Civil War: A First Impression

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Composer Henry Jackman working on the score for Captain America: Civil War

School is out! That means movies are in – just in time for Marvel to kick off phase three of their Cinematic Universe with the long-anticipated Captain America: Civil War. This superhero flick is the third Captain America movie, following The First Avenger and The Winter Soldier, so if you have not seen these films, you might want to stop reading now. Otherwise, you’ll just wonder, “Who the hell is Bucky?” (SPOILERS!)

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Did you understand that reference? Good. You may proceed.

A quick recap (Aha – get it? Re-Cap?): Civil War takes off where The Winter Soldier left off, as the brainwashed Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) begins to return to his senses and adjusts to life on the run. While Captain America (Chris Evans) decides to vouch for Bucky, the United States government proves less merciful and demands that the former assassin be shot on sight. Meanwhile, the United Nations insists that the superhero team known as the Avengers should submit to international regulation by signing an agreement known as the Sokovia Accords. Cap, who opposes the Accords, finds himself pitted against billionaire Tony Stark, alias Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.,) who believes if the Avengers are not kept in check, they will destroy more lives than they will save. As Cap and Stark rally allies to their respective causes, Bucky’s life is further endangered, and the Avengers’ bonds of friendship are strained. And so is my capacity for score toleration.

Electronic-based scores are nothing new to Henry Jackman, the composer for Civil War. He composed similar music for The Winter Soldier after he replaced Alan Silverstri, who composed for both The First Avenger and The Avengers. Though his blend of soundboards and symphony is somewhat generic for action films at this time, there’s nothing wrong with the score per se. Henry Jackman is a gifted man who began to work on his first symphony when he was only six years old, and the score reflects his years of experience. His score for Civil War is one that you don’t tend to notice while you’re watching the movie, but adds a level of excitement to the film and helps raise the emotional stakes. Fundamentally, it’s a good score.

Nevertheless, I have a couple of bones to pick with Jackman and Marvel.

Firstly, I want to know when it was that they decided they needed a little bit more of DC comics in their lives. The score for Civil War is often suspiciously similar to that of The Dark Knight, the highly successful second chapter in DC’s Batman blockbuster trilogy. This is most noticeable in “Lagos” and “The Tunnel” from the Civil War score. One has only to compare these pieces to “Aggressive Expansion,” “A Dark Knight,” and “I’m Not a Hero” from the score for The Dark Knight to hear the numerous similarities. I did some digging and discovered that Henry Jackman, though often uncredited, actually worked on parts of the score for The Dark Knight alongside Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard. While this explains the similitude of the two scores, it does not excuse it.

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Heath Ledger as the infamous Joker in The Dark Knight.

Great composers copy themselves all the time – Hans Zimmer himself is one example of this, as is John Williams, whose recent score for Star Wars: The Force Awakens drew from everything from Harry Potter to E.T.. So, normally, I would not have a problem with Jackman’s repetition. But while it is tested and true music that keeps you engaged at the movie theater, it does not fit the humorous tone that Marvel is so famous for. Just because they are both superhero movies does not mean that The Dark Knight and Civil War fit into the same subcategories. Marvel does not take itself too seriously, unlike DC. Its films are filled with references and gags, such as the incessant Stan Lee cameos (love ’em or hate ’em). Jokes fly even in the midst of the action, such as in The Avengers, when Iron Man asks Thor (Chris Hemsworth): “Doth mother know you weareth her drapes?” DC’s recent films are often much darker, and this is certainly true for the Batman trilogy. The Joker (the late Heath Ledger), the main antagonist of The Dark Knight, is a domestic terrorist whose power rests in gasoline and gunpowder – two commodities that are very familiar in the real world. In recent years, most of Marvel’s villains have been much more heightened. For example, we have Loki, a Norse god intent on world domination, and Malekith, a Dark Elf who wants darkness… because… reasons. All in all, Marvel usually creates escapist movies with unrealistic motivations, and that’s okay. It simply deals in different tones and plays with separate emotions.

I must admit that Civil War is a bit of an exception to this rule. With the addition of political debates and an antagonist with a motivation much closer to home (I won’t say who it is – spoilers), it is much more realistic than many Marvel movies. But the joking attitude remains. A character even points out that Cap’s shield doesn’t obey the laws of physics at the beginning of a battle. This would never happen in the Joker’s world – Batman isn’t about to stop and say, “Hey, shouldn’t that truck crash have killed you?” before beating his greatest adversary half to death. Conversely, Captain America isn’t going to stalk into every confrontation like a ninja who won first place at the “broodiest brooder” contest, as does Batman (Christian Bale). The dark music Henry Jackman writes doesn’t quite jibe with the lighter tones of Civil War – at least, not until the ending.

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The sides of the war, representing America, two made-up countries, and a MacBook.

The more important and obvious issue, however, is the lack of diversity in Jackman’s score. Civil War hosts a large cast of characters from different parts of the globe. While Cap and Iron Man are both American, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), is Russian. Bucky Barnes also lived in Russia for years during his captivity. The Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), is king of the fictional African state of Wakanda, and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) comes from the fictional state of Sokovia, bordering Hungary. And let’s not even talk about Vision (Paul Bettany) – the guy came from a computer. With so much diversity, one would expect more nods to each characters’ origins. Jackman doesn’t touch it once. The only origins-based scoring he does include in Civil War is a theme using African pipes for the Black Panther. He completely overlooks the Sokovians and Russians, even skipping over the opportunity to use an excellent Russian-inspired theme Alan Silvestri composed for Black Widow, one of my favorite themes in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe (you can listen to it in the opening bars of “Red Ledger” and scattered through the last quarter of “I Got a Ride.”)

Instead, Jackman continues to rely on decidedly American music throughout, and doesn’t give many of the main characters themes at all, ethnically-based or otherwise. This lack of diversity is upsetting because it not only creates a score where the themes begin to all sound the same, but it also denies the opportunity to express these characters and their backgrounds in fuller detail. We need more contrasts from a company that (cough, cough, spoilers!) suddenly decided that it’s okay to turn a superhero created by Jewish artists into a Nazi.

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As for Captain America’s theme itself, Jackman not only didn’t use the wonderful marching theme Alan Silvestri composed for the character, he also didn’t pull back in his own theme for the character he composed for The Winter Soldier (which rather disturbingly sounds like a more orchestral version of “Why So Serious?,” the Joker’s theme, right after 0:50). Instead, he composed a new theme for Spider-Man (Tom Holland) that sounds far more like Cap’s traditional themes than any of the music Jackman used for the title character in this film. Jackman also skimps on the score for another American in the film, Cap’s friend Falcon (Anthony Mackie), for whom he created a musical theme in The Winter Soldier which he inexplicably dropped in this film, despite Falcon’s heavy involvement in the plot.

Ah, well. One excellent thing can be said for Jackman’s score, and that is that he did lay off the electronics in comparison to his work on The Winter Soldier. I just don’t buy that Cap is a kid from 1940s Brooklyn when his every action is laid out by a soundboard. Utilizing a more symphonic tone was a good idea.

I know I’m in the minority on my criticism of this score – many loved it. What did you think? Please comment and let me know. Until then, eat some orange slices, and don’t tear yourself in half. Also, go see the movie if you haven’t already. It’s way worth it despite the plot holes.

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So, do you vote red, white, and blue, or is your color palette more red and gold?                      I’m team DON’T FIGHT EACH OTHER, YOU IDIOTS! myself.

 

 

 

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