Marvel Studios need to be commended for their commitment to creating quite possibly the most coherent universe ever for big screen franchse. So far, they’re succeeding spectacularly. And even if one can have some issues with the gritty, fairly grounded, Netflix series like Daredevil making references to “magic hammers and alien invasions” a bit jarring, it’s still all incredibly well conceived. After all, there’s only so much you can do with such a diverse material.
The sequel to The Avengers (or Avengers Assemble, as it was called in the UK) must be a huge task to take on. After all, the first film was like catching lightning into a bottle. And while the whole thing might be cynically discarded purely as a marketing gimmick, the finished film had heart, characters and substantial amount of wit on its side. On top of it, there is spectacular box office success that would be hard to top by anyone (well, except for James Cameron).
Putting together a film like Avengers: Age of Ultron must be a hugely stressful experience and Joss Whedon clearly has had enough at this point, judging from his recent comments. Hard to blame him, really. The film itself is grander than the 2012 one, it contains almost twice as many leads but the director somehow made it work. For the most part, it’s yet another miracle. Not quite as smooth around the edges but still mightily impressive and really fun.
And with this overlong intro, let us get into the music…
The scoring history behind Marvel franchises is the inverse of their general approach. Many composers tackled various films but only few of their ideas stayed on. There was a time in blockbuster history where the music used to be a binding element, an integral part of film’s creation. Themes for iconic characters would be instantly associated with them and there would be nothing out of place about it. You can go even further: Superman or Indiana Jones would be nothing without John Williams’ fanfares blasting from cinema speakers.
Now, this approach has changed in a more corporate studio system of today where dozens of people are making artistic decision. And while this sort of approach works in general for Marvel’s overall strategy, the musical continuity behind their ever-expending universe is the single most disappointing aspect of this enterprise. A real pity, given the names of composers that they worked with.
The prospect of Alan Silvestri following his solid Captain America: The First Avenger with The Avengers seemed to change things slightly. There were several musical links between his two entries. Cap’s theme was subsequently used in three movies after its initial appearance and became his primary identity ever since. While Brian Tyler is not exactly of the same caliber, his involvement in three Marvel films promised even more consistency and his masculine sound was well suited for the material. But, of course, things are always more complicated than that, especially with a sequel as anticipated as this latest film.
Avengers: Age of Ultron must have gone through quite hectic post-production schedule. For whatever reason, after the initial scoring sessions in January, another composer was brought onboard to help with things. And that was none other than Danny Elfman, former king of comic book movies. On one hand, the prospect of his working in Marvel playground again suggested more hope and compositional class. But then, styles of those two gentlemen are like night and day. Very little in common. Clearly, this dynamic duo worked hectically in tandem in order to deliver music for its imminent release date.
Stylistic cohesiveness aside, the concept of their made some sense. Tyler brought back both his Thor and Iron Man themes from the films he worked on and Elfman also incorporated some of those elements into his work. Captain America’s theme is back as well and it gets both heroic and really gentle variations (that are really welcome). Some S.H.I.E.L.D. material is resurrected: both The 'Helicarrier' cue and the militaristic ostinato (that was originally conceived as a main theme) are reused. Danny himself composed his hybrid theme that merged Tyler’s masculine chords with a snippet of Silvestri’s Avengers fanfare through his own graceful sensibilities. It’s an exciting combination that feels at home with established sound of this universe but also harkens back to the older days in cinema history (term “swashbuckling” comes to mind). There are also a couple of new tunes – the Hulk/Black Widow love theme would be the most prominent (it can be heard at the very end of ‘Breaking and Entering’ track on album).
Unfortunately, the film itself doesn’t really treat its material with any respect. The contributions of Tyler and Elfman are meshed together and some tracking (re-recording?) of Silvestri music becomes also evident. This Frankenstein-like approach is encapsulated perfectly in the very first minutes. Avengers: Age of Ultron begins with an exciting action setpiece. The score starts with Elfman’s ‘It Begins’. It’s opening portion replaces Tyler’s short-lived Marvel Studios fanfare. But instead of following through with one of the best cues of this score, the film jumps straight into the material from ‘I’ve Got a Ride’ from 2012 entry. Then it seems to be jumping all over the place. The cue of Elfman’s comes back later on, in the Seoul’s chase, but it’s also not used in its entirety.
The calmer material, found in cues like ‘Farmhouse’, get a much better treatment. Clearly, those sequences were not re-arranged constantly and allowed the music to actually contribute anything dramatically. And that’s where both composers can offer some much needed emotion to this rollercoaster of a movie. The entire finale plays out very much like the album and that’s when Danny Elfman gets to shine the most. His style is well suited for the bittersweet denouement of this story.
What’s very unfortunate is that the new hybrid theme doesn’t really make that much of an impact. Yes, it is used quite a lot throughout the film but the mix is so low sometimes few audience members would be able to notice it. The only really standout moment is the brief ‘Avengers Unite’ track in which Elfman unleashes the tune in its most enthusiastic mode to match the heroics on screen. But even that one short piece isn’t used in its complete form. What’s curious, it’s the Alan Silvestri material that makes the most impression. Perhaps, it’s because of its favourable mix, or perhaps because we grew fond of it over the past three years.
In the end, it seems almost pointless to have two big names working so hard on music that won’t be even properly heard. True, the post-production on a film of this magnitude will almost certainly lead to some last minute changes that cannot be avoided. Clearly, both Marvel and Whedon wanted to bring out the best product possible. But in all that madness, they’re forgetting the score is supposed to supply emotional core. If it’s hacked up, moved to different places, buried under sound effects… What’s the point of having it in the first place?
Avengers: Age of Ultron is released digitally on April 28 and on CD May 19 by Hollywood Records