk, and featured wailing solos by world music star Natacha Atlas. Panicked at this bizarre sound in their big-budget superhero flick, the producers dumped Danna over Lee’s protests and hired the kind of pre-Batman Begins superhero scores: Danny Elfman. A fan of Lee, Elfman accepted the assignment with less than 40 days to write and record a new score.

In composing a new score for Hulk, Lee and Elfman clashed constantly; the director had been happy with his friend Danna’s score, and continually asserted that the sketches and demos being written were “too Elfman.” The end result was quite curious: in the process of replacing a Mychael Danna score with an Arabic sensibility, Armenian duduk, and wailing solos by Natacha Atlas, Hulk received a Danny Elfman score with an Arabic sensibility, Armenian duduk, and wailing solos by Natacha Atlas. Though there were a few places, such as the presence of electric guitars, where Elfman prevailed, and of course some distinct echoes of his highly recognizable style, Lee essentially browbeat Elfman into rewriting Mychael Danna’s rejected score.

From the opening bars of the album, Elfman’s Hulk is suffused with percussive rhythm and a desert feel, both at the expense of the composer’s typically strong themes. A six-note motif appearing in “Main Titles” is the closest the film gets to a full-on theme, but while its descending notes do suggest the mad science at work there and otherwise, it’s the sort of thing that would normally be a support beam in one of Elfman’s musical structures being asked to bear the full load. The muddled washes of electronics into which the lengthy “Main Titles” and “Prologue” descend into are further weaknesses of the score, acting as Bondo to hold together a score that took eight orchestrators to stitch together, triple Elfman’s usual amount (and including such industry veterans as Hans Zimmer’s Bruce Fowler and Mark McKenzie). The omnipresent duduk and Atlas’s vocals lend a bit of coherence to the music, but they are never given any really compelling thematic material to perform and as such seem like flashes of color that, again, are asked to bear more than their share of the musical load. Needless to say, neither Jennifer Connelly’s love interest, nor Sam Elliott’s military goons, nor Nick Nolte’s bizarre Oedipal “villain” have much in the way of a thematic identity at all.

There are some highlights. “The Truth Revealed” is probably the album’s best merging of the Danna sound with the kind of orchestral tragedy that the film needs, and there are some part of other cues like “Bruce’s Memories” where bits of the tender writing Elfman did on projects like Spider-Man shine through. The album’s gem is undoubtedly “Hulk’s Freedom,” which thunders with a brassy melody that is sadly never heard again with Atlas’s voice as a capable supporter, before winding down to a soulful duduk that, again, is playing a melody that would have been wonderful in other places. The cue serves as the best idea of what Elfman might have provided for the project under less onerous time constrains and with more freedom from Lee to write to his strengths.

Like the film it was written for, Hulk‘s score is a mess, albeit a mess of the best intentions that were not fully followed through. In the aftermath of its relative failure (it made about $130 million domestically against a budget of about $130 million), all of the parties involved promptly forgot about Hulk with Elfman and Lee both moving onto personal highlights immediately thereafter as Elfman’s Big Fish was nominated for an Oscar and Lee’s Brokeback Mountain won a boatload of them. Lee eventually reunited with the erstwhile Danna for Life of Pi, which won them both statuettes, and more surprisingly he even would work with Elfman again despite their professional friction with the quirky Taking Woodstock. The 2003 soundtrack CD, with an hour of Elfman’s score and a risible end credits rock song is available practically for free now for the curious, but it’s probably for the best to simply forget about the mess that is Hulk, as all the major participants clearly want.

Rating: starstar

Iron Man 3 (Brian Tyler)

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After helming the disappointing Iron Man 2, director Jon Favreau moved on to other projects like the disastrous Cowboys & Aliens and assumed a producer role for the further adventures of Tony Stark in the Marvel cinematic universe. After being revitalized as a character by Joss Whedon’s 2012 superhero smackdown in The Avengers, the plan was always for Iron Man to return for a solo picture, and the job of shepherding that to completion went to actor/screenwriter/director Shane Black. Black, like Favreau, didn’t seem to have the chops for a superhero movie, but he knocked the assignment out of the park, co-writing a screenplay that brimmed with humor and confronted Stark with a memorable villain. Audiences responded enthusiastically, to the tune of 1.2 billion box office dollars and decent critical notices, firmly putting the failure of Iron Man 2 behind the franchise.

