Other than Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel movies are not known for their music. And, even then, Guardians is praised for its soundtrack, not its score. Many Marvel films rely on atmospheric music rather than thematic music, so most people have trouble remembering Marvel’s music. It’s intentionally in the background. The following video by Every Frame a Painting explains this idea well:
Even though Marvel doesn’t have recognizable themes for its characters, like Hans Zimmer’s electric guitar for Wonder Woman, the catalogue does have some decent, hummable music in it’s filmography. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the MCU’s five best scores.
Ant-Man – “First Mission”
In many ways, Ant-Man is a film disconnected from the greater MCU. It’s a heist movie and a personal story about a convict trying to save his daughter. Sure, Stan Lee makes a cameo, but the film doesn’t immediately present itself as an example of the “It’s All Connected” philosophy that defines the MCU. That is, until “First Mission.” The track plays on its audience’s expectations, beginning as an exciting heist song, before referencing the Avengers theme just as the clouds clear over the New Avengers compound. Composer Christophe Beck then immediately launches back into an unmistakably Ant-Man melody, rapidly switching between Scott Lang’s big, boisterous incompetence and his ant-like precision. I’ve heard people criticize Ant-Man‘s score for making too great a tonal shift, but that’s what makes it work.
Guardians of the Galaxy – “Black Tears”
It may seem like cheating to put Guardians of the Galaxy on this list because the movie is intrinsically linked to its music, but most audiences ignore that the inspired choice in pop music is underscored by Tyler Bates’ epic, Lord of the Rings-esque score. In terms of scale and scope, Bates’ music marks Guardians as a truly cosmic film. From the chanting choir to the rumbling bass, “Black Tears” establishes something unknowable and otherworldly about the film. Peter Quill may be from Earth, but they’re the motherfuc*ing Guardians of the Galaxy.
Avengers: Age of Ultron – “Birth of Ultron”
Before Ultron sent cities hurtling to their doom and swarming the Avengers with SO MANY BOTS, he was just an innocent little robo-baby. Then he was corrupted by the Youtube comment sections and became the snarky automaton we’ve come to love. “Birth of Ultron” chronicles this descent into robot madness, beginning with a hopeful, almost playful refrain that slowly devolves into dissonance. Combine this with new takes on Alan Silvestri’s Avengers theme and new theme, “New Avengers,” and Danny Elfman’s score comes alive with the understanding that the Avengers are more than just Iron Man and Captain America. Similarly, a Marvel score can be more than just blasting brass (though you still have to blast a little brass).
Iron Man 3 – “Battle Finale”
Iron Man 3, on the other hand, really blasts brass. The main Iron Man 3 theme is as heroic and ear-catching as the Avengers theme, which makes Brian Tyler’s doubling down on it a savvy move. This theme shows up all over the film, with most of the tracks referencing it in some way. While the movie itself is divisive, nobody denies that it’s entertaining. The action is great, and it’s the most fun Christmas movie since Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, in which Robert Downey Jr. plays…well, a broke Tony Stark. Tyler capitalizes on this by delivering an upbeat score full of motion and walls of sound.
Spider-Man: Homecoming – Monumental Meltdown
The frantic opening moments of “Monumental Meltdown” perfectly encapsulate Peter’s mental state at the time. He’s nervous as hell because he’s never had to save someone’s life before. This is his first real test as a hero, and he’s struggling to keep it together. The driving percussion underneath the entire piece represents Peter’s constant will to do good–he’s Spider-Man for Pete (Parker’s) sake–even when he’s terrified. Composer Michael Giancchino laces the entire score with similar nuance, always letting the audience know what Peter’s thinking. Plus, that reimagined animated Spider-Man theme just oozes nostalgia.
Have a favorite Marvel score you don’t see on this list? Let me know @bengaspin on Twitter and in the comments below!
Image: Marvel Studios