A well deserved, albeit long and meandering, tribute to the most ubiquitous musical motif in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
From my perspective, Marvel Studios doesn't have many failings so far. Not all their movies have been great (IRON MAN sequels, I’m looking at you), and yes, there are some things I think they could've implemented better -- but overall, even on the rare occasions they have a misfire, their output is generally still a lot of fun.
But there is one area where Marvel’s movies have mostly fallen very short in my estimation. I love strong recurring musical themes in my movies, especially across multiple films. Think of the STAR WARS or INDIANA JONES movies, the LORD OF THE RINGS and HOBBIT sagas, or the HARRY POTTER series. All these franchises feature numerous recognizable themes and motifs developed across all their installments.
Not so with the Marvel movies. IRON MAN 1, 2, and 3 all have completely different themes by three different composers for the main character. Likewise, THOR and THOR: THE DARK WORLD feature separate themes for the God of Thunder, as composed by two different men. AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON uses some of the main theme from the first AVENGERS film, but that’s a special case which we’ll get to shortly.
But somehow, through all of these, one character’s theme has stayed with him, popping up at least once in every one of the films featuring him: Captain America.
2011’s CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER featured music composed by Alan Silvestri, and Silvestri came up with a rousing action march for the title character. Obviously, as it’s his movie, Cap’s theme is all over THE FIRST AVENGER in various interpretations, moods, and tempos. It’s most easily recognized in the “march” format played over the end credits:
It’s bold, exciting, patriotic, and perfect for Captain America. And someone at Marvel apparently agreed, because Cap’s theme returned in short order in AVENGERS. Silvestri was retained to provide a score to the big team picture, and with Cap back as well, it makes sense the composer would revisit the motif he had debuted in THE FIRST AVENGER. The first time or two I saw AVENGERS, I was so taken in by the visuals and the the fact that I'd been essentially waiting my entire life for such a film, that I didn't pay much attention to the music. I caught Cap’s theme twice, in the two spots it appears on the movie’s soundtrack album. But on viewing it again a year or so later, I realized the theme pops up all over the place to represent Cap in Silvestri’s score, but more subtly than its previous incarnations.
Before we move on, let’s note one of the uses of Cap’s theme in AVENGERS: it’s a quick fanfare as the star-spangled sentinel leaps off a bridge onto a bus to go organize the NYPD’s response to the Chitauri invasion (it begins exactly after Hawkeye says, “Captain, it'd be my genuine pleasure”). Remember that, because we’ll come back to it later.
Check out the heroic burst of Cap's theme from 1:26 - 1:35 here:
Alan Silvestri hasn’t returned for another Marvel movie to date, but it seems his theme left an impression on the folks at Marvel Films. In 2013, composer Brian Tyler brought Silvestri’s theme back for THOR: THE DARK WORLD, in a short but strong incarnation that plays when Loki taunts Thor in the guise of Captain America. It’s interesting to note that Tyler did not retain any of Patrick Doyle’s (in my opinion superior) themes from THOR, choosing to craft his own motif for the Thunder God, yet he did incorporate Silvestri’s Cap theme into the mix. Was this his choice? Or was it suggested by someone else? Whoever had the idea, it was a good one, bringing further musical continuity to Captain America's onscreen appearances.
Hear Loki borrow Cap's theme from 3:05 - 3:18 here:
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER debuted in 2014, featuring a score from Henry Jackman. Jackman created his own, extremely dull and lackluster Captain America theme, which featured throughout the movie (seriously, it barely has a melody; it’s just a cacophony of frantically rising strings and horns). But before Jackman's theme is introduced at all, the film opens with a reprise of Silvestri’s Cap theme for the “On your left” scene as Steve Rogers jogs repeatedly past future Falcon Sam Wilson.
