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To Infinity and beyond: exploring the musical scores of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

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The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is currently on the cusp of great change. Having welcomed its latest incumbent in the form of the blockbusting Captain Marvel, all eyes now look ahead to the potentially seismic impact of Avengers: Endgame (released on 25th April).

Given the MCU is now 11 years old, there are also 11 years of soundtrack history to go with the franchise. As we anticipate the end of phase three of the MCU, and wonder what the future holds, what better time to go back and explore the rich, wonderful scores of this monumental series?

Iron Man

The MCU was born in 2008 with Robert Downey Jr.'s soaring, infectiously entertaining debut as Iron Man. As the unofficial rock-star of the MCU (and, later, the Avengers initiative), it perhaps made sense for composer Ramin Djwadi (Game of Thrones) to score him in the same way.

Forgoing orchestral themes in favour of driving industrial anthems and electric guitars, it's not the most memorable MCU score but nevertheless established Stark's tenacious sense of derring-do.

Released in 2010, Iron Man 2 made everything bigger and noisier, if not necessarily better. Returning director Jon Favreau was required to weld more mythology and characters onto the Iron Man exoskeleton, including James Rhodes' (Don Cheadle replacing Terrence Howard) adoption of the War Machine suit and the first proper appearance of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson).

For that reason, composer John Debney's score is stranded somewhere between the mechanised mayhem of Dwajadi's original and the sort of orchestral, brass-driven bombast that would define later MCU scores.

When it came to the third movie, released in 2013, veteran action composer Brian Tyler got the mixture exactly right. A regular of the Fast & Furious series, Tyler's love of processed sounds and also engagingly rich orchestral themes come together to give Tony Stark's final solo adventure an appropriately grandiose sound.

Through the music, it feels like the rousing culmination of one character's journey and also a celebration of his inherent irreverence. Case in point: Tyler's funky, surf-inflected take of his Iron Man 3 theme during the end credits.


Captain America

Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) has perhaps undergone the most fascinating arc of any Avengers character. By having to adapt to multiple time periods and enemies contained within, invulnerable super-soldier Rogers has not only been physically challenged but intellectually and emotionally too, as his upstanding patriotism butts heads with the morally murky 21st century.

Still, there's little evidence of the latter in his enjoyably retro debut Captain America: The First Avenger. The movie explores the character's origins in World War II, and composer Alan Silvestri delivers the goods with, arguably, the MCU's first memorable theme. Drawing on his Back to the Future and Predator wellspring, Silvestri champions the character's nobility and sincerity without a shred of irony.

Things get darker in 2014's Captain America: The Winter Soldier, one of the MCU's finest films that absorbs the tone of paranoid 1970s thrillers. (The presence of Robert Redford reinforces this.)

As Rogers acclimatises to the opaque culture of 21st century America, in which villains are hiding in pain sight, composer Henry Jackman's score largely ditches Silvestri's musical warmth for darker, more industrial-strength material. It's not the easiest score to listen to on its own, but there's no denying it captures the suspenseful nature of the story.

In 2016, the world of Captain America became increasingly indistinguishable from that of an Avengers movie. At this point our heroes find themselves at each other's throats, divided into Team Cap and Team Iron Man, and moral boundaries are further complicated.

Amidst all the carnage, returning composer Jackman efficiently depicts the ongoing war between the characters. Balancing light and dark, character-driven themes vs angry noise (reflecting the consequences of the Avengers' actions), it's a score that adds further complexity to characters previously defined in simplistic terms.


Thor

Like Captain America, god of thunder Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has been treated to a multitude of different musical approaches over the years. This is perhaps inevitable given the movies themselves have only recently settled on a confident tone in terms of handling the central character.

In 2011, Kenneth Branagh collaborated with regular composer Patrick Doyle for Thor's big screen debut. The action music perhaps skews closer to the ostinato-driven work of Ramin Djwadi on Iron Man, but it shines in the emotional moments, establishing a beautiful, long-lined romantic theme for Thor and Jane Foster (Natalie Portman).


Somewhat disappointingly, Brian Tyler didn't opt to run with Doyle's themes in 2013 sequel Thor: The Dark World. But if his score lacks the intimacy of Doyle's vision, he amps up the might of Asgard and its warriors, namely with the propulsive choral theme that announces Thor's strength to the world, even while the film comes up lacking.

