In a world of failed Dark Universes, Amazing Spider-verses, and whatever is going on at DC, the Marvel Cinematic Universe shines as a beacon of success. However, these films aren’t infallible and often come under criticism for being too formulaic and safe in their storytelling. I disagree, but that’s a topic for another day. No, where the MCU falls down in my mind is in one of the cornerstones of technical filmmaking, and what was formally a genre defining element of the superhero aesthetic – leitmotif.
For those who don’t know, a leitmotif is defined as:
‘A recurrent theme throughout a musical or literary composition, associated with a particular person, idea, or situation.’
The Imperial March, for example is both a leitmotif for Darth Vader, and the Empire. Leitmotif is a really useful tool to drive audience investment, helping to establish a connection with characters that in turn makes key story beats hit harder. Some examples of leitmotif done well can be found in two seminal tv shows with appalling endings: Game of Thrones and LOST. Thrones composer Ramin Djawadi crafts distinctive themes for the houses of Westeros, as well as other important groups like the Dothraki and the Unsullied. The result is a powerful suite that allows for variations on a central group of characters. For example, in a low moment, such as the death of Ned Stark, the House Stark theme is used as a sombre device to reflect the family’s grief. The result is a quiet version using mainly strings at a slower pace.
Yet, when the family are victorious, the theme is used again in a more uplifting manner, with a full choir and percussion instruments that suggest battle readiness and victory.
LOST composer Michael Giacchino introduces leitmotifs for every main character (and there are a lot of them) from as early as the pilot episode. The result is a musical continuity that spans across six seasons, making the emotional moments more beautiful, more painful, and more impactful.
Charlie, everyone’s favourite heroin addicted Manc with a heart of gold, is associated with the above theme from the beginning of season one, where it’s mainly used as a motif for his drug cravings. Through a beautifully written character arc, he comes to terms with who he is, beats his addiction and ultimately sacrifices himself for the good of the other survivors. The resulting scene uses a blend of Giacchino’s ‘Life and Death’ motif used when (shocker) a character is born or dies, combined with Charlie’s addiction theme layered over the top. This makes for a compelling death that carries more subconscious emotional weight because of prior association with that piece of music.
Now, on to Marvel. Previously, the leitmotif had been the bread and butter of the superhero genre. Danny Elfman employed them extensively throughout the scoring of the Batman and Spiderman franchises respectively, making for rich musical experiences that had suitable motifs for characters, themes, and even buildings. Hell, even the X-Men franchise through all of its non existent continuity managed to keep a consistent main theme for the team (edit: this point is ruined post Dark Phoenix, thanks again Dark Phoenix for ruining everything).
Yet, musical consistency has constantly evaded the most profitable superhero franchise of all time, the 22 film (at the time of writing) strong Marvel Cinematic Universe. Almost every film employs a new director, and with that, a new composer, creating a thematic disconnect in a franchise that in every other regard, values consistency as its MO. The only exceptions are in sequels, and even that isn’t a hard and fast rule. Alan Silvestri composes the original Captain America score, yet none of the sequels, and is at the helm of Avengers 1, 3 and 4, yet franchise black sheep Age of Ultron is palmed off to a collaboration between Elfman and Brian Tyler (remember those names). You can see the full list of composers here:
As a result of this disconnect, individual characters have leitmotifs introduced in their solo films, only to have them disregarded in subsequent movies. The most heinous example comes from the Guardians of the Galaxy main theme, which almost acts as a space operatic interpretation of the main Avengers cue. This theme goes completely unused in the team’s first crossover with the Earth based MCU heroes during Infinity War, which is endlessly frustrating. Other examples such as Tyler’s fantastic Iron Man 3 theme and Michael Giachinno’s Spiderman: Homecoming and Dr. Strange leitmotifs are also painfully absent. In fact, the duo of films that culminate the Infinity Saga, Infinity War and Endgame feature almost no musical continuity with the past films, except Captain America’s leitmotif (shocker, as Silvestri composed it), and of course…
The only piece of music that everyone at Marvel can seem to agree on, Alan Silvestri’s admittedly incredible Avengers theme is almost the only example of a film spanning leitmotif throughout the MCU. The Avengers theme may as well be the anthem of the MCU, as it features not only in Avengers, Infinity War, Endgame, and a reworked version for Age of Ultron, but it also pops up in Ant Man, Spiderman Homecoming, and Captain Marvel. Here it is in Ant Man at about the 50 second mark.
If the Avengers theme deserves to endure across films, why not other character based leitmotifs? Well, despite the apparent disinterest in any kind of musical continuity, a duo of composers shine through in understanding the importance. Mr. Danny Elfman and Mr. Brian Tyler, please take a bow. Though Age of Ultron is undeniably the weakest Avengers film, it has what the others lack; character leitmotifs from prior films! Captain America’s theme, Tony’s Iron Man 3 theme, Thor’s Dark World theme, and the Avengers theme all reappear to remind you that these characters do indeed come from a wider universe. Here’s a neat video showing all examples thus far. The Age of Ultron comparisons start at 2:37.
So, with the Infinity Saga complete and Thanos dusted, will phase four finally see a consistent use of character leitmotif? Probably not. Though Marvel seems to learn from its mistakes, there just isn’t the outcry for consistent compositions, bar from whiney film and Marvel nerds such as myself writing blog posts that no one will read. The answer isn’t just to hire one composer for every film, that would be insane. (Though I’ll link a video showing if Silvestri had scored Guardians of the Galaxy below, because it’s super neat). No, all Kevin Feige and company need to ensure is that when a new composer is hired, they adhere to prior leitmotifs established for individual characters. In fact, the best way forward might be to hire a specific composer for each franchise, for maximum coherency. Moments like the return of a fan favourite character will be made much more impactful in future films if they’re accompanied by a recognisable theme that has endured in the fan’s minds for years. People appreciate these technical touches, you need only look at the reaction to the return of the iconic Elfman Batman theme in the abomination of cinema that is Justice League for proof.
Sadly, this just doesn’t seem a priority for Marvel currently, and well, that’s a shame.