• Ben Erickson

Avengers: Endgame

Whether or not you are a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you have to admit that to have finally reached Avengers: Endgame, the culmination of twenty-one shared universe films, is pretty damn impressive. Accompanying us along most of that journey has been composer Alan Silvestri, who scored the first Captain America film and now three of the four Avengers films. It would appear Silvestri's oft-disputed status as Marvel's unofficial, in-house composer is no longer up for debate. With Endgame he has solidified the musical identity of the MCU and satisfactorily created a legacy within the modern superhero film score that will not soon be forgotten. In a way this feels like the end of an era. I do not know that Silvestri will stop composing – all evidence to the contrary – but that he will have the opportunity to compose a score on a level with Endgame seems improbable. Regardless, this will in all likelihood be the last review I write for a Marvel film. In part because I do not expect to follow the franchise as closely now that the Infinity War saga is complete, and due to my own limited time which I would like to spend on outings other than superhero films for a while. As such, I intend to treat this review with a certain aim toward emancipating the idea of the "perfect score". Expectations for a film of this magnitude often run so high we are led to think of what might have been, losing sight of what is. And all things considered, what is true of this score is that it is very, very good. For myself and the lucky few we recognize that Silvestri was one of the rock-stars of our childhood. One of a number of household names beside John Williams, Ennio Morricone, James Horner, Danny Elfman, and the rest; Alan Silvestri represents, for the average millennial multimedia music enthusiast, a part of our golden age film score tradition. His music is embedded in countless of the films we were watching, making its way imperceptibly into our lives in that same, sensationally classical vein as the timeless films of the 50s' and 60s', the very films with which the composer grew up. Those scores were never crafted of brazen fanfares and soaring melodies alone, but with a standard of excellence by which true musical freedom could be achieved; a standard retained by Silvestri. Before we continue with an analysis of the score, please note that this review contains spoilers. Additionally, several themes are made reference to here that have been previously notated and can be found in my review for Avengers: Infinity War. Much as I am happy to report that the film was a success, the music proved more than what was hoped for. Silvestri's score for Endgame offers new perspective to Infinity War and engenders in its viewers a familiarity with their cinematic surroundings based on the numerous callbacks to previous films. And therein lies the strength of the music. It does not rely solely on the vintage craftsmanship and originality of its composer, but on the strength of the musical journey we have experienced up to this point as a whole, drawing on different and unexpected elements of the past for new life. Said Silvestri, “My hope is that they tear up… these are long term relationships between the audience and these characters… people have grown up with Iron Man, Captain America and Thor[...] I hope that tears come during the sad moments, as well as the victorious and heartwarming ones.” It is worth noting that Silvestri scored both Endgame and Infinity War at roughly the same time, effectively as if he was scoring a single film between them, and this is where I erred. Though I stand by what I said about Infinity War being Thanos' arc and the baseness of his theme there are other cues associated with him that stand out with greater significance in Endgame. Among them is the string elegy written for his retirement in the garden ("Totally Fine"), appearing toward the beginning of the film; the interrogation cue aboard Thanos' ship, heard as he tortures and manipulates his daughters ("Watch Each Other's Six" and "Destiny Fulfilled"); and the sacrifice cue associated with obtaining the soul stone ("Not Good"). Far from being obnoxious or overt in their appearance, these cues help the viewer make sense, more fully, of their raison d'être. Citing the soul stone cue as an example – during Infinity War when Gamora is sacrificed against her will, we hear the music; when Romanoff and Barton are faced with the same painful decision in Endgame, we feel it. If you are especially familiar with Silvestri's score for Infinity War there are about a hundred and one references you will recognize apart from those already listed, such as the clarinet gesture used for Stark and Potts when they discuss the idea of children, or as is the case in Endgame, when their child is present ("I Figured It Out"). Action cues in particular are where most of these references tend to crop up, using syncopated brass punches and fanfares, rampant string ostinatos and tremolos, alluring harp arpeggiations, timpani rolls and blows, and quick tempo changes to mark the sudden elevation of any number of intense situations. To go through them all would be exhausting, but you can trust that virtually any time a narrative or visual parallel is drawn between Endgame and Infinity War, so too is the music paralleled. One of the biggest complaints among film score enthusiasts is the lack of musical continuity in these films. Endgame, along with just about every other recent addition to the MCU, challenges this contention with the utmost civility. Returning themes from Infinity War include the Avengers' theme ("Portal" et al.), the Infinity Stones theme ("The How Works" and "I Can't Risk This"), the Assemble theme ("The How Works"), and Thanos' theme ("Destiny Fulfilled" et al.), but it does not end here. Silvestri also brings back his own Captain America theme from Captain America: The First Avenger, the tell-tale minor seventh of Pinar Toprak's Captain Marvel theme makes a brief performance when her character first arrives and is heard more fully when she destroys Thanos' flagship, the hardanger fiddle melody used by Mark Mothersbaugh in Thor: Ragnarok makes its way into the film when Thor revisits Asgard ("Snap Out of It" and "The Measure of a Hero"), Michael Giacchino's Doctor Strange theme appears when we are reunited with the Ancient One at the New York sanctum alongside the sitar, and Christophe Beck's Ant-Man theme can be heard when Scott Lang first escapes the quantum realm. Not only is there an abundance of thematic continuity but even the instrumental continuity has been painstakingly maintained, making it difficult to pick out all of the references, let alone ask for more.

