Marvel Music

People love Marvel movies but they often don’t discuss the music behind the visuals. Why do people not talk about Marvel music when discussing the MCU’s films?

Music influences our perception of something more than we realize. Have you ever seen videos of E.T. without John William’s fantastic score? It’s creepy, right? William’s iconic score somehow transforms that uncomfortable image into a heartwarming scene making adults and children alike cry their eyes out.

Many of the most popular film franchises of all time have equally iconic music. People across the world can sing the themes of STAR WARS, HARRY POTTER, and ROCKY without skipping a beat.

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However, not every famous franchise has music that fans remember. Despite the fact that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the highest grossing franchise, it’s film music fails to make a lasting impact. In 2016, the Youtube channel, Every Frame A Second, released a fantastic video “The Marvel Symphonic Universe” which demonstrated the reasoning why people couldn’t remember Marvel music.

The video argued that the way that composers produced Marvel music largely failed to make a lasting impression on its audience. I agree with many of the arguments made in Every Frame A Second’s video. However, after watching it, something just didn’t sit right with me. While I agree that Marvel music fails to make a lasting impression on me after watching a film, I often notice the beautiful intricacies present in many of the film scores.

I will highlight some of my favorite tracks in the Marvel Cinematic Universe starting with the Phase 1 films. Sadly this will not include songs like “Hooked On A Feeling” or Kendrick Lamar’s “Pray For Me” though fantastic songs. I will be looking at strictly the film scores. Before I do so, I have to explain Leitmotifs.

Explaining Leitmotifs

To fully understand my argument about Marvel Music it is essential to understand the concept of Leitmotifs. A Leitmotif is “a short, constantly recurring musical phrase” associated with a larger meaning. It can signify a person, place, or idea.

Marvel Music
Richard Wagner looking very dapper

Leitmotifs are most often associated with Richard Wagner’s masterful series of operas, DER RING DES NIBELUNGEN. These four operas loosely based on Norse sagas contain massive amounts of recurring themes. For example, the hero Siegfried will have one Leitmotif while his sword will have another Leitmotif and the realm of Valhalla another. If Siegfried were to wield his sword in the realm of Valhalla we might have a fusion of different Leitmotifs playing.

Popular film composers like John Williams and Howard Shore have adapted the Leitmotif for their film music. STAR WARS most famously integrated Leitmotifs into their music with themes for Luke, Leia, the Empire, the Force, and more.

The power of Leitmotifs cannot be underestimated. Whereas other films would have to explicitly state an idea through dialogue or visuals, Leitmotifs can just suggest them through music.

It became clear after repeat listens that the quality of Marvel Music was largely not the problem. Rather the problem seems to be that the Marvel Cinematic Universe, while one of the best planned out film franchises of all time, failed to build a cohesive musical universe. They failed to establish Leitmotifs throughout their films.

IRON MAN — “Gulmira” By Ramin Djawadi

Marvel Music
Ramin Djawadi. Photo by Matt Sayles

IRON MAN was an unprecedented success and a very different type of superhero movie. The film showcased the life of billionaire playboy Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). The film had a very different vibe for a superhero film up to this point. Whereas previous superhero films had either embraced full-on camp (BATMAN FOREVER) and others took themselves extremely seriously (THE DARK KNIGHT), IRON MAN found a new avenue. It was the Rock & Roll of Superhero movies, accessible to everyone but still with the gravitas of a great film.

Both the tone and the lifestyle of the main character suggested hard rock AC/DC and so that’s exactly where composer Ramin Djawadi went with his score. He ditched orchestral music for electric guitars and drumsets as well as “Remote Control” influences. These two elements beautifully reflected the two faces of Tony Stark and Iron Man.

The strength of Ramin Djawadi’s score is best heard in the track “Gulmira.” This plays when Iron Man flies into Gulmira to fight the Ten Rings. This is the first sequences when Iron Man shows off his amazing abilities and the cool factor is sky high. Djawadi needed a cool flowing theme to reflect the coolest of the superheroes and “Gulmira” does just that.

“Gulmira” beautifully contrasts with other Marvel music, in the MCU pantheon which is more self-serious. As Tony Stark isn’t a character to take himself seriously, it makes sense his theme once again reflects that. It would have been impressive to see this theme contrast with Alan Silvestri’s Captain America theme but alas, “Gulmira” never returned. IRON MAN 2 composer, John Debney largely discarded the music from the previous film much to my dismay.

