What's That Sound? The Music of the MCU
Okay, look. The MCU is fantastic. Don’t at @ me.
These flicks are some of the most popcorn munching, heartstring-tugging, adrenaline pumping, cheer-inducing times you can have at the movies these days. Sure, the MCU essentially just wrapped up with the formidable double whammy that was Infinity War and Endgame, and I suspect the next era of the MCU might not be able to capture the sheer sense of possibility and quality that marked the back half of the first ten years. That being said, there’s one thing in particular that I want to address - the MCU has an amazing soundtrack.
I’m not talking about the orchestral soundtracks by the likes of Alan Silvestri - though the Avengers theme is now iconic - but rather the playlists of classic (and not so classic) songs. This probably began in earnest in 2013’s Guardians of the Galaxy, with Star-Lord dancing to Come and Get Your Love by Redbone as the title card filled the screen in giant gold letters. It’s interesting that nowadays we hear certain songs (I’m thinking now of Hooked on a Feeling by Blue Suede) and we immediately associate it with the Marvel films - specifically, the Guardians of the Galaxy.
This is amazing. What’s more amazing is that Feige and company have a truly remarkable sense of being able to recognize what makes their audiences happy. I saw a YouTube video titled Avengers: Infinity War vs. Star Wars: The Last Jedi: How To Properly Subvert Expectations. Regardless of how I felt about The Last Jedi, one of the most amazing ways Infinity War succeeded was in preserving not just the visual color palette of the entire MCU up to that point but also the sounds of the MCU. I’ll talk a bit more on the visual style of the MCU in another post, but if you’re curious what I’m talking about, check out this absolutely incredible video on how the Russo brothers framed a shot that included both an Avenger and the Guardians of the Galaxy. These are masters at the top of their craft. It’s genius.
Anyway, back to the music. I hope this video I’m about to link stays up, because it perfectly captures one of my favorite moments from Infinity War - the moment the camera cuts to the stars. For some context (in case you’re uninitiated, in which case you really need to stop reading about MCU retrospectives, but here we go anyway) what you see in this video is how powerful musical cues can be. As the camera pans across the stars, in comes the opening riff of “Rubberband Man” by the Spinners, and even as the word SPACE fills up the screen the audience is already starting to cheer. That’s because they know who’s coming, and when the Guardians do finally appear the exuberance is palpable. Take a look.
This incredible stuff, folks. This isn’t easy to do. I think, actually, if I had to put my finger on what it is creators want to achieve, it’s moments exactly like this one - moments where characters and their music are so alive in our hearts that we can identify them even before they’ve even appeared on the screen. This colorful, zany, groovy groundwork which we now associate with the MCU was laid by James Gunn in 2013, and later pushed and expanded by Taika Watiti with Thor: Ragnarok in 2017, and later carried forward by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck in Captain Marvel, which joyously drew on the music of the 1990s. Nowadays, can you imagine an MCU film without good music? I can’t.
This tradition carried on in a subtle way into Avengers: Endgame, where we see the opening Marvel Studios logo set to a song for - I think - the first time in the MCU history.
Compare this opening to the same logo as it appeared on the screen at the front of Avengers: Infinity War. Listen to how the music is different between those two openings.
How the music is used here really puts on display the narrative purpose of music in the MCU. Simply put: Marvel uses symphonic music to indicate the internal stories of its characters, whether sweeping and epic (such as with the Avengers theme) or intimate and heartbreaking, such as this sequence when Steve Rogers is speaking to a dying Peggy. Songs, on the other hand, are typically to acknowledge and include the audience: songs we can sing to bring us into the films in a measurable way. This is sometimes used against the audience, like in Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2, when Ego crushes Peter Quill’s old Walkman. This scene feels like an attack - not just on Peter, but on us.
It’s fitting, therefore, that the closing sequence of Avengers: Endgame is a wonderful hybrid of both these styles of music. As we now know, Endgame ends on a tearjerker, the final scene one of Steve Rogers and his beloved Peggy together at last, dancing in a little house in what looks like the late 40s, early 50s. Most importantly, however, is the song they’re dancing to - It’s Been a Long Long Time by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn. This piece is a fusion of symphonic music (which indicates a character moment) and a traditional song (which brings in the audience). It is, quite literally, the perfect song to end the MCU - and to tie a bow on Steve Rogers’ life.
(Don’t listen to it unless you want to cry. Again.)
That’s all for now. Thanks for reading. Now, I’m going to find some tissues.