AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON – Brian Tyler and Danny Elfman
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
The latest entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe is Avengers: Age of Ultron, the eleventh film in the series since the first Iron Man film in 2008, and the second film featuring all the main characters after the first Avengers movie in 2012. Directed by Joss Whedon, the film sees the six heroes – Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) – teaming up to take on Ultron (James Spader), a sentient robot created as part of an Earth defense system by Stark, which achieves consciousness and decides that the only way to save the Earth is to eradicate humanity. It’s a visual extravaganza, filled with spectacular special effects, complicated action sequences, and plenty of witty banter between the protagonists, as well as a host of cameos from earlier Marvel films, and the introduction of several new characters which will play larger roles in future movies.
Unfortunately, it’s also monumentally confusing, and suffers from what I am starting to call ‘fight fatigue’ – the same ailment that afflicted Man of Steel a few years ago. The sheer magnitude of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – which now encompasses not only the aforementioned eleven movies, but also three complementary TV series (Agents of SHIELD, Agent Carter and Daredevil), and several canonical short films – is getting to the point where the average viewer, unless they are able to memorize every detail and plot point from every film and TV episode, is going to become lost. The various subtle allusions to other projects, foreshadowing, and sub-plot references will go over the head of too many people, leaving the rest of the film as little more than a series of extended fight sequences connected by some (admittedly occasionally quite funny) one-liners.
The fight sequences are as exhausting as they are interchangeable; irrespective of whether it’s the Avengers cutting a swath through a horde of faceless henchmen as they try to retrieve Loki’s staff, Hulk rampaging through an African city, or everyone battling an army of robot clones through the ruins of an industrial Eastern European city, the sequences are just too much, go on for far too long, and feature stunts and CGI work that borders on the ridiculous. This is what I mean by fight fatigue; by the end of it all, I simply didn’t care who lived and who died, and the rather interesting philosophical arguments around which Ultron’s motivations were based were lost amid the endless sea of explosions.
A little like the film, the music for Avengers: Age of Ultron is also something of an enjoyable mess. After circling through composers as varied as Ramin Djawadi, Craig Armstrong, John Debney, and Patrick Doyle for many years, and enjoying a brief dalliance with Alan Silvestri, the Marvel team appeared to have settled on Brian Tyler as their composer of choice. With him having written the scores for Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World, and signed on for Age of Ultron, Tyler seemed to be bringing some much-needed musical continuity to the world, writing his own new themes for two of the main Avengers, and incorporating Silvestri’s themes for Captain America and the Avengers as a whole into his own work. Unfortunately, something happened between Tyler and Marvel during the post-production of Age of Ultron – there is no clear consensus as to what that thing was – which led to a significant part of Tyler’s score being rejected, or simply not finished, and being replaced by a new score written by Danny Elfman. He is an old hand at superhero themes, of course, so there was never any question of a drop in quality, but the potential blending of Tyler’s style with Elfman’s style was certainly problematic in terms of how it would all come together. There’s also a question of whether Tyler’s services will be retained for the next Thor movie, Ragnarok, in 2017, and the next two Avengers films, Infinity War Parts 1 and 2 in 2018 and 2019 respectively, but we can cross those bridges when we come to them.
Fortunately, as I said, it’s best described as an enjoyable mess; Tyler references his own themes for Iron Man and Thor, and writes new themes for the Ultron and Vision characters, as well as a new and unexpected love theme. Meanwhile, Elfman takes the central part of Silvestri’s Avengers theme, and blends it with his own music, creating a sort-of hybrid theme that actually sounds really interesting in context. Wrap this up with a ribbon of relentlessly epic orchestral-and-choral action music, and you have the Age of Ultron score, which by all the traditional rules of film music shouldn’t sound this good. It’s actually a testament to the skill of both composers that the resultant work sounds as cohesive as it does considering the circumstances under which it was written.
