The best of the best
Being back in the theater, watching “Black Widow,” “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” and “Eternals,” has been a thrill. After the long drought of 2020 into 2021, the singular transportive power of these films, about beings gifted with godlike powers while remaining damnably human, took on an even greater importance.
And one of the things that made watching these films so special, enhancing the communal aspect of the experience and delivering something no weekly Disney+ show could ever hope to achieve, was the music. The loudness, the intricacy, its singular ability to amplify everything going on on-screen.
These scores might not have been the best of the bunch (we are partial to the “Black Widow” score by Lorne Balfe) but they were still really, really good. Hearing them in a cavernous theater made every movie richer and more rewarding. And it got us thinking about the rest of the sonic landscape of the MCU and what our favorites really were.
First, a few ground rules: we limited ourselves to one score per composer, which is why Alan Silvestri’s “Captain America: The First Avenger” score isn’t on here but … one of his others is. We also tried to limit it to one film per franchise, so even though “Iron Man” had different composers for each of its three installments (yowza), we chose but one! We also skipped over the television stuff (for now), although we admit that the “Loki” score by Natalie Holt, with the ticking sounds of the TVA, is pretty great.
With that in mind, we encourage you to open up Spotify, grab your headphones, and listen as you read!
7. Iron Man 3 (Brian Tyler)
Listen, we are as shocked as you are. Brian Tyler is known for his propulsive scores to action movies and videogames; the kind of music you can listen to while you or a character onscreen is creeping down a hallway or dodging a massive fireball. And while he’s done smaller, more melodic projects (his score for Bill Paxton’s masterful “Frailty” is killer), his take on the superhero genre was as unexpected as it was thoroughly great. To be sure, there is plenty of “sneaky” music.
But there are also big, bombastic pieces that perfectly accompany writer-director Shane Black’s extra-large take on the character – there are choral arrangements, a genuine Iron Man theme (deployed, of course, during his last standalone movie) and a swinging suite that accompanied the main-on-end credits that gives his main theme a jazzy ’60s spy movie feel (those electric organs!).
“Iron Man 3” is one of the best Marvel Studios movies, period. And Tyler’s compositions are a huge part of its success.
6. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (Tyler Bates)
Another wholly welcome surprise. Tyler Bates, an early Zack Snyder and James Gunn collaborator (and, um, former lead guitarist for Marilyn Manson’s band), scored the original “Guardians of the Galaxy,” but he felt comfortable in the margins, writing the dramatic chase music that fit in-between the big needle drops.
It wasn’t particularly memorable, and you could feel that maybe he didn’t have the confidence to stand up against “Hooked on a Feeling” or “Come and Get Your Love.” But for the sequel, Bates went all out – the Guardians have a big, operatic theme; other moments are quieter and more comedic; and he doubles-down on the emotion of it all.
There are also great, twinkly elements of an Amblin sci-fi movie, which perfectly fits both the movie’s intergalactic scope and its themes of parental longing and absentee fathers. With “Guardians fo the Galaxy, Vol. 2,” the score felt just as important – if not more so – to the movie than the songs did.
5. Ant-Man (Christophe Beck)
Christophe Beck, perhaps best remembered for his score for “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” has become a Disney favorite in recent years, having done the scores for two big-screen Muppets outings, both “Frozen” movies, “WandaVision,” and two “Ant-Man” adventures. It’s interesting to think about this, but when “Ant-Man” was released in 2015 (after a fair amount of behind-the-scenes drama including Edgar Wright leaving the production shortly before shooting began), there were few hummable themes in the MCU.
Sure, there was “Captain America: The First Avenger,” which morphed into “The Avengers” theme (both by Alan Silvestri), but towering icons like Iron Man and Thor were left theme-free. Which is why it was such a surprise that “Ant-Man” came out of the gate with a muscular theme tune that is so identifiable and catchy that Disney uses it everywhere – in the theme parks, at D23, while you’re sitting in the El Capitan Theatre waiting for “Black Widow” to start.
The theme is, like Ant-Man (played by Paul Rudd), sneaky and impish. But when it has to make its move, it does, in a huge way. The rest of Beck’s score is similarly solid but we have to give it up for that theme – what a beautiful, expected delight.
4. Thor: Ragnarok (Mark Mothersbaugh)
Up until “Thor: Ragnarok,” the character (played by Chris Hemsworth) didn’t have much of a musical identity – the first film’s score by Kenneth Branagh regular Patrick Doyle was an attempt at understated grandeur, while Brian Tyler’s score for “Thor: The Dark World” was, like the rest of that movie’s troubled post-production phase, a workmanlike “this’ll do” accomplishment.
But former Devo member Mark Mothersbaugh’s score for “Thor: Ragnarok” is truly outstanding, bringing disparate elements together in a way that is wholly unique and ridiculously entertaining. Mothersbaugh gives Thor his own, super cool theme, teleports us to the world of Asgard with soaring choral elements, makes sure we can feel the menace with booming drums, and adds wonderful layers of spacey vintage synths that amplify the movie’s 80s-indebted aesthetic. (A cited touchpoint for the music was Jean-Michel Jarre.)
