Patrick Doyle is the next composer for the MCU, scoring the fourth installment of Phase I with Thor (2011). With a beautifully organic and majestic tone, his score perfectly encapsulates the spirit and goodness of Asgard and its Norse-inspired gods.

Doyle’s score has three main themes/motifs. The first is for Odin, which is first heard in “Prologue“. Odin’s is a motif, as it’s not fully developed. It is characterized by a suspension, usually in the horn or the strings. It’s a turbulent suspension, accompanied by articulated strings and resolving to a minor harmony, which I feel evokes the great weight of Odin’s past as a peacemaker and a king. He has experienced much and lost much (including an eye) to maintain peace. Even in the plot of Thor, his story arc is conflicted as his unconscious state causes many problems after he ousts Thor from Asgard. The return of his motif throughout the film is a reminder of his weighted contributions to the MCU.

The second theme I find a little difficult to classify. It could be a theme for Jane. It could more generally be a love theme for Thor and Jane. I’m not entirely satisfied with those two options, so I like to think of it as a theme representing a humanized form of Thor — and I mean that literally, a theme showing the transformation from his interactions with humans and away from the gods of Asgard. It’s his humanization that causes Thor to become “worthy”, resulting in Mjölnir’s return to Thor and Thor’s recovery to glory. For this reason, I believe this theme is a played in “Thor Kills the Destroyer” — in the theme’s most glorious manifestation in the film — as Thor becomes the God of Thunder again. It’s the humanizing transformation that most crucially contributes to Thor’s worthiness — an idea explored by him and Loki later in The Avengers. The theme is mostly presented in a more lyrical form, like in “Science and Magic“, some of the only instances Doyle uses woodwinds in the score. It’s characterized by a sweeping upward leap and a suspension.

The third theme I love, love very much, and I believe it is this theme that garners most criticism for the general tone of the film. This theme, heard both thoughtfully and majestically in “Sons of Odin” is not Thor’s theme since it does not return during Thor’s more meaningful moments. This theme, used both in introspective and grandiose forms, represents Asgard and Mjölnir — both of which are agents for good. I believe this is whey the general tone of the film sounds optimistic; these supreme powers are symbols of unwavering goodness. Many criticisms reprove the score for being too bright for the darker moments, of which the film has a fair amount, but I see the score the way Asgard is seen in the universe: a perennial bright light amid the threatening darkness. And, for goodness sake, we’re talking about a world with a rainbow light bridge!

My criticism of the score lies in its instrumentation. Doyle’s score is mostly brass, strings, and percussion. There are very few woodwinds. The most used woodwind is the English horn, which you’d assume would make me happy, but I think it’s severe lack of woodwinds is a missed opportunity. I am well aware that the first section to be omitted from a score are the woodwinds — for a myriad of reasons including a desire for a generally metallic sound, budgetary constrictions, etc, but I think it’s a little lazy to use woodwinds only for soft and lyrical moments. Flute and clarinet are only used for the humanization theme, but woodwinds are versatile and very colorful. Loki could have had a very sneaky and mysterious theme by the bassoon or the English horn. The action sequences, though, suffered the most. It’s as if all the action tracks are using the same color paint; after a while, they don’t shine as brightly and become dull. John Williams and Michael Giacchino show just how exciting, versatile and colorful woodwinds can be in action sequences. Even if it was a conscious decision to harbor a horn/strings sound — which, I admit, is very appropriate for Asgard — as a whole, it is missing something.

Overall, I think Doyle did a thoughtful job with his score for Thor. He wrote a glorious theme that I could listen to over and over, and he created a very appropriate tone for the film. Its heavy use of the horn — which is always a lovely idea — perfectly encapsulates the heroic and majestic essence of Asgard and its peacekeepers. Now excuse me while I go listen to “Ride to Observatory” a dozen times in a row…

The Incredible Hulk

Craig Armstrong takes over with the second installment of the MCU, The Incredible Hulk. The film stars Edward Norton as the laden scientist, Bruce Banner, in his quest to try to understand and eradicate his green affliction.

