If there's one thing Renaissance man Greg Eicher taught me in my Music For Film course, it's that a good musical score can transform the way in which we watch movies. Film scoring in modern cinema seems like a dying art and unfortunately it doesn't discriminate across genres. While many can sing the Star Wars theme by heart or joyfully "na na na" their way through Batman's TV theme song, asking fans to recall a single melody from a current superhero film is nearly impossible.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is no exception. Despite having such talented composers as Alan Silvestri (Forrest Gump), Ramin Djawadi (Game of Thrones), Alan Menken (practically every Disney movie), and many more on their payroll, Marvel can't seem to create a film score that actually makes it memorable. What is it about the music that makes it so lackluster? Why haven't more people pointed out the discrepancies? Well a video circulating the interwebs created by Youtuber Every Frame A Painting asked these same questions:
The video is rather lengthy (about 14 minutes) and there's a lot you might miss on the first go, so today I'll be breaking it down piece by piece to finally answer the question: What is the problem with music in the Marvel Cinematic Universe?
Good Film Scores Get Stuck In Your Head
The first point the video gets across is that there are many film scores that nearly everybody recognizes. Take a moment and think about Star Wars. Is there a song from it you could hum? Most likely you hummed the main theme or possibly Darth Vader's theme (also known as "The Imperial March") or perhaps even the song from the cantina. Whatever the case may be, it wasn't that hard. Now take a moment and think about James Bond, can you hum something from one of the many movies in the franchise? This one proves to be a bit more difficult, but still not impossible. Now one last time, think about Marvel movies. Can you hum anything from the franchise? Don't feel bad. Nobody in the video could do it and I couldn't even do it myself (which was highly disappointing, since I'm the majority of my time writing about the franchise and I'm a self-professed music nerd).
As I said above, film scoring is a dying art, and most modern films aren't interested in making sure you can sing any songs from them once your money has been paid at the ticket booth. However, take a jump back in time to the decades past. There are dozens examples of film scores everybody is familiar with. So what in the world happened? Taking a look at the Marvel Symphonic Universe can tell us a lot about the state of modern movie composition in general.
There's No Visceral Effect
Using an example from the very first entry into the MCU, Iron Man, Every Frame A Picture proves the point that the music doesn't make the viewers truly feel anything. When you take the music out of the clip, the scene holds exactly the same tone, weight, and emotional meaning to the viewer. This is not a good thing. Music is supposed to be utilized in films to impact the viewer, to make them feel something. Take for example Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. During the famous shower scene, the high, screeching strings send shivers down the spine as they play in time with the violent motion of the knife. The music makes you scared, it builds anticipation, it makes you feel, well, bad. However, this lack of creating a visceral effect isn't the only problem music in the MCU faces.
It's Entirely Too Predictable
"What you see is what you get," the narrator so perfectly tells us. Comedic moments are matched with comedic music. Sad scenes, and boy are there a lot of them, are all underscored with practically the same exact music: a high note on a string instrument accompanied by a long, booming bass note.
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But wouldn't you think that the music should match the scene? If we're seeing something sad, shouldn't there be sad music? You would be correct — however, there is more than one way to write sad music. When dealing with such a long franchise, composers need to be challenged to create something different from things we've heard before, otherwise all of the music just blends together and we don't get anything out of it. The biggest fix Marvel could make is taking different approaches. Throw something at our ears that we aren't expecting. Instead of having a high string note, why not have some dramatic piano melodies? Marvel did this for their movies themselves — creating specific genres and taking risks when people started to complain the movies felt too similar. The music hasn't caught up to that mentality yet.
When The Music Is Memorable, We Don't Hear It
Let's take, for example, a scene out of Captain America: Winter Soldier. Steve Rogers enters a museum dedicated to his memory, there's wonderful music playing in the background, yet the narrator overpowers it with information we all remember from The First Avenger. When the narrator is taken out, the scene is completely different.
With music similar in style to Romantic composer Robert Schumann, the scene is given an emotional weight that we didn't feel before. Now instead of becoming disinterested because we've already heard about Cap's origin story, we become invested in the visuals. The music draws us into the scene as the camera pans over the faces of people viewing Cap's legacy and then pauses on a boy who recognizes Steve Rogers. Had this scene been edited without the narrator, it'd have so much more meaning, we would remember it, and we would definitely be able to sing the patriotic music upon finishing the film.
Yet, Marvel isn't solely to blame for the lack of wonderful, memorable music in today's films. In fact, it's a much more pervasive issue than people realize.
There's A Cultural Shift Away From Noticeable Music
Various musical professionals have taken note of a cultural shift in the minds of composers. No longer are they creating scores that stand out, that make the viewer go, "Oh, wow! That sounds awesome!" Instead, they've shifted to making music that underscores the scenes and blends in. Composer Danny Elfman comments in the video that this shift is a contemporary way of thinking. He brings up Alfred Hitchcock, of course, as one of his biggest influences. During the time that Elfman grew up, music was just as important as the visuals (and boy were the visuals important back then). Not coincidentally, Elfman is one of the few movie score composers whose sound is distinctive, and one whose work many people can recognize even if they don't know he's the composer behind it.
Another problem with contemporary film scoring is a process called "temp" in which temporary music, often from other movies, is used when editing the movie before the final music is recorded. The way recording film scores works is that the composer and conductor (sometimes the same person) receive the final edit of the film and place it on a large projection screen behind the band. They watch the movie without sound as they record the music to make sure everything lines up perfectly. This process is getting slightly pushed to the side, however, with the ability to digitally edit music and move it around very easily.
Risk Is Missing From Marvel Music
The biggest thing missing from the scores of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a sense of risk. Of doing something that doesn't feel safe. Of creating a sense of drama by using unconventional methods. Is taking a leap of faith really going to fix the problems with film scoring? I don't think so. It's a much deeper problem than just Marvel, one I could write an entire editorial on and still have more to say.
Will taking a risk improve the quality of the music? Possibly, but in reality the quality isn't the problem. There are dozens of extremely talented composers working on the music for the MCU, yet directors and producers often get in the way of the composers' creative visions and push for something on the safe side. I believe what needs to happen is another cultural shift, one toward making music important again — a shift to making music marvelous again.
What's your favorite movie score? Tell me in the comments!