The music of the Avengers: How Marvel movie scores have evolved
With phase two of Marvel's Cinematic Universe coming to a head, it's worth looking back at the composers behind this new blockbuster series.
Not only has universe-building changed the entire landscape of filmmaking — for better or for worse — it also changes how we talk about the scores built for the films. It's no longer that a sequel simply borrows and adapts a preconceived musical idea, but musical ideas are built to be redeveloped and enveloped in other stories that unfold over a wide range of space and time.
Ramin Djawadi, who is currently making waves scoring Game of Thrones and Person of Interest, started everything with his score for Iron Man in 2008, with Craig Armstrong following a month later with The Incredible Hulk. Djawadi established the percussion/string-driven aesthetic that's part of each film's DNA, though deeply indebted to the rock band sound and format — specifically AC/DC, an aesthetic that came to the fore with Iron Man 2.
Armstrong has a softer touch with his arrangements — more of a classical sensibility — and he gave the story of Bruce Banner the heart and soul that is necessary for this universe to succeed at all. Armstrong also developed a serious depth with strings and used brass in a way that fed into the style used by Brian Tyler over the last few films in the series. So, while many write off this version of The Hulk, the entire Marvel Universe institution is based on the ideas of Armstrong as the aesthetic established in the first couple of Iron Man films has fallen to the wayside.
John Debney came in for Iron Man 2, but most don't remember that there even was a score because of the album release collecting AC/DC tracks used in the film. Debney's quality score fits nicely as a bridge between Ramin and Patrick Doyle, but the Australian rockers stole some of his thunder.
The next three films — Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, and The Avengers — ended phase one of the new cinematic franchise. Longtime Kenneth Branagh collaborator Patrick Doyle scored Thor and is in many ways responsible from bridging Armstrong and Tyler. Doyle is able to balance heavy brass and percussion and with subtle classical arrangements, and you can hear his influence quite heavily in the succeeding films.
That was followed by two scores by Alan Silvestri, the old guard of film composing in Marvel's universe. Silvestri expands on Craig's initial ideas for a new era, clearly defining this as a larger universe with expanded narrative considerations. Silvestri has always been about balance — and as the many fans of Back to the Future and Forrest Gump can attest, he can do the action music — but Silvestri's music doesn't have the hard-edged effect of Tyler and other composers whose style uses more percussion and dips into the deeper registers of the strings and brass. Silvestri's music suggests an untainted view of the Avengers (especially Captain America) before the world becomes complicated and the sides of right and wrong are no longer clearly delineated.
From here we have phase two and the introduction of Brian Tyler to the universe with Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World in 2013. It's safe to say that Tyler's aesthetic captures the larger ambitions and heavier weight of this universe with a more propulsive aesthetic that abandons the subtlety of some of the franchise's earlier composers. Tyler is a driving composer who's ready to soundtrack the end of the world as we know it, with big brass and percussion, rich strings and a choir. He's a counterbalance to other big names of this game like Hans Zimmer, and while often not tasked with the quieter moments, when needed he can handle them beautifully, and provide a subtle connection between light and dark.
In 2014 Captain America: The Winter Soldier became a standout for fans, with a narrative that took a detour and breathed some new life into the Marvel universe. This was aided by the underappreciated composer Henry Jackman, who has been both a choir boy and a DJ. Often dismissed as simply a student of Hans Zimmer, Jackman has a novel way of integrating technology with classical compositions that really distinguishes his work; Winter Soldier stands out because the score explores ideas that hadn't previously been well-developed in Marvel scores; it was one of the best film scores of 2014. Hopefully Jackman will return to this series.
2014 also brought the not-such-a-surprise hit Guardians of the Galaxy. It's scored by Tyler Bates, most notable for his collaborations with Rob Zombie and Zack Snyder, who brings a rock-band sensibility without necessarily trying to sound like a rock band. He can handle an orchestra as easily as a guitar, and deftly captured the feel needed for Guardians. A sort of cousin to Tyler in his approach, Bates was able to continue the threads laid down by his predecessors, leaning on the building blocks of voice, big percussion, and deep brass/string arrangements. Bates's main theme is very much akin to Tyler's themes for Iron Man 3 and Thor. In an atypical move, director James Gunn had some of Bates's music completed before the film was edited — rather than the other way around.
And now, opening today, we have Avengers: Age of Ultron. Playing on an idea last tried by Christopher Nolan with his first two Batman films, Brian Tyler and Danny Elfman combine forces with Brian taking the darker side of Ultron and Elfman handling the Avengers. It's a neat trick that allows for some diversification of arrangements while still developing the same themes. It also recalls that the first attempt with the Hulk (Ang Lee's version from 2003) was scored by Elfman, who at Lee's request ushered in a new era for him by doing a score that wasn't a typical "Danny Elfman score."
Age of Ultron is an amalgamation of everything that's preceded it. Heavy percussion and low-end strings predominate with the flurries of strings and brass so favored by Elfman, with the darker angle anchored by Tyler's bell-like percussion runs and discordant brass/string parts that melt into into the metallic percussion that has become almost de rigueur for cinematic carnage.
Next up is Ant-Man coming out in July and a whole new phase coming into focus in 2016. Most interestingly, what one discovers listening to all of these scores is that while you may listen to one and say it sounds exactly like another, to actually go back and listen to each score reveals the distinction of each score in its own right. These Marvel installments are in many ways all the same film, and all part of one giant experiment in movie music.
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