The Forgettable Music Of The Marvel Cinematic Universe

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 recognisable musical theme. The climactic showdown could've been a wonderful collision of iconic motifs. Instead, I don't remember a single note.


    Undeniably true. The single area the MCU fails in for me and I've said this a while now with mates, is the complete lack of regard for a film score. This can almost single handedly make a movie completely memorable. Hum a tune, it's Raiders! It's Star Wars! Its The Dark Knight! Hell, even Man of Steels music has quickly become almost iconic despite its controversial state as a superman movie. Marvel needs to get some high profile, excellent composers on board to create some memorable themes for their characters posthaste.

      I think they'd probably look at their box office takings and say "Nah, we're doing just fine with the music we've got, thanks" :P

        I love the Marvel movies, but I'd dearly love Cap, Ironman or Thor to have an iconic score behind them. Moneys money but longevity sometimes is tied in to this sort of thing. Look at Christopher Reeve, his Superman is iconic in a big way due to the music. The Marvel characters are awesome, but in dire need of this iconic sort of music. Hopefully the next Avengers movies deliver it, it'd be awesome to hear a recognisable theme playing when they hit a giant battle after all.

    I really like the Guardians of the Galaxy using old school music as a motif sort of.

    I know it's kinda hackneyed, the road trip music mixtape as symbol for bonding, but it felt really joyous in that movie and I bought into it. I also kinda think that's why a lot of non-comic fans liked that movie.

    I don't think everything needs an original theme. Half come off sounding very Star Wars. Edit: I've heard this called the "hans zimmer singularity".

    Last edited 13/09/16 1:12 pm

      This is one of the reasons I am looking forward to Vol. II so much. That mix tape was brilliant.

    Even before I started reading the article, I thought, "but but but, the Avengers theme!" It's certainly very recognisable and hummable.

    But you're right. Outside of the Avengers theme, I wouldn't be able to hum any of the MCU music. I can recognise some of them, but not hum. (I particularly remember a neighbour watching Ant-Man, loud enough for me to hear it, hear the music, and after a moment realised it was Ant-Man.)

      I didn't even know there was an Avengers theme :P

    I'm in agreement on most of what Hamilton's putting forward. However, Iron Man 1 - the Avengers tie-in that's not really an Avengers tie-in - had a great score and musical identity throughout.

    I also don't want to turn this into a pissing contest between the Corporate Comic Book Entities, but anecdotally it seems the tunes from Man of Steel (which were then reprised in Batman v Superman) have had a somewhat of a cultural impact. As in, you hear Zimmer, you instantly know which film score it is. Perhaps all of his sound the same.

    Pretty hilarious, timing wise, given Jessica Jones just won an Emmy for music today.

    The original Ironman OST by Ramin Djawadi was really good and set the stage for the MCU... but it all went downhill from there. Though Antman's theme I did like.

      Agreed. Amazed they didn't bring him back for the sequels. Some of the tracks really hit the perfect tone for the film:

    Avengers and Guardians had good music. Thor did too, I can' hum it but I like it when I play it.

    The real question is, who gives a shit?
    What about "The Forgettable Articles of Kirk Hamilton"?

    I'd like to draw attention to the slight unfairness of this article in comparing anyone to John Williams (an to an extent Elfman) to ANYONE. The issue of forgettable music could be applied to 95% of modern movies.

    Williams and Elfman are in another league. Jurassic Fucking Park, Spiderman, the Simpsons theme, Superman, heck Williams made The Phantom Menace sound good! These guys give franchises a voice that everyone remembers. Zimmerman is good but I can't hum anything he's written. So it's not just the MCU that suffers, bland music plagues our movies.

    Regarding the MCU's audio, there are some standouts. Norton's Hulk was very hummable music, Guardians had a lot of character with its vintage tunes and the sound design is painfully under appreciated. The sound of Thor's hammer gives it so much personality, it's clunk when I lands and the sound of it flying are as important to the weapon/character as catchphrases are to The Simpsons. The whine of Ironman's hand blasters and even Cap's shield are more distinct than people realise; when the on-screen battles start ramping up, the sounds anchor the action and help you make sense of who's doing what.

      I agree, the sound design on the avengers is excellent, you could play samples and many people would immediately recognise the character/weapons from the sounds.

      I can't think of any movies from the last 10 years that has a hummable/instantly recognisable soundtrack, apart from Tron Legacy. It was really John Williams that spearheaded that type of soundtrack, that stuck in your brain and was instantly memorable (even though Superman and Star Wars could easily meld into each other).
      It prompted others to do the same, like the Stu Phillips Battlestar Galactica theme, and later Elfman and others.
      It seemed to fall out of fashion in the 90s and onwards, I know many people think the WIlliams style themes bombastic and cheesy, maybe a cynical generation doesn't appreciate the style.

      Either way, the MCU is hardly the only ones that have this kind of difficult to remember theme, pretty much every mainstream movie since the 90s has been this way.

        When you said you couldn't recall a movie melody from the last 10 years I was about to suggest The Lord of the Rings and the distinct ring theme and Rohan theme. Or the Pirates of the Caribbean, it also has a very singable melody. Then I realised they're more than 10 years old. Made me feel super old!

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