Arguably Thor's finest hour came in 2017's Thor: Ragnarok, a madcap, funny and zany implosion of the previously po-faced Thor mythology. The tonal shift came courtesy of Hunt for the Wilderpeople director Taika Waititi, and one can clearly see Chris Hemsworth's joy at being able to send up his brawny image.

The movie's retro 80s vibe also extends to Mark Mothersbaugh's score – as a former member of 80s group Devo, not to mention a former favourite of Wes Anderson, he's well-positioned to capture both the quirkiness, beauty, heroism and humour of Waititi's vision.


Hulk

He may be one of the cornerstones of the Avengers, but oddly enough Bruce Banner/Hulk is probably the most ill-defined, musically speaking. This no doubt stems from his troubled history: after Edward Norton walked away from the character following 2008's The Incredible Hulk, the future of the character looked somewhat in doubt.

Fortunately Mark Ruffalo brought the requisite level of self-deprecating humour and rumpled charm to his depiction of the character, making his debut in 2012's Avengers Assemble. But given that Hulk has only ever been granted one solo movie, it's perhaps unsurprising he lacks in the musical theme stakes.

That said, Romeo and Juliet composer Craig Armstrong's score for the 2008 movie is perhaps the MCU's most underrated. Mixing themes for Banner's human and animalistic sides along with an onslaught of impressive action music, it deserves re-appraisal.


The Avengers

Composer Alan Silvestri returned to the MCU fold with 2012's Avengers Assemble, a critical moment in MCU lore. That's because it was the first ensemble movie in the franchise, and was a litmus test as to how well the characters (joined by Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow and Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye) would mesh on the big screen.

We needn't have worried: with $1 billion in the bank, Joss Whedon's movie was a gargantuan success, and helped pave the way for future group adventures. Key to its impact is Silvestri's rousing main theme, a classic old-fashioned slice of orchestral might that has now become the recurrent theme for the Avengers in the ensuing films.

Things got a bit more complicated in 2015's Avengers: Age of Ultron. With more characters, set-pieces and franchise baggage to deal with, Whedon admits he struggled to put his personal stamp on the movie, and the score situation was equally difficult. Initially, Brian Tyler was tasked with composing the entire score, given his MCU lineage with Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World.

But someone somewhere must have had cold feet, drafting in Batman composer Danny Elfman to craft a new hybrid Avengers theme underlined by Alan Silvestri's theme from Avengers Assemble. It's a spectacular piece but frustratingly hasn't appeared in the franchise since.

Silvestri once again returned for 2018's Avengers: Infinity War, making him the most ubiquitous composer in the franchise. (Not exactly hard given the revolving door of composers in the series.) As the multitude of assembled Marvel characters prepare to battle Thanos (Josh Brolin), who is set to wreak destruction upon the universe, one might expect Silvestri to interweave all of their individual themes.

Sensibly, and perhaps recognising that it would over-burden the movie's soundscape, Silvestri instead streamlines and aims to capture the sense of despondency and menace cast by Thanos' long shadow. (There is however a brief quotation of Black Panther's material for the climactic battle in Wakanda.) This was a move that alienated certain soundtrack fans but it cuts to the emotional core of the most devastating Avengers movie so far.


Guardians of the Galaxy

Not exactly your conventional superheroes, the Guardians of the Galaxy require a bit more swagger in their music than most Marvel characters. To that end, writer-director James Gunn fashioned two critically acclaimed Awesome Mix soundtracks for the two movies, drawing on the love of pop music shared by charismatic main character Peter Quill/Star Lord (Chris Pratt). The use of classic 70s and 80s soul and rock also carries an emotional charge, connecting Quill to the memories of his late mother.

That said, the Guardians movies also owe themselves to sweeping space opera classics such as Star Wars and Flash Gordon. Gunn therefore turns to regular collaborator Tyler Bates for both movies, allowing him to anchor the movies in a brass-laden main theme not dissimilar to Alan Silvestri's work. There's also some lovely synthetic work capturing the ethereal and offbeat nature of the Guardians collective.

The scope and sense of personal intrigue expands in the second Guardians movie, as Peter comes face to face with his all-powerful father Ego (Kurt Russell). For that reason, Bates' orchestral and choral writing becomes increasingly sophisticated, anticipating the poignant family revelations visited upon Peter.


