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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The Incredible Hulk (Craig Armstrong)

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2003’s Hulk had been a disaster for Marvel, with a big opening gross that quickly shrank away to nothing in the face of auteur director Ang Lee’s cerebral and often bizarre style, script, and changes to the comic’s mythos. A sequel lingered in development hell for 5 years and eventually recast all the major roles with Edward Norton replacing Eric Bana as the titular jolly green giant. Norton’s involvement proved to be a headache for the studio, as he demanded rewrites and also severed continuity between the two films, leaving the new The Incredible Hulk as a mishmash that at times resembles a sequel to a film that was never made and at others a direct sequel to Hulk with the serial numbers crudely filed off. Still, the film was more straightforward and delivered the monster-on-monster smackdown that the first had lacked, so it was met with slightly kinder reviews and slightly greater rewards at the box office. Still, the muddled nature of the character and his franchise has meant that references to it in the other Marvel cinematic universe films are few and far between, and Norton would refuse to reprise his role in The Avengers.

Lee’s film had a complicated scoring situation, with his favored composer Mychael Danna booted off the project at a late date and replaced by Danny Elfman in an attempt to add some Spider-Man type superhero style. Lee had promptly browbeat Elfman into essentially rewriting Danna’s score, resulting in one of the most curious misfires in all of superhero scoring. New director Louis Leterrier, like Lee, brought in an old collaborator from the start: Craig Armstrong, who had worked as an arranger for the band Massive Attack in their work delivering a score for Leterrier’s Unleashed in 2005. For a time it seemed that Armstrong would suffer the same fate as Danna; Marvel was reportedly surprised by the choice, and Armstrong had no comparable blockbuster scores to his credit. Nevertheless, Armstrong was able to deliver a score that the producers accepted, and his music accompanied the film’s final print.

The most talked-about feature of Armstrong’s score was his incorporation of the “Lonely Man” theme, written by Joe Harnell for the 1978-1982 TV series, in the cue “”Bruce Goes Home.” Armstrong was a fan of the show, and the brief homage to Harnell’s simple piano melody is a tip of the hat no often seen in modern blockbuster scores. Armstrong’s own themes aren’t as easily memorable; the primary motif in the film is a pounding string and percussion piece (first appearing in “Main Titles” and the unused “The Arctic”) that resembles a standard ostinato from Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control studio in many of its characteristics (Armstrong actually used Remote Control’s studio space for his recording, though none of its major personnel are credited). It’s an effective theme in a basic sense, conveying the Hulk’s bulky brutality much more effectively than the bizarre themes from Hulk, but no more than that. It’s the sort of thing that works accompanying a smashing spree on screen but disappoints on album, a theme that fulfills the basic requirements without exceeding any of them.

One of the primary complaints about Hulk was its lack of an effective villain and the expected hero-vs.-villain smackdown; The Incredible Hulk provides both, but Armstrong doesn’t do much in the way of a theme for the villainous Abomination. The lengthy sequences of action material (“Abomination Alley,” “Harlem Brawl,” “Hulk Smash”) primarily rely on Armstrong’s Hulk motif instead, with results that are more crowdpleasing than Elfman’s but which suffer from the same sense of restraint, the notion that Armstrong is holding back when he ought to be cutting loose. The recast Betty Ross gets a piano-based motif of her own (“Hulk and Betty,” “Bruce and Bettyā€¯); though clearly inspired by Harnell’s “Lonely Man” theme and quite pretty at times, it’s a bit disappointing that Armstrong wasn’t able to make more use of the latter throughout his score.

Oddly, The Incredible Hulk holds the record for the longest album release for any Marvel film at 111 minutes; Leterrier insisted that Armstrong’s work was strong enough to merit a deluxe 2-CD treatment and Marvel agreed. To cut costs, though, the score was released as one of Amazon’s “CD-R on demand” products rather than as a pressed CD, and copies were manufactured as orders came in. This was a sore point for many collectors, as CD-Rs are not as resilient a medium as pressed CDs and the only other option was a digital release. This incredible length can make listening to the double-CD album a bit of a slog; there’s a lot of music that would have been left on the cutting room floor for a normal album (and, indeed, some of the music is for scenes cut late in production!) which serves to exacerbate the music’s weaknesses and dilute its strengths. There are some scores that can sustain 111 minutes on album; The Incredible Hulk simply isn’t one of them.

Regardless, one has to give Armstrong credit for navigating such a difficult assignment, his reference to Joe Harnell’s “The Lonely Man” are welcome, and the score is overall more coherent than Elfman’s effort. But Armstrong’s music is still oddly restrained, oddly conservative, and has many dead spots as presented on album. It’s the pick of the two Hulk scores, but still not anywhere near the upper tier of great superhero music. Armstrong himself would take a short hiatus from film music afterwards, with no feature scores until 2010’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.

Rating: starstarstar

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