Avengers: Infinity War
After thirteen years of preparation and careful design input the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has accomplished what no franchise has done before. Dozens of superheroes and thoughtful supporting characters have gone in to the largest film franchise ever made, and with the arrival of the Mad Titan Thanos the nineteenth film of the MCU is conceivably the most highly anticipated comic book film in history. Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, Avengers: Infinity War (abbreviated hereafter as Infinity War) brings the extensive roster of remarkable individuals together on a scale hitherto undreamt of as they combat Thanos and the destruction of the universe. The Russo brothers returned for Infinity War after having directed two previous chapters of the MCU, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War, each lauded for their character development and ease of negotiation with large ensemble casts. Whether or not the brothers had a say regarding the composer is uncertain, but it came as no surprise when it was announced that Alan Silvestri would take up the baton for the MCU once again. Silvestri joined the MCU production team in 2011 with Captain America: The First Avenger, returning to score Marvel's The Avengers in 2012 and making what is still the most recognizable music contribution in possession of the MCU. After a six year hiatus, during which Brian Tyler and Danny Elfman scored the 2015 sequel Avengers: Age of Ultron, the composer was brought back to see the latest Avengers film through. Silvestri had some hesitation at the prospect of working with two directors, concerned he would be stretched thin between contradicting requests, but was relieved to encounter a dynamic and cohesive team with everyone on the same page. It is amusing that the composer and the directing duo seem to have danced around one another prior to Infinity War, what with Civil War being an unofficial Avengers film and Silvestri's thematic endowment to the series, but while expectations for the score were high the response from the film music community has been divided. The fully orchestral score, immaculate and admirable as it is, has been accused of being unnecessarily downcast and too nondescript for a film of such immense cultural status. While there may be merit to these allegations we cannot confirm the validity of this demur without investigating the narrative functions fulfilled by the music. We can start by looking at the returning music of the series, of which four unmistakable themes are brought back for Infinity War. The first is of course the Avengers theme, restored to its original configuration after the Elfman administration and heard at predictably apropos moments such as the opening title. The Infinity War title and a singularly glorious moment in which members of the Avengers are reunited in Wakanda are the only occasions in which the theme is given its standard rendition on blaring trumpets, hinted at throughout the remainder of the film with incomplete statements as various factions of the Avengers go about attempting to stop Thanos and relinquished to a soft, defeated piano during the end credits. Mention of Wakanda brings to mind the obvious nod made to the Black Panther score as the film travels to the African nation, greeting us with talking drums and the now familiar brass fanfare. Another of the reused themes is a by-product of the Avengers theme itself, written for Marvel's The Avengers to indicate that help has either arrived or been mobilized. This 'assembly' theme begins with a robust string ostinato, married to a bright melody in the horns to announce a reckoning as the heroes unite. In Infinity War it enters when Captain America and the other exiled teammates of Civil War arrive in Scotland to defend Vision ("Help Arrives"), previously used during the post credits sequence of the first Avengers film, though the ostinato on its own was used during the original film's opening sequence. A stilled, tragic setting of the melody is used late in the film as Wanda destroys the mind gem in a desperate effort to keep Thanos from succeeding ("Get That Arm/I Feel You").
The final theme returning from Silvestri's arsenal is the tesseract theme, repurposed to portend the gathering of the infinity stones. From Silvestri's initial entry into the MCU, The First Avenger, the infinity stone theme is the only one to linger thus far, full of apprehension and an ominous foreboding that creeps through each descending chromatic. It is joined early in the film by a provocative series of sitar arpeggiations as Doctor Strange explains to Tony Stark the nature of the stones ("No More Surprises"), evocative of Michael Giacchino's score for Doctor Strange. Beyond this there are no obvious references to past musical material. A wise choice given Infinity War is an ensemble film that could not possibly afford to humor every character involved, and also true to form since none of the previous Avengers films made any such attempt. As a result the only new thematic material composed for Infinity War is the theme for Thanos, a drawback of the score which we will discuss presently. Before getting into the minutia of everything that might have been however, we can take the time to appreciate everything that makes this score so exemplary of its peers. Silvestri, having used every facet of resourcefulness available to him in approaching the most ambitious comic book film ever made, immerses us with instinctive grace. His writing is unconditionally sincere, employing exquisite string respites, genial woodwinds, and rapt harp textures to engender a measured pace to the drama. There is a quality in his writing that translates well into mystical or cosmic power as we understand it, captured in Marvel's The Avengers and again in the music for Infinity War, imbued by harp, chimes, triangles, chorus and any number of