Director Black’s only previous film, the whip-smart neo-noir Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (also starring Downey), had been scored by John Ottman. Ottman had superhero chops of his own, of course, but was committed to the nightmare of Jack the Giant Slayer for Bryan Singer. Instead, the producers hired rising composer Brian Tyler, who was in the midst of breaking out into the realm of mega-budget action films at the time. Having parleyed an early connection with Justin Lin into scores for the mega-successful Fast & Furious series and an adaptation of Jerry Goldsmith’s Rambo theme into the ironic slugfests of The Expendables series, Tyler’s feature assignments for big-budget pictures were numerous in the years leading up to Iron Man 3. A fan of the comics from childhood, Tyler was in many ways the perfect choice for producers looking for a new approach to the character.

In fact, the producers instructed Tyler to break from the earlier Iron Man scores by Ramin Djawadi and John Debney by aiming for a sound that was orchestral, thematic, and a bit of a throwback, jettisoning most of the rock sound that had dragged down the previous scores, but nevertheless firmly linking the score to The Avengers and contemporary superhero scores. It was a tall order, but one which Tyler approached with gusto. Right away, from the first notes of the album, listeners can tell that the major problem with Djawadi and Debney’s scores has been solved: Tyler develops a grand front-and-center theme for Iron Man and Tony Stark.

Debuting in the titular “Iron Man 3″ at the warhead of the album, Tyler’s theme is bold and brassy with full choral support alongside electronic accents and a few James Horner-style metal hits. It’s not too dissimilar from John Debney’s Goldsmith-inflected theme from the previous film, though there’s no hint of electric guitar and a definite “contemporary” (i.e. Hans Zimmer) flavor to the mix. Tyler essentially worked within the expected sound of a post-The Dark Knight superhero score to produce a theme as close to the grand superheroes of old within that Zimmer-inflected mode and his own musical voice. Most importantly, the theme is presented throughout the film and the soundtrack album in a very old-fashioned way, unlike Debney’s seldom-employed one or Zimmer’s two-note/one-note ostinatos from The Dark Knight. Also, unlike Debney and Zimmer, Tyler isn’t afraid to have fun with variations on his theme, incorporating it into a tender mode instead of a love theme, for instance. By far the best, and most fun, interpretation is in the end credits piece “Can You Dig It?” which sees Tyler twist his Iron Man theme into a joyous and campy go-go mode that strikes the perfect tongue-in-cheek note for Tony Stark and his alter ego.

Elsewhere, Tyler provides plenty of gigantic action music thoroughly suffused with his theme. The arguable highlight of this is the brutal “Attack on 10880 Malibu Point” which mixes an ominous adult choir with slow and deconstructed fragments of the Iron Man motif; it’s a full-on aural assault in the Zimmer Remote Control vein but with a much less simplistic, pounding structure and a far greater emphasis on theme. Tracks like “Battle Finale” offer a far more triumphant variation on the theme with full support from everything at Tyler’s disposal. Tyler is never able to offer a full theme-on-theme smackdown like that put forth by Danny Elfman or John Williams due to the weakness of his villain theme (more on that in a moment) but the action material is nearly always effective in a monothematic Jerry Goldsmith vein.

The score’s weaknesses seem mostly attributable to likely studio mandates for Tyler to ape the dominant The Dark Knight paradaigm in post-2005 superhero scoring. There are several segments of relentless Inception-style brass blasts and thumping Batman Begins “wing-flaps,” often coexisting with much better material. “Dive Bombers,” for instance, accompanies the film’s nail-biting freefall sequence with constant Remote Control puounding before blossoming into a triumphant rendering of the Iron Man theme that foreshadows “Can You Dig It?” The film’s mysterious Mandarin villain and his Extremis associates have a motif of their own, in places like “Heat and Iron” and the self-titled “The Mandarin,” but this is among the most unpleasant music on album, a shrill mush of vague Middle Eastern duduk blasts and shrieking, growling electronics that point to a studio-mandated inspiration from The Dark Knight‘s Joker material.

