Celebrating the scores of the Marvel cinematic universe, from Iron Man right through to Black Panther…
This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
Marvel’s Black Panther has roared into cinemas with the sort of impact that only a select few blockbusters can muster. Director Ryan Coogler’s film has been acclaimed not only as superior popcorn entertainment but also a watershed cultural moment in terms of black representation, diversity and gender equality within the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).
As with the release of any new Marvel film, it’s also stoked the fire surrounding the franchise’s score history, one supposedly lacking in any quality or consistency. In fact, Black Panther appears to have bucked the trend somewhat with Ludwig Goransson’s authentically African-sounding score hailed as one of the picture’s strongest elements.
But this is characteristic of many other movies in the series, too. Many decry the MCU for its supposed lack of memorable film scores. Nothing could be further from the truth…
18. Iron Man (Ramin Djawadi, 2008)
Billionaire genius Tony Stark, as unforgettably played by Robert Downey Jr. in his career comeback role, is the rock star of the MCU. It’s therefore fitting that Game Of Thrones composer Ramin Djawadi’s music takes a somewhat grungy tone in its depiction of Iron Man, even if it sacrifices memorable themes and melodies in the process.
Even so, the grinding guitars of Riding With The Top Down has come to embody the mechanized strength and bravado of Downey Jr.’s groundbreaking hero.
17. Iron Man 2 (John Debney, 2010)
Director Jon Favreau returned to his regular cohort John Debney for the Iron Man sequel. It marks a partial step up from Ramin Djawadi’s earlier work, teasing a muscular and spectacular horn-led theme (reminiscent of Jerry Goldsmith) that is frustratingly under-utilized.
There’s no denying that Debney is proficient at working more robust orchestral elements into the palate that Djawadi laid down, but Iron Man’s musical identity remained somewhat nebulous at this stage in the MCU.
16. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Henry Jackman, 2014)
Chris Evans’ noble super-soldier Steve Rogers has perhaps been through the most intriguing arc of any MCU character. Birthed during World War II, he subsequently has had to adapt to the morally murky climate of the 21st century. For that reason, his scores have been compelled to follow suit, Alan Silvestri’s rousingly patriotic work on The First Avenger giving way to Henry Jackman’s more challenging, industrial tones on terrific sequel The Winter Soldier. It’s less immediately satisfying than Silvestri’s work but shows undeniable dramatic intuition in musically advancing Rogers’ character. It also has enough humility to thread in Silvestri’s theme for continuity purposes.
15. Captain America: Civil War (Henry Jackman, 2016)
The orchestral palate widened for this epic Marvel brawl. As the biggest superhero clash to date, one that pitted Team Cap versus Team Iron Man, Civil War demanded a musical force that signified the sheer impact of this moment in the MCU. It’s a time when heroes turn against their allies, and Jackman significantly boosts the emotional impact, while also alluding to what’s come before in the form of Alan Silvestri’s Captain America theme.
Old and new are fused tonally to signify both a break in pre-existing Marvel loyalties while also looking ahead to a troubled yet broadly optimistic future.
14. Avengers: Age Of Ultron (Brian Tyler/Danny Elfman, 2015)
A complex musical situation unfolded on Joss Whedon’s Avengers sequel. Brian Tyler was originally drafted to fashion a thunderous orchestral score in the manner of his Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World offerings. But ultimately the thunder was stolen by Danny Elfman, piloted in at the last minute to provide a new ‘hybrid’ Avengers theme built on Alan Silvestri’s earlier piece.
Regardless of the messy situation, it’s possibly the first time in the MCU that a composer explicitly honored and acknowledged an earlier work, the first step in establishing Silvestri’s piece as the soundtrack cornerstone of the MCU (as also heard in the Avengers: Infinity War trailer).
13. Guardians Of The Galaxy (Tyler Bates, 2014)
James Gunn’s riotously entertaining space opera is defined so wholeheartedly by its terrific pop soundtrack, it’s perhaps difficult for Tyler Bates’ score to get a look-in. Nevertheless, his score interweaves brilliantly around the Redbone and Jackson 5 staples, firmly investing the goofy Guardians’ journey with dramatic weight and beauty.
Drawing firmly from the old-school choral/orchestral mould, it also allows for some beautifully retro synth work, particularly in Groot Spores, one of the loveliest MCU tracks so far.
12. Avengers Assemble (Alan Silvestri, 2012)
The first ensemble team-up within the MCU was a landmark moment. Not only the culmination of Phase One, it also had to shoulder the responsibility of four primary superheroes all sharing screen time.
For that reason, Iron Man, Thor, Hulk and Iron Man had to be united under a new musical umbrella, and writer/director Joss Whedon made the sage decision of bringing back Alan Silvestri from Captain America: The First Avenger. The resulting theme has subsequently become ever more ubiquitous within the series, putting paid to the criticism this is a franchise with no musical continuity.
11. Thor: The Dark World (Brian Tyler, 2013)
Patrick Doyle was out, Brian Tyler was in for the second Thor movie. The narratively uninspired sequel drew criticism for its weak villain and lack of compelling stakes, but there’s no denying Tyler summoned the orchestral might where it counts.
Although he was chastised for not deploying Doyle’s original theme, including exhibiting the muscular blend of Hans Zimmer power anthem and golden age orchestral might heard in the earlier Iron Man 3, it’s still rollickingly entertaining.
10. Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 (Tyler Bates, 2017)
As with its predecessor, the second Guardians movie is perhaps defined more by its Awesome Mix pop soundtrack than Bates’ own score. But to ignore the composer’s input would be to ignore one of the more rousing score entries in the MCU.
