Thor: The Dark World (Brian Tyler)

Cover

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

Iron Man 3 (Brian Tyler)

Cover

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

Iron Man 2 (John Debney)

Cover

2008’s Iron Man was a resounding commercial success and a critical darling, jump-starting a whole series of films based on other Marvel comic book properties. Jon Favreau’s direction, a smart script, and a winning performance by Robert Downey Jr. guaranteed that there would be subsequent films featuring Iron Man, and indeed Iron Man 2 followed The Incredible Hulk (which featured Downey in a cameo) as the third entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The 2010 film, which featured nearly all the cast and crew of the original, was perhaps the most disappointing film leading up to The Avengers; despite a healthy box-office take it was wandering and unfocused franchise maintenence, with little idea of what to do with its villains and playing up Downey’s antics to fill a bloated running time. Fans would have to wait until 2013’s Iron Man 3 for another truly satisfying solo venture for the heavy metal hero.

The original Iron Man had a disappointingly awful score from Hans Zimmer protege Ramin Djawadi that did little except accentuate the character with electric guitars. However, director Favreau had collaborated with John Debney on a variety of other projects, from Elf to Zathura, and the veteran composer was tapped for the Iron Man 2 assignment. Ever the musical chameleon, Debney ultimately chose to maintain a semblance of continuity with Djawadi by incorporating electric guitars (played by Tom Morello of Rage Against The Machine, who had played on the previous score) while using his own thematic constructs.

Debney debuts two extremely potent thematic ideas in Iron Man 2, addressing the primary weakness of Djawadi’s score head-on. His theme for Iron Man himself is a heroic major-key march, accented by electric guitars with powerful brass, strings, hammered-metal percussion, and male choir. It’s an approach that evokes Jerry Goldsmith at his most instrumentally creative while still inhabiting the same sound world as the previous film. “I Am Iron Man” is the theme’s brief concert presentation, appearing during the film’s end credits, while Debney interpolates it triumphantly into “Monaco” for the scenes of Iron Man battling in the midst of a Formula One Race. “Monaco” alternates two strong, triumphant strains of the theme with snarling and discordant material for the villain.

Speaking of the villain, the film’s underused and oft-absent villain Ivan “Whiplash” Vanko is given an intense thematic identity of his own. Appearing over the film’s main credits in “Ivan’s Metamorphosis,” Debney unleashes a grandly Russian theme with a major role for dual male and female voices intoning lyrics in Russian. The piece is menacing and towers with Slavic personality with a strong support role for Morello’s guitars, and the dissonant electronic textures reappear frequently elsewhere (notably in “Monaco”).

Sadly, though, Debney’s themes are both the score’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. For as potent as the Iron Man and Whiplash themes are, Debney refuses to adept them consistently throughout the score. There’s no hint of either in the final confrontation cues “Iron Man Battles the Drones” or “Ivan’s Demise,” and outside of “Monaco” they are completely absent from the underscore outside the opening and ending credits. Why Debney did this is rather mystifying: he had a solid thematic base to build on, but either by accident or design he was unable or unwilling to do so.

The remainder of the music is more orchestral than Djawadi’s but is similarly a morass of guitars and synths front-and-center, reflecting little more than a moment-by-moment, blow-by-blow Mickey Mousing of the action. Cues like “House Fight MK1” are almost as unbearable as similar cues from the original score, made all the worse by the presence of far superior themes that go basically ignored. Ultimately the disappointment is almost more keen than with Djawadi’s score, since the former showed virtually no promising ideas to go along with its textural meandering. The inclusion of the “Expo Theme” bonus track is a plus, though, with the filmmakers cannily mirroring the Sherman brothers’ “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” song for Disney by drafting Richard Sherman himself opposite Debney’s orchestrations and arrangements (though the few muted references to the song in the underscore are another missed opportunity).

John Debney was able to improve on Ramin Djawadi’s initial effort in Iron Man 2, but due to his failure to adapt his own themes throughout his own score, the music falls considerably short of what it could have been and has to be regarded as a major disappointment, especially given how extensively Debney adapted Alan Silvestri’s themes in his concurrent score for Predators in 2010. It would take Brian Tyler to finally come up with a formula to marry contemporary elements with a strong theme in Iron Man 3, while Debney would not score another film of comparable statue for several years, unfortunately moving back to the dregs of comedy scores that don’t take full advantage of his talents. Pick up a few of the individual highlights on their own via iTunes or Amazon and skip the rest of Sony’s 70-minute score album (and avoid the “Music From and Inspired By” album completely unless you’re an AC/DC fan looking for 60 minutes of their greatest hits that don’t appear in the film).

Rating: starstar

Annapolis (Brian Tyler)

Cover

It’s been said, with regards to the obscure monkey mayhem movie Link, that the only people who remember the movie are Jerry Goldsmith fans. It’s fair to say that the only people to remember 2006’s Annapolis may be Brian Tyler fans. It was the first Hollywood studio film to be directed by Justin Lin, who would later skyrocket to international fame by taking over the then-moribund Fast and Furious series and leading it to four more films and record box office numbers, and its creaky tale mixing boxing and military cadets was a minor flop upon release.

In fact, one could say that the most notable thing about Annapolis is that it introduced up-and-coming film composer Brian Tyler to Lin; their collaboration would continue thereafter into the much more successful Fast and Furious films. Annapolis came at a fruitful time for the composer, when he was mixing lower-key films with would-be blockbusters on his resume, and there are definite echoes of the big-ticket style he would later display in scores like Iron Man 3 in the music for Annapolis.

The music is eclectic, with noble military music, intense Goldsmithian action, quirky orchestral passages, and even some hard-edged contemporary tones. It would be easy for a score to lose focus with such variety, but Tyler is able to consistently blend the disparate genres into cohesiveness thanks to a pair of very strong themes. A more serious theme, not unlike what James Horner produced for military films, is prominent in many places beginning with the film’s main titles, while a more upbeat theme is referenced frequently as well; Tyler occasionally joins the two, letting them flow smoothly into one another, and his loyalty to his themes across various musical genres is impressive.

It’s hard not to see the score’s influences worn on its sleeve: the contemporary music is clearly inspired by An Officer and a Gentleman and Top Gun, with shades of Glory and In Country for the somber militaria and the occasional (albeit fully orchestral) training montage sound from Rocky. Tyler is best able to break away from these influences in his action music, which inventively uses his themes both as melody and counterpoint: “The Brigades/Showdown” is the easy highlight because of this fierce and smart sound–again, not unlike what Tyler would conjure up for later movies.

In the end, Annapolis is a diverse score with excellent thematics to glue it together, and despite the obviousness of what Lin must have played for Tyler as inspiration, the music works well as an album. The film may be forgettable and forgotten, but the album is a forgotten gem in Tyler’s mid to early career discography. Perhaps due to Annapolis‘s failure at the box office, it was one of the discs in VarĂ©se Sarabande’s “Family Dollar Housecleaning” and can often be found remaindered at that discount store chain for $3 to $4. Anyone looking for an introduction to Tyler, investigating the seeds of some of his later success, or simply enjoying a diverse and counterintuitively cohesive album will not be disappointed.

* * * *