Due to the success of Iron Man 3 and the working relationship he forged with the producers, the assignment led to Brian Tyler becoming the de facto house composer for the Marvel cinematic universe, replacing Alan Silvestri for Avengers: Age of Ultron and Carter Burwell for Thor: The Dark World. As they had with Iron Man 2, the studio put out two albums: a “music from and inspired by” coaster with none of Tyler’s music and virtually no music heard in the film at all, and a platter with 75:53 of score, the overwhelming majority of what had been written for the project. Though it can occasionally be exhausting in its length, and the murkily unpleasant identity for the villains and studio order to ape Zimmer and his Remote Control associates in places are disappointments, Iron Man 3 still earns a solid recommendation and represent a significant step forward for the franchise after two lackluster scores. Tyler’s ability in working within studio constraints to compose relatively superior scores didn’t go unnoticed, either, and he continues to receive plum assignments in that vein post-2013.

Rating: starstarstarstar

Committed (Calexico)

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Committed is a 2000 film from indie director Lisa Krueger that charts the misadventures of an optimist who stalks her ex during his attempts to “find himself” in the deserts of Texas. It was the first starring vehicle for Heather Graham after she went mainstream with The Spy Who Shagged Me and Bowfinger the year before, and also featured early turns from Casey Affleck and Luke Wilson. Despite meeting some acclaim at Sundance, including a nomination for the prestigious Grand Jury Prize, Committed was unable to secure wide distribution; the relatively few mainstream critics who saw it were unimpressed, and the film has yet to find its audience on home video or the midnight circuit.

Director Krueger describes her process of scoring the film in the CD’s liner notes: on the way to the Texas shoot, she came across the Arizona-based Calexico musical group. Consisting of guitarist/vocalist Joey Burns and percussionist/keyboardist John Convertino, Calexico was named for a town on the California-Mexico border and took the monicker seriously with a sound that mixed traditional Mexican forms like mariachi with American forms like country. Krueger was so enthusiastic about the duo that they not only gained a fan but landed a scoring job, which they approached just like their stage and studio albums.

The entire score is performed by two men on just a few instruments: drums, vines, percussion, guitar, bass, cello, and organ. It has the feel of more of an extended jam session than anything resembling a traditional film score, with a distinct country lilt to the music befitting the Texas locale. It’s not unpleasant music by any means, tending toward the rather sunny with a touch of the “desert noir” that Calexico has been described as producing.

Instead, the difficulty with the music is that it falls victim to the same problem that bedevils many songwriters-turned-score-composers: the music sounds like it is missing something, as if it’s a set of musical backing tracks for vocals that are not present. Joshua Homme ran into the same problem on The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, as did Elton John in The Muse. It’s difficult to turn the sung through line of a band into an instrumental score, and Calexico isn’t quite able to pull it off. Instead, they offer a haze of easygoing music that starts, proceeds for thirty minutes, and then stops. Sufficient for a dialogue-heavy film, perhaps, but hardly a compelling listen on album for score fans; Calexico fans are also likely to find there’s something missing with the lack of vocals.

Amazingly, despite Committed‘s limited release, it was given a full soundtrack release by the short-lived Chapter III records in 2000, with Calexico’s complete 30-minute score and seven needledropped songs. Despite the low print runs of many of Chapter III’s pressed CDs, which has served to make them mild collector’s items, Committed is an obscure enough film, and Calexico an obscure enough act, to keep their soundtrack extremely affordable. Thus, even though its vague, incomplete atmosphere can’t really be recommended on its own rights, anyone who is curious should be able to locate a copy at a very reasonable price.

