- Composed by Brian Tyler and Danny Elfman
- Hollywood Records / 2015 / 78m
The eleventh film in the “Marvel Cinematic Universe”, Avengers: Age of Ultron brings all the heroes together again as they face a technological foe, Ultron, hell-bent on destroying humanity. Needless to say, lots of tall buildings are destroyed amongst witty quips. Joss Whedon’s film is bound to make a fortune and, incredibly, the next eleven films in the series (including a two-part sequel to this) have already been announced, running all the way up to 2019.
I have written numerous times about the frustratingly inconsistent musical approach to the series which started with Ramin Djawadi’s less than accomplished Iron Man – and if at the time one thought that at least things could only get better, that was at a time when Captain America: The Winter Soldier was but a glimmer in Kevin Feige’s eye. But really, even beyond those two, it’s been frustrating that there has been so little musical continuity. The series finally seemed to have settled on a composer a couple of times – first Alan Silvestri with his accomplished scores for Captain America: The First Avenger and then The Avengers, but he hasn’t returned since; and then Brian Tyler appeared to have become the go-to-guy, providing fine scores for Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World in 2013 and being announced for this movie. Unfortunately it would appear that things did not go to plan, with Danny Elfman surprisingly appearing on posters late in the day with an “Additional Music” credit after Tyler’s score had been recorded, ultimately being upgraded to full co-composer status.
Of course, Elfman has no need to prove his credentials on a comic book movie having written an iconic score for the movie that arguably started the Hollywood obsession with them (and plenty more since); and Tyler’s last two in this series are arguably his two finest scores. So individually either would seem a fine choice to score the film. Trouble is, they sound nothing like each other – so leading up to hearing Avengers: Age of Ultron I was expecting something disjointed and perhaps rather awkward-sounding. Elfman reportedly wrote and recorded about an hour of music for the movie, half of which is on this album; the rest is retained from Tyler’s original score. (Reportedly there are tracks on the album – even by Elfman – which do not appear in the film, and within the film there are some moments tracked in from Silvestri’s score for the predecessor. I haven’t yet seen it so can’t confirm this.)
The good news is that Elfman has very skilfully crafted his music so that it doesn’t sound out of place alongside Tyler’s. I suspect that few other than film score fanatics will even notice the joins. The bad news is that, while it’s consistently entertaining, the music isn’t really anything special and often feels rather anonymous. I mentioned Tyler’s previous two Marvel scores and how good they were and while his music here is superficially similar it’s not nearly as consistently impressive as those two were; and Elfman’s music provides more gratification but he doesn’t really have the time to let it breathe and develop as he would have had he scored the whole movie.
The album mixes the two composers’ contributions up rather than presenting them separately à la Last of the Mohicans, so I’ll review it the same way. It opens with Brian Tyler’s very brief, portentous main title before going into Danny Elfman’s “Heroes”, which is when a lot of surprises happen. The first surprise: those who have been tracking Elfman’s career have seen him go away from the predominantly orchestral sound with which he really made his film music name in the late 80s and early 90s, gradually becoming more complex and with a heavy midi presence; well, this feels like it’s all the way back to what many would consider to be his prime period. It’s big and colourful and very orchestral. The second surprise: this is just how much Elfman manages to blend in with the Brian Tyler style. He’s a little more restrained, but only a little. The third surprise: Alan Silvestri’s presence. His name may be relegated to a footnote to the end credits but his theme from The Avengers is all over this score, particularly the Elfman portions; it’s used far more by Elfman than it ever was by Silvestri. Elfman certainly does his own thing to it rather than just restate it but it’s still a surprise to hear him doing that with a theme by one of his contemporaries, but it’s nice to hear, for continuity’s sake. The fact that it is largely absent from Tyler’s cues is odd given how prominent it is in Elfman’s.
The first of Tyler’s is the action-packed “Rise Together”, which is the expected wall of sound. It’s nice to hear the composer’s Iron Man theme (which is brilliant) make a brief appearance. Another action cue by the same composer follows: “Breaking and Entering” is breathlessly pacey and exciting for a minute or so before slowing down and allowing a pause for breath, with Tyler presenting a new theme towards the end. Curiously (and I imagine entirely coincidentally) similar to one of the themes from Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, it is only heard a couple of times in this score and in a much softer style, in this track just solo piano.
Elfman’s “It Begins” is another rip-snorter of an action cue, again with Silvestri featuring liberally, this time extending to his martial action style as well as the thematic content; the fluttering flutes which appear part way through the cue are the first real Elfman trademarks in the score. “Birth of Ultron” by Tyler is a much darker cue, electronics joining somewhat reduced orchestral forces, the briefest glimpse of the Iron Man theme for solo piano just coming through. Elfman’s “Ultron / Twins” is altogether more subtle; strained strings provide some dramatic weight and indeed some real beauty. It is weightier music like this that I imagined Elfman had been brought in to write in the first place, rather than action, since Tyler is so adept at that; and indeed I wish there was more of it to provide some balance to the album, but the classy cue stands rather alone.