While Djawadi’s score for Iron Man is bombastic and metallic, Armstrong’s approach is more traditionally orchestral and introspective. Bruce Banner, compared to the rest of the Avengers, is a tragic character. His isn’t a story about embracing celestial powers, using his profound wealth and intelligence for good, or rising to the call to arms. His is a story about keeping himself constantly surprise for fear of becoming an entirely different being over which he has no control. His is a life of anxiety, forced zen, and isolation. Armstrong’s score pairs incredibly well with Banner’s dour circumstances. For the most part, the score is a simmering pot, constantly restrained and contained, until the Hulk surfaces and the music explodes. Armstrong writes beautifully dissonant and bleak music for Bruce Banner to reflect his lonely life.

The film is at its best when Norton explores Banner’s loneliness and his feelings for Betty. What makes the character development so affective is Armstrong’s sensitive musical accompaniment. Banner is not a loquacious man; expressing his feelings could “wake the dragon”, so to speak. Armstrong’s score says what Banner cannot. His music is a vivid manifestation of what Banner feels, a way for the audience to connect intimately with the character. A powerful example is “Reunion“, a track that only features strings. A love theme for Betty and Bruce repeats throughout the track, characterized by the wide upward leap and its suspension resolution. The homogenous sound of the strings allows Armstrong to explore shifts in tone by using the different colors and registers of the string section without losing cohesion. The sweeping melody, the heartbreaking suspensions, and the subtle yet moving tone changes in this track provide depth and understanding to the relationship between Bruce and Betty, saying everything they wish they could say out loud. Armstrong even adds a throwback to the Hulk television series with “The Lonely Man“, a plaintive melody heard in “Bruce Goes Home“.

For the Hulk, Armstrong writes a simple yet aggressive theme. When writing the Hulk’s theme, Armstrong channeled the theme for Jaws by John Williams. The theme itself, a three-note motif comprised simply of a note and the upper octave, is menacing. Orchestrated with low brass and low strings, the theme is wild and threatening, but once the upper strings come in with the more melodic part of the theme, it sounds less menacing and more like Britney Spears’ “Toxic”.  Despite that amusing sound association, “Hulk Theme” is powerful and energetic, a major contrast to the melancholic music representing Bruce Banner.

Perhaps the most emotional and stirring track on the score accompanies a scene that was cut from the film. The original opening sequence, found in the Special Features of the 3-disc Special Edition, watches Banner journeying to the Arctic to commit suicide, which would have started the film with an even darker tone. Armstrong’s track, “The Arctic“, is a tumultuous build up of all Banner’s hopelessness and regrets. Incorporating the entire symphony orchestra, the music compounds energy atop energy and magnifies all his emotions, eventually leading to the Hulk’s theme, when the Hulk comes out to defend his life.

Armstrong wins Best Supporting Actor with his score to The Incredible Hulk. His music deftly develops characters, particularly Banner, along with Norton’s already stellar performance. As far as superhero films go, this score is a more personal approach to understanding a character, which is fitting since Banner’s story is more bleak than the average superhero. While The Incredible Hulk is often swept under the rug because of the Hulk’s recast, the score is definitely one that should not be forgotten.

Jurassic Park 3

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Don Davis’ score for Jurassic Park III may be the best part of the film, which ultimately isn’t saying much. Easily the worst of the franchise, Jurassic Park III portrays the dinosaurs on Isla Sorna as bloodthirsty monsters instead of actual living creatures. Apart from the intriguing premise of saving a marooned boy from an island crawling with dinosaurs, the film is just one dinosaur attack after another, but fortunately Jurassic Park III is the shortest of the franchise. That being said, Davis’ score is quite good, the sequel most capturing the spirit of the original Jurassic Park score, with its wild and edgy action tracks.