Rating: starstar

The Incredible Hulk (Craig Armstrong)

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2003’s Hulk had been a disaster for Marvel, with a big opening gross that quickly shrank away to nothing in the face of auteur director Ang Lee’s cerebral and often bizarre style, script, and changes to the comic’s mythos. A sequel lingered in development hell for 5 years and eventually recast all the major roles with Edward Norton replacing Eric Bana as the titular jolly green giant. Norton’s involvement proved to be a headache for the studio, as he demanded rewrites and also severed continuity between the two films, leaving the new The Incredible Hulk as a mishmash that at times resembles a sequel to a film that was never made and at others a direct sequel to Hulk with the serial numbers crudely filed off. Still, the film was more straightforward and delivered the monster-on-monster smackdown that the first had lacked, so it was met with slightly kinder reviews and slightly greater rewards at the box office. Still, the muddled nature of the character and his franchise has meant that references to it in the other Marvel cinematic universe films are few and far between, and Norton would refuse to reprise his role in The Avengers.

Lee’s film had a complicated scoring situation, with his favored composer Mychael Danna booted off the project at a late date and replaced by Danny Elfman in an attempt to add some Spider-Man type superhero style. Lee had promptly browbeat Elfman into essentially rewriting Danna’s score, resulting in one of the most curious misfires in all of superhero scoring. New director Louis Leterrier, like Lee, brought in an old collaborator from the start: Craig Armstrong, who had worked as an arranger for the band Massive Attack in their work delivering a score for Leterrier’s Unleashed in 2005. For a time it seemed that Armstrong would suffer the same fate as Danna; Marvel was reportedly surprised by the choice, and Armstrong had no comparable blockbuster scores to his credit. Nevertheless, Armstrong was able to deliver a score that the producers accepted, and his music accompanied the film’s final print.

The most talked-about feature of Armstrong’s score was his incorporation of the “Lonely Man” theme, written by Joe Harnell for the 1978-1982 TV series, in the cue “”Bruce Goes Home.” Armstrong was a fan of the show, and the brief homage to Harnell’s simple piano melody is a tip of the hat no often seen in modern blockbuster scores. Armstrong’s own themes aren’t as easily memorable; the primary motif in the film is a pounding string and percussion piece (first appearing in “Main Titles” and the unused “The Arctic”) that resembles a standard ostinato from Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control studio in many of its characteristics (Armstrong actually used Remote Control’s studio space for his recording, though none of its major personnel are credited). It’s an effective theme in a basic sense, conveying the Hulk’s bulky brutality much more effectively than the bizarre themes from Hulk, but no more than that. It’s the sort of thing that works accompanying a smashing spree on screen but disappoints on album, a theme that fulfills the basic requirements without exceeding any of them.

One of the primary complaints about Hulk was its lack of an effective villain and the expected hero-vs.-villain smackdown; The Incredible Hulk provides both, but Armstrong doesn’t do much in the way of a theme for the villainous Abomination. The lengthy sequences of action material (“Abomination Alley,” “Harlem Brawl,” “Hulk Smash”) primarily rely on Armstrong’s Hulk motif instead, with results that are more crowdpleasing than Elfman’s but which suffer from the same sense of restraint, the notion that Armstrong is holding back when he ought to be cutting loose. The recast Betty Ross gets a piano-based motif of her own (“Hulk and Betty,” “Bruce and Betty”); though clearly inspired by Harnell’s “Lonely Man” theme and quite pretty at times, it’s a bit disappointing that Armstrong wasn’t able to make more use of the latter throughout his score.

Oddly, The Incredible Hulk holds the record for the longest album release for any Marvel film at 111 minutes; Leterrier insisted that Armstrong’s work was strong enough to merit a deluxe 2-CD treatment and Marvel agreed. To cut costs, though, the score was released as one of Amazon’s “CD-R on demand” products rather than as a pressed CD, and copies were manufactured as orders came in. This was a sore point for many collectors, as CD-Rs are not as resilient a medium as pressed CDs and the only other option was a digital release. This incredible length can make listening to the double-CD album a bit of a slog; there’s a lot of music that would have been left on the cutting room floor for a normal album (and, indeed, some of the music is for scenes cut late in production!) which serves to exacerbate the music’s weaknesses and dilute its strengths. There are some scores that can sustain 111 minutes on album; The Incredible Hulk simply isn’t one of them.