2. THOR — “Sons of Odin” By Patrick Doyle

Marvel Music
Patrick Doyle. Photo by David Livingston courtesy of Getty Images

2010’s THOR contains such awesome Marvel Music! So many themes on the soundtrack are fabulous from “Can You See, Jane?” to “Earth to Asgard.” My favorite and the definitive theme of the movie is “Sons of Odin.”

While THOR is titled after the blonde, hammer-wielding, son of Odin, the film truly is about both children Thor and Loki. That’s why it makes sense that the central theme would be about these two brothers. The theme is as exceptionally proud and triumphant as it is mournful and emotional.

This suggests the dual qualities of Asgard. It is both a place of exceptional pride, heritage, and magnificence. Nonetheless, Asgard is also a home to tragedy and the war between bloodlines in Thor, Loki, Odin, and Laufey.

“Sons of Odin” is an exceptionally layered theme. This is what makes it so frustrating that “Sons of Odin” is completely absent from Brian Tyler’s THOR: THE DARK WORLD score. It’s not as if “Sons of Odin” is an exceptionally hard film to fit into a score either.

Much like any great Leitmotif, the impression of “Sons” can be achieved in only a few notes. THOR: THE DARK WORLD suffers greatly from the lack of Patrick Doyle’s music. It lacks the heart and essence that made the first THOR so magical.

3.  CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER — “Captain America March” By Alan Silvestri

Marvel Music
Alan Silvestri. Photo by Steve Granitz. Courtesy of WireImage

Alan Silvestri’s CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER score is the first Marvel music score that achieved widespread acclaim. Silvestri’s “Captain America March” is a classic World War II march in the vein of John Williams’ RAIDER’S OF THE LOST ARK march. It’s a theme that projects heroism and goodness wherever it goes.

Silvestri’s march is also very sweet and pure suggesting the innocence of Steve Rogers. It’s also triumphs based on the strings playing on the offbeats. This functions to give the theme a feeling of forwardness so necessary in marches. “Captain America March” is great on its own accord but it is also so fun cause it presents nostalgia to our ears. This piece of Marvel music reminds of us the good American cause. It beautifully contrasts with Ramin Djawadi’s theme for Iron Man’s modern, technological heroism as well as Thor’s majestical music.

The success of Silvestri’s “March” is why this is the first theme to appear in other Marvel projects. Silvestri would bring his Captain America theme into 2012’s THE AVENGERS.

4. THE AVENGERS – “A Promise” By Alan Silvestri

THE AVENGERS theme is most often brought up as the counterexample to the argument that there is no memorable Marvel music. Hell, Marvel played the theme in all of their trailers. Some people must have an emotional connection to it. I actually didn’t pick the main theme as my example here but rather the stirring emotional piece “A Promise.” I love “A Promise” because it is a quieter moment in a decently loud movie that signifies the soul of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

“A Promise” is about superheroes and their devotion to help and save the world. Despite their issues, the Avengers promises to assemble to protect the people of the world. “A Promise” is a love letter to superheroes as a concept. It acknowledges the silliness of the idea with Stan Lee’s cameo playing alongside the theme.

Lee’s character expresses “superheroes in New York! Give me a break!” “A Promise” is the theme that coincides with the changing world. Just as after THE AVENGERS, cinema indelibly changed to fit the superhero craze, so did the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The theme is exceptionally warm and stirring with its gorgeous acoustic guitar and strings. It then transforms into the almighty Avengers theme. This theme like John William’s SUPERMAN theme of old is synonymous with power, nobility, and strength. That is why the Avengers theme is an example of perfect Marvel music.

In Essence — Phase 1 Marvel Music

The Marvel Music of Phase 1 is extremely underrated. The Composers of Djawadi, Doyle, and Silvestri made a great effort to establish themes for the core Avengers. Overall these themes are quite strong and could’ve functioned as Leitmotifs for future films.

However, as we’ll see in the Phase 2 Marvel films, the strong musical themes of Phase 1 was largely rejected. New composers would write new themes replacing the Phase 1 ones. These themes proved to be overall much less memorable and musically rich. Why Kevin Feige didn’t ensure the return of composers like Doyle and Silvestri in their respective sequels is beyond me.

Based on the musical success of Phase 1, Every Frame A Painting’s argument fails. When I talk about Phase 2 music in my next article, his claims will begin to make sense.

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