The film’s few emotionally suspenseful moments are only made possibly by Don Davis’s musical contributions. As per tradition, John Williams’ original themes from Jurassic Park make an appearance in the score, but the original themes are used verbatim less in this film than in any other sequel. Often when original material is used, Davis plays around with those themes to make it something different – a wise choice since audiences are quite familiar with these themes by this point. To diverge from the frantic and wild action tracks that make up a majority of the film, Davis creates a lovely lyrical theme, often played by the English horn. This serves as a family theme, for the Kirbys and their son, and it’s most notably heard when the Kirbys are reunited with their son, right before another Spinosaurus attack. At times, the theme is overly sentimental for the context of the film, but other times its mood is transformed and used in suspenseful moments, which works very well, as in ‘Pteranodon Habitat’.

The narrative of the film relies heavily on action, which doesn’t leave much room for Davis to create softer moments. I would have loved more moments like the first minute of “The Raptor Room”. For that one minute, he creates a mystical atmosphere with sustained strings, exotic flute, voices, piano and wind chimes. It completely puts the audiences in a trance, which makes the abrupt velociraptor attack the more shocking. Davis proves to be just as masterful on the other end of the spectrum. Tracks ‘Pteranodon Habitat’, ‘Tiny Pecking Pteranodons’ and ‘Billy Oblivion’ work as a three-act arc in the aviary scene. The first track sets up the Pteranodon attack with sneaky and mysterious music. The following two tracks unleash some of the most exciting action tracks out there.

These two tracks are prime examples of the original Jurassic Park spirit, some of which comes through with orchestration. The horn and the piccolo – the two instruments that led many of the action tracks of the first score, also lead these two tracks. Although using new material, this music sounds very similar to that of the original score. The piccolo creates the frenzy and the horn (at times assisted by the trumpet) builds up to climaxes that bring emotional weight to the scene. This is the most emotionally powerful moment in the film, delivered by the power in the score.

Don Davis’ score for Jurassic Park III often gets overlooked because of the lackluster film itself, but the music he created warrants attention. Recommended by John Williams himself, Davis proves that he has the skill and intuition not only to compose a score loyal to the franchise but also to compose a fantastic film score in itself.

Iron Man

Iron Man (2008) kicked off Phase One of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It was a fresh and energetic start to the massive franchise, strongly shaped by the performance of Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark and director Jon Favreau’s vision. Another crucial part of Iron Man‘s success came from Ramin Djawadi’s fresh and powerful score.

Composer Harry Gregson-Williams was originally hired to write Iron Man‘s score, but he had to drop out because of conflicts with The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. In lieu of a grand and epic score that Gregson-Williams does so well, Djawadi and Favreau opted for a hipper and more youthful approach — one powered by rock ‘n’ roll. Djawadi’s score is a blend of rock music and epic film music, which creates an exciting energy and atmosphere for the film. Djawadi expressed that he wrote the music to mirror the different moods of Tony Stark. Based on that notion, it’s evident that most of Stark’s moods are intense and driven, because the majority of the score is a rock soundscape, powered by electric guitar and drum set and colored by the orchestra. The choice to use electric guitar as the primary voice for the film is a no-brainer. Electric guitar has a metallic sound, which clearly connects with the idea of Iron Man. Add in the drum set, and the whole sound is evocative of a metal rock concert, again evocative of Iron Man’s suit.

Take the soundtrack’s first track, “Driving with the Top Down“. It has a head-bangin’ groove, always moving forward. At times the guitar is the lead voice, but the rest of the orchestra has its time to shine. Strings take the melody after a while and horns play a stirring counter-line. The drive is ever present, utilizing the different instruments of a drum set: cymbals, bass drum, and hi-hat. At times, the guitar is used merely for effect, adding an edgy reverberation. All of these components contribute to the fresh sound of the film. Over the decades, rock music has been a symbol for youth, and showcasing this style in the score evokes that feeling in the audience. It also links that idea with the main character, Tony Stark. While he’s a mid-thirties CEO of a conglomerate corporation, the first scene where he’s joking around with the soldiers in his convoy show his sharp mind and facility to relate to a younger crowd. This music absolutely connects with the idea of Tony Stark, as well as gives the franchise as a whole a youthful energy. It’s a great sound to start the Marvel Cinematic Universe — providing a lot of momentum forward.

