Musical consistency – the MCU’s achilles heel

In a world of failed Dark Universes, Amazing Spider-verses, and whatever is going on at DC, the Marvel Cinematic Universe shines as a beacon of success. However, these films aren’t infallible and often come under criticism for being too formulaic and safe in their storytelling. I disagree, but that’s a topic for another day. No, where the MCU falls down in my mind is in one of the cornerstones of technical filmmaking, and what was formally a genre defining element of the superhero aesthetic – leitmotif.

For those who don’t know, a leitmotif is defined as:

‘A recurrent theme throughout a musical or literary composition, associated with a particular person, idea, or situation.’

The Imperial March, for example is both a leitmotif for Darth Vader, and the Empire. Leitmotif is a really useful tool to drive audience investment, helping to establish a connection with characters that in turn makes key story beats hit harder. Some examples of leitmotif done well can be found in two seminal tv shows with appalling endings: Game of Thrones and LOST. Thrones composer Ramin Djawadi crafts distinctive themes for the houses of Westeros, as well as other important groups like the Dothraki and the Unsullied. The result is a powerful suite that allows for variations on a central group of characters. For example, in a low moment, such as the death of Ned Stark, the House Stark theme is used as a sombre device to reflect the family’s grief. The result is a quiet version using mainly strings at a slower pace.

 

Yet, when the family are victorious, the theme is used again in a more uplifting manner, with a full choir and percussion instruments that suggest battle readiness and victory.

 

LOST composer Michael Giacchino introduces leitmotifs for every main character (and there are a lot of them) from as early as the pilot episode. The result is a musical continuity that spans across six seasons, making the emotional moments more beautiful, more painful, and more impactful.

Charlie, everyone’s favourite heroin addicted Manc with a heart of gold, is associated with the above theme from the beginning of season one, where it’s mainly used as a motif for his drug cravings. Through a beautifully written character arc, he comes to terms with who he is, beats his addiction and ultimately sacrifices himself for the good of the other survivors. The resulting scene uses a blend of Giacchino’s ‘Life and Death’ motif used when (shocker) a character is born or dies, combined with Charlie’s addiction theme layered over the top. This makes for a compelling death that carries more subconscious emotional weight because of prior association with that piece of music.

Now, on to Marvel. Previously, the leitmotif had been the bread and butter of the superhero genre. Danny Elfman employed them extensively throughout the scoring of the Batman and Spiderman franchises respectively, making for rich musical experiences that had suitable motifs for characters, themes, and even buildings. Hell, even the X-Men franchise through all of its non existent continuity managed to keep a consistent main theme for the team (edit: this point is ruined post Dark Phoenix, thanks again Dark Phoenix for ruining everything).

Yet, musical consistency has constantly evaded the most profitable superhero franchise of all time, the 22 film (at the time of writing) strong Marvel Cinematic Universe. Almost every film employs a new director, and with that, a new composer, creating a thematic disconnect in a franchise that in every other regard, values consistency as its MO. The only exceptions are in sequels, and even that isn’t a hard and fast rule. Alan Silvestri composes the original Captain America score, yet none of the sequels, and is at the helm of Avengers 1, 3 and 4, yet franchise black sheep Age of Ultron is palmed off to a collaboration between Elfman and Brian Tyler (remember those names). You can see the full list of composers here:

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As a result of this disconnect, individual characters have leitmotifs introduced in their solo films, only to have them disregarded in subsequent movies. The most heinous example comes from the Guardians of the Galaxy main theme, which almost acts as a space operatic interpretation of the main Avengers cue. This theme goes completely unused in the team’s first crossover with the Earth based MCU heroes during Infinity War, which is endlessly frustrating. Other examples such as Tyler’s fantastic Iron Man 3 theme and Michael Giachinno’s Spiderman: Homecoming and Dr. Strange leitmotifs are also painfully absent. In fact, the duo of films that culminate the Infinity Saga, Infinity War and Endgame feature almost no musical continuity with the past films, except Captain America’s leitmotif (shocker, as Silvestri composed it), and of course…

The only piece of music that everyone at Marvel can seem to agree on, Alan Silvestri’s admittedly incredible Avengers theme is almost the only example of a film spanning leitmotif throughout the MCU. The Avengers theme may as well be the anthem of the MCU, as it features not only in Avengers, Infinity War, Endgame, and a reworked version for Age of Ultron, but it also pops up in Ant Man, Spiderman Homecoming, and Captain Marvel. Here it is in Ant Man at about the 50 second mark.

