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

End of Days (John Debney)

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Both Arnold Schwarzenegger and director Peter Hyams were fighting the notion that their best days were behind them by 1999. Schwarzenegger, the king of 80s action, was in the middle of a rut that had begun with Last Action Hero in 1993 and many of his subsequent films from Eraser to Batman and Robin had underperformed with audiences and critics. Hyams had a minor hit with 1997’s The Relic, but nothing to compare to his salad days of Capricorn One and Outland. End of Days was not the panacea either man was looking for; a millenarian horror/action film about Schwarzenegger’s burnt-out bodyguard attempting to keep the fated mother of Satan’s child away from Old Scratch, it was a financial disappointment (Schwarzenegger’s reported $25 million paycheck probably didn’t help) and was critically savaged.

Hyams had worked with a number of composers throughout his lengthy career, including Jerry Goldsmith, David Shire, and Mark Isham. For End of Days, though, he chose to extend his partnership with composer John Debney, who had scored his previous two films, Sudden Death and the aforementioned The Relic. Debney had found a steady stream of high-profile work since beginning his scoring career in earnest in the early 1990s, and 1999 saw him tackle no less than six movies, with End of Days sitting opposite The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland in his filmography for that year. In many ways, End of Days was a good for for Debney; a devout Christian himself, the composer tackled the film’s music for the sacred and the profane with an orchestra, choir, and array of synthesizers and voice samples.

The primary motifs that Debney works with are based around the human voice. One is an eerie child soprano intoning “Agnus Dei” (“lamb of God” in Latin) which drifts in and out of the film’s soundscape; another is the deep and unmistakable tones of Tuvan throat singers, whose unsettling performances underscore the film’s most disturbing moments. Debney complements both with samples from Spectrasonics’ “Symphony Of Voices” and other more industrial synths for the film’s lengthy suspense and pursuit cues, while leaving the full might of the orchestra and the expected bombast for heaven and hell for key moments.

Debney’s approach yields some impressive highlights, most notably in the starkly horrifying “Main Title” and the film’s action-adventure centerpiece, “Subway Attack and Escape.” The scoring for the film’s denouement, “Redemption” and “The Eternal Struggle,” is lovely as well, employing every tool in the composer’s chosen arsenal as the choral and tonal elements of the score battle it out with synths and industrial tones. For much of the album, though, the latter ambient elements, with the child soprano and Tuvan throat singers throughout, predominates. And while this more ambient material deftly reinforces the film’s sense of oppressive millenarian darkness, it can be a very difficult listen away from the film. A very poor remix of Debney’s music tacked on at the end certainly does the album no favors, either.

One certainly can’t deny Debney’s creativity, the highlights of his work, or the sincerety with which it was assembled, but End of Days winds up working somewhat better in the film, flawed as said film may be, than on its own. As was the case for most of the 1990s, a “music from and inspired by” compilation of unpleasant rock songs barely heard in the movie was given a wide release first, followed by Debney’s much rarer 40-minute score-only product from Varèse Sarabande a month later. It’s worth seeking out for a distinctly different take on movie spirituality than Debney would later use in The Passion of the Christ and The Stoning of Soraya M., but expect a challenging and mostly textual listen with occasional highlights.

Rating: starstarstar

Cutthroat Island (John Debney)

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There have been cinematic shipwrecks since the first films set sail for the commercial waters, but few have run aground as sharply or as deadly as Cutthroat Island. It seemed like a surefire treasure cruise at the time: Renny Harlin, who had helmed the profitable galleons Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger was directing, his then-wife Geena Davis of Thelma & Louise and A League of Their Own was in the wheelhouse, and they sailed under the banner of Carolco Pictures, a studio that had underwritten such voyages as Rambo and Terminator 2. But an old-fashioned swashbuckling pirate tale was out of fashion in 1995, and the film’s marketing push failed to sell it to audiences. The movie cost up to $150 million doubloons to make but returned less than $20 million pieces of eight worldwide, a flop the likes of which would not be seen again until the wreck of the good ship Pluto Nash in 2002. Among the drowned: director Harlin’s blockbuster career, star Davis’s career as a leading lady, and studio Carolco’s very existence.

