• Ben Erickson

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Spider-Man: Homecoming is the latest film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and the second to be scored by Michael Giacchino. Its release has been much anticipated now that the character has finally been given a place in the MCU. As a live-action character Spider-Man has had a strong musical history, with enduring and popular scores by Danny Elfman and James Horner. Elfman wrote for Sam Raimi's 2002 Spider-Man in his vigorous and wandering style, producing one of the best super-hero themes ever written, while Horner continued the tradition ten years later with the The Amazing Spider-Man reboot, writing a heroic score with his trademark sentimentality and nostalgia. Needless to say, Giacchino had a lot to live up to with Homecoming, and I think he succeeded. There is, however, another issue to be raised before we can discuss the merits of the score. Doctor Strange marked Giacchino's reception as the eleventh composer to contribute to the MCU, a substantial and controversial number given there have only been sixteen films produced so far. This inconsistency is largely the result of the various directors contributing to the series, most of whom have explicitly requested composers they have worked with in the past. Now, while I can appreciate the long-term plan of the franchise, led by Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige, and its directorial choices therein, it is easy to see music was not a factor taken into consideration of this plan. With the exception of a few memorable themes (Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, and Marvel's The Avengers come to mind) the music for MCU has been completely forgettable. A few critics and music lovers thought the ball might get rolling when Alan Silvestri, composer for Captain America: The First Avenger, was scheduled to compose Marvel's The Avengers. Silvestri's work on the former film was the most successful score in Phase One of the MCU in the minds of critics at the time (Craig Armstrong's score for The Incredible Hulk still takes the cake for me) and it turns out this musical association is just what the franchise needed; familiar textures and musical continuity to help bring a vast universe of characters together for the first time. This was a wonderful first step. Sadly, either the franchise producers chose not pursue the success or, more likely, they did not recognize their own achievement in this area. Consecutive films have brought many and more composers to the project, and though it would be to our benefit to explore the considerable history of inconsistency at hand regarding MCU composers thus far, for our purposes we can surmise that the scores have not reached their potential. Preceding Giacchino, Henry Jackman and Brian Tyler have made the most recent impact, each scoring a few films, but this has not resulted in a sole musical identity relatable to the MCU. Multiple composers working within the same cinematic universe cannot create a singular musical identity when each composer attempts to leave their own mark on the franchise. In place of a fresh score that suits the film as well as it might have we are instead left with scores that try to accomplish more than has been asked of them in the hopes that they will claim the musical identity of the MCU. Far be it from me to say there should only be one composer, as this would have its own consequences. However, it is fair to assert that there need not be nearly as many composers as there are films in an expanding franchise. I can say that of the composers that might have been chosen as the next heralds of the MCU, I am glad Giacchino made the grade. His music for Doctor Strange was one of the better scores so far, and it is likely Homecoming will not be relegated as just another bland feature as it preserves the standard Giacchino brought to the table. The initial cue of the film enters with the Sony and Columbia logos, where we hear a broad performance of the new Spider-Man: Homecoming theme. The theme is bold, and it gets the job done, but it is by no means innovative. As with most of Giacchino's themes there is a lack of adventure enveloped within the music. He has written plenty of brilliant and explorative cues, but he tends to play it safe with his themes. An understandable shortcoming as composers do not want to alienate their audience by writing music that might be too difficult to follow. Less is more as they say, but in writing this way the music loses the spirit it so often deserves. Looking back at Elfman's original theme for Spider-Man, it is not difficult to hear the unapologetic daring that has been his advantage with thematic scores.

The next cue is taken from "The World is Changing", where we are given a quick reference to the Avengers theme as we are brought back several years to the aftermath of the battle for New York, first heard in Marvel's The Avengers. This is followed by a sweeping arrangement of the new Vulture theme as Adrian Toomes makes his first appearance in a salvaging operation. A tense moment of stodgy cellos is alleviated by a second exposure of the Vulture theme when Toomes' and his crew are dismissed from the scene by an organization called Damage Control, met with a sudden burst from the lower register of the orchestra as Toomes attacks one of the organization members. The first cue, "Theme From Spider-Man", plays out as advertised, with a brief but riveting orchestration of the 1967 Spider-Man Theme Song heard beneath the Marvel logo, and the next cue arrives when we enter Peter's high school, introducing a sweet, tender love theme played on the clarinet. Though the theme is used sparingly in the film I suspect it will return in the sequel(s) as Peter's classic love interests arrive on set. "Academic Decommitment" uses a refreshing, mellow guitar, strumming alongside a drum kit as school winds down and ending with a reinvigorated pick-up as the bell rings. The "Bank Heist" cue involves active woodwinds, excited brass shots, and a steady allegro beat from the congo drums as Peter attempts to thwart the thieves, escalating until an explosion destroys the grocer across the street. An almost exotic performance begins when Damage Control arrives to the scene of the crime the morning after ("On A Ned-To-Know-Basis"), followed by a pizzicato performance of the main theme and introducing a secondary theme in the flutes during phys-ed class. This B section does not appear to be related to any particular situation, acting more as an answer in response to the question the main theme presents. It can be heard in different variations when Peter escapes the Damage Control vault and later when he rushes to the Washington monument. Peter catches up with the salvage crew, interrupting a weapons deal and chasing them as they attempt to escape in a van, beginning the cue "Drag Racing / An Old Van Rundown". An energetic phrase is repeated as Peter is dragged behind the van, rising a key when he is shot at and turning playful when he ditches the van to swing through a few backyards. The myriad melodies play out in such a way that it is difficult to surmise which of the characters in play will be victorious, until the only character not in play arrives to dominate the scene. This is our first authentic statement of the big, bad Vulture theme, booming in the low brass as the impressive figure throws Peter into the river. In action sequences such as this the music usually builds on a single motif, never substantial enough to form a proper or recognizable theme but building within a distinct texture over a short period of time. What is important to note is that the strength of these sequences does not come from the strength of the motif in question but from the conclusion of the cue, in this case ending brilliantly with the Vulture theme. Of course this depends on the scene and how the situation is changing, but it also depends on the durability of the music. Plenty of action cues will have a very sudden finale without any sense of harmonic closure, ending mid sequence and offering the audience little-to-no satisfaction. Though Giacchino has been a culprit in the past (and he is not alone there) his score for Homecoming has been a good exercise in avoiding this pitfall. One of the most effective moments in the score is experienced when Toomes chauffeurs Peter and his daughter Liz to the Homecoming celebration ("Pop Vulture"). During the drive Toomes works out that Peter is spider-man, and all the while we can hear a growing ostinato pattern in the percussion, anticipating the Vulture theme. When Toomes pulls the car over to speak with Peter privately the situation becomes more threatening, with the Vulture theme entering in the bassoon alongside dispersed glissandi strings and a repetitive piano motif outlining the principle tones. Minding this, the music was charming, but average. The themes were common place, the instrumentation was predictable, and the textures were consistently plain. While the music complimented the film well it did not leave any lasting impression. The worst score is a safe score, one that neither offends nor inspires. Often a score can be summed up as 'what you see is what you get', telling us nothing we do not already know. Music can expose deeper elements if composers and directors are prepared to take advantage of its usefulness. Bringing back the Avengers theme was one of the few real musical successes of the film as it effectively drove a needle through the entire franchise up to this point. This is an important milestone because if there is a musical identity to the MCU it rests in the Avengers theme. What took several years of planning and several films to execute was accomplished here in about five seconds of music. In the struggle for the musical identity of the MCU, Silvestri and Giacchino are the clear candidates. Let us hope their work will provide inspiration and direction for the films to come.