Regardless, one has to give Armstrong credit for navigating such a difficult assignment, his reference to Joe Harnell’s “The Lonely Man” are welcome, and the score is overall more coherent than Elfman’s effort. But Armstrong’s music is still oddly restrained, oddly conservative, and has many dead spots as presented on album. It’s the pick of the two Hulk scores, but still not anywhere near the upper tier of great superhero music. Armstrong himself would take a short hiatus from film music afterwards, with no feature scores until 2010’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.

Rating: starstarstar

Son of Rambow (Joby Talbot)

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Part coming-of-age story, part loving parody of 1980s action movies, 2007’s Son of Rambow tells the tale of a British schoolchild from a strict religious family who accidentally sees First Blood and becomes obsessed with creating his own amateur “Rambow” movie whilst navigating the trials and tribulations of adolescence. The second and so far final movie produced by “Hammer & Tongs” (director Garth Jennings and producer Nick Goldsmith), Son of Rambow was made possible by its low budget and the modest success of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and it too was modestly successful with good reviews and enough revenue to recoup its small budget.

Hammer & Tongs had always planned to have a soundtrack that mixed pop tunes of the early 1980s with an original score for Son of Rambow, and the latter was provided by British composer Joby Talbot. Talbot had, of course, been Hammer & Tongs’ choice for The Hitchhiker’s Guide as well; Son of Rambow would wind up being the composer’s second major film score. With the need to work around song placements in a 90-minute film–in his liner notes, director Jennings notes his desire to make the CD his “ultimate 80s mixtape”–Talbot turned in a score just about 25 minutes long, about half the length of The Hitchhiker’s Guide.

One might expect, naturally, for a score like Son of Rambow to reference, pastiche, or pay homage to Jerry Goldsmith’s seminal action score for First Blood similar to something like what John Du Prez did with UHF in 1989. Instead, it’s clear from the outset of Talbot’s score that he’s more interested in the characters’ reactions to “Rambow” than anything else. The score opens with a great galumphing comic march, “The Best Day Ever,” which is a million miles removed from even the lightest portions of Goldsmith’s First Blood. “The Best Day Ever” theme, reprised in full for “First Day Filming” and “Son of Rambow,” is a delightful tune wherever it appears and (with apologies to Duran Duran) the album’s clear highlight.

The remainder of Talbot’s score is rather similar to what he provided for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (albeit lacking the synths some parts of that work featured): tuneful music in diverse styles that occasionally seem a bit scattershot. There’s some soft alternatives to the brassy “Best Day” march in “The Sad Day” and “Can You Fix It,” the latter performed in full James Horner style by Talbot himself. Fans of The Hitchhiker’s Guide will appreciate more quirky music such as the goofy “I’m French, Non?” which is probably the most like that earlier score, and the percussive “The Scarecrow” which sounds like an amped-up version of the Blue Man Group tracks from John Powell’s Robots.

Along with The Hitchhiker’s Guide, Son of Rambow was the beginning of a very active period of composition for Talbot, with scores for Arctic Tale, Penelope, and Franklyn coming over the next two years. Sadly, none of the films was the sort of breakout success that would lead to more film work, and the composer’s main efforts continued to be directed toward the small screen, theater, and ballet.

Rating: starstarstarstar

Iron Man (Ramin Djawadi)

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Who would have thought, looking back, that 2008’s Iron Man would be the thing to kickstart a universe? The titular character Tony Stark, a Bruce Wayne type with no inherent superpowers other than his wealth and intellect who tools around in a mechanical suit, had never been one of Marvel’s marquee heroes–but with their heavy hitters like Spider-Man, the X-Men, and the Fantastic Four leased to other studios, Marvel gave him a shot at the big screen. With actor-turned-director Jon Favreau behind (and in front of) the camera and a career-redefining performance by Robert Downey Jr. in the lead, the film managed to deftly tweak the standard superhero origin story into something original, affecting, and funny. Iron Man was richly rewarded critically and commercially for breaking the mold, and the characters it introduced went on to define the Marvel cinematic universe.