Renny Harlin had originally sought to engage rising young British corsair David Arnold to score his pirate extravaganza. Arnold was a sound choice, with his Stargate score from the year before having plenty of buckle and swash. Scheduling conflicts forced Arnold to back out of the voyage, though, and on the strength of a swashbucking synthesizer suite, Harlin brought Cap’n John Debney aboard as scoremaster. Debney’s career was, like Arnold’s, on the upswing in the early 1990s, having done yeoman’s work on modest hits like Hocus Pocus as a late replacement for James Horner. Cap’n Debney threw himself into the score for Cutthroat Island with a singular destination in his spyglass: to make the most of his scurvy crew from the London Symphony Orchestra and the London Voices to craft a modern homage to Admiral Erich Wolfgang Korngold, whose scores for classic swashbucklers like The Sea Hwak and The Adventures of Robin Hood.

While Admiral Korngold is the one given a 21-gun salute by Cap’n Debney, he happily plunders the very best of modern orchestral scoring for Cutthroat Island, taking inspiration for some of the orchestrations from the flourishes used by David Arnold and Nicholas Dodd in Stargate, John Williams in Hook, and James Horner in The Rocketeer. That’s not to say that the score is a cut and paste job, but rather that Cap’n Debney is able to load his guns with the best powder that modern film music has to offer, powering up Korngold’s piratey ideas with flourishes both orchestral and choral that the old admiral would never have had the budget or the equipment to match.

The themes and motifs Debney blasts out with a double-powder charge are almost too numerous to name, with a soaring main theme for the piratess heroine (“Morgan’s Ride”), a tender love theme (“Discovery of the Treasure”), and supporting musical ideas for the evil Uncle Dawg and the Morning Star pirate ship. The music is anchored by towering and rambunctious statements of these themes, with the “Carriage Chase” cue being perhaps the finest example of piratey swashbuckling ever recorded, a 7-minute tour-de-force of rollicking, thematic brass and percussion that builds a ferocious head of steam as is progresses. “Setting Sail” is one big rousing love letter to The Sea Hawk, while the massive concluding suite of “Dawg’s Demise” and “It’s Only Gold” is almost breathless in its intensity.

Cap’n Debney brings all of his Golden Age influences squarely into the modern era, with a crisp recording and none of the Hollywood treacle that Korngold was occasionally forced to write in between his magnificent statements of theme. The only real drawback to any listener looking for a piratey good time is the film’s breakneck (or cutthroat) pace: the moments of softer music are few and far between, making the lengthy score at times a bit of an endurance test in its unflaggingly adventurous pace. Pirate scores of the 2000s often suffered from the same problems, but the clarity and sheer overwhelming piratey spirit of Debney’s work makes this more forgivable than in some of his fellow Cap’n Zimmer’s less-inspired voyages.

The foundering of Cutthroat Island put an end to pirate movies, whatever flag they sailed under, for over a decade until the genre was refloated and salvaged by Pirates of the Caribbean. But Cap’n Debney was the last scoremaster to attempt to bring aboard the classic Golden Age Erich Wolfgang Korngold sound in a modern guise; future pirate movies would sail under the flag of Cap’n Zimmer and his Remote Control crew, whose very different ideas of piratey music would come to dominate the genre. Debney, though, was perhaps the only crewmember of the doomed vessel to escape unharmed: his score continued to be respected as a modern swashbuckling classic independent of the disastrous foundering of the film to which it was chained. A very generous album 70-minute album bubbled to the surface from the hold of the wreck in 1995, while the complete 150-minute score was brought into port 10 years later by Prometheus Records. Either release is highly recommended to all scurvy dogs that ply the seven seas; while Cap’n Debney has had many successful voyages since then, many still wait for his opportunity to sail under the Jolly Roger once more.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar

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

Spider-Man 2 (Danny Elfman)

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After the stunning success of 2002’s Spider-Man, the question confronting director Sam Raimi wasn’t if but when a sequel would be made. Spider-Man 2 duly followed in 2004, and it broke the mold of many contemporary superhero sequels by refusing to add additional superfluous villains to the mix, instead focusing on a single adversary for the web-slinger while painting a stark portrait of how difficult the life of a superhero could be. The mood of the country had changed somewhat since 2002, and Spider-Man 2 didn’t meet or exceed its predecessor’s box-office take, but it remains the best-reviewed Spider-Man movie to date, even earning an admirer in as unlikely a figure as Roger Ebert.