If the Avengers theme deserves to endure across films, why not other character based leitmotifs? Well, despite the apparent disinterest in any kind of musical continuity, a duo of composers shine through in understanding the importance. Mr. Danny Elfman and Mr. Brian Tyler, please take a bow. Though Age of Ultron is undeniably the weakest Avengers film, it has what the others lack; character leitmotifs from prior films! Captain America’s theme, Tony’s Iron Man 3 theme, Thor’s Dark World theme, and the Avengers theme all reappear to remind you that these characters do indeed come from a wider universe. Here’s a neat video showing all examples thus far. The Age of Ultron comparisons start at 2:37.

So, with the Infinity Saga complete and Thanos dusted, will phase four finally see a consistent use of character leitmotif? Probably not. Though Marvel seems to learn from its mistakes, there just isn’t the outcry for consistent compositions, bar from whiney film and Marvel nerds such as myself writing blog posts that no one will read. The answer isn’t just to hire one composer for every film, that would be insane. (Though I’ll link a video showing if Silvestri had scored Guardians of the Galaxy below, because it’s super neat). No, all Kevin Feige and company need to ensure is that when a new composer is hired, they adhere to prior leitmotifs established for individual characters. In fact, the best way forward might be to hire a specific composer for each franchise, for maximum coherency. Moments like the return of a fan favourite character will be made much more impactful in future films if they’re accompanied by a recognisable theme that has endured in the fan’s minds for years. People appreciate these technical touches, you need only look at the reaction to the return of the iconic Elfman Batman theme in the abomination of cinema that is Justice League for proof.

Sadly, this just doesn’t seem a priority for Marvel currently, and well, that’s a shame.

Avengers: Endgame (SPOILER FREE) review (2019)

‘The most ambitious crossover in cinema history.’ Well, they’re not wrong.

It’s frankly impossible to talk about Avengers Endgame without the eleven years of context across 22, now 23 movies. For years, Kevin Feige and co have been giving comic book fans everywhere a loving interpretation of the heroes they love, on the big screen. While Infinity War broke new ground last year, the final hour of Endgame is a Marvel comics fan’s wet dream. Fan service is everywhere, and what is put to screen (trying to be vague here), is truly, a marvel.

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It’s very difficult to discuss this film without giving anything away, due to the clever marketing that revealed so little. What I can say, is that it sticks the landing. Plot threads from almost every prior film are wrapped up in a way that is both emotionally resonant, and somehow entirely satisfying. That said, there is the odd writing choice. Certain characters are vastly different than they were in Infinity War, and not all of these changes work, in my humble opinion.

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The pacing is also a bit more sluggish than it was in Infinity War. While never boring, it doesn’t move quite as quickly, though the character development that is given focus is arguably worth it. Alan Silvestri’s score continues to amaze, with some lovely leitmotif callbacks to several Marvel movies: something the studio doesn’t usually excel at.

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Overall, Avengers Endgame delivers on its own hype. Directors the Russo Brothers have crafted an ending that is not only wholly satisfying in filmmaking terms, but also gives the loyal fans almost exactly what they want. It’s not as tight as Infinity War, but it has just as much heart. The last third alone make it a milestone in superhero history, and the final battle is one of the most jaw dropping scenes in movie history. Short answer: go and see it.

★★★★★

 

 

Ranking the MCU movies (November 2018)

Last time I did a big spiel here about the influence these movies have had on cinema, blockbusters, the way film universes are created blah blah blah. We just want to get to the ranking, right? So let’s get to it. Here’s March 2018 if you missed it.

20. Thor: The Dark World (2013)

Easily the weakest; incredibly dull and forgettable with the worst villain in the MCU (and that’s saying something!) Most people forget it exists and to be honest, I can’t blame most people. It adds nothing to the overall Infinity War storyline and doesn’t even work as its own movie so my advice is to skip it. More like ‘Thor: The Dark BORE’ am I right? Am I right? Sorry.

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19. The Incredible Hulk (2008)

A Mark Ruffalo-less Hulk film that was pretty standard for the representation of Hulk in film at the time- ie he is ‘big, dumb, green and runs away from tanks.’ Its run of the mill and doesn’t try anything hugely interesting, but it isn’t awful. Fairly decent villain, dull love interest and I’m not a huge fan of Edward Norton in this role. Again, pretty forgettable.

18. Iron Man 2 (2010)

This tends to be most people’s least favourite. It introduces War Machine which is cool, but suffers from terrible pacing and a seriously underdeveloped and under utilised villain. Consistent solid performances from the leads and the introduction of Black Widow to the MCU, push this one just slightly above the other two for me.

