Marvel and Music: Internet Spelunking

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My favorite color: gold.

Ah, November. A time for reflection, for apple cider and cinnamon donuts, for Aunt Alice and Cousin Christie to start spitting turkey grease over a cordial discussion about our President-elect. This Thanksgiving, tensions run high, but at least there’s one thing people from all political backgrounds can agree to be grateful for: 2016’s almost over, folks. We’re nearly in the clear. And as the year is wrapping up, I’m gearing up to discuss a new batch of film scores.

I’m sorry I’ve been away from the blog for so long. I’ve got many things to be grateful for that have kept me busy – school, college applications, visits to family and friends. But now that those things are settling down, I’ve set a plan in place to publish one main post per month.  I may include small updates in between, time permitting.

I haven’t been idle while away. Through some Internet spelunking, I learned that the YouTube community has recently rekindled public interest in music and film. Every Frame a Painting, an excellent channel on filmmaking, published a video essay entitled “The Marvel Symphonic Universe,” which sought to answer why the MCU’s scores are often forgettable. Tony Zhou, the channel’s moderator, claims this is due to three things. Firstly, Marvel’s music does not carry emotional weight and tends to fade into the background, secondly, they take a “what you see is what you get” approach to scoring, and finally, Marvel overuses and exploits temp music to the point that their music becomes indistinguishable from that of other major blockbusters.

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After you listen to Marvel music, Tony Zhou says you might not be so “Hooked on a Feeling.”

I loved watching Mr. Zhou’s video, especially the parts about temp music. “Temp music” refers to preexisting audio tracks used while editing that are eventually replaced with original scores. This often leads directors to prompt composers to make their music sound like the temp, which can lead to unoriginality in scoring. Mr. Zhou’s video is supported by interviews with great composers such as Danny Elfman and Alexandre Desplat, but contains some errors and omissions. For example, Mr. Zhou says that John Williams’s score for Star Wars is more memorable than Marvel because it is original, but Star Wars was heavily temped itself with classical music by composers such as Stravinsky and Holst. Mr. Zhou also made a mistake in comparing the rousing main themes of Harry Potter and the James Bond franchise to background pieces in Marvel movies. All iconic film scores are bound to have parts that function as background noise, and it is not fair to composers who have worked on Marvel films, such as Henry Jackman and Brian Tyler, to have their quieter pieces judged against central themes.

I was pleased to discover that many people who responded to “The Marvel Symphonic Universe” on YouTube shared my concerns about Mr. Zhou’s factual accuracy. Dan Goulding, another video essayist, published a video entitled “A Theory of Film Music,” in which he argues that film music is, by nature, “an embrace of rampant unoriginality.” He makes the case that the seeming similarities of blockbuster film scores today, particularly those in the MCU, are determined more by the manner in which temp is used rather than by its mere existence. Mr. Goulding takes a less critical approach than Mr. Zhou, saying that copying music is not necessarily indicative of bad scoring, as film composers have temped classical music since the industry began. Modern film scores tend to temp each other rather than returning to classical music, however, and that combined with Hans Zimmer’s method of creating an emotional musical landscape rather than forming recognizable melodies causes the homogenization of today’s film music.

Personally, I am most drawn to the theories expounded in the third video I watched, a response to both “The Marvel Symphonic Universe” and “A Theory of Film Music.” This video, “Marvel Music: The Thematic Continuity Issue,” addresses a problem that I briefly mentioned in my last blog post. The MCU relies on continuity in many ways – it must link various storylines, characters, and McGuffins (cough, cough, the Infinity Stones) to create a cohesive whole. From solo superhero origin stories to Avengers: Infinity War (which will not only feature the Avengers, but also the cast from Guardians of the Galaxy and Doctor Strange), Marvel’s world building remains uninterrupted over many years. At least, it usually does… until it comes to film music. “Marvel Music: The Thematic Continuity Issue” demonstrates how Marvel’s various composers fail to sustain themes for characters and ideas. Nearly every time a new composer joins Marvel, old themes are thrown out and new ones are written from scratch. There is no single theme for Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, or any of our leads. Their themes change from film to film so we don’t have one sound to associate with them, but three or four apiece. Heck, even the Marvel fanfare that plays over their studio logo was recently reworked by Michael Giacchino. The end result? We don’t remember the music. It came and went before our memories could fully process it.

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Part of the 2016-present Marvel intro sequence, which is accompanied by the new fanfare. Yes, it looks cool, but lacks continuity.

I find it strange that the MCU is so lax about musical continuity when franchises like Harry Potter, which spanned ten years and four composers, retained songs such as the iconic “Hedwig’s Theme” throughout the series. I got chills when I watched the trailer for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the first in an upcoming Harry Potter spin-off prequel. And I didn’t get those chills because of Eddie Redmayne, no matter how much I love him. I got those chills because “Hedwig’s Theme” played over the end, and, you guessed it, even Fantastic Beasts has a different composer – James Newton Howard. Come on, Marvel! Step up your game!

Many other videos about film scoring began to receive more web traffic as these video essays on Marvel gained views. I highly recommend two videos to anyone who is interested in the psychological impact of music on the subtext of story: “How Film Scores Play with Our Brains” by Now You See It and “How Pixar Uses Music to Make You Cry” by Sideways. I also recommend “Lord of the Rings: How Music Elevates Story” by Nerdwriter1 for anybody who found my post on the Lothlórien theme interesting. Actually, just watch any of Nerdwriter1’s videos. They’re a much more intelligent way to waste time than playing games on your phone.

Speaking of intelligent ways to waste your time, I’ve also watched and rewatched several movies that I’m considering writing about. I’ve listed some of them below:

  • A Streetcar Named Desire – Alex North (1951)
  • Chinatown – Jerry Goldsmith (1974)
  • Days of Heaven – Ennio Morricone (1978)
  • Finding Nemo – Thomas Newman (2003)
  • Up – Michael Giacchino (2009)
  • Spotlight – Howard Shore (2015)
  • Star Wars: The Force Awakens – John Williams (2015)

Please comment below if any of these particularly appeal to you or if you have any other suggestions! Also, please feel free to comment on any of the YouTube videos I shared above. I’d love to know what your thoughts are and if you agreed/disagreed with the various arguments presented. I’m planning on doing a Christmassy score for December, but it’s all still up in the air. Let me know if there were any Christmas movies in your childhood that you’d like to see on the blog.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. I’m grateful for you – for your love of film scores and storytelling, for your comments, and for your willingness to read this to the end. Sure, I do this for myself and my love of research, but I also do it for you. Have a wonderful month.

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I hear those sleigh bells jingling, ring-ting-ting-aling too, but they’ll just have to wait. See you in December!
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3 comments

    • Whoever you are, thank you for your input! I definitely plan to include Spotlight as one of my blog posts over the next several months – however, as I’ve already done a post on Howard Shore, it might have to wait so I can explore some new composers first. Keep the input coming – I always love to see what people want to read. And just so you know, my December post is ready to roll. Hint: it’s something Christmassy!

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