By 2014, every movie in the Marvel cinematic universe had been a financial success, whether unremarkable(The Incredible Hulk), respectable (Thor), or incredible (The Avengers). As a result, parent Disney took a chance on a film version of one of the more obscure comics in the Marvel back catalog: Guardians of the Galaxy. With a rotating ensemble that included, among others, a green space Amazon warrior, a hyperintelligent talking racoon, a motile tree that could only speak its own name, and a human from Earth abducted by aliens, the film was regarded as something of a gamble in Hollywood. No one knew the characters, the connection to the other Marvel films was tenuous at best, and conventional wisdom was that moviegoers wouldn’t accept the lightness of tone the material demanded in a major blockbuster. Writer/director James Gunn, a veteran of the Troma Pictures grindhouse of all places, put the lie to these fears by creating a movie critics compared to a post-Star Wars space opera, filled with humor, action, and memorable characters. The film stood out so much in the dearly blockbuster season of 2014 that it became the biggest hit of the summer and was second only to the bloated Mockingjay: Episode I in domestic box office receipts–barely.
James Gunn had only worked with one composer during his career as a filmmaker: Tyler Bates. They’d first worked together on Zack Snyder’s debut, the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, which Gunn wrote. The director’s solo debut, the indie horror film Silther, was similarly scored by Bates in 2006, as was Gunn’s 2010 sophomore effort, the violent and nihilistic superhero parody Super which probably got him the Guardians gig. Bates himself had worked steadily in film since the 1990s, with several high-profile superhero and fantasy/action films in the 2000s and 2010s, often with Snyder for whom he was composer of choice before being replaced by Hans Zimmer and his Remote Control studio for Man of Steel. Watchmen in 2009 was his most prominent superhero flick prior to Guardians, though Bates had done work on the 2011 remake of Conan the Barbarian, the 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, and of course the comic book adaptation 300 in 2006. It’s safe to say that Bates enjoyed a somewhat negative view among film score fans thanks to his work on many of those remakes, which followed extremely popular scores by the likes of Bernard Herrmann and Basil Poledouris, and the controversy over 300‘s score, which incorporated near-verbatim quotes from Elliot Goldenthal’s Titus and proved to be a legal embarrassment for Warner Bros. Much like Guardians itself, the score was viewed with trepidation from fans.
Few of Bates’ earlier scores could be described as thematic, so it’s a pleasant surprise when he unveils a theme for the titular guardians, teasing it in “Quill’s Big Retreat” before letting it rip in “The Kyln Escape.” It’s a fun idea, and despite appearing in a fair number of tracks one wished Bates would use it more often: the theme, often with accompanying choir, soars in a way that none of the other music does. With its oft-prominent brass, the Guardians theme is probably closest to, of all things in the Marvel universe, Alan Silvestri’s Captain America theme–though it’s part of a distinctly un-Silvestri-like whole and certainly not in the ballpark of Bates’ controversial use of Goldenthal in 300. It gets some variations, as in the slightly more elegiac “Black Tears” and “The Great Companion.” There’s a secondary theme of sorts in “The Ballad of the Nova Corps” (complete with electric guitar accents) that appears here and there, though it’s not as boldly presented. “Ronan’s Theme,” for its part, is less a theme than a darker orchestral color with some electronic manipulations.
The music has a distinct Remote Control feel in some of its parts, with string ostinatos and choral crescendos straight out of the Zimmer playbook. It is probably a situation where, like Patrick Doyle, Bates was asked to emulate a certain sound, though several Zimmer associates are listen in the album’s credits. Regardless, the Remote Control elements are on the high end of that scale rather than the Battleship dregs, and Bates uses them alongside his themes to present a generally decent, if occasionally somewhat generic, sound. It’s worth noting that he plays the score absolutely 100% straight, with no hint at all of the film’s occasional goofiness, which is left to pop music. That’s not a criticism; it’s been known for years, ever since Airplane, that serious music can make funny moments all the funnier (and it’s worth noting that Star Wars, to which Guardians was often compared at release, didn’t have much “funny” music either despite its share of funny moments). The shimmering synths and children’s choir of “Groot Spores” and “Groot Cocoon” is probably the closest the score gets to any genuine silliness.
Bates writes diverse music, ranging from the harsh synths of “Ronan’s Theme” to the wonder of “To the Stars” and the Groot material. It’s a bit like Watchmen in that regard, the earlier score ranging from awe and wonder to grungy rock, and at times the Guardians score, again like Watchmen, seems to lack cohesion for all its diversity, mickey-mousing rather than offering a narrative arc. The presence of Bates’ surprisingly-good themes, something which was sorely absent in the earlier superhero film, and the occasional Remote Control walls of sound help the score hang together much better, though. Like most Bates scores one gets the feeling that there’s untapped potential in Guardians to let rip in a truly exceptional album; nevertheless, it’s a promising improvement from many of his earlier scores.
There were three albums pressed for Guardians: a song collection called Awesome Mix Vol. 1, a score album, and a 2-CD combination. Unlike most frisbee “music from and inspired by” discs, the retro tunes on Awesome Mix were an important and cheeky part of the film rather than generic tunes the record company was trying to move through association with a popular IP. Thus the 2-CD set might actually be the best buy for fans; it certainly has the best cover art of any Marvel album thus far, perfectly capturing the retro-futuristic aesthetic of the film. Whatever the album, Bates’ music is the best of his career: solid stuff, with a decent theme, that’s miles better than the muck he conjured for projects like The Day the Earth Stood Still. It stands as a more or less evolved version of Bates’ promising but disappointingly generic scores for Watchmen and Conan 2011, and if it doesn’t come close to the Marvel cinematic universe highlights of Brian Tyler (whose similar-sounding name led to no end of confusion during summer 2014) and Alan Silvestri, it at least avoids the doldrums of Ramin Djawadi and Henry Jackman. The best musical comparison to Guardians in the Marvel universe is probably Doyle’s Thor, and like Thor it’s a solid buy, and one hopes that Bates will build on this foundation for the inevitable sequel.