What’s your favorite piece of music from a Marvel movie?
It’s a pretty good question—aside from Iron Man by Black Sabbath, Hooked on a Feeling by Blue Swede, and of course, the 1960s Spider-Man cartoon theme song, Marvel movies don’t exactly have memorable soundtracks.
A well-licensed song aside, there’s not much going on with Marvel music that really stands out.
This is the subject of the latest video from the YouTube film analysts at Every Frame a Painting, who conclude that the MCU’s homogenous musical scores are designed to be ignored, and very rarely add anything to the emotion of a movie.
In case you haven’t seen the video yet, take ten minutes and watch it—you'll want to turn up your volume, but don't worry, there's no 2000s-era jumpscare trolling in any of the videos in this article.
According to Every Frame a Painting, Marvel doesn’t exactly like to rock the boat with its soundtracks. Music within these movies is often cliché, boring, and nondescript—after all, Marvel’s paid big bucks for Robert Downey Jr, so why drown him out with compelling instrumentals?
Bear in mind that we're not talking songs here—this is about orchestral scores, which are generally less memorable, but can make a big difference to the tone and emotion of a scene.
Every Frame a Painting makes the argument that Marvel is relying too heavily on temp music; taking a piece of music from an existing film, directors will get so used to a piece of music that they’ll want composers to simply copy what they’ve already heard, leading to a lot of incredibly derivative pieces of music in Hollywood blockbusters.
It’s a fair argument—comparing any Marvel movie soundtrack with, say, that of The Force Awakens, Marvel doesn’t come off particularly well. This is in large part because Williams is given freedom to create fantastic musical arrangements, which are built into a scene rather than hidden in the background.
It also helps that John Williams is arguably the greatest living composer. His work on the entirety of the Star Wars saga has helped the movies to shine regardless of poor direction—if anything, with the prequels, the music manages to cover up some particularly bad lines of dialogue, albeit not enough to let these movies gain a passing grade.
It’s worth remembering, though, that not all Marvel movies have hidden their music in the background and gone for cliché, safe choices. There’s always Sam Raimi’s decent Spider-Man duology (no, not the trilogy—we’re talking about the good movies here).
For all of Spider-Man’s faults, Sam Raimi knew how to let composer Danny Elfman shine. The score for the first two Spidey movies is hardly typical fare for a superhero film, and its diversity really helps to create a unique universe for the movie.
It can be argued that Raimi’s Spider-Man movies show a lot more directorial vision than many of the MCU’s films. Movies like Thor: The Second One are often held up as examples of what happens when Marvel pushes too much for a homogenized, inorganic cookie cutter movie.
In many ways, the middling soundtracks that can be heard in Marvel movies are a way to ensure that, no matter what movie you’re watching, none stand out too much from the Marvel formula. Quirky performances, sarcastic lead characters, explosive action, and nondescript music are all pillars of the Marvel movie style.
There is hope, though. With Marvel giving the Russo Brothers and Taika Waititi more creative freedom, there’s a chance that we might see some more innovative storytelling coming from the studio’s music.
After all, we all know what happens when Marvel lets its directors go nuts with musical choices.
Just as long as they don’t go too nuts.