By Charlie Brigden
This may sound a little bit hyperbolic, but It’s almost impossible to imagine blockbuster life before Marvel Studios. With the recent Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the forthcoming Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers: Age of Ultron, it seems the mythic heroes and heroines of the imaginations of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (et al) have been an eternal presence in fantasy cinema. But it’s barely been five years since Iron Man, Thor and the Hulk burst onto screens and into our hearts, starting something special in movies and beyond, and while the pictures have been hits from the start, the music has had a rather bumpy ride.
Before 2008, Marvel’s properties – while being pretty big moneymakers – were scattered amongst film studios. Fox had X-Men and Fantastic Four, Sony had Spider-Man, all of which were dwindling due to negative feedback from fans and critics (and all three of which have either been rebooted in recent times or are on their way). Then a certain Tony Stark came along and changed everything. Iron Man (dir: Jon Favreau) was distributed by Paramount but produced by Marvel Studios – which would control the company’s remaining big assets and treat them properly. But more than that, Iron Man was the start of a long-term project that would look to bring Marvel’s equivalent of the Justice League to cinematic fruition.
Iron Man was a massive hit, combining the hi-tech thrills and spills of modern action with the wit of lead actor Robert Downey, Jr. The film had a pretty old-school approach to it, and aside from the CGI, probably could have come straight from the eighties, which would fit with Stark’s rock star persona and subsequent love of AC/DC and Black Sabbath. The music of the film also took on a rock feel, not only through the featured songs (such as Sabbath’s iconic ‘Iron Man’) but also with Ramin Djawadi’s musical score. As Djawadi told Den of Geek last year, it was Favreau who was the brains behind the rock approach.
“I want to do something completely different,” said Favreau, according to Djawadi, “instead of going down the orchestral route. I want to do more rock and roll.” That concept resulted in a mix of guitar and electronics, as well as the traditional orchestra, thus establishing a ballsy and aggressive modern sound not only for the character of Iron Man but for the Marvel Studios universe. Djawadi’s themes for ol’ Shellhead mix the driving hard rock guitars with the kind of militaristic percussion you’d expect from a Hans Zimmer action score and big string choruses with a wave of sound feel. Loudness and attitude are the order of the day rather than melody, with electronically augmented elements emphasising the technological side of Stark Industries. It works pretty well in the film, although it feels repetitive on record. I’d go so far as saying that the only track really needed from the CD is ‘Driving With The Top Down’.
Next on the line for Marvel was Bruce Banner and his green, gigantic and grumpy alter-ego. Ignoring the underrated 2003 Ang Lee picture, The Incredible Hulk (2008, dir: Louis Leterrier) was an altogether straighter adaptation of the character. It’s a little boring and pedestrian for me, and reasonably miscast – Lee’s film may have used more artistic licence, but it was more creative, more exciting, and more emotionally resonant. The best thing about Leterrier’s film is Craig Armstrong’s score, which focuses on the tragic elements of Banner’s life, and the struggle between his personality and the Hulk.
Armstrong’s theme for the Hulk has an exotic feel to it, but it still bears the hallmarks of the then-nascent Marvel sound, particularly the electronics – I imagine Armstrong’s history with electronic music was undoubtedly a factor in Marvel hiring him for the film. It has a certain off-kilter feel to it, and feels like it could perhaps come from a horror film, but it’s still pretty indistinct. The score’s best moments are for the scenes between Bruce and Betty, with Armstrong’s music being not only delicate and tender but also emotional. In fact, the emotion – and the ability to relate through that – is one of Marvel’s trademarks in the way they do things, certainly in a broader sense than a certain other “faction”, but in a way that just seems more powerful and resonant.
Speaking of emotion, it’s worth noting that Armstrong’s score musically referenced one of the best Marvel themes ever created – Joe Harnell’s ‘The Lonely Man Theme’, composed originally for the 1970s TV show starring Lou Ferrigno and Bill Bixby. The theme only has a brief appearance, in ‘Bruce Goes Home’, and it kind of acts as a weird interruption, not just because it recalls the old show, but also because it’s really better than anything else in the score. Louis Leterrier was a massive fan of Armstrong’s score, going so far as to ensure a two-disc presentation of the score was released through Amazon. A little too much really, but a noble gesture.
While The Incredible Hulk did well at the box office (despite apparent power struggles during production), it wasn’t as well-received as Iron Man, with many seeing it as a bit of a pointless endeavour, necessary only from Marvel’s position to connect it to its new cinematic universe. So before unleashing more characters that many weren’t sure would make it in their own movies, Marvel decided to go back to where it started, and by that I mean a safe sequel. Iron Man 2 (2010, dir: Jon Favreau) was, as expected, a gigantic blockbuster. It’s not an especially-loved entry in the series by many, but it does its job on a base level. Musical continuity however went out the window, and this also became a theme of the Marvel scores.
Out went Ramin Djawadi, in came John Debney. Debney has always been known as a composer who, while having obvious talent, has never really hit the big leagues. Iron Man 2 was a massive opportunity for him, but if I’m honest, it’s not his best work. It’s an admirable effort, especially given that he tried his best to fit the current Iron Man style of big guitars and loud noises with a more traditional orchestral approach. The guitar stuff here is done by Tom Morello (of Audioslave and Rage Against The Machine fame) and it works okay, but it’s all a bit generic. The same with Debney’s theme – you can see what he was trying to do, but it doesn’t really make much of an impression.
So after three films, there wasn’t a huge amount of musical identity, but you could sense a feeling from Marvel that they perhaps didn’t want it. Electronics and guitars were pushed heavily, as well as a modern Hollywood sound that comes across as identikit at times, and while Armstrong’s Hulk music was ahead of both Iron Man scores, there was still a tendency to rely on a wall of sound at times, a theme that would certainly continue in the future. But with another hit Iron Man movie under their belt, it was time for Marvel to travel to the realm of Asgard and Germany circa 1942 and recruit two respected Hollywood composers to further enhance the musical landscape as they moved ever nearer to the launch of a small team-up film called The Avengers…