Mothersbaugh’s score is nothing short of a miraculous achievement, one that stands out not just against the rest of the MCU’s musical output but the scores of superhero cinema in general. Like Thor and Hulk getting waylaid by cosmic forces, the “Thor: Ragnarok” score is one that you can just get lost in.
3. Spider-Man: Homecoming (Michael Giacchino)
Consider that, until 2017’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” the last time we had gotten a truly memorable “Spider-Man” theme was by Danny Elfman and accompanied Sam Raimi’s original live-action feature in 2002. So imagine the thrill of getting a new score that contains all of those wonderfully hummable elements, and just a few years after the disastrous cacophony of “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” score (remember, the one that featured Hans Zimmer, Pharrell Williams, Johnny Marr and Junkie XL?).
The “Spider-Man: Homecoming” score is an absolute joy from start to finish, with an upbeat, effervescent new theme for Spider-Man and moments of extreme bombast and tenderness elsewhere. The theme Giacchino created is, like his best work, incredibly malleable – played one way it can illuminate a moment of triumph, played differently it can add depth or suspense to a more melancholic or thrilling scene. (Michael Keaton’s Vulture also has a moody, equally awesome theme.) And its buoyancy emphasizes the humor and grace of this new era of Spider-Man, before he had become a member of the Avengers or outed publicly by a sinister villain.
It’s also worth noting that his “Doctor Strange” score is also very strong and has a great theme (which gets a gooey psychedelic treatment in the end credits), and it’s a shame that he won’t be back for the sequel. He’s being replaced by Elfman, marking his return to the MCU after contributing additional elements to the score of “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” Glad to have you back Danny, but could you please use Giacchino’s theme somewhere?
2. Black Panther (Ludwig Göransson)
The score for “Black Panther” is so iconic that when a snippet of it played during “Avengers: Infinity War,” before the location card even appeared, the crowd burst into applause. Ludwig Göransson, a frequent collaborator of director Ryan Coogler, is also a pop record producer, having worked on records for Childish Gambino (nee Donald Glover), Haim and Vampire Weekend.
For “Black Panther,” he wanted to be mindful and respectful of traditional African culture while also contributing a vibrant superhero score and obviously not neglect his pop music sensibilities. Before producing music he traveled around Senegal for a month. The resulting score is a total triumph.
The theme of Wakanda, a symphony of percussion and tribal drumming, is a standout, but there are so many subtler moments in his score that are just as powerful – the hip hop sensibilities of Killmonger’s theme, the mixture of organic and synthetic sounds during the South Korean car chase, the use of chanting and African dialects intricately woven throughout the score, and the fact that the music is just as unforgettable as the star-studded, chart-topping soundtrack album that accompanied the movie’s release. (It’s telling that his score, to a superhero movie, won the Original Score Oscar and a Grammy.)
Like the movie it accompanied, the score to “Black Panther” felt genuinely new and unlike anything Marvel had done before. It sets the bar unreasonably high for Göransson’s “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” soundtrack, coming next year. Something tells us he will probably sail over that bar.
1. Avengers: Endgame (Alan Silvestri)
Alan Silvestri remains one of the most underrated and most essential contributors to the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. His score for “Captain America: The First Avenger” set the bar remarkably high for the MCU and established the first true superhero theme in the entire series. He built off that theme for the immortal “Avengers” theme the following year, and gave a robust, utterly rousing score along with it. (He wasn’t invited back for the sequel but that his cues were used extensively, which says a lot.)
When the initial stretch of movies were being brought to their epic conclusion, the Russo Brothers knew they had to rehire Silvestri for “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Avengers: Endgame.” Both are stuffed with music to go along with their marathon runtimes, but “Avengers: Endgame” has the edge. For one, it allowed Silvestri to play in a familiar sandbox, given how much of the movie plays as an extended homage to “Back to the Future.” For another, it gave him so much stuff to do – there are tender, solemn moments that carry great emotional heft (like that wonderful cue as Thor leaves Thanos’ hut on the planet and he goes out of focus), and others that feel glittery and swashbuckling, like the gang traveling to Thanos’ planet at the beginning.
But there’s one moment that only Silvestri could have accomplished, that the whole movie hinges on, and that even thinking about will undoubtedly give you goosebumps – it’s the track “Portals” on the score album, and it is when the lost Avengers, gone for five years, show up in a series of portals along a smoldering battlefield that was once the upstate New York Avengers HQ. It is such an amazing, powerful moment, and one that Kevin Fiege, president of Marvel Studios and producer of “Avengers: Endgame,” said didn’t work until they had placed that cue into the scene.
Beautiful, haunting, expansive, full of hope and steely resolve, it’s the best of what these movies can do and the best moment in any MCU score ever. Hopefully people understand the importance of Silvestri’s collaboration now, and acknowledge his place as one of the fundamental creative powers of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
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