It’s interesting to note, though, that Silvestri’s theme seems to be tracked into the movie here. “Tracking” is the practice of placing existing musical cues into a film or TV scene rather than using original music. In this case, Cap’s theme is either an edited together mixture of a couple cues from THE FIRST AVENGER (mainly from the scene where Steve first steps out of Dr. Erskine’s machine as a super soldier), or the cue was newly performed as an arrangement of the previous themes. I suspect the former, which, again, leads me to believe someone at Marvel is a fan of Cap’s theme. Is it a producer? A music supervisor? I don’t know. But beginning a film with tracked music, rather than originally scored material, is unusual to say the least -- and the fact that Silvestri’s theme, rather than Jackman’s, opens Cap’s second solo outing, before giving way to Jackman's score, is telling to me.
The "On your left" cue does not currently exist on any soundtrack albums, though it could be pieced together by an enterprising talent using pieces from the FIRST AVENGER album.
Finally we have AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON. This movie is something of a mess with regards to the behind-the-scenes music situation. Originally IRON MAN 3 and THOR: THE DARK WORLD composer Brian Tyler was hired to create the film’s score. Then, apparently after he had completed recording all his cues, Marvel decided he wasn’t quoting Silvestri’s original AVENGERS theme enough and brought in the venerable Danny Elfman to recompose a few scenes. Elfman did a magnificent job of weaving strains of Silvestri’s theme in with his own new theme for the Avengers, but he also did a bit more, which we’ll cover in a moment.
But first: Captain America’s theme strikes again, once more tracked into a scene. This time it’s the chase through Seoul, for the bit where Cap jumps his motorcycle off a bridge and confronts Ultron on the roof of a speeding truck. Appropriately, the tracked-in cue is the quick bit from AVENGERS we covered earlier, where Cap also leapt off a bridge to fight the invading aliens.
It should be noted there’s a lot of music in AGE OF ULTRON which is either tracked or re-recorded from Silvestri’s score to the first movie, so this in itself isn’t surprising—it’s more the fact that someone thought to use Captain America’s theme for a quick piece of action in which Cap does something that impresses me. Often, tracked music is used haphazardly, with little thought given to what it originally represented. But someone at Marvel (again, a music supervisor?) is apparently on top of this stuff, as Silvestri’s Cap theme is tracked in (or possibly rerecorded) for Cap, his Hulk theme is rerecorded for the Hulk, and his helicarrier theme is rerecorded for Nick Fury’s dramatic arrival during the film’s finale (the latter pair of these three cues actually made it onto the soundtrack album, but Cap's bit did not, leading me to assume it's more likely tracked than rerecorded).
Which brings us, finally, to Danny Elfman’s contribution to AGE OF ULTRON (beyond the fantastic Avengers theme noted above). Elfman plays nice on all fronts with his work in the movie, quoting Silvestri’s AVENGERS theme as noted, and even quoting Tyler’s own Iron Man theme from IRON MAN 3, which Tyler himself also quotes in AGE OF ULTRON. (As well, Tyler quotes his own Thor theme and a tiny bit of Silvestri's motif for the assembled Avengers -- making AGE OF ULTRON the first time a Marvel film has exhibited any sense of musical continuity beyond Cap's theme). And then, at the end, for the farewell between Cap and Tony Stark, as Cap declares that the Avengers are his home, we get a very sweet, wistful version of Cap’s theme. Not tracked in this case; the cue exists nowhere else in the Marvel Cinematic catalogue.
Cap's theme will bring a tear to your eye from 0:01 - 0:25 here:
(Then keep listening to hear Danny Elfman beautifully weave Silvestri's AVENGERS theme into his own new motif.)
So, despite the peculiar indifference of Marvel Films’ top brass toward strong recurring musical motifs across its many franchises, it seems that several composers, as well as some guardian angel within the Marvel production ranks, have taken a shine to Alan Silvestri’s Captain America theme. To date it has appeared at least one time in every one of the five movies featuring Cap. Will we hear it again in next year’s CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR? I believe Jackman is returning to compose, so it seems likely he’ll revisit his own boring theme instead. But it’s always possible that mysterious music supervisor/producer/person of discerning taste will find a way to get the real Captain America theme into the movie, tracked or otherwise. I’ll be listening, and I hope I’m not disappointed. The use of strong recurring musical themes a hallmark of some of the best film franchises of all time. It's well past the point where Marvel should have realized this.