The MARVEL CINEMATIC UNIVERSE: A Critical Assessment, Part 1 — The Music

Marvel Studios has built a very solid brand with consistently excellent films. But there is always room for improvement! In this new series of editorials, we'll explore areas where Marvel can do better...

Editorial Opinion
Marvel Studios has accomplished the unprecedented:  A shared cinematic universe, featuring dozens of characters and story arcs told over ten years (and counting), that continually resonates with both audiences and critics.
 
Consider Marvel’s latest installment, last November’s “Thor: Ragnarok.”  According to Box Office Mojo, the Taika Waititi-helmed film grossed nearly $852 million worldwide off of a production budget of merely $180 million, while boasting a stellar Rotten Tomatoes score of 92 percent.
 
But it hasn’t all been roses for the Disney-owned studio.  As we prepare for the culmination of Marvel’s ‘phase three’ with next month’s “Black Panther” and this summer’s “Avengers: Infinity War,” it's worthy taking stock of the studio’s mis-steps and identify what — if any — areas there are for improvement.
 
Let us begin, shall we?
 
Music
 
The importance of the right score and/or soundtrack for the creative success or failure of a film cannot be overstated.  If one doubts the ability of a musical composition to elevate a scene, one need look no further than the fan-edited version of "Star Wars'" closing throne-room scene sine John Williams’ heroic score.
 
Yeah.  Vive la difference.
 
So how does Marvel Studios measure up in the music department?  First the good.
 
The MCU kicked off strong — musically speaking — with its first effort, 2008’s “Iron Man.”  Featuring original compositions by Ramin Djawadi and produced in collaboration with legendary composer Hans Zimmer, the “Iron Man” soundtrack leaned heavily on electric guitars and industrial rhythms, sounds which perfectly captured the spirit of the title character.
 
The inclusion of Black Sabbath’s iconic track Iron Man as Tony Stark revealed his identity to the world in the film’s climax was icing on the (musical) cake.  “Iron Man 2doubled down on the rock element, leaning heavily on songs from AC/DC for its soundtrack.
 
Director James Gunn has made music an essential element of his two "Guardians of the Galaxy" films.  The soundtracks of both movies feature classic pop tunes from the ‘70’s and 80’s, taken from mix tapes given to Peter Quill in the film by his mother back on Earth.
 
Gunn flawlessly integrates the tunes into key moments, such as the scene in the 2017’s “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” in which Rocket and Yondu make their escape to Jay and the Americans' 1964 hit Come a Little Bit Closer.
 
No doubt Gunn’s inspired use of music is a big reason the Guardians films have become among the most beloved in the MCU.  And the music-buying public responded as well.  According to Wikipedia, the soundtrack of the first film, “Guardians of the Galaxy: Awesome Mix Vol. 1”:
 
“....topped the Billboard Top Soundtracks for 11 consecutive weeks and 16 weeks in total. As of April 2017, it has sold over 1.75 million copies in the United States alone, and has been certified Platinum by the RIAA. The album was the US's second best-selling soundtrack album of 2014...”
 
“Thor: Ragnarok” was similarly praised for its retro score composed by former-Devo member Mark Mothersbaugh, as well as the pitch-perfect inclusion of Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song, a guitar-driven ode to the Viking spirit accompanied by Robert Plant’s banshee wail.
 
Now, the bad.
 
The aforementioned (notable) examples aside, most of the MCU films have distinguished themselves with thoroughly undistinguished, and un-distinguishable, scores and soundtracks.  In many cases I have walked out of a Marvel film with zero memory of the music I had just heard. Not a good sign.
 
In fact, of all the MCU films to date, possibly it is only 2012’s “The Avengers” which possesses anything resembling a memorable, symphonic theme.  Composed by Alan Silvestri, the rousing passage conjures feelings of hope and sacrifice, perfect accompaniment for our assembled heroes.
 
But how can it be that this is the only memorable theme in ten years and fifteen films?  
 
If Marvel Studios is going to elevate its movies to the ‘very great’ as opposed to the just ‘very good,’ they would do well to allocate more resources and thought to original music in the MCU.  Perhaps recruiting one composer to oversee all the music across the entire film universe, as Kevin Feige does for story and character, would be advisable.
 
Great movies have great music.  It’s just a fact.  It’s sad that we have nothing in the MCU to compare to the anthemic and enduring compositions of, say, John Williamsoriginal “Superman: The Motion Picture” score, or the brooding and atmospheric Danny Elfman compositions that buttressed Tim Burton’s 1990’s Batman films.
 
Overall grade of music in the MCU:  
 
C-
 
Continued in Part 2 — Villains
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