As most of the behind-the-scenes talent from Spider-Man returned for the sequel, here was no reason to expect that Danny Elfman would not return as well. His score for the first movie had been an exhilarating and highly thematic merger of the two different styles in which the composer had been dabbling for years, expertly balancing acoustic and electronic elements. All was not smooth sailing, though: Spider-Man 2 somewhat notoriously became the subject of a rift between Elfman and Raimi after the director insisted on an unusually close following of the film’s temporary music (a melange of cues from the original Spider-Man and Hellraiser II, among others). Calling Raimi a “pod person,” Elfman bitterly split from the director and saw substantial portions of his music removed from the film, with contributions from John Debney and Christopher Young (who had written Hellraiser II and collaborated with Raimi on The Gift) replacing them.

The Spider-Man 2 album contains only Danny Elfman’s material originally composed for the film. Debney’s contributions, most notably for the pizza-delivery scene, and Young’s substantial rewrites, for the Doc Ock origin scene and the climactic train battle, have never been released despite featuring prominently in the film. It’s also quite evident that Raimi clashed with Elfman early on in the production, as substantial parts of Spider-Man are re-used, almost verbatim, by Elfman in his sequel score (“I couldn’t even adapt my own music,” the composer said at the time. “I couldn’t get close enough to me”). So, while Elfman’s powerful theme for Spider-Man, his love theme, and a host of smaller motifs return for the sequel, they are often sapped of their power by being essentially rerecords of earlier material.

And that is the most glaring weakness of Elfman’s Spider-Man 2: its note-for-note repetition of passages of music from the original film. “Spider-Man 2 Main Title” is, aside from a few additional electronic swooshes, identical to the main title from the original film. The menacing Green Goblin theme from the prequel is inelegantly replaced with the pounding Doc Ock motif, but the change is awkward and the seams are almost literally visible (a similar problem would beset Christopher Young in transitioning between adapted Elfman material and his own music in Spider-Man 3). “At Long Last, Love,” the final score cue, also cribs heavily from Spider-Man‘s “Finale,” and smaller fragments of regurgitation are scattered throughout the album. While Elfman was under intense pressure to do this, obviously, that can’t alter the fact that this reuse is extremely noticeable and distracting when it appears. Also missing from most of Elfman’s new score material is the contemporary electronic mix that helped make the original Spider-Man such a fun melding of Elfman old and new.

That said, Elfman does provide a major and highly satisfying new theme for the Doc Ock character, an eight-note (naturally) melody that slashes violently up and down the scale in a way that perfectly encapsulates the villain’s powerful, herky-jerky movement. Its awkward shoehorning into “Spider-Man 2 Main Title” aside, the theme is tremendous fun and, when Elfman gives it interplay with his existing theme for Spidey in action set-pieces like “The Bank” or “Armageddon.” It’s especially effective in the unused “Train,” which was replaced wholesale by a Christopher Young piece of comparable complexity and quality but which featured only a muted reference to the Ock theme; the piece as Elfman intended is a first-rate piece of action scoring much like “Final Confrontation” from the first album, the composer letting his themes battle even as the characters on screen do the same.

The composer is able to do some interesting things with his themes in places. Elfman’s love theme has plenty of mileage and development throughout cues like the first part of “Spidus Interruptus” and “A Really Big Web!” and it is, if anything, more lovely when it’s allowed to breathe away from the director’s influence. Also, somewhat surprisingly, the menacing Green Goblin villain theme from the first movie is given a dark reprise in “The Goblin Returns,” foreshadowing Christopher Young’s extensive use and adaptation of that theme in the third and final film of the Raimi trilogy.