Favreau’s previous two films were 2003’s Elf and 2004’s Zathura (it may seem like a miracle to land Iron Man with a resume like that, but Hollywood’s modus operandi of late has been to give untested directors superhero movies as a test of their chops), and both had scores by John Debney. For reasons that have never been clear Debney either did not seek or did not get the assignment, possibly because during the movie’s 2007-2008 production he had seven other films on his docket, including The Stoning of Soraya M. which was a labor of love for the composer. With the job open, Ramin Djawadi, an Iron Man fan since childhood, applied for and got his dream job. Djawadi’s credits, at the time, were primarily smaller films or additional music work as part of his mentor Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control Studios team. Djawadi was hired on the strength of some prior superhero work (for Blade: Trinity), a recent film for Marvel’s then-distributor Paramount (Mr. Brooks), and the fact that Zimmer himself followed his pupil as music producer while allowing him full use of the Remote Control team.

Djawadi began work by writing a then-traditional orchestral superhero theme, but Favreau had other ideas: recalling the heavy metal song “Iron Man” by Black Sabbath (a version of which eventually played over the film’s end credits), he pushed for a heavy rock and guitar influence. Zimmer, in his role as producer, also offered suggestions out of the superhero playbook he was in the midst of developing after 2005’s Batman Begins and the concurrently-developed The Dark Knight which would bow two months after Iron Man. As a result, Djawadi’s score plays like a mixture of Favreau’s preferred guitar sound and Zimmer’s “wall of sound” Remote Control approach, with the orchestral performances largely subsumed and dominated by those two styles.

The main Iron Man theme, such as it is, gets an extended rock-inflected performance in “Driving With the Top Down,” the first album track, and a somewhat more straightforward outing in the later “Vacation’s Over.” While it’s possible to hear echoes of the original orchestral theme Djawadi wrote, particularly in the latter, the end result is so overbearing, so over-processed with an extra-liberal slathering of faux Black Sabbath atop a rather rote version of the Remote Control sound that it’s all but lost. The music is certainly loud, certainly energetic, and has plenty of synths to reflect the technological nature of Iron Man himself, but the conflicting demands of the filmmakers and Remote Control left Djawadi essentially writing to the lowest common denominator of them both: neither particularly strong film music nor particularly strong rock music.

For Tony Stark’s on-again-off-again dalliance with his assistant Pepper, the score offers a love theme of sorts, most notably in “Are Those Bullet Holes?” and “Extra Dry Extra Olives,” but it’s so tepid and thin–perhaps as a result of being stripped down at either Favreau’s or Zimmer’s insistence. A “plotting theme” that eventually is used as a motif for the villainous Iron Monger is, again, so subtle and stripped-down that it barely registers. Rather than being theme-on-theme smackdowns or snarling menace like the best superhero scores in the Danny Elfman vein, villain-centric cues like “Arc Reaktor” (sic) or “Iron Monger” are either disappointingly violent noise or brooding nonentities.

It seems a little mean-spirited to blame Djawadi for the problems that Iron Man has as a score; he is clearly a big fan of the concept and was at the mercy of larger influences from the producer. But the fact remains that Iron Man is barely functional as a score in the movie and pretty unlistenable outside it. the score did, at least, get pride of place on the album release, sharing it with a few songs but, curiously, not the resounding instrumental performance of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” that dominated the end credits that most people probably remember. This could help explain its easy availability in used-CD bins, so there’s little monetary risk for anyone who wants to give Djawadi’s score a chance. It’s tough to recommend Iron Man to anyone but die-hard fans of the film or Remote Control enthusiasts, and it seems that the powers-that-be agreed: Debney got his shot at the concept with Iron Man 2, but it wasn’t until Brian Tyler’s Iron Man 3 that a composer was able to successfully create a memorable theme with the electronics, orchestral presence, and occasional cheek that Tony Stark demands.

Rating: star