SDCC: The Importance of Music in Superhero Cinema

Music and sound design has always been an integral aspect of moviemaking, and at this year's Comic-Con International in San Diego, a collection of filmmakers and composers assembled to discuss the importance of the field as it pertains to superhero films specifically.  On hand were composers John Debney ("Iron Man 2," "Sin City"), Christopher Lennertz (Marvel's "Agent Carter One-Shot"), Marco Beltrami ("The Wolverine"), Matthew Margeson ("Kick-Ass 2"), Bear McCreary ("Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.") as well as "Kick Ass 2's" writer and director Jeff Wadlow and Marvel Studios Music Supervisor Dave Jordan. Moderated by film journalist Ray Costa, the panel was structured in a way that showcased a given scene from a panelist's project, with a discussion of how they approached the work. First up was Lennertz, and his work composing the opening theme to the new Marvel Studios short film, "Agent Carter," with Hayley Atwell reprising her role as Agent Peggy Carter from "Captain America: The First Avenger." As described by Lennertz, and what was heard, the music punctuating the film is a fusion of jazz and electronic motifs. The series of clips Jordan brought was of particular significance to the character of Tony Stark's father, Howard Stark. Jordan specified Marvel's intent to lay down a sense of consistency between "Iron Man 2," in which the elder Stark appears and introduces Stark Expo and the hidden film-reel message to his son, and then the younger version of Howard who played a role in "Captain America." "Kevin Feige and Jon Favraeu were inspired by the Sherman Brothers, who wrote 'It's a Small World' and 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,' " Jordan said. "They wanted something that would encapsulate that feel of the '40s and the innocence of 'It's a Small World,' and then do a contemporary version." The clips shown from "Iron Man 2" were actually two different versions of the final battle scene from the movie: the first being the un-rendered footage with isolated sound effects, and the other being the final theatrical version. Before those clips rolled, Debney praised Feige, Jordan and the rest of Marvel Studios for being able to successfully stitch the studios' films with consistency and continuity in all facets. After the clips were shown, Debney noted that "Iron Man 2" director Jon Favraeu wanted something more orchestral for the sequel to match the movie's larger scope. However, they still wanted to keep the rock and roll influences of the first film, and that was part of the reasoning for bringing musician Tom Morello on board. Debney also spoke of one of the particular challenges of composing music for a superhero film. "Music sometimes needs to take a back seat to the scope of the movie, and rightly so." He also noted just how rich with sound the movie is, but that in this particular scene, the music set by the 100-piece symphony orchestra is something "you only sort of hear." The topic of striking the proper balance between sound and music composition was touched upon again during the Q&A portion of the panel as Debney expressed that for him and his fellow composers, sound can sometimes get too assaultive on audiences at times. "I think the best, most successful marriages of music and sound are when the two can coexist. Sometimes, the music should rule the day, and sometimes, the sound rule the day. When one or the other is out of balance, I think the audience feels that." 

McCreary chimed in to note that communication between the filmmakers, the sound design team and composers is key to making it all work. "That's why I always make friends with the sound designers," he said, half-joking. "We're inherently against each other, but we're all going in the same direction." When discussing "Kick Ass 2," the film's writer and director, Wadlow likened his and Margeson's approach to creating the film's music to his approach to writing the film's script. "We wanted to make music that sounded like a sequel to the first film," Wadlow said. "But we also had to introduce all of these new ideas, and be faithful to the source material." "It's a good combination of both," Margeson added. After Costa asked Wardlow about anything specific that he couldn't transfer from the comics to the film, the filmmaker answered matter of fact, "Music." A self-described "music moron," Wardlow's mindset when it comes to music is to focus on soundscapes and textures. "It's amazing how much drama music adds. It's seems so obvious, but so much of the editorialization is provided by the score, and provided so brilliantly by these guys, who I am in awe of." Before showing off McCreary's theme to "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," the composer voiced his gratitude for being able to work with Marvel, along with Joss Whedon and his team. "It's so cool of Marvel to let me play in a corner of their sandbox," he said. "It's a dream come true." Following the audio presentation, McCreary talked of Whedon and crew having a clear vision of what they wanted the series to be. Although the series inhabits a world filled with superheroes, the main characters themselves are not superpowered. "I need to acknowledge the human element," he said. "That's what I'm most excited about -- getting to create a world that runs parallel [to superheroes], but is its own beast. It's a lot of fun to work on." When it came time to discuss Beltrami's work on "The Wolverine," Costa first asked the composer to compare the experience of working with director James Mangold with working on "Hellboy" with Guillermo Del Toro. "That's the beauty of this job," Beltrami answered. "You're always working with different people, which makes for unique experiences." 

Beltrami described the two directors as extremely creative, but in different ways. As an example, Beltrami described a shorthand directive for a musical cue Del Toro would give him: "I need the butt-willies." Mangold, on the other hand, let Beltrami feel out the ronin X-Man, and the composer eventually discovered the instrument best suited for Wolverine was the harmonica. Wolverine's traits as a loner mirrors the associations that come with harmonica music. In the film, Logan's theme starts out with only two notes at the beginning of the character's journey in the Pacific Northwest and builds from there.  The clip shown was an action sequence with Wolverine fighting members of the Japanese Yakuza outside of a moving train. Afterward, Beltrami himself was surprised by what he saw, saying, "That music was not written for that scene." As the crowd collectively chuckled, Beltrami explained that that particular piece of music was written for a longer scene that takes place inside the train. Moreover, that that exterior scene was originally "just wind and sound effects." "But I didn't actually go to the final dub," he said, joking, "Just goes to show that I'd better go see the movie. I mean, it might not even be my music in it!" During the Q&A portion, a fan asked if a character's theme usually comes first, or later in the process. For McCreary, a character's theme is everything. "I spend more time writing a theme than the rest of the process combined," he said. "I'll spend more time tinkering with eleven notes, and then once I get my eleven notes, I can do 70-80 minutes of the score in fourteen days, if I have to. To stumble blindly into a score without knowing melodically and thematically what you're going to do with these characters, you're just setting yourself up for disaster." Since Wadlow is a self-professed "music moron," a fan asked if there were any difficulties between himself and composer Margeson when attempting to get their ideas across to one another. "Jeff calls himself a 'music moron,' Mageson replied. "But for us composers, most of the time, that's a good thing."  "Music in a film, more than anything, just has to be emotional, Wadlow answered. "You can get into the theory and the math of it all, and talk about bigger ideas that come into play. But ultimately, you just have to ask yourself, do I feel anything when I listen to this music? Not only that, but, do I feel anything that's appropriate for this scene?"

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