Djawadi also gets to compose some softer and more introspective music in this film. The first third of this film takes place in a cave in Afghanistan. He tastefully incorporates an Arabic style in a few tracks that respectfully denotes the setting. He uses both harmony and instrumentation to create the aural setting, which gives a nice contrast to the American rock sound that pervades the majority of the film. As said before, Djawadi aimed to reflect Stark’s moods in the score, and in a couple tracks he was able to shape Stark’s more vulnerable moods. “Extra Dry, Extra Olives” is a lovely track, using solo clarinet overtop synths to create a more cinematic backdrop to a special moment between Stark and Pepper Potts. Similarly, he creates an even more vulnerable soundscape for “Are Those Bullet Holes?”. This track exclusively features the string section, alternating between high and low waves of sustain, creating surging harmonies that brighten and darken as needed in the scene. Interesting that the more cinematic and intimate tracks feature emotions toward Ms. Pepper Potts.

Djawadi’s approach to the Iron Man score is just as modern and fresh as the other elements in the film. Iron Man was all about starting something new and being a solid start to a huge film franchise. Its energy and vision are inspiring and have absolutely ignited audience fervor and excitement through two phases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. His music is edgy and gritty, just like the film’s genius billionaire protagonist — and just as multi-dimensional.

Slow West

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Slow West is Scottish musician John Maclean’s debut film, a quirky Western starring Kodi Smit-McPhee and Michael Fassbender. Jed Kurzel composes a simple yet poignant score that makes a notable footprint in the film. Along with the narrative, the score develops the tone of the film while slowly putting the puzzle pieces together of Maclean’s story.

One of the film’s major themes is that things are not always what they appear to be. The narrative, through its various flashbacks and disjunct storytelling, continually defies expectations. Kurzel’s score defies expectations of its own – or, more accurately, creates ambiguous expectations. Upon meeting Jay (Smit-McPhee), a series of present-day scenes are spliced together with flashbacks with Rose (Caren Pistorius), the woman he loves. At the beginning of the film, the flashbacks imply that their love is requited, but the music neither confirms nor denies that implication. Jay’s Theme is a jaunty Americana waltz, established by pizzicato strings and a guile guitar solo. The feel of the music is spirited and dance-like, but when the cello comes in with a languid countermelody, the mood becomes confused. Along with the harmonies – which are overly minor brightened by some major predominant chords – the music conjures uncertainty. Is their love story a happy or sad one? Maclean and Kurzel, when introducing the main character and his journey through the American West, leave the audience with more mystery than clarity, effectively engaging them with curiosity.

To that end, the score, as per the film’s name, slowly develops throughout the film in tone. Since most of the action is Jay and Silas (Fassbender) drifting west, the score – which consists mainly of guitar and strings – plods along, sounding just like how it must feel to journey west, little by little. This traveling music has a buoyant and impish feel, which sometimes conflicts with more lyrical and sustained countermelodies, like in Jay’s Theme. As the film plays out, the music loses that perky nature and adopts more and more sustain. Similarly, the harmonies also lose some of the hopeful progressions and remain mostly dark, very reminiscent of Clint Mansell’s extraordinary score for The Fountain. The gradual commitment to darker music develops at the same pace that the narrative gradually unfolds the true nature of Jay and Rose’s relationship. It isn’t until the very end, when Silas escapes a life of mere survival that the music turns lighter and brighter with the jovial end credits track “Slow West”.

The soundtrack itself is constructed by alternating between dialogue from the film and tracks from the score. Often, the line of dialogue is meant to introduce the following track of music. This soundtrack structure continually brings the listener back to the film, along with its images and various contexts, and it discourages listeners from experiencing the music separate from the film. Kurzel’s score is beautiful and gritty, a perfect companion to Maclean’s film. While very simple, the music goes hand-in-hand with the narrative to tell Jay’s story in a refreshingly indirect and quirky approach.

Jurassic World

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Michael Giacchino’s score is one of Jurassic Worlds strongest features. He tastefully balances John Williams’ original themes with his brand-new material. Giacchino’s score evokes a sense of awe, reminiscent of the sweeping grandeur that Williams achieved in Jurassic Park, but he creates a sound that gives JW its own unique feel. He accomplishes this with the JW theme, a simple motif with dark and bright harmonies. Unlike JP, with its rich and comforting harmonies, the hint of darkness in JW‘s theme is fundamental to setting the tone of the film. JW goes to a darker and more desperate place than JP does, so it was important to foreshadow that from the beginning.

