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

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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

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

Iron Man 2 (John Debney)

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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