Quick: Hum the theme from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Now hum the theme from Tim Burton’s Batman. Cool, now hum the theme from Ant-Man. No? How about Thor. Hmm…
Despite the unmatched box-office success and cultural impact of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the films’ music, on the whole, is oddly forgettable. The latest video from Every Frame a Painting does a good job of illustrating that, opening with that same “can you hum it?” trick. It also offers a few possible explanations for how things came to be this way.
In particular, their video illuminates the practice of using Temp Tracks, wherein a director temporarily uses another film’s score while they edit their film. As many professional film composers attest, directors sometimes wind up so attached to the temp that they basically order their composer to copy it.
The Every Frame folks have made a supplemental video that compares a bunch of film soundtracks with the track they believe was the temp:
(Bonus points for the Bojack reference in the title.)
I saw the main video premiered on stage by host Tony Zhou and writer Taylor Ramos last weekend at the XOXO Festival in Portland. At the event, someone raised a question that I also had: The main video doesn’t really talk about how melody has fallen out of fashion over the last decade or two, and how many film composers simply don’t even attempt to write substantial, iconic motifs like they used to. That’s certainly part of the reason people can hum the theme from Star Wars but not Thor: The Dark World. (As a side note, a hummable melody isn’t the only sign of a successful or memorable soundtrack. It’s hard to hum Thomas Newman’s American Beauty score, but it’s still great, ya know? Most people probably remember it more as a texture or a feeling.)
On stage, Zhou talked about how the Marvel movies seem to be in a rush to have someone begin talking, contrasted with how films like Star Wars often contain lengthy sections (including the introductory text crawl) that are accompanied by nothing but music. That’s actually related to something I wrote about with regard to video game music, a billion years ago when I was a wee Kotaku columnist. The notion then was that much of the most iconic video game music is from an era when there was no voice acting, so composers wouldn’t have to worry about crowding spoken dialogue with their strong melodies.
There is one MCU anthem that I really like: Alan Silvestri’s Avengers theme. It’s simple and to the point, but if you asked me to sing it on the street, I’d recite for you the whole thing. All the same, the majority of these films are indeed scored with safe, forgettable music that’s been carefully designed to keep out of the way. Even when the music is strong enough to stand on its own—as seen in that terrific Captain America: The Winter Soldier example at 4:06—the filmmakers seem unwilling to let it be.
As much as I enjoyed Captain America: Civil War, I remember being disappointed that aside from Cap himself, none of the heroes in the film had their own recognizable musical theme. The climactic showdown could’ve been a wonderful collision of iconic motifs. Instead, I don’t remember a single note.