Tyler’s work comprises 18 tracks, totaling just over 49 minutes. His contributions are mainly centered on action, and are generally impressive, exciting and energetic, filled with all the swirling string writing, epic brass fanfares, and thunderous percussion one could possibly want. “Rise Together,” “Breaking and Entering,” “Hulkbuster,” the emotionally potent “Sacrifice,” the frenetic “Seoul Searching,” and the apocalyptic “The Battle” are especially noteworthy, ticking all the right boxes, and providing the film with just the right level of bombastic aural accompaniment. Some of the brass writing in “Seoul Searching” is actually pretty phenomenal, and both “Hulkbuster” and “The Vault” feature some tribal-style African percussion items to illustrate the setting of the not-so-jolly green giant’s latest rampage of destruction, while “Seoul Searching” breaks out the Taikos and other assorted Asian drums, just in case you didn’t know where Seoul was.
Ultron himself has a menacing five-note motif which is introduced in the opening “Avengers: Age of Ultron Title” cue, and later appears to sinister effect in cues such as “Birth of Ultron,” where the cellos ominously herald his first appearance, “Darkest of Intentions,” where the chord progression of the theme actually forms the string ostinato, and “Fighting Back’, which boasts a huge performance in the cue’s second half. There’s a pretty melody for piano and softer strings in cues such as “Breaking and Entering,” “Wish You Were Here,” and the lovely “The Last One,” which alludes to the film’s unexpected romantic sub-plot (but is oddly reminiscent of Will and Elizabeth’s love theme from Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End). The way the relationship theme plays as a countermelody to the Ultron theme in “Darkest of Intentions” is especially clever. Finally, there’s a chorally-enhanced theme for the Vision character, which is presented as a skewed variation on Ultron’s theme, re-arranged with a more mysterioso feel in the track bearing his name, and performed later as a heroic fanfare at the beginning of “Fighting Back”.
Both “Rise Together” and “Hulkbuster” feature a couple of rousing performances of the fanfare from Iron Man 3, while “The Battle” contains a brief snippet of Thor’s theme from The Dark World, and the briefest allusion to the Captain America march. Tyler works with Silvestri’s main Avengers theme a little, playing with its rhythmic underbelly, and some of its chord progressions, but rarely actually states it outright: you can hear it performed on piano under the main ideas in the occasionally quite dissonant and aggressive “Birth of Ultron,” before it gets it’s one and only major Tyler-inspired workout in the aforementioned “The Battle”.
Elfman’s work comprises 11 tracks, totaling just under 30 minutes and, unlike Tyler, Silvestri’s theme is all over his cues. His central idea is presented in full in “Heroes,” a strong and inspiring march which blends Silvestri’s four-note brass fanfare with a new 9-note string ostinato, and an orchestral arrangement that bears many of Elfman’s stylistic hallmarks. Thereafter, Elfman’s Avengers theme is everywhere, forming the cornerstone of later cues such as “It Begins,” the superb “Inevitability/One Good Eye” (which, interestingly, also features Tyler’s Iron Man theme and the Ultron motif), the rousing “Avengers Unite,” and the conclusive “New Avengers – Avengers: Age of Ultron,” which ends the score on a flourish.
Elfman’s other major contribution is a homely, Americana theme for the film’s middle section set in a SHIELD safe house; both “Farmhouse” and “The Farm” feature an unexpectedly lyrical, homespun acoustic guitar melody that stands out like a sore thumb from the rest of the score, but more than highlights Elfman’s tender touch when it comes to more restrained music. Cleverly, Elfman manages to sneak a crafty reference to his own score for Ang Lee’s “Hulk” – which is now considered to be outside the canonical Marvel Universe – into “The Farmhouse”, as a little musical in-joke for those in the know. It’s also interesting to note how many ‘Elfmanisms’ are present in his cues – some of the chord progressions, choral flourishes and echoing brass triplets could have come from Batman or Sleepy Hollow, while some of the string writing in “Ultron Twins”, for example, has a grief-stricken, super-emotional quality that could have been taken from his Black Beauty score. Even while scoring his umpteenth set of super heroes, the man still has his identifiable style.