instruments with a shimmering timbre. The action music too is absolutely top notch, using bombastic and dire low brass, bright, blaring trumpets, precision percussion with rippling snares and syncopated timpani, and deft, agile strings to create a magnificent assault on the senses. It comprises roughly 50% of the score, featuring a pastiche of Silvestri-isms with shining passages of old Avengers material interpolated between to fulfill a war-torn temperament of the film that never leaves you wanting. This attitude and volume in the score is matched on an emotional level at two critical intersections in the film. The first is the sacrifice made by Thanos in obtaining the soul stone ("Even For You"), erupting into a calamitous symphony with the full orchestra and choir as he casts Gamora off the cliff, and the second is a paralleled use of sustained, determined strings as Wanda makes her own sacrifice ("Get That Arm/I Feel You"). Every detail of this expert practice should be taken to heart by the younger generation of composers, and complete score study is warranted at the highest level for post-secondary music institutions to navigate the cine-musical relationship Silvestri has wrought in his lifetime, but now it is time to address the aforementioned accusations put on the score. Does the score lack distinction? Does it sound moody and indecisive? Does it say enough beyond generic action and drama on behalf of the story it is telling? These distinctions can be broken down into two separate concerns perceived by film music fans, starting with the theme for Thanos. That Silvestri and the Russo brothers saw fit to give Thanos a theme was wholly appropriate, not only because he is the prominent new villain, but because Infinity War is his arc. More than anyone else this film belongs to him. Regardless, there are several shortcomings to the new thematic material, or lack thereof, and the beef comes with the altogether unremarkable nature of Thanos' theme. It is the very first cue to open the film, heard at length in his presence, yet the theme is entirely forgettable. For one it uses a chord progression in place of a melody, giving the listener an impression that the music is concerned with textural dressing and not of a thematic nature. Its elementary design is likewise disappointing, using open fifths set for deep, grumbling trombones and advancing lethargically with chromatic movement over a tonic pedal in the bottom octave, joined by an occasional timpani roll. Themes like this have been plaguing comic book villains for too long because they are so formulaic and uninventive; in this case hardly possible for the layman to distinguish from the rest of the score. Not only that but it is degrading to the character by virtue of its laziness. Thanos is not lazy. He is incredibly proactive, and so to write a theme that simply broods and screams "I'm a villain" undermines his vision. The Russo brothers made a clear effort to make the audience understand Thanos and his motivations, and it is unclear why the music did not follow suit. Instead it vilifies him, ignoring his calculating and righteous individuality and offering little in the way of understanding. What the theme lacks, apart from longevity, is a spiritual, contemplative air, combined with a quiet and still sense of fascination, awe, and dread. Granted, that is a lot to ask for, but this effect would likely have unburdened the score from having to mitigate the catastrophic endgame of the film rather than having to rise to extraordinary levels to match the emotionally delivery. The "Porch" cue is inversely more apt in this regard because the music finally takes account of Thanos' perspective. A beautiful string elegy introduced late in the film to celebrate his unrivaled achievement as the titan watches the sun set on a grateful universe. And yet this is the single cue of the score that sticks out because it almost conflicts tonally with what we have experienced up to this point in the film. Further distinction in the score might have been brought out with the collection of the infinity stones. A motive or some form of acknowledgment beyond their ominous theme as Thanos obtained each stone would have gone a long way toward marking his progress and reinforcing the idea that Infinity War is his story. The second concern could be bottled down to the routine and sympathetic nature of the music. By recognizing that this is Thanos' film it is completely valid to suppose that the music was too sympathetic to the goals of the Avengers. Had the Avengers material felt secondary to a dominant musical aspect the tone of the film would have shifted correspondingly to intensify Thanos' status as being more than just a commonplace villain. Consequently the bulk of the score methodically hits each plot point in turn, generating a similarly campy musical drama to the previous MCU films and leading the audience to believe the Avengers will come out victorious when their struggles amount to anything but victory, to the extent that access to the complete score does little to change this awareness. These are things music lovers might have done differently if they had access to a time stone, because even scores of this magnitude can be improved on. Still, the music is as clean as you could ask and Silvestri takes full advantage of his own thematic continuity throughout the franchise to glorious purpose. Even if you honestly thought Infinity War was a mediocre Silvestri score it is miles above the average. Considering the composer had been burdened with two major blockbusters in the span of a month his creative output should be enough to appease even the most cynical listeners, and in any case final judgement should be reserved for future inquiry. Though retrospection may end in disappointment for some, I am inclined to believe this score will go down as another classic in Silvestri's works. #AlanSilvestri #MarvelCinematicUniverse