Doctor Strange

To date, the Sorcerer Supreme formerly known as Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) has only been treated to one movie. It remains to be seen if a sequel is coming in Marvel phase four, and if Michael Giacchino will return to expand upon his musical themes.

Drawing on the rich spiritual heritage and instrumentation of the film's Tibetan setting, Star Trek composer Giacchino deploys a signature heroic theme around a variety of sitars and dreamy hippy-era instruments. The end credits interpretation of the theme reportedly impressed former Beatle Paul McCartney, who stopped by the recording sessions for a listen.


Ant-Man

Making his big screen debut in 2015, shrinking superhero Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) is, despite his abilities, one of the more grounded Marvel characters. Starting out as a thief wanting to provide for his estranged daughter, his excursion into super-heroics is more of an accident, and his two movies (sequel Ant-Man and The Wasp was released in 2018) are similarly lower-stakes.

Drawing more from the realm of the heist movie, composer Christoph Beck's sly and witty scores are among the finest in the MCU so far. Grafting the punch of Mission: Impossible's Lalo Schifrin with the smooth intrigue of Bond composer John Barry, Beck crafts one of the most distinctive soundscapes in the franchise so far. But will any of this material return in Avengers: Endgame?


Black Panther

Comic book history was made this year when Black Panther became the first-ever comic book movie to win the Oscar for Best Original Score. The award went to Swedish composer and arranger Ludwig Goransson, a regular collaborator with Childish Gambino, and it's not hard to see why the Academy was won over.

In a franchise whose music is often defined by the same harmonic language, Goransson's work is thrillingly, bracingly different. It fuses Western symphonic power with Western Senegalese authenticity, in the process emerging as a score of two worlds, but nevertheless feeling coherent and unified. With its tribal/trap hip-hop theme for baddie Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) and piercing vocals from Baaba Maal, it's arguably the most sophisticated MCU score so far.


Spider-Man

The wall-crawler's big-screen history is a complex one. Owned by Sony, he's now technically speaking on 'lease' to the Disney-owned MCU, allowing actor Tom Holland to make his presence felt alongside his fellow Avengers. 

Given his brief introductory appearance in 2016's Captain America: Civil War, it's perhaps unsurprising that composer Henry Jackman didn't find the time to craft a character theme. Nevertheless, the web-slinger's solo adventures are getting the musical treatment from Doctor Strange veteran Michael Giacchino.

His score for 2017's Spider-Man: Homecoming certainly isn't lacking in dramatic moments, but for the most part maintains a pleasingly light touch. Scuttling and scurrying and rattling in the manner of your favourite neighbourhood Spider-Man, it concocts an endearing and distinctive soundscape for Holland's take on the character. Plus, there's a terrific incorporation of the original Spider-Man TV theme over the introductory Marvel logo.


Thanos

It may seem strange to allocate a musical identity to a Marvel villain, but given Thanos casts such a long and formidable shadow in Avengers: Infinity War, it makes sense for Alan Silvestri to base everything around him. The piece for Thanos is an arresting one, building a sense of menace and yet also compassionate melancholy for the character – he is, after all, compelled to make his own share of personal sacrifices in his quest to destroy 50% of the universe.

In the end the Thanos theme becomes a sad elegy for all that's lost and devastated in the wake of his dreaded finger snap. It no doubt sets an ominous tone for what is to come in Avengers: Endgame, which Silvestri is also scoring. How will he accentuate and build on his themes here, and how will he build towards phase four of the MCU?


Captain Marvel

We're whisked back to 1995, the era of Blockbuster Video and CD-roms, for Brie Larson's entertaining MCU debut. That of course allows co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck the chance to unleash their inner Guardians playlist, including No Doubt's 'Just a Girl'. 

Even more significant, however, is the presence of composer Pinar Toprak, the first woman to score an MCU movie, and indeed the first to ever tackle a superhero adventure. Her main Captain Marvel theme is an old-fashioned delight, unashamedly upbeat and bold in its championing of Larson's title character, which reaches gargantuan proportions during the final battle.

Will we be hearing more of this theme in future Captain Marvel movies? Given the somewhat haphazard musical continuity of the MCU, it's anybody's guess...

With Captain Marvel on release now and Avengers: Endgame released on 25th April, we want to know what your favourite MCU score is. Tweet us your choices @Cineworld.