The first Guardians had some standout moments of brute orchestral force but Bates really ups his game here, honing the classic sound of fellow Marvel cohort Alan Silvestri in the brass/choral mixture of the many action scenes, not to mention the emotional sequences involving Star Lord (Chris Pratt) and father Ego (Kurt Russell).
9. Thor: Ragnarok (Mark Mothersbaugh, 2017)
Marvel are now at the stage where they can start mixing up the formula of their movies. Taika Waititi’s typically eccentric and off-the-wall Thor movie is one of the franchise’s funniest so far. It also paves the way for former Devo member Mothersbaugh (once a regular of Wes Anderson’s) to apply a different kind of sonic pallete.
Mixing up the expansive sense of orchestral grandeur with soprano vocals and plenty of knowing, Jean Michel Jarre-esque electronics, like the movie, it’s a score that’s in on the joke yet also dramatically engaging.
8. Spider-Man: Homecoming (Michael Giacchino, 2017)
Spidey has been treated to numerous musical iterations. The non-MCU movies scored by Danny Elfman and James Horner are perhaps still the peak of Spider-Man scores, but Giacchino more than ensnared us in his own musical web.
Homecoming is for the most part breezier and zippier than what’s come before, allowing the composer to unleash plenty of finger-snapping attitude and pizzicato strings that nail the boyish essence of Tom Holland’s wall-crawler. Rest assured though, that familiar sense of Giacchino splendor is still there in the rousing main theme.
7. Thor (Patrick Doyle, 2011)
Chris Hemsworth’s Thor debut came in Kenneth Branagh’s 2011 movie, an unfairly maligned epic that does a decent job matching grandiose action with welcome humor. Branagh’s regular cohort Doyle perhaps struggles to imprint on the action scenes, caught between his lyrical impulses and the processed ostinato approach of so many modern action scores.
However, he more than comes into his own during the quiet moments, lending a genuine sense of hushed awe and reverence to the movie’s themes of science and magic. It also, pleasingly, was referenced in Mark Mothersbaugh’s score for Ragnarok.
6. Iron Man 3 (Brian Tyler, 2013)
Tyler made his MCU debut with Shane Black’s Iron Man movie, Tony Stark’s final debut outing. It was perhaps a match made in heaven, Tyler assimilating his heavily processed Fast And Furious approach with the kind of soaringly spectacular brass theme that would have done Jerry Goldsmith proud.
It took three attempts to get there, but the title character was finally graced with a movie that captured both his status within the franchise, and his cheeky sense of attitude. (As further proof of that, check out the utterly groovy end credits remix.)
5. The Incredible Hulk (Craig Armstrong, 2008)
Edward Norton’s Hulk movie is perhaps the black sheep of the MCU. But musically, it’s far more distinguished than many remember. Baz Luhrmann regular Craig Armstrong made one of his rare forays into action and rose above the weaknesses of the movie to deliver an intelligent and compelling score.
Utilizing strings, electronics and chorale to blur the lines between Bruce Banner’s human and animalistic sides, it’s a score that veers from introspection to brute force with ease. Plus, he’s humble enough to acknowledge Joe Harnell’s fondly remembered TV theme – one of the finest examples of legacy in a Marvel soundtrack.
4. Doctor Strange (Michael Giacchino, 2016)
Rogue One composer Giacchino is one of the finest exponents of the quintessentially ‘old-fashioned’ blockbuster score, placing theme, melody and listenability above all else. And the debut of Benedict Cumberbatch’s sorceror supreme character allowed him to really open the taps, musically speaking.
The narrative is a story of east-meets-west, and of multiple dimensions, so it comes as no surprise that Giacchino’s approach fuses western symphonic brio with sitars and soaring choral work. Even Paul McCartney, who dropped into a recording session, was said to have been very impressed.
3. Captain America: The First Avenger (Alan Silvestri, 2011)
The first Captain America remains one of the most visually and thematically distinctive of all the Marvel films. And being rooted in the patriotic, nostalgic environment of World War II means it has to be graced with a particular kind of score. Step forward Alan Silvestri who made his name in the 1980s with robustly entertaining action in the likes of Back To The Future and Predator. His brass-laden Captain America March remains one of the franchise’s finest, brimming with vitality, and which has been threaded into both the later films and The Avengers. All eyes are now on Silvestri as to how he’ll thread myriad ideas together in the upcoming Infinity War.
2. Ant-Man (Christophe Beck, 2015)
It may not be the most distinguished Marvel movie, but the sheer pizazz of Beck’s Ant-Man score gives the movie a distinct musical voice. Paul Rudd’s thief turned superhero Scott Lang helps ground the story more in the realm of heist movie than end of the world epic. And Beck’s terrific score follows suit, mashing up the slick sixties attitude of Lalo Schifrin (bass flute) and John Barry (smooth strings), with the brassy punch of Jerry Goldsmith.
It’s enormous fun and is a firm rebuttal to those who say the Marvel films have no musical personality whatsoever.
1. Black Panther (Ludwig Goransson, 2018)
The story behind Goransson’s Black Panther score is as fascinating as the cultural mash-up within the music itself. The composer travelled to Senegal to hone a sense of authenticity in depicting Wakanda, talking drums and 40-piece Xhosa choir giving brute force to the narrative. Fuse this with the kind of heroically imposing theme required by the genre, plus trap hip hop and fula flute for Michael B. Jordan’s villain Eric Killmonger (Goransson drawing on his experience working with Childish Gambino), and you have that rarest of things.
Not only is it a Marvel score that covers dazzling new ground, it’s also a 21st century blockbuster score that is allowed to shoulder the movie’s emotional impact, further emboldening our understanding of the film’s characters. More Marvel movies (and indeed more movies in general) need to learn from Goransson and Ryan Coogler’s example here.