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How Marvel stumbled where Interstellar and Lord of the Rings soared

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You can’t rip off these soundtracks, but you can learn from them

Interstellar key art

The latest episode of Every Frame a Painting discussed why the music in Marvel films is often so boring and forgettable, which kicked off a great discussion of superhero music on this site and on social media. It was fun to hear everyone’s thoughts and opinions.

Film, music and game researcher and lecturer Dan Golding created a video in response and released it yesterday, and it’s worth your time if you’re still interested in digging through the musical themes of modern superhero films, and in genre cinema in general.

Here you go:

I think it’s a great look at what goes into scoring a modern film, but I also have some beefs with the arguments made within it. Allow me to jump up on my soapbox for a bit.

The issue here isn’t temp tracks, nor is it the fact that the process is becoming computerized. As I said in the other article, one of the main problems is that the temp tracks of so many of these films consist of music of the same genre and relative theme of the film that doesn’t yet have a score. If you use a temp track from a superhero film in a superhero film, you’re going to finish the process with something that feels bland and watered down.

But that’s not the only issue.

How other films succeeded

So many of these films also shove the music way in the background, never giving you a chance to hear the few times they find an interesting theme. And interesting music is being written for superhero films; Wonder Woman’s theme from Batman v Superman is one of the best parts of the movie, and was written in a collaboration between Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL. Not only does the music get your blood pumping, the film is confident enough to push it up in the mix during the climactic showdown.

Interstellar is another genre film that not only had an arresting score; Christopher Nolan went out of his way to give it precedence in the final mix. “I’ve always loved films that approach sound in an impressionistic way and that is an unusual approach for a mainstream blockbuster, but I feel it's the right approach for this experiential film,” Nolan told The Hollywood Reporter.

I saw Interstellar in a good theater, and the score wasn’t just loud; it was emotionally overwhelming. You can get a small sense of that below.

You can watch this short about the music of Interstellar, and it provides some fascinating insight into why the score is so good. Christopher Nolan asked Hans Zimmer to begin writing without telling him the scope of the story or that it was a science fiction film. Nolan had Zimmer’s work in his head when he was writing the script itself. The work of the composer was its own temp track.

The organ music was also recorded physically and played live. “But the starring, and most meaningful voice, is the 1926 four-manual Harrison & Harrison organ, currently housed at the 12th-century Temple Church in London and played in the movie by its director of music, Roger Sayer,” the Atlantic reported.

These circumstances aren’t easy to reproduce for most films, but the results quite literally speak for themselves.

There are also films that allow a score a breathe with time. Take, for instance, the iconic music of the Harry Potter films, composed in the first three films by John Williams.

The theme was used throughout the films, to the point that it only takes a few notes for fans of the books and movies to feel warm and nostalgic. One of the best special effects in the Wizard World of Harry Potter in Florida is the simple repetition of those first few tinkling notes. They’re a sense memory for fans.

And in terms of hummable scores, it’s impossible to leave out the wonderful music written for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which presents any number of memorable themes:

This site has an exhaustive list of the themes in the music, as well as an explanation about why so few films are able to do as much heavy lifting in the score.

“Three hours simply isn't time enough to introduce a whole set of themes, associate them with certain concepts, and then use those associations to comment further on the action,” the site states. “That's why Howard Shore must have thanked his gods, his muses, or whoever he figures watches over his life when he was offered the chance to write a single coherent piece of music across an 11-hour space of time. And that's why I consider his results worth the effort of putting together this site.”

Moving, hummable and memorable music is being written for genre films, but Marvel just doesn’t seem to prioritize it. The films seem to be using temp tracks that are influenced by other action or superhero films, which leads to forgettable final scores.

The films are rarely comfortable bringing the music to the front of the mix. The series, as a whole, has the time to introduce and evolve musical themes like we saw in the Harry Potter films or Lord of the Rings, but that time is rarely taken advantage of.

I understand that I’m an entertainment writer pointing out some of the best film scores of the past 20 years and loudly wondering why Marvel films don’t just do that — every example here is the result of near-legendary composers working on amazing properties — but each example also helps to point out a weakness of Marvel’s use of music. Marvel has likely squandered any chance it had to establish the song kind of memorable themes in its films after 13 releases, but it’s never too late to try.