Raimi and Elfman’s acrimonious split, with the composer declaring that he’d rather wait tables than have another Spider-Man 2 experience, meant that Spider-Man 3 was composed entirely by Christopher Young with substantial adaptations of Elfman’s themes. Young himself saw much of his work tinkered with or replaced by material written by Deborah Lurie or tracked in from the first two films, and it was never released in any form. The (relative) disaster of Spider-Man 3 in 2007 soured virtually the entire cast and crew on the series, leading to a risible series of remakes a few years later. Elfman and Raimi, much like Elfman and Burton in the mid-90s, eventually made amends and would work together again on Oz the Great and Powerful in 2013. As for Elfman’s Spider-Man 2, the strong original material and some clever adaptations of material from the previous film are enough to recommend it on album, but it’s hard to escape the feeling of repetition and needledropping that so frustrated the composer during the scoring process. One can sense the score Elfman wanted to write struggling to escape from the one he was allowed to write.

Rating: starstarstar

Passport to the Universe (Stephen Endelman)

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Film composers often find themselves creating scores for attractions and theme park rides; their experience with matching music to images makes this an ideal choice. This has led to attraction scores from Alan Silvestri (Back to the Future: The Ride), John Debney (The Phantom Manor), Basil Poledouris (Conan: A Sword and Sorcery Spectacular), and even James Horner (Captain EO). Stephen Endelman, while nowhere near as well known as many of the professionals in his field, built himself a solid resume with projects like The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain, Evelyn, and overachieving music for the risible reboot Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li. When the Hayden Planetarium in the American Museum of Natural History began work on a new show, Endelman was commissioned to write an original score to accompany it, a score that, unlike many of the aforementioned ones, received a full CD release..

Passport to the Universe consisted entirely of deep-space images and narration by Tom Hanks, allowing Endelman almost unlimited freedom to compose as he saw fit. As the composer writes in the liner notes, this seemed the perfect opportunity to “create a piece of music that would fuse both acoustic instrumentation and ambient soundscapes,” an idea that he had toyed with for some time. Due to this decision, the show’s sound effects are included directly into the score, at times given equal prominence with the orchestra, despite the oft-repeated fact that there is no sound in outer space for lack of a medium to travel through.

Endelman’s work skews strongly toward the ambient soundscape end of the musical spectrum he describes in the notes–while there is an orchestra, it is used as a sound effect in the show’s overall audio design. Aside from brief outbursts, most notably in “Cosmic Address,” the score is largely atonal, shying away from melody in favor of dense layers of background noise. At times, such as in “Black Hole Plunge,” the combination of orchestra and sound effects becomes so brutal and atonal that the music is difficult to listen to–seemingly random brass outbursts, church bell peals, and a low choir compete with wind sound effects to overwhelm the listener with noise.

Many of the other tracks, while admittedly less intense, suffer from a similar problem: since there is little melodic material, the lengthy passages of sound effects and low-key music are dull and plodding. One has to imagine that Endelman embraced the commission as an opportunity to write non-melodic music and experiment with aleatoric, atonal, musique concrète. As exciting a possibility as that may have been in the abstract, it results in something that only fans of John Cage or Krzysztof Penderecki at their most atonal could enjoy. Appreciate, perhaps, given the proper academic background and vocabulary, but not enjoy.

Therefore, as a piece of sound design and accompaniment to the planetarium show, Passport to the Universe is a success. But as a listenable piece of music, especially when divorced from the powerful on-screen images that accompanied the planetarium show, it fails utterly. One can’t help but feel that an approach that divided the sound design and music, isolating the effects from the score, would have been better. The album represents a wasted opportunity–rather than providing a powerful accompaniment to the cosmos, Endelman’s Passport underwhelms. A missed opportunity, recommendable only if forty minutes of minimalistic, ambient music complimented by sound effects is a listening experience you could appreciate.

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