Tyler’s “Hulkbuster” is a very loud action track. It’s effective enough (and the Iron Man theme is back once again) but it’s here that the composer’s work begins to feel somewhat generic – all the right boxes are ticked but it’s hard to really get pulled along with much enthusiasm, in stark contrast to the composer when he’s at his best: save for a few bars here and there, it all sounds just a little too familiar. The constant crashing and banging (and I speak as someone who really doesn’t mind a bit of crashing and banging) is just too much. Contrast this with what follows, “Can You Stop This Thing?” by Elfman, and it’s like night and day – it’s another loud action track and only lasts a minute but seems to have so much more structure. Tyler’s “Sacrifice” is one of his better cues, the action taking a back seat for the cue’s first half with almost elegiac strings the star of the show and when the volume does then increase it feels a bit weightier here. The score’s loveliest moment comes in “Farmhouse” which introduces a beautiful pastoral guitar theme; it’s Elfman at his most refined, full of genuine emotion and beauty.
Next up is a trio of cues by Tyler. “The Vault” is fairly anonymous suspense music which shouldn’t be anywhere near the album; there’s a little more going on in “The Mission”, but again it feels a bit aimless. “Seoul Searching” may have a cringe-inducing pun for its title but it’s a decent action track, Tyler back to doing what he does best with the furious pace making a welcome return. The album’s longest track – Elfman’s “Inevitability / One Good Eye” – is also one of its best. Again the composer’s own voice shines through a little, even if he is pushing things a little further than he probably would have done had be been writing more on his own terms; the composer packs a lot of thematic content into the thrilling cue, inevitably including the Silvestri theme but also, interestingly, Tyler’s Iron Man theme and even Tyler’s melody from “Birth of Ultron” earlier in this score. “Ultron Wakes” is a more restrained cue by Elfman, some clever electronics adding some colour (and there’s the Silvestri theme yet again).
“Vision” is Brian Tyler’s best cue on the album – and it’s not an action track. Some beautiful new age writing reminiscent of Jerry Goldsmith in opulent Total Recall mode is a joy to hear. Then comes another decent action cue, “The Battle”, which on its own terms is rollicking (and it does feature the most prominent use by Tyler of the Silvestri theme). There’s the briefest hint of Tyler’s Thor theme here, the only one on the album (I was expecting to hear more of it). Tyler’s “Wish You Were Here” offers a brief reprise of the piano theme from “Breaking and Entering” (for strings, this time) and then builds towards a forceful closing; then Elfman’s “The Farm” reprises the gorgeous guitar theme from his earlier “Farmhouse” before another burst of Silvestri. The Tyler pairing “Darkest of Intentions” and “Fighting Back” are both decent action tracks, the latter more memorable than the former.
Elfman’s “Avengers Unite” is another brilliant but brief cue based entirely around Silvestri’s theme, and it ushers in the final fifteen minutes of the album, which are easily its finest fifteen minutes. Tyler’s “Keys to the Past” is the score’s finest piece of suspense music, swirling and compelling. “Uprising” is a darker piece by the same composer, with a great heroic blast the highlight; then, his “Outlook” includes a portion of the first score’s “Helicarrier” which is really so dynamic compared with much of what’s around it. Finally, the sweeping theme from “Breaking and Entering” receives its final – and its fullest – arrangement in “The Last One”. A pair of cues from Elfman closes the album: “Nothing Lasts Forever” is a rousing and very satisfying cue, Silvestri all over it again; but not nearly so much as the finale, “New Avengers”, which is a full arrangement of his own version of Silvestri’s theme and even opens with just a hint of his Captain America theme (surprisingly, its only appearance on the album – it’s a brilliant theme).
If ever a film score sounds like it was designed by a committee, it’s Avengers: Age of Ultron. With not just the two composers whose names are on the cover but also Alan Silvestri running all the way through it, it’s a curious beast to say the least. When you consider it’s about as surefire a box office hit as you could have in 2015, for it to be as incoherent as it is really doesn’t make much sense. I don’t understand why the filmmakers didn’t push the boat out to bring Silvestri back to score it if they loved his music for the first film as much as its appearance in this one would suggest they did; and hiring Danny Elfman to basically provide a set of variations on an Alan Silvestri theme but in the style of Brian Tyler is such a bizarre (and presumably expensive) thing to do. There isn’t really a strong original theme for this movie by either of the composers and when you add up half a film score by Brian Tyler and half a film score by Danny Elfman, despite the latter’s laudable efforts to make it all work as seamlessly as possible, you really don’t get anywhere near to having one whole film score. There’s just something missing here, and that’s such a shame because the musical possibilities for a film like this are so vast. On the plus side at least there is finally some attempt at some musical continuity, but it’s done in such a hamfisted way it’s frustrating. You can pick out cues throughout the album and find some really entertaining music; it just doesn’t work so well as a unified listening experience. It’s not bad by any means – the frustration comes from imagining just how good it could have been if handled differently. I’m surprised Tyler’s cues don’t have more focus, but it’s really hard to judge what he did because we’re not hearing the entirety of what he intended for the film; and as impressive and entertaining as Elfman’s are (and truly, they’re as entertaining as anything he’s written in years) you always know that he’s just weaving around someone else’s music and as harsh as it may have been on Tyler, to be honest if the filmmakers decided they didn’t like all of Tyler’s music and weren’t willing to give him a chance to redo those parts himself, I wish they’d just had Elfman score the whole thing. The best listening experience available here is certainly to listen to the half hour of Elfman cues on their own, which are massive in scope and provide genuine thrills; despite some fine individual Tyler moments, the album as a whole lacks sparkle.