Marvel films, despite their tremendous global popularity, have entirely forgettable musical scores. For a franchise that’s bigger than Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Jurassic Park — a collection whose sonic signatures are deeply embedded in our cultural consciousness — that seems more than a little wrong.
Why is it that Marvel scores don’t stick with us?
Every Frame a Painting, a YouTube channel that examines and discusses film, argues that the issue isn’t the quality of the score but Marvel’s safe, predictable approach to composing. Marvel’s scoring method often involves the use of “temp music” — the temporary placeholder music that filmmakers use before the final scores are finished.
When directors use their favorite cinematic scores as temp music for their films, they begin to build edits around the emotional cues they feel when listening to a piece. The problem with this approach? Familiarity plays a major role in the ability of a piece of music to evoke an emotional response in its listener. One study, published in PLOS One in 2011, argued that our emotional responses may be stronger and more immediate when a piece of music is familiar to us.
This poses a problem when the final music does make its way into the film. Directors become intimately familiar with the emotional cues of the temporary score, which makes it difficult to be receptive to new pieces of music. As a result, directors may ask composers to imitate the temp. Because imitation doesn’t exactly produce memorable themes. We’re left with scores that are perfectly fine — but not especially outstanding.
The other big issue with Marvel’s scores is its safe approach to eliciting emotion through music. In a film, it’s the music’s job to provoke and strengthen emotional responses to pivotal scenes, and sharp contrasts between the music’s tone and the film’s visuals can heighten the intensity of the mood. Every Frame a Painting notes that Marvel scores are typically very safe: Funny moments get funny music, sad moments get sad music, and tense moments get tense music. Predictability rarely begets strong emotional responses.
As we prepare for the release of Doctor Strange on November 4, we’ll hold out hope that Michael Giacchino’s (Up, Ratatouille, Fringe) score strikes more memorable chords.