17. Thor (2011)

It was early days and these films were trying to find their feet, so I cut most of the phase one films some slack. Thor isn’t bad at all- the casting is spot on and the direction and depiction of Asgard is stunning. It also introduced us to the second best MCU villain, so props for that. Alas, it’s been eclipsed by a far, far greater sequel. No, not ‘The Dark Bore’, we’ll get to Ragnarok later…

16. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

Another film trying to find its feet and suffering by having to establish so much in one solo movie: Howard Stark, the Tesseract, Cap himself, Bucky, Peggy Carter, Red Skull, Vibranium, the list goes on. The point is, there’s a lot going on here that the film needs to juggle. To its credit, it does it pretty well but again, becomes largely eclipsed by two stunning sequels that just do everything better.

15. Dr Strange (2016)

I’m sure having this one this high up the list will be controversial. Don’t get me wrong, I liked this movie a lot, I just didn’t love it. Cumberbatch is a great Dr. Strange, but the villain is the weakest since Thor: The Dark World. Casting Mads Mikkelsen, one of the finest actors going as the villain and then writing a character so two dimensional he’s practically flat is unforgivable. For shame, Marvel.

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14. Ant Man and The Wasp (2018)

This pint sized flick had the insane challenge of following Infinity War and unfortunately, came across pretty mediocre as a result. I still love the casting of Hank, Scott and Hope and the size changing gimmicks are fun, but it just feels a little safe compared to the other more recent additions. The villain has no excuse to be this bland following Killmonger, The Grandmaster and Thanos showing that Marvel can actually make compelling villains. Watch the last five minutes on Youtube, otherwise skip it.

13. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

Ah, the sequel that could just never live up to the hype. After The Avengers stunned audiences, Joss Whedon was under immense pressure to capture that same magic again. Alas, the result is more so-so than the original, but still a great blockbuster. The decision to make Ultron a more comedic presence is rather puzzling, but the voice acting chops of James Spader redeem it. The stunning team dynamic pulls this one forward for me, with the banter and chemistry between many now well established characters driving some of the more excellent scenes.

12. Ant Man (2015)

This used to be higher on my list, but sadly following a re watch, hasn’t aged too well. Still, it’s a fun ride despite being more than a little generic and Ant Man sets achieves more than it fails. It establishes a key cast of characters and makes them likeable and memorable from the get go. It provides a new genre for the MCU to take on with a heist premise and it uses the gimmick of the film (things getting smaller or bigger) in amusing and creative ways. All in all, its a pretty awesome flick. Oh, but the villain sucks. SHOCKER. Speaking of ‘The Shocker’…

11. Iron Man (2008)

The one that started it all, propelling both Robert Downey Jr and Tony Stark out of the depths of obscurity and into household names. Iron Man is still a solid movie with great pacing, excellent casting and a brilliant retelling of what could easily be a pretty clunky origin story. The standard of weak Marvel villains to come is somewhat set by Obadiah Stane, but as the first film in the series and an origin movie, that can be overlooked simply because the rest of the film is still so tight.

10. Spiderman: Homecoming (2017)

Another one that people seemed to love that I found just ok. I like Tom Holland in the role and loved Michael Keaton as The Vulture, but the rest of the film kind of dragged for me. Some great action scenes and a cool ‘breakfast club comedy’ kind of vibe aside, this one has grown on me over time. I didn’t fall in love with it straight away, but now appreciate the lighter tone, compelling villain and an actually young Spiderman. I dig this waaaaay more than the Amazing series travesty, but give me the original Sam Raimi trilogy any day. It’s all about Maguire, people.

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9. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

This was the turning point for Marvel: a risk that other studios would’ve never taken in a million years, no matter how successful their films were. But Kevin knew better and produced, alongside director James Gunn, one of the most fun films we’ve seen from the studio yet, whilst simultaneously expanding the universe quite literally into the stars. The spot on casting of the team, the seamlessly integrated retro soundtrack and the consistent tone make this film a favourite of mine. Can you guess the weak link? It starts with a v and ends with an -illain.

8. Iron Man 3 (2013)

I LOVE IRON MAN 3 AND I WILL NOT APOLOGISE. I know a lot of people hate this one and I used to be one of you people. But guys, it’s actually just plain fun. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, has great comic book action, a strong cast, and feels like its own story, rather than a retread.  Not to mention excellent character development for Tony Stark that makes sense in a post-‘Avengers’ world and a really upbeat and memorable score, which is more than most MCU movies can claim. Putting aside the weak pull of the rug twist and an even weaker villain, it’s a really great time. And who can forget the Christmas setting and Dora the Explorer watch? Come on. Those are some banging writing choices.

