I’m a bit of a score nerd. You may know this about me considering that I have talked about musicals a fair amount here on this blog. But score is different. Score is the part of a movie that is typically the thesis of the film in song. Think of the music in Star Wars, you can probably hear it. Think of the Jurassic Park theme, yes, it’s a classic. You probably think of score and themes more than you know because at least since the rise of the Summer Blockbuster they have been a ubiquitous part of pop culture.
I’m an anime fan so theme songs and character theme songs have always been important to me. I’m also a huge musical theater nerd so my brain tends to cling to themes and score quite easily. Big movies tend to have themes still, especially fantasy and sci-fi ones; because as you know, I am a huge nerd. Harry Potter has a brilliant score that when played still makes me feel like I’m just about to hop off the Hogwarts Express back to school. The Lord of the Rings has many themes because that’s what Tolkien would have wanted and if you want to ask me about musical theater, well, let’s just say recently I was in the kitchen baking whilst holding a chef’s knife and singing “Pretty Women” from Sweeney Todd.
But I also love superhero movies and if you read the title and you’re a very smart cookie then you know why we’re here. Let’s talk about The Avengers Suite.
I’m still emotionally recovering from Avengers: Endgame because of course I am but out of all the scenes that didn’t do it for me, the very end which I won’t spoil has a resurgence of a piece of musical score that I’ve now spent over a decade with. We’re getting ahead of ourselves, let’s talk about Marvel’s Avengers.
To paraphrase Lindsay Ellis’ feelings on The Lord of the Rings: Marvel’s Avengers is good that I hate it. That first movie directed by Joss Whedon was such a perfectly imperfect adaptation of decades of comic book lore into a movie that made me happy to be a comic book fan for the first time in my life. And while I have gushed about the film, the love seemed to run out as the films pressed on and Whedon’s enthusiasm was replaced by the Russo Brothers’ mostly okay filmmaking.
In prep for Avenger’s Infinity War, I went down the Road to Infinity in which you trot through all the MCU films that lead up to what was the second to last film in a decade’s long saga. My opinions on the MCU movies range from pretty dang good to wow, I wish I could erase that from my mind but I want to praise especially Joss Whedon for one thing and that was his ability to frame shots that felt like they belonged in a comic book. I’m not the only person to say this but I am especially grateful for it considering my history with comics. The Russos have tried to frame such shots as well but it really just feels like they’re doing it because Whedon had set the bar so damn high.
And through all the movies, the tears, the comments about Captain America’s butt and the jokes that failed and the CGI that seemed spotty there was one thing that stuck with me and that was the score. The Avengers Suite as its called is the piece of score that accompanies all the superhero shots in the entire MCU relating to, well, The Avengers. So let’s really analyze a scene and that the Battle of New York in the first Avengers movie.
All the heroes return to New York, the dumb CGI army is about to attack. Loki is being angry and needs dry shampoo. All the heroes are together and are doing their best and we get this amazing low angle circular shot of all of them sort of posing and mugging and over it is the triumphant overture. The drums build drama. The strings add lift. The brass adds this larger than life element and even though there are parts of that shot that are objectively silly (like Black Widow just cocking a gun) it feels grand. It feels important. It feels like these guys are your heroes and they can do it. It’s inspirational, honestly.
What I love about score is how it builds. The softer notes that multiply and grow into a bombastic refrain. Good score is like a thesis statement to the film. Duel of the Fates shows you exactly what the stakes are between the Jedi and the Sith.
The Jurassic Park theme shows you that these marvelous and beautiful creatures are awesome and wondrous.
The music, the score is the pulse of the film and tells you, the audience, what you should be thinking or feeling in a brilliant trick of audiovisual shorthand.
In instances when score is used correctly, it’s magical. Some of the Jurassic Park sequels have mistreated the iconic score by not placing it in shots with the dinosaurs but in shots of the new park because these movies have a budget now. In Star Wars: The Force Awakens, J.J. Abrams is very smart in his use of score because he so badly wants you to think good things about this movie. Score is a powerful tool and when used wisely, it can make or break a scene.
When I saw Avengers Endgame in theaters, despite my current ennui towards the film in the moment when Captain America summons Thor’s hammer and says those magical words and the music swells and for one beautiful moment you feel just on top of the world. You feel energized and a part of this giant team of heroes determined to save the world. In that moment, I was an Avenger.
I’m always shocked that in film discourse, that more don’t talk about score. It’s such an important aspect of film and scene craft that I am surprised that more don’t think about just how vital that music in the background is.
What’s your favorite piece of film score? Let me know in the comments below.