The music that guides the audience through the park, “As the Jurassic World Turns“, is one of the scores greatest achievements. Seeing all the features of a fully functional dinosaur theme park was already going to be thrilling, but the score makes it even more of an experience. The music has a childlike wonder infused in it, which captures our imaginations and transports us all back to childhood. Seeing the dinosaur petting zoo, the river kayaking with stegosaurs, and the Mosasaurus water show — especially for those of us who were kids when JP came out — lets us revisit long-lost childhood once again. That childlike quality — a particular strength of Giacchino’s — is manifested in a variety of ways. The JW theme itself, especially when accompanied by voices, sounds like the long, slow gasp of wonderment. Brassy fanfares herald our arrival into the park, and fluffy and cute woodwind flurries dazzle us from exhibit to exhibit, mirroring the sensory overload of seeing all the park has to offer. Despite my many criticisms of the film, I will always love JW for the experience of seeing the park for the first time.

That being said, I feel like I enjoy a heightened experience when I listen to the score alone. There are many moments I love in the score that I feel are hidden and subdued in the context of the film. One example is the unveiling of the JW theme. It’s not paired with a particularly notable image or scene. It plays for the first time as the camera focuses on a kid-friendly paleontological dig site where children can dust off buried fossils. I could see that they maybe were paying homage to paleontologists digging up dinosaurs — like Drs. Grant and Sattler in JP — that paved the way for Jurassic World, but it seems like such an insignificant image for the film’s theme to be introduced. Honestly, the weight of the theme lost me in my first viewing. I had to watch the film a second time, after listening to the score for about a week, to appreciate the music’s place in context.

Another example is “Owen You Nothing“. It’s a short and charming theme first played by the English horn, then the bassoon, and lastly by the oboe/flute over top an ostinato of low string pizzicatos. It’s a jaunty theme for Owen, portrayed by the entire double reed family, whose rugged and guttural sounds describe Owen perfectly. I completely missed this theme in my first viewing, and I almost missed it in my second viewing. It was quite under-balanced — and the theme never recurs later in the film, so why even have it in the first place? On its own it’s a playful moment, but it doesn’t make an impression in the film.

One track that I believe works quite well in context is “Pavane for a Dead Apatosaurus“. While many criticize the scene as overly manipulative, I think it is one of the few genuine moments of the film, harking back to the sick Triceratops from JP. The track begins with the “family theme”, introduced in “The Family that Strays Together“, which plays throughout the film both as the brothers build their relationship through survival and as the film seems to pressure Claire to give in to the idea of having children. As Claire and Owen find the dying Apatosaurus, solo piano begins to play — which has become an established JP franchise tradition for safety. The piano plays a slow and unadorned form of the “family theme”, an intimate and still moment. You almost stop breathing for fear of interrupting the intense calm, as Claire and Owen comfort the dying Apatosaurus. The “family theme” transitions to the JW theme, joined by sustained strings, and it is here where the darkness in the theme really shines. The melody’s expressive leaps and the deceptive harmonies allow us to forget our fear of the Indominus Rex and feel the sorrow of witnessing a gentle giant die.

The task to continue a franchise started by the great John Williams is daunting, I imagine, but Giacchino wrote some lovely themes for JW. All in all, I feel that he captured the awe-inspiring essence of seeing a dinosaur that Williams did in JP. While I’ll never forgive Giacchino for removing the piccolo line in the build-up of Williams’ main theme in “Welcome to Jurassic World” at 1:27, he gave his own spin to Williams’ themes and created some moving new music. Even though it doesn’t always work well in the context of the film, that’s less on Giacchino and more on the editors. The score is exquisite on its own and I’ll keep on listening to it that way.

