Composers are integral in enhancing the plot and viewing experience of any movie or TV show. Our favorite films and television series wouldn’t be the same without music to emphasize the emotional peaks and valleys of their stories. The run of superhero films and animated series in the last decade or so has opened the door to a certain style of composing, and a panel at WonderCon focused on the musicians behind movies like Avengers: Age of Ultron, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Iron Man 2 and television series such as Star Wars Rebels. Brian Tyler, Kevin Kiner, John Debney, and Tyler Bates discussed writing music for superheroes and mythical heroes, creating character themes, working on multi-film franchises, and more.
With the high number of superhero films out there, the panelists addressed whether there was such a thing as “superhero music.” Bates (Guardians of the Galaxy) said, “They’re iconic, larger than life characters [that] embody qualities we all wished we could possess. There’s no doubt there are these archetypes of music over the years that have been created to support those characters.” He added it’s key to create themes that tap into our fantasies about being ultra-human. Given the fact that a certain part of superhero films is about escaping into fantasy, it makes sense for the music to help transport us.
Tyler (Iron Man 3) said he’s been hanging out with a lot of superheroes lately and focuses on the characters. “The thing I found right away is you really can’t approach it from the perspective of ‘I’m going to do a comic book movie’ because I’ve found these characters are reflections of what we want to be or [what we] fantasize about,” he said. Tyler pointed out there’s not a generic approach because characters have different personalities. He held up Thor and Iron Man as examples. “One is snarky and funny and one is literally a god. I would never write a piece of music that’s the same for a demi-god as some guy,” he explained.
At the same time, for something like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you have to incorporate threads to connect all the characters with the franchise. Tyler said, “It has a lot to do with establishing the identity of the overall brand. There’s an intersection of so many different characters [that] it’s important to be able to distinguish them with some musical signature or motif.”
Kiner (Star Wars Rebels) has been working in a different, more mythical universe. He talked about how John Williams’ music, which inspires the music of Rebels and influenced Kiner’s work on Star Wars: The Clone Wars, needed to be huge. “It’s large, it’s fantasy. We’re not doing a little art film. Nothing’s wrong with those, but this is different and it’s broad,” he said.
When Kiner first started his work in the galaxy far, far away on The Clone Wars, he steered away from Williams’ music. It’s not what George Lucas wanted for the animated series. Kiner said, “I had to come up with my own themes. We had Ahsoka’s theme and my Obi-Wan theme… I’m glad I started out that way.” When he moved on to Rebels, series executive producer Dave Filoni wanted to emulate A New Hope, so Kiner has been working much more with music composed by Williams.
Back on the superhero side, Bates (Guardians of the Galaxy) has been working on the Guardians follow-up with James Gunn. The director brought Bates into the process early on in the first film and had him write some themes before filming so Gunn could play it on set to contextualize it.
Bates said, “I didn’t realize the power of that until he asked me to come out to visit the set.” He added, “We’ve gone even further down that road on the next one. They’re filming now. What does help in the way [Gunn] writes and talks with me about the script is I know when I’m reading some of the huge music beats that will be in the story as well as songs. It’s an endeavor you do solely for the collaboration and art of it. It’s not something you’re compensated for doing. I would rather establish the DNA of our music prior to post-production when everything’s so frenetic so that we can work on themes and establish melodies that are original to the film.”
Guardians 2 is part of the next phase of Marvel films, but Iron Man 3 kicked off Phase Two. Tyler said they wanted to have music written for that film that could tie into upcoming Avengers movies. “There were a lot of different characters going on. They’re ensemble pieces,” he said. Since so many movies take place in a single universe, Tyler said it’s cool because you can make defined themes for characters but it’s also challenging to make sure they’re distinct.
Finding music for Vision was a particular challenge. “The curveball was the character Vision. He’s the first character in that universe that you don’t really know what side he’s on. You have this guy who’s literally two minutes old and is born in this movie with this knowledge of humanity. It’s Machiavellian in a way. You don’t have this really heroic thing going on. So as it goes, you really bob and weave depending on the character. With Vision, I went with—his main theme is an adagio. It’s not your typical bombast, look how muscley this guy is; it’s more of a mystery.”
IMAGES: Disney XD, Marvel