Moreover, there is a distinct Ant-Man inspired element of cool jazz that has to do with the quantum realm and the team's ability to time-travel ("The How Works" and "In Plain Sight"). Not only does the use of jazz provide a fun shift in tone with walking bass, cymbal brush, piano, saxophone, and bongos, but it pays tribute to the '70s era locale that Stark and Rogers end up travelling to in order to obtain the space stone. It also fits well within the romanticized use of pop, rock, and jazz standards employed elegantly by the Russo brothers, playing on songs heard in previous MCU films like "It's Been a Long, Long Time" and "Come and Get Your Love". The other major departure in terms of textural dressing comes in when Romanoff catches up with Barton in Japan, using aleatoric strings and a waterphone to depict Barton's fall from grace ("You Shouldn't Be Here"). Silvestri wrote two new themes for Endgame: the theme foreshadowing and concomitant to Stark's sacrifice, and a neo-assembly theme. The Sacrifice theme is performed early on by a glistening synthesizer as Stark faces the possibility of death, trapped with Nebula inside a derelict spaceship ("Totally Fine"). Hearing the clean tones of the synthesizer juxtaposed against the natural acoustic of the full orchestra, which accounts for roughly 95% of the score, gives this new theme a compelling and stoic quality during its short presentation. Structurally there is not much complicated about its design. A series of slow moving triads measures the stakes that Stark has long known with transparent honesty while the melody, transposed an octave above, continually falls on the third or fifth. The theme arrives in full at Stark's memorial, mirrored in different timbres and all at once taken up by the full orchestra before a lone clarinet cries in dismay ("The Real Hero"). It has occurred to me more than once that Silvestri may have written this particular cue with someone in mind. Stark, obviously, yes. But more than that I mean a personal relationship. Perhaps someone he was working with. I believe this because only a composer with a love of the human spirit can write something so potent and genuine in its intent. The myriad recapitulations within this single cue, be it glistening synthesizer, acoustic guitar, tender piano, wailing clarinet, or all the colours of a tutti orchestra, capture with deft wizardry the infinite facets of the human condition. As if this were not enough we have one more new theme to discuss that has been cultivated from a like profundity. Effectively this other theme is the new Assemble theme, narratively speaking, but to avoid confusion we will call it the Saviour theme. Hints of it are interspersed everywhere throughout the score, appearing as early as the second cue ("Arrival") and offering a welcome shift in tone and pace from the former Assemble theme. A broad melody progresses among brass swells and laboured suspensions, continually collecting itself and gaining strength even as the defeated Avengers regroup. Of special interest is the counterpoint between the step-wise, descending bass line that gradually becomes more prominent against the comparatively disjunct melody, defined itself by a heroic, upward leap of a fifth that works its way back to the tonic. The "Portals" cue marks not only the capstone of the film but the climax of this particular theme, using repeated tonicizations with each recapitulation of the melody. Captain America stands ostensibly alone against an undefeatable army, viewed on the far left of a striking wide-shot and Thanos the right, with a burning sun providing a near celestial canvas of light. While I am not accustomed to interpreting the allegorical significance of a film, there is an important one here worth distinguishing as it is made more prominent by the music. Resolving each complete statement of the Saviour theme is a dotted rhythm, approached with by a ritardando (decrease in speed) and moving in the melody with the gesture E to F-sharp, with an implied D to follow within the chord. This figure is important because it is, almost without doubt, a nod to Handel's Messiah. The aforementioned figure can be found toward the end of the opening recitative in Messiah, "Comfort ye my people", on the words "a highway", written in the same key and with a comparable tempo no less. Take the implications of what is likely an intentional borrow, performed even as portals are opening to create a literal highway through which the Avengers assemble, and match it to the Judeo-Christian overtones that have always been familiar to Captain America's character against the setting sun (ie. the light of heaven), and you are given one hell of a metaphor. Of interest, too, are the drums that lead the orchestra prior to the brass melody, so very alike to the intro of Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man". And this is all part of the beauty of Silvestri's writing. He has never denied what came before him historically, but drawn on great titanous works to inform his own writing. I would be remiss not to mention that this same cue, "Portals", provides the best rendition of the Avengers theme yet, using full choir and orchestra to chill-inducing effect.

The final sequence of the film involves the poignant departure of Captain America, for which it seemed only fitting that Silvestri would be the one to score the end of his journey. Ever have patriotic horn fanfares followed the Captain, moving with a giddy optimism that is matched only by the character. His theme is executed succinctly in "Five Seconds", just before he travels back in time to return the infinity stones, and is heard for the last time in "Go Ahead" as he gifts his shield to Wilson. Following this is a final bold, feel-good statement of the Saviour theme to accompany the credits ("Main on End"), reaching a level of catharsis comparable to the end of The Return of the King. This will certainly come off as a very "generational" thing to say, but hardly anyone writes like this anymore. It is as if the Marvel films scored by Silvestri, and other similar efforts like Ready Player One, have allowed for a musical renaissance of sorts, echoing the zeitgeist of the scores we grew up with; scores like Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, and The Mummy Returns to name a few. To say Endgame is an accomplished entry among them almost sounds degrading in light of the value of its contributions, and I for one believe it to be among the best scores Silvestri has ever composed. Endgame was a worthy payoff, film and score both, and well worth the wait.