• Ben Erickson

Ant-Man and the Wasp

Ant-Man and the Wasp is the twentieth film produced by the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) - a growing number that before long will eclipse my age - bringing back some levity after the still reverberating events of Avengers: Infinity War. The Ant-Man films are nil comparable to that scope of drama, instead focusing on familial ties and past mistakes, making Ant-Man and The Wasp a refreshing new entry at a time when just such lighthearted theatre is needed. Both films now have been directed by Peyton Reed and scored by Christophe Beck. Steven Price was originally set to compose for Ant-Man, replaced by Beck when Reed was brought in to direct. The two collaborated on the comedy Bring It On back in 2000, reuniting on the set of Ant-Man and continuing their partnership here. Beck is a Canadian born composer (huzzah!) who studied music at Yale and film scoring in California, working with Jerry Goldsmith at a young age and quickly mastering his craft. His work covers a wide range of genres, from comedy to action to science-fiction to fantasy to historical drama to... well, you name it! Some of his major accolades come with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which he worked on for three seasons, receiving an Emmy for his efforts, and a few of his better known works include Frozen, The Hangover, and Edge of Tomorrow. When preparing to score Ant-Man the composer said, "I wanted to write a score in the grand symphonic tradition of my favorite superhero movies, with a sweeping scope and a big, catchy main theme. What makes this score stand out among other Marvel movies, though, is a sneaky sense of fun since it is, after all, not only a superhero movie, but also a heist comedy." The first score was exactly that, using an upbeat main theme to lead the way. The theme is made of two primary components; an ostinato pattern and a melody. The ostinato sets the tone, taking up a fusillade of staccati rhythms in a 7/8 mixed meter that continue with exaggerated energy as the melody enters, set for an alto flute in G minor. The melody is made of a recurring sigh that moves down a minor third to the root, taking advantage of the time signature with eighth-note pick-ups for each new exhalation. Though the music for the first Ant-Man was moderately criticized for coming off as monothematic the theme returns for the sequel in a big way, filling in a lot of the action oriented material ("Tracker Swarm", "Misdirection", "A Flock of Seagulls", "Ghost = Toast", "Reduce Yourself", and "Anthropodie") and making one particularly comical entry as a techno remix when Scott infiltrates his daughter's school ("World's Greatest Grandma"). One other returning gesture is the the sacrificial excerpt used for Hope's mother, Janet. It is a relatively simple gesture that nevertheless carries a remarkable level of emotional gratification. Set in a major key it returns early in the film to re-cap the tragedy from which Hope lost her mother ("Prologue"), appearing several times as they attempt and eventually succeed in restoring Janet from the quantum realm ("A Little Nudge", Cautious as a Hurricane", and "Revivification"). This gesture uses two simple ingredients: the first is a repeating movement that leaps down from and climbs back to the tonic, and the second is a single-bar hemiola comprised of second inversion chords that move in the brass and close with a root position half cadence.

