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

Elektra (Christophe Beck)

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2005’s Elektra was a quasi-sequel, quasi-spinoff to 2003’s Daredevil, resurrecting Jennifer Garner’s slain character from the earlier film and placing her in a murky realm of assassinations and magic. If the response to Daredevil had been rather tepid, Elektra was greeted with even greater indifference and died a quick death at the box office, putting the franchise to rest until the inevitable reboot. As virtually none of the first film’s cast or crew was carried over, it was no surprise to see Daredevil composer Graeme Revell replaced by Christophe Beck.

Beck was, at the time, making a transition from television scoring (with credits like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel), one which would see him gradually become attached to higher-profile films over the course of the 2000s and into the 2010s. For Elektra, Beck chose to eschew Revell’s approach, which had been to follow the basic pre-Batman Begins Danny Elfman superhero template with a main theme, love theme, and occasional contemporary or world music elements. Instead, the composer decided to embark on an experiment, using pitch manipulation, dark orchestral textures, and other forms of orchestral timbre and electronic modulation.

What results is a score that is heavy on noise but light on thematic substance. Duduk (perhaps a nod to the title character’s Greek heritage), percussion specialty instruments like taikos, and effects created in the computer blend together to create and aggressive and often oppressive sonic atmosphere. At times, as in the brief but intense “Gnarly Gongs,” the effect is more that of in-your-face sound design than music. It’s a sound that suits the action-heavy and martial-arts-suffused picture well, but isn’t exactly pleasant listening apart from leather-clad, sai-weilding bosoms.

Beck’s biggest misstep in the score is failing to create a solid thematic core around which to wrap his experimental sounds. Some scores are able to rely on texture and style to hold them together in the absence of overt thematic material, but music as difficult (if creative) as Beck’s cried out for more islands of tonality. He does offer a few glimpses of more traditional scoring, most notably in the warm closing track “Elektra’s Second Life;” if only that theme had been broken up and deconstructed into the mix along with everything else, a much more intriguing score would have resulted.

In the end, one can’t fault Beck for his experimentation, and percussion lovers will certainly find more interesting textures here than in contemporary Remote Control/Media Ventures scores. But it’s not an easy listen, and often a tiring one. The composer would have to wait until The Lightning Thief in 2010 to deliver a truly satisfying large-scale action score, and he has had relatively few opportunities to revisit the genre since. Record label Varése Sarabande released Beck’s score some time after the inevitable lousy song album, but later liquidated its remaining inventory of the score in its “Family Dollar Housecleaning” in the early 2010s; as such, Elektra can often be found for as little as $3-4 new.

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Serenity (David Newman)

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When Joss Whedon revealed that a movie based on his brilliant but short-lived TV series Firefly was in the works, most fans expected that Firefly composer Greg Edmonson, or perhaps Carter Burwell (who had collaborated with Whedon on 1992’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer), to score it. Instead, Whedon, on the advice of Universal music executives, turned to David Newman, who seemed a very odd choice given his background in comedy scoring. On closer inspection, Whedon’s choice makes a lot of sense: Newman had continually proven himself to be an able and creative composer even when working on risible comedies, and had experience in the sci-fi genre, having scored 1999’s popular GalaxyQuest. Furthermore, David Newman was the son of the legendary Alfred Newman, a composer renowned for his score to How the West Was Won, one of the finest westerns ever put to film.

Newman crafts a strong, folksy string tune that serves as the main theme for Serenity, appropriately enough first heard in the track “Serenity.” This western sound predominates at the beginning and end of the album, but Newman returns to it throughout, handing it off to the brass for use as a heroic fanfare, or to an array of ethnic and percussion instruments for a twisted rendition in “Mal Decides.” It’s much more thematic than Edmonson’s Firefly material, but draws from the same inspiration and uses similar instrumentation. Newman also creates an ethereal piano work for the character of River, which is attractive but frustratingly never given a full, concert-style performance.

The middle sections of Serenity are comprised largely of loud action sequences that incorporate electronics and aggressive orchestral writing. While there is  a grinding/squealing motif for the villainous Reavers, this music is largely themeless, aside from statements of the main theme or River’s theme. This does not mean that the tracks are dull, however: Newman adds a variety of ethnic instruments to the work, taking a cue from his brother and the ethnically diverse world of the film. The ferocious “Space Battle” cue is a rousing example of this, filled with booming brass and thunderous percussion offset against more intimate fiddles and ethnic strings.

The action material in the middle is more dissonant, more challenging, and less of a crowd-pleaser, which led to many negative reactions from film and score fans. While some of the more chaotic tracks can drag a bit, Newman is generally skillful at keeping the material listenable and interesting. Overall, the solid thematic material that opens and closes Serenity, and the better action cues like “Space Battle” more than maks up for the more atonal action music. The album’s great shortcoming, if it can be said to have one, is the lack of a few short but engaging cues from the film’s midsection: more folksy cues like “Going to See Inara” and “Flash Bomb Escape” could have helped break up the heavier action music somewhat.

Sadly, Serenity would be the only collaboration between Newman and Whedon; the director’s next film, the mega-hit The Avengers, came at a time when Newman was semi-retired from film scoring in favor of his work with youth orchestras, and The Avengers received a serviceable Alan Silvestri score instead. Nevertheless, anyone looking for a tuneful extension of Greg Edmonson’s soundscape for the Firefly TV series, and a score that successfully combines Western and sci-fi musical elements, need look no further.

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