An Amazonian truth lariat is hardly necessary to cajole composers into waxing tragic on the draining music in superhero flicks. Sit a handful of successful sound artists down in a dimly lit room, mention the term “temp music” and let the takes skitter across the roundtable. The proliferation of placeholder tunes persisting through sound editing is what Danny Elfman, co-composer of 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, in one such conversation called the “bane of my existence.” Elfman is a prolific and influential comic book composer, having won a Grammy for his work on Tim Burton’s landmark 1989 Batman and alchemized the supernatural and the stylish on Men in Black, Sam Raimi’s 2002 Spider-Man and its sequel; and he has the distinction of being one of a few composers tapped by Marvel who has successfully pieced together music that fleshes out its filmic universe. Other composers nod amen as Elfman adds, “It’s my job to make my director forget everything they’ve heard in the temp… If they’re addicted to it then it just makes my job harder.”
The marriage of digital production and risk-averse reminiscing creates a sameness that epitomizes the franchise model, but strangles musical innovation. We understand the physics of the Marvel world to include not just rainbow bridges and time-skipping jewelry, but aspirational string melodies when heroes skywalk, booming percussion when a villain shows up and high-pitched squeals for seemingly every jump scare. The superhero soundtrack is predictable, and that’s largely by design.
The small changes in Marvel’s sonic universe mirror the singularity of its most innovative entries: They’re predicated on visionary auteurs looking to add twists to the genre. This was the case with Thor: Ragnarok, wherein director Taika Waititi and composer Mark Mothersbaugh – after vibing off a very popular YouTube video by Every Frame a Painting on temp music – collaborated to create a synth-rock ’80s roadie soundtrack; Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, where Ludwig Göransson and Senegalese virtuoso Baaba Maal wove traditional Euro orchestras with nimble tambin flute and Xhosa vocalization in sparkling legato; and most recently in Peter Ramsey’s award-winning animated feature Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse, where composer Daniel Pemberton’s congeal of electronics, popular symphonics and hip-hop imbues the new Spidey with youthful verve.
Miles Morales’s character provided a charge for Pemberton to not only speak to the old-hat Spidey sound, but to usher a generation of audiences in to a wedding between the local and the global.
Spider-Verse represents another step outside of the realm of uniformity. Having stretched his compositional muscles on films like The Counselor, All the Money in the World and Molly’s Game, Pemberton shared Elfman’s nonplussed sentiment toward schlocky movie music. “I always found superhero soundtracks quite boring,” the UK native says with a sigh. “But Peter [Ramsey] showed me what they were working on, what he wanted, and it was just really cool.” Miles Morales’s character provided a charge for Pemberton to not only speak to the old-hat Spidey sound, but to usher a generation of audiences in to a wedding between the local and the global. So the compositions would appeal to those comic geriatrics humming the original Spider-Man theme – nostalgia will still reign supreme – but it also used mechanical, modulated turntablism to extend seemingly well-tread orchestral movement into sensational symphonic breakbeats.
Pemberton’s original score drips with vigor and subtext. The whistle-and-flow on “Visions of Brooklyn 1,2,3” channels the borough’s neighborhood feel while embedding the menace of the Green Goblin’s inevitable arrival. Things are changing in Brooklyn, and the multidimensional insight – of both upscale living in the wake of gentrification and the world that existed there before – breathe through each strident exhalation. The soundtrack juggles as many ideas as the movie does colorful web-slingers, but each movement maintains balance, keeping things from getting too messy. The Goblin’s theme is a personal horror, the kind of sound one could expect in The Haunting of Hill House, with guttural screams and cymbal crashes that provide the scale and sense of threat embodied in a Spidey sky-fight.
While previous Spider-Man soundtracks capture the joy of slinging around New York with heavy-handed theme music, Pemberton attempts to appeal to the tireless bizarre of the city, whether through the zany, wanton scratches and furious kick drums on “Catch the S Train” or the synth-infested murk felt through the trio of tracks detailing the Big Evil™ Alchemax infiltration scenes. Whether it’s chase music, the twinkling, swooping keys in romance tunes, or the gravitas of its murderous villains, the soundtrack bobs and weaves seamlessly.
Much like the soundtracks for Black Panther and Ragnarok, the bountiful sound within Spider-Verse is the result of genre-meshing, embracing non-white culture and travel. Pemberton was directly inspired by his own golden era hip-hop stomping grounds: “I remembered going to this club on Hoxton called the Blue Note in the early ’90s, watching the DJs scratch there. It’s closed now, but I’d always wanted to incorporate it in my music somehow.”
To capture the soundtrack’s numerous modulated scratches, Pemberton tapped long-time champion jockey DJ Blakey, who used Serato’s Control Vinyl software – which allows for digital songs to be spun on vinyl – to “scratch the orchestra.” Pemberton was under time constraints – a lot of the movie had already been animated by the time he joined the project – but he recorded the strings first, processed the digital vinyl, then meshed everything together by the end of filming. The result is a soundtrack that’s part spandex and part vision quest. When asked about these flavors and how the hip-hop inspirations spoke to him while recording, Pemberton says that “What mattered most to us was striking the right tone. We had to get at some of the sounds that these characters would listen to.”
Marvel’s been amping up the Blackity-Black cultural symbolism for the better part of four years now. They’ve recruited popular black authors like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Roxane Gay and Eve Ewing to pen stories of Wakanda’s heroes (in the case of Coates and Gay) and for the brand new Riri Williams imprint (Ewing); they’ve run cool hip-hop variant covers hat-tipping the cats from Run the Jewels, Future and Zaytoven; and the Black Panther phenomenon was brilliant and inescapable. However, Spider-Verse’s original score – as well as its accompanying soundtrack – still have a ways to go. If the charge for both compositions was to capture the feel of the city, and harness the quotidian chunes Miles would be jammin to, the lack of Latin trap music – or any music made by Latinx artists (Miles is Afro-Puerto Rican) – is a massive oversight. As with the Black Panther soundtrack (as opposed to the original score), there is a preoccupation with what is popular – even as Latin trap dominated Spotify’s streaming charts for the last two years – and not necessarily what could be true to life. But Sony and Marvel will have ample time to make amends: The strength of their universe is a seemingly unending drive to manufacture.
It seems the singular mandate of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is safe nostalgia. Well-rehearsed stories pinged panel-to-screen become billion-dollar behemoths and provide scaffolding for forthcoming entries. Marvel isn’t the first to take this path, but it is certainly the most profitable to ever do it, despite the calculus – narrative beats, easter eggs, post-credit scenes, etc… – never being clearer. Their films are nostalgia in praxis. The youth run the popular world so that oldhead malaise is almost always for the birds, until it’s observed in just about every facet of dominant culture. Spider-Verse presents a different feel, however. Part of it is sleek animation. The other is that it feels like this far-off distant cousin of the MCU, where possibilities of one-offs open the universe up to more heady ideas – both visually and sonically– in ways that even Ragnarok and Black Panther might be too cautious to employ. Spider-Verse removed the safety net: Who’s the next director to trust-fall to fresh?