The two new themes written for the film are the themes for Wasp and Ava, otherwise known as Ghost. The cue "It Ain't Over Until the Wasp Lady Sings" is only heard during the end credits, but it is more or less a concert arrangement of the Wasp theme for those interested. Like the Ant-Man theme Wasp was given a mixed meter, though hers is in 5/8 as opposed to 7/8 time, capturing an erratic and – dare I say it – insectoid attitude in the underlying rhythms that flickers about with an unstable certitude. The theme enters with fearless brass crescendos, jumping a major seventh with each phrase to various tendency tones. There on the fourth beat of the bar the harmonies clash before the tendency tones resolve to the octave, opening up with a complete triad on the downbeat. The B section of the theme consists of almost lyrical bursts from the melody, pushing the apogee of each successive phrase ever higher before sustaining the leading tone of the new key. It is namely performed during the action sequences throughout, adding a great deal of lively fun to the screen ("Prologue", "Wings & Blasters", "I Shrink, Therefore I Am", "Windshield Wipeout"). The cue "Ghost = Toast" uses a particularly sensational outpouring of the Wasp theme, joined by choir for the final confrontation between the Hope and Ava. On top of being a good theme for its rhythmic diversity the Wasp theme creates a well-rounded thematic experience that was absent from the original Ant-Man. Had there been two themes of proportionate strength and durability from the get-go it is likely Beck would never have received any negative feedback whatsoever. But it so happens that Ant-Man and the Wasp, rather than correcting the mistake, may have just taken it a step too far this time. Rather, there may be too many themes, which I will discuss in a moment. The fourth theme, as I mentioned prior, belongs to Ava. It is musically quite suitable when you consider that Ava is less of a villain and more a victim, full of minor, lamenting, and moaning qualities that allow us to sympathize with her situation ("Ghost in the Machine", "Ava's Story", and "Utmost Ghost"). However, despite being a good theme, making appearances just about every time Ava is on screen, the film was made no more or less successful by its presence. This probably sounds strange coming from the guy who makes the utmost effort to identify themes and their power, but it is important to remind ourselves that musical continuity is about more than a melody. In the case of Ava's theme one can readily say that the elements that impacted us immediately were the soft, glossy, synthetic tones and timbres used to emphasize her ethereal, fuzzy, phase-shifting nature. The spontaneous strength that belongs intrinsically to timbres and colours is no less effective than thematic continuity, and what is more is that thematic continuity takes time to establish. For a theme to be effective we have to experience a minimum of two events coinciding with the theme's signifier, assuming two encounters are enough time to hear, recognize, and understand every theme. Colours and timbres on the other hand achieve their objective instantaneously. So my question is this: why bother with a theme for Ava? If she is to make further appearances as a converted protagonist than having a theme for her makes sense. But if not all I can say is that writing her a theme, though not damaging in any way, was unnecessary, and it impeded Beck's musical license to explore other interesting things. It is also becoming typical of apprehensive composers to write a set of themes as a cop out simply to fill screen time. I do not think that is what happened here. Beck is easily cultivated enough a composer to offer whatever material he wants, but regardless this is something that is becoming more noticeable every year. Entire scores become a thematic exercise, leaving no room for elaborated musical interpolations - or 'background music' if you will - that require a far more refined skill set than simple thematic endeavors, and additionally the effort required by the audience to identify too many themes only convolutes the story instead of adding to it. Ultimately, Ant-Man and the Wasp already had strong thematic characters without the theme for Ava, rendering its inclusion moot in the mind of this critic. Though Beck does a very clever thing early in the score by linking Hope and Ava together musically. The composer does not do this through thematic or harmonic material, but with instrumental association. The "Prologue" cue to open the film begins with an oboe on Wasp's theme, set quietly in the top of its register, and the same oboe returns midway through "Ava's Story" on her theme as she explains her mysterious abilities to the captive bunch. The association is interesting because both women are victims fighting to regain something that was lost to them. Small touches like these often make the difference between a mediocre and a noteworthy score. The remainder of the score is full of drum kit beats and bass guitar, such as what we hear in the "Hot Wheels" cue, giving the music an adolescent rock-out sort of quality befitting the character. There are also many unique moments throughout the score besides. The glancing electronics in "Utmost Ghost" for instance, or the Don Davis-esque brass swells in "Quantum Leap", and the deep, fluctuating siren with a bending and sliding electric guitar overtop a slow rendition of the Ant-Man ostinato when Scott becomes Giant-Man ("San Francisco Giant"). And there is a hilarious use of what was likely a balalaika, a stringed instrument native to Russia. The strumming commences in the film when Scott's friend Kurt, played by David Dastmalchian, expresses a fear of the folkore witch Baba Yaga. There is even an amusing bonus cue not featured in the film wherein Dastmalchian recites a cautionary stanza with trembling fear ("Baba Yaga Lullaby"). All in all the score for Ant-Man and the Wasp is fashioned of endearing emotional substance, and it surely satisfies whatever craving any action score junkie might be experiencing.