I think my main criticism of the score as a whole would be that, when the Elfman/Silvestri Avengers theme is not present, the music does tend to come across as a little anonymous, which is something I have been feeling for a while now, and not just about this score. Before writing this review, I had to re-listen to Tyler’s themes from Iron Man 3 and Thor 2, Silvestri’s Avengers and Captain America themes, and Armstrong’s Hulk theme, multiple times, to re-familiarize myself with them enough so that I could pick out any appearances here. Had you asked me to hum them beforehand, only Silvestri’s pair would have sprung to mind; the rest all sort of blend together into a generic ‘heroic’ sound. I’m certainly not saying that hummability is the only criteria for a good theme, but I (sort of) do this for a living, and I’m usually pretty solid at remembering these things, so for me to be struggling to recall them clearly says something. Similarly, the casual listener isn’t going to be able to identify Ultron’s theme, Vision’s theme, or any of the other new melodic ideas from this score, which leaves it lacking a clear individual identity.
Having said that, despite all the problems that plagued the film’s post-production, and the less-than-ideal circumstances both composers found themselves working in, Avengers: Age of Ultron remains a remarkably coherent score, and for that fact alone everyone involved should be commended. The thematic consistency that Tyler was trying to maintain in his half of the score represents a step in the right direction for the franchise as a whole – although, arguably, only film music buffs will really notice. Similarly, Elfman’s adaptation of Silvestri’s theme is laudable for honoring the most prominent musical identity to grace the franchise since the Captain America March. The film’s lack of a unique musical voice of its own is a little frustrating, but on the whole I can’t imagine that fans of bold, forceful, contemporary orchestral action music will be anything less than solidly entertained.
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- Avengers: Age of Ultron Title [Tyler] (0:43)
- Heroes [Elfman] (2:07)
- Rise Together [Tyler] (2:23)
- Breaking and Entering [Tyler] (3:04)
- It Begins [Elfman] (2:42)
- Birth of Ultron [Tyler] (3:05)
- Ultron-Twins [Elfman] (4:13)
- Hulkbuster [Tyler] (4:32)
- Can You Stop This Thing? [Elfman] (1:03)
- Sacrifice [Tyler] (2:42)
- Farmhouse [Elfman] (4:02)
- The Vault [Tyler] (2:58)
- The Mission [Tyler] (2:48)
- Seoul Searching [Tyler] (2:48)
- Inevitability/One Good Eye [Elfman] (5:07)
- Ultron Wakes [Elfman] (1:43)
- Vision [Tyler] (3:47)
- The Battle [Tyler] (4:24)
- Wish You Were Here [Tyler] (1:36)
- The Farm [Elfman] (1:14)
- Darkest of Intentions [Tyler] (2:26)
- Fighting Back [Tyler] (2:33)
- Avengers Unite [Elfman] (1:08)
- Keys to the Past [Tyler] (1:48)
- Uprising [Tyler] (2:32)
- Outlook [Tyler] (2:38)
- The Last One [Tyler] (2:14)
- Nothing Lasts Forever [Elfman] (1:57)
- New Avengers – Avengers: Age of Ultron [Elfman] (3:09)
Running Time: 77 minutes 44 seconds
Hollywood Records/Marvel Music 4877018 (2015)
Music composed by Brian Tyler. Performed by The London Philharmonic Orchestra. Conducted by Brian Tyler and Allan Wilson. Orchestrations by Brian Tyler. Recorded and mixed by Simon Rhodes and Greg Hayes. Edited by Joe Lisanti. Score produced by Brian Tyler and Joe Lisanti.
Music composed by Danny Elfman. Conducted by Rick Wentworth. Orchestrations by Steve Bartek, Edgardo Simone, David Slonaker, Ed Trybek and Peter Bateman. Additional music by Chris Bacon, Paul Mounsey and T. J. Lindgren. Recorded and mixed by Nick Wollage, Noah Scott Snyder and Alan Meyerson. Edited by Shie Rozow. Score produced by Danny Elfman.