7. Captain America: Civil War (2016)

Essentially ‘Avengers 2.5’, Civil War takes its namesake and basic gist from the widely successful comic book of the same name. Obviously the only thing it really takes is the concept of ‘Team Cap’ and ‘Team Iron Man’ as the conflict is based on events from previous movies rather than secret identities. The juggling of characters is insanely well handled and the film does a good job in making both sides of the argument compelling to really illustrate the tragedy by the time you get to the final fight. The movie handles previous continuity of The Winter Soldier perfectly and introduces new fan favourite Black Panther nicely. It also marks the triumphant return of Spiderman to the MCU, with perhaps the best casting for the wall crawler ever in actually teenaged, Tom Holland.

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6. Black Panther (2018)

There isn’t much to say that hasn’t already said as the box office and critical reception has been insane. The use of a mainly black cast is so appropriate and such a big step forward for Hollywood that Black Panther gains props outside of the movie as much as it does with its excellent content. The film itself owes a lot to the James Bond series and again tackles an expanding world for Marvel by introducing us formally to Wakanda. It also contains the second greatest MCU villain we’ve seen yet, perfectly captured in the angry and determined weight of Michael B Jordan’s stunning performance.

5. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

If Ant Man is a heist movie, then The Winter Soldier is a 70s spy flick. Everyone was blown away that a movie about Captain America, the boy-scout of the Avengers could be this good. Sebastian Stan brings a terrific performance as the titular Winter Soldier, being genuinely intimidating at times as well as sympathetic. Robert Redford also makes for a great un super powered antagonist. Throw in Nick Fury, Black Widow and sadly lame newcomer, Falcon and you’ve got one of the slickest solo movies we’ve seen yet.

4. The Avengers (2012)

The first culmination of the MCU also remains the tightest team up so far. Despite a fairly generic plot, the juggling of characters, organic relationships and excellent antagonist make this one of the best and most exciting adventures the studio has put out yet. It laid the groundwork for every film to come since and has become the gold standard for how to combine your solo films into one truly epic team up. Justice League take note. It also ties in nicely to the Infinity War storyline, giving us our first glimpse of Thanos in the end credits, even if 90% of the audience at the time had no idea who he was, its still hype as hell.

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3. Thor Ragnarok (2017)

The biggest surprise on the list yet, Thor: Ragnarok can only be described as a breath of fresh air. After a pretty good origin movie followed by the dullest MCU movie yet, Thor needed a big break. Thank Odin, he got one, with this weird comedy/buddy cop/road trip/gladiator/space opera epic. Completely flipping our perceptions of these characters on their head, director Taika Waititi showed us the first glimpse that the MCU would need to adapt and evolve in order to stay fresh and exciting, not being able to just repeat the same movie every time. Taking more from Planet Hulk than the actual Ragnarok storyline, the inclusion of fan favourite Hulk, also made this particularly special. Throw in Loki, the amazingly camp and hilarious Grandmaster and a semi-good villain in Cate Blanchett’s Hela and you have one ‘Hela’ fun ride. See what I did there?

2. Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 (2017)

Damn, 2017 was a good year for the MCU. There is no denying that this is a stunning sequel. It manages to capture the spirit of the first film without feeling like a retread. It moves the story forward and further develops every single one of the team. Rocket and Star Lord must overcome their ego (little Marvel joke for you there), Gamora must settle differences with adopted sister Nebula, Drax befriends a new alien and Groot is reborn as a tiny baby twig. The show stealers are the two ‘fathers’ of Peter Quill though; EGO, the living planet who gets third place in the MCU villain rankings and Yondu, a previously one note character who provides one of the few tearjerkers in the series. Add to that another stunning retro soundtrack and some epic visuals, with a slightly darker, Empire Strikes Back esque tone and you have, in my opinion, the finest film that the MCU has produced to date. OR, I would’ve said that, bar one little thing…

1. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

You know it is. Almost unanimously hailed as the finest entry in the series, the Russo Brothers did the impossible, combining a cast of over twenty characters into one engaging film that is completely compelling. Everyone has at least a moment to shine (even Falcon, who everyone hates) and unbelievably very few characters are missing. It has the bleakest tone yet, but somehow still manages to seem fun, memorable and enjoyable. The ending is one of the most daring moves ever taken, even if it’ll almost certainly be completely undone. And Thanos, oh Thanos. Josh Brolin is simply perfect and is by far the most compelling MCU villain yet. I even forget that he’s CGI sometimes as the rendering is so lifelike, which is such a rarity in itself. All in all, this is it. The tenth anniversary of the MCU could not have been more perfect. Now let’s see if it can be topped in 2019…

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