By Charlie Brigden
It’s amazing what kind of an effect five words can have. While it’s been known for a while that Brian Tyler would be scoring Marvel’s huge blockbuster Avengers: Age of Ultron, a recent poster included the credit “Additional music by Danny Elfman”. Immediately the internet was awash with conspiracy theories and questions, and now the soundtrack is here the credit is equal – “Music by Brian Tyler and Danny Elfman.”
But just how much is which? Well, there’s a lot of music here – just under eighty minutes worth – and the tracks are distinguished between Tyler and Elfman. My friend and obvious maths whiz Kristin Romanelli (who also edits Film Score Monthly) worked it out at 38% Elfman, which sounds about right, although spiritually the score feels more. There is a clever interplay here and Marvel were smart to get two composers with very different scoring talents on board; Tyler is the muscle and Elfman is the heart, and it’s a symbiotic relationship that comes off, at least on the album.
Thematically Age of Ultron is not as focused as some might hope, but it brings in something Marvel has been lacking in much of its music: continuity. Not only with Tyler, who previously introduced robust themes for the respective characters in Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World, but also Alan Silvestri’s theme for The Avengers which gets a decent workout. The latter is mainly used by Elfman but is certainly integrated by Tyler, especially with a direct quote in the later parts of the score.
With both composers having such recognisable styles, it’s not difficult to tell who does what (although listening for the first time without track credits I admittedly got caught out a couple of times). Both composers set their tone immediately, Tyler kicks the album off with the brooding and threatening title cue, while Elfman follows with the brassy and hopeful ‘Heroes’ that is structured around Silvestri’s theme. Both work to their strengths, with Elfman providing emotional grounding with cues like ‘Ultron-Twins’ with its tragic string line and chorus, and Tyler bringing the (musical) pain with furious pieces like ‘Hulkbuster’ which brings Tyler’s Iron Man theme to the fore.
What’s interesting about the relationship is what it brings to the Marvel films as a whole, which is something fresh. Elfman’s writing is always interesting and provides the cerebral yin to Tyler’s visceral yang, but both are able to conjure evocative pieces that feel like an evolution of the music of the Marvel universe. That’s not to say Elfman is a slouch when it comes to action and Tyler can’t supply emotion and both are adept at channelling their own abilities to marry the material. Tyler’s ‘Sacrifice’ has a satisfying emotional core, while Elfman’s ‘Can You Stop This Thing?’ has action material that makes you wonder what he may have come up with if he scored solo.
And it’s Elfman that brings something new in alongside the returning material, allowing it to develop slowly until it’s unleashed at the end. ‘Farmhouse’ is a wonderful treatment of the theme, with acoustic guitar that evokes Americana and strings that seem to underly more internal conflicts than the ones we’re used to. It has versatility, so while it’s beautiful and thoughtful in that cue, it sounds inspiring and exciting in ‘Avengers Unite’.
Ultron as a character is treated with a surprisingly human approach, suitably malevolent but far away from the heavy electronic motifs you might expect it/him to have. Vision, a character I am not familiar with, is given a somewhat ethereal air by Tyler that doesn’t hugely stand out, which may be a response to the visual look of the character that I’ve seen.
Age of Ultron is perhaps less of a Frankenstein’s monster than you might have expected. It’s always an interesting listen and goes surprisingly quickly, with both composers supplying score that’s propulsive without losing any emotional weight. It’s a pleasure to hear Silvestri’s returning theme, especially when tied together in the finale cue – ‘New Avengers’ – with Elfman’s new piece where both act as a summation of the broad heroic inspiration that The Avengers represents as a team. It certainly feels like a new age – one to look forward to.
Avengers: Age of Ultron is released digitally on April 28 and on CD May 19 by Hollywood Records