Jurassic Park

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Jurassic Park‘s score is eclectic, a combination of styles and themes that, thanks to John Williams’ mastery, somehow finds cohesion and forms the film’s backbone. First there’s the film’s main theme, a lyrical, Romantic passage first heard when seeing the Brachiosaurus for the first time. A heroic fanfare first heard when Drs. Grant and Sattler first arrive at the island interestingly becomes an anthem for the film’s unlikely hero, the Tyrannosaurus Rex. A colorful, Wagnerian theme accompanies the scene where Dr. Grant and the kids wake up in the trees and interact with the Brachiosaurs. Finally, a diverse array of anxious and suspenseful music permeate the rest of the film, including the undulating “searching” music heard when Dr. Sattler and Muldoon search through the T-Rex’s carnage, the erratic and wild music that accompanies many of the last act’s action sequences, and the pompous march-like theme heard when Hammond’s guests first arrive at the visitor’s center. How could all of these themes and styles possibly come together in a united sound for a film?

Williams uses hooks in several themes to aurally link them together. The most prevalent hook is a single rhythm – two sixteenth notes followed by an eighth note – that begins the majestic main theme and continues throughout the entire film via several variations, such as in the visitor’s center march. Another prevalent hook is the frequent use of a lower neighbor-tone, usually in conjunction with the aforementioned rhythm. Listening to the main theme, one can hear do-ti-do, do-ti-do, over and over again, embedded in the two sixteenth notes-eighth note rhythm. This provides a solid melodic foundation throughout the film that is instantly recognizable to the audience and bonds the images on the screen with the music. The lower neighbor-tone hook is heard in other tracks, like in the aforementioned visitor’s center march, and also effectively in a recurring theme heard in “High Wire Stunts”. While it isn’t used in the same rhythm as the main theme, that familiar do-ti-do action recalls the main theme and binds the two together.

Structure and melody aren’t the only elements connecting the themes in Jurassic Park; stylistic links do as well. The film is set on an island off the coast of Costa Rica. To emulate an island aesthetic, Williams uses tribal percussion and flute in various tracks, including “Dennis Steals the Embryos”, “The Prologue” and “Incident at Isla Nublar”. While much of that music does not relate to other themes structurally, the music creates an atmosphere that helps audiences connect with the film’s setting.

Williams own compositional style also creates a footprint in the film. His approach to this score is essentially portentous. True to the didactic nature of science fiction, Williams aims to infuse the score with warnings. For example, when Hammond’s guests first arrive at the visitor’s center, the brash march transitions into some charming incidental music, but as the camera pans to the dinosaur skeletons, the music darkens in mood and avoids a satisfying cadence, as if questioning the actions of the scientists. Another example occurs when the baby velociraptor is hatching from its egg. Piano riffs and atmospheric percussion accompany a beautiful vocal line. The music evokes the awe of witnessing a dinosaur being born, but the sustain in the strings and the harmonies suggest a subtle yet intrinsic objection to what the scientists are doing at Jurassic Park. Even when all is said and done, the film’s last notes do not align with a happy ending. Yes, the piano reiteration of the main theme eases the nerves after the helicopter safely takes everyone off of the island, but the ending credit music sounds one last warning. The low horn call extinguishes the calm, and the last sounds heard are of dissonant strings. This sense of foreboding is at the core of Jurassic Park’s message, one that resonates even after the story finishes.

I continually forget that the Jurassic Park score was not nominated for an Academy Award, and every time I remember, I’m shocked. John Williams accomplishes so much in this score that I feel his work should be rewarded. Williams creates one of the loveliest themes he’s ever written. He masterfully manipulates the audience’s emotions, inspiring awe and wonder through themes of childlike joy and excitement (such as when the characters first see the Brachiosaurus), and heightening the audience’s anxiety by using dissonant, rhythmically erratic passages (such as during the Velociraptor confrontation at the end of the film). At the very core of this score is a dichotomous soul of the profane and the sublime, perfectly encapsulating the horror and wonder of Jurassic Park. His music is so fundamental to the film that you can’t listen to the soundtrack alone and not recall dialogue and iconic scenes. Even if all that doesn’t warrant an Academy Award nomination, his score finds a special place in all of our hearts.