• Ben Erickson

Thor: Ragnarok

Thor: Ragnarok, directed by Taika Waititi, is the 17th film of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), an astounding mega series now well within its Phase Three development. Waititi is best known for his independent films, and has a reputation for having a very hands-on approach where music is concerned. With Thor: Ragnarok as his first big blockbuster, Waititi's decision to get Mark Mothersbaugh on board as the composer was a surprising one, influenced by his love of '80s electronic rock and a desire to take the MCU into new musical territory. Mothersbaugh is a pioneer in electronic, new wave, and synthesized music, coming into prominence as the lead singer of DEVO and all the while writing music for film and television. One of his earliest accomplishments as a composer was the theme for the Rugrats television show. Mothersbaugh is also known for his collaboration with Wes Anderson, and in recent years he has composed music for the Jump Street films and The LEGO Movie. Thor: Ragnarok is easily his most ambitious score to date, and the final result is absolutely superb. The score, and in many aspects the film, embodies an '80s zeitgeist prized in the cultural nostalgia of the modern day. Retro, rolling synthesizers, not unlike Stranger Things, dominate much of the film, and Mothersbaugh's expertise in this area is made clear with its flawless integration amidst big-screen action in concert with a large Hollywood orchestra. Though Mothersbaugh has already written a far different score than anything yet heard in the MCU, Kevin Feige and the producers of the MCU insisted that it use an orchestra and choir, per the Marvel tradition. What is most impressive here is the composer's ability to work both practices into the score while allowing each to separately achieve the pinnacle of their respective musical rhetoric. The analogue synth in particular is showcased marvelously as the musical representation of the trash-planet Sakaar. There is no particular synthesizer motif that can be associated with Sakaar per say, but textures built throughout the film act as shifting ideas within Sakaar's pulpy metropolis. The film opens with the new Marvel logo fanfare, written by Michael Giacchino for Doctor Strange and replacing the fanfare written by Brian Tyler for Thor: The Dark World. I am not sure why the MCU producers felt the need to replace a perfectly recognizable fanfare in the process of updating the visual component to their logo, but I hope they avoid making a habit of it as it only contributes to the enigmatic musical status of the MCU. Following this we are met by a soft, solo soprano, gently commenting on Thor's captivity and moving into a more ominous descent with male chorus at Surtur's appearance ("Running Short On Options"). It is here, when Thor gains the upper hand and battles his way forth, that Led Zepplin's "Immigrant Song" rages through the film for the first time. For those of you who do not know, the lyrics to "Immigrant Song" actually spin a tale of Norse mythology, with each chorus led by a battle-cry, "We come from the land of the ice and snow...". Its inclusion in Thor: Ragnarok is nothing short of inspiring, and though I do not normally draw attention to any music outside of the originally composed score, I felt the need to say something both as a student of Classic Rock and as a nod to Waititi's vision. It is also worth mentioning that the rights to a Zepplin song are notoriously difficult to obtain, and had Disney not footed the bill for Thor: Ragnarok, it may well have used up half the budget of the original score. As Thor makes his way home we are greeted by the opening title, revealing our first synth entry and introducing the theme for Thor: Ragnarok on a blazing electric guitar ("Thor: Ragnarok"). This is the first of two new notable themes written for the film: brazen, distinct, and taking after its precursor from Thor: The Dark World. The second is the theme for Hela, distinguished by an initial tritone leap and leading to the sixth before descending with sinister purpose. The melody is often taken up by a solo soprano, giving it a cool quality before entering into thunderous, almost imperious action. It is presented in the film when Hela first arrives through the Bifröst, and given ample performance besides when she storms Asgard ("Hela vs. Asgard"), when she destroys the palace fresco, and when she reveals the hidden tomb beneath "The Vault".

One of the highlights of the score for me was performed with Odin's passing. As Odin and his sons look out to the sea over a cliff in Norway, a beautiful setting of the Norwegian hardanger fiddle enters with the Swedish Nyckelharpa, restoring the Norse musical heritage of Asgard ("Twilight of the Gods"). This is the first appearance of the hardanger fiddle in film since its use in The Lord of the Rings trilogy for the Rohirrim material, and likely one of the most appropriate narrative circumstances applicable for its services. Not long after this Thor arrives in Sakaar where he is greeted by the Grandmaster, introduced musically with an orchestral setting of "Pure Imagination" from the 1971 film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. The pleasant song, written by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, takes a quick turn as Thor is forced through his own disturbing tunnel experience and brought to the "Grandmaster's Chambers", quickly moving into an unbelievably wacky and alien synthesized DJ mix ("Grandmaster Jam Session"). The Ragnarok theme makes several appearances after the main title, including a gentle orchestration during Thor's prayer for Odin, a synthesized variation as Thor escapes his chambers on Sakaar ("What Heroes" Do"), a resounding and climactic rendition as Thor blasts Hela with lightning, and a final, more intimate horn setting during the final conversation between Thor and Loki ("Where To?"). Other points of interest include the return of the descending idea for Surtur as Loki places Surtur's crown in the Eternal Flame, the return of the fiddle as Odin imparts some final wisdom to Thor, the second appearance of "Immigrant Song" on the Bifröst bridge, and a starry, ethereal melody marking the destruction of Asgard, also heard in the cue "Where To?". Surtur's theme and the aforementioned starry melody both appear in the "Ragnarok Suite", a wholly unexpected decision given neither of them are particularly pronounced in the film. More surprising is that Hela's theme makes no appearance within the suite. While this has no bearing on the film context it seemed worth noting as an interesting choice in exhibiting the new music. There are a number of familiar cues from several MCU films used in Thor: Ragnarok. The mournful, stirring setting from Thor: The Dark World reappears to great comedic effect during the stage play referred to as 'The Tragedy of Loki of Asgard'. Its original use was to signify the rather dramatic and heartfelt passing of Thor's mother Frigga, and later to signify Loki's own passing when he faked his death. Music from Avengers: Age of Ultron also reappears in relation to the Hulk, both when Thor attempts to give him his lullaby and when the recording of Black Widow in the Quinjet successfully revives Banner. "Arena Fight" seems to allude to a bombastic, angry brass figure written for the 2008 The Incredible Hulk score by Craig Armstrong, along with "The Lonely Man", written by Joe Harnell for The Incredible Hulk television series. This also resurfaced in the 2008 The Incredible Hulk film, drawing a connecting between MCU scores nine years apart. While there is no direct quote taken from the score for Doctor Strange, Mothersbaugh clearly references it during Dr. Strange's cameo, writing for harpsichord in triple meter and adopting Indian vibes. The most compelling cue to return in Thor: Ragnarok was the original Thor theme, composed by Patrick Doyle. It is one of my personal favourites of the early MCU themes for its nobility and warmth, and its presentation at Thor's unofficial inauguration toward the end of the film, signifying a fulfilled journey experienced by the character over several films, was very rewarding. Evidently, this score has proved me wrong with regards to composer consistency and musical continuity. It does not take a single composer to unify the musical forces of a large venture such as the MCU, but a smart composer. Mothersbaugh addressed the 2016 viral video essay "The Marvel Symphonic Universe" posted by Every Frame A Painting in several interviews, agreeing with the criticism, and more than just acknowledging Marvel's shortcomings in this department, he made a sincere effort to restore the music at every opportunity. While it certainly has its fair share of generic action music, the score of Thor: Ragnarok is brilliant, and between Giacchino and Mothersbaugh, the musical identity of the MCU finally appears to be cleaning itself up.