Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Avengers Disassembled: Music and Unmaking in Endgame

By Bradley Spiers

Avengers: Endgame is an unapologetic love letter to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s ( MCU’s)  past, celebrating the growth that each hero has sustained over the twenty-two film franchise. Set five years after the cataclysmic events of Avengers: Infinity War (2018), Endgame sees the defeated heroes travel back in time to retrieve the Infinity Stones once again. This time travel allows the characters to address the traumas from their present by reflecting on their pasts.

While the Marvel films have shown a remarkable openness for showcasing their characters’ growth from setback and trauma, MCU soundtracks have been oft criticized for eschewing an equivalent musical development. Detractors dismiss Marvel music as too generic, inert, and forgettable, deriding it for closely copying the temp track—the pre-existing music that editors use to cut a film in preproduction. Arguably, the modern MCU has evolved beyond some of this criticism—Michael Giacchino, Christophe Beck, and Pinar Toprak have since composed complex and interesting scores—but Alan Silvestri’s score for Endgame offers perhaps the most mature example of musical development in the MCU’s history.

Much like the characters themselves, their music evolves to suit their new contexts in Endgame. Alan Silvestri unravels the franchise’s most recognizable musical cues to ask a simple question: what happens to a character’s music when they grow beyond the ideals that their music once represented? Thanos and Captain America—the moral extremes of the film—typify this musical treatment, as the manipulation of their music signals their evolving characterization and motivations.

Thanos Victorious and Thanos Defeated

In Infinity War, Thanos’s primary musical motive is an ambiguous two-note chromatic slide downward. This simple music opens Infinity War, where it is repeated over the Marvel Studios title card in the low brass and anticipates his brutal attack on Thor and Hulk.

Yet, As we learn more about Thanos’s motivations and intentions, his quest to eradicate half the inhabitants of the universe is portrayed as a humanitarian mercy. “It’s a simple calculus,” he says to his daughter Gamora, “This universe is finite, its resources finite. If life is left unchecked, life will cease to exist. It needs correction.”

Music plays an important role in softening Thanos. After snapping away half of the MCU, Infinity War ends with Thanos’s quiet triumph, as he lays down his weapon and, in his words, “finally rests, watching the sun rise on a grateful universe.” The soundtrack sentimentally reinforces his contentment, as the maximalist sounds of the superhero score are replaced with a sedate chamber ensemble. The camera rests on Thanos’s contentment as an unmistakable Picardy third sounds in the orchestra—a moment of major-mode optimism—and the screen fades to black.<1>

Despite this peaceful ending, Thanos begins Endgame injured from using the gauntlet and vulnerable when the Avengers attack. To underscore this helplessness, Silvestri quietly orchestrates Thanos’s two-note chromatic theme in the violins. This quieter iteration of the theme repeats over and over—until its repetition is abruptly cut short by the Titan’s death. As the camera pulls back from his bucolic hovel and the screen fades to black, we hear again the chamber music that concluded Infinity War, this time concluding without the Picardy third.

(Note: sadly, the recapitulation of the chamber theme didn’t make it onto Endgame’s official soundtrack)

Thanos, however, does not stay dead for long. When the Avengers travel back to 2014, they again encounter the character, this time as he was depicted in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). No longer damaged from gathering and using the stones, Thanos is at the peak of his power—and ruthlessness. Indeed, Endgame carefully distinguishes modern Thanos from his 2014 iteration; his methods are crueler and he displays little of the honor that sustained the character in Infinity War. To signal this difference musically, his chromatic motive reverts to the low brass that heralded his ominous entry in Infinity War. Moreover, as he descends further into villainy, the motive becomes even more dissonant. When he fires on the heroes in Endgame’s climax, the chromatic melody is warped into a cluster chord in the high strings and low-brass, as if both notes of the motive were sounded simultaneously.

And later, when Thanos is confronted by the Avengers, his theme is repeated definitively in the low brass over tempestuous tremolo strings—now with a third chromatic note added, as if extending the inevitability of the character’s wickedness downward.

 When his plans are finally undone, Thanos’ finale in Endgame parallels the final moments in Infinity War. With nearly identical cinematography, the character again sits and stares into the camera, but now, in place of the delicate chamber music, we hear only the unadorned two-note chromatic motive. Where once the plaintive score humanized Thanos’s sacrifices in Infinity War, it now demonizes his ruthlessness in Endgame. Music, then, is a shorthand for the undoing of Thanos’ character. When he abandons the supposedly honorable intentions of his cause, the melodramatic development of his theme deteriorates—much like the Titan himself as he dissolves into dust.

Cap Young and Rogers Old

The undoing of Thanos’s theme parallels the musical development of Steve Rogers in Endgame. As my colleagues Grace Edgar and Ryan Thompson note in their posts, the “Captain America” theme is typically scored with military percussion and Copland-esque brass. The theme from Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) leans into the nostalgia of those sounds.

Cap’s music is self-consciously anachronistic, symbolizing Captain America’s own status as a man out of time. Sometimes, the music’s backwardness represents his history, as when Rogers tours a Smithonian exhibit about himself in The Winter Soldier (2014). More often it references old-fashioned American values—bolstering Cap’s honor and leadership, like in the Battle for New York in The Avengers (2012) and during the jailbreak in Captain America Civil War (2016).

Fittingly, Captain America’s theme returns prominently throughout the Endgame score: we hear it when Iron Man returns the iconic shield to Rogers; when Rogers travels back to 2012 and fights a past version of himself; when he travels to the 1970s and visits the military camp where he was trained; and finally when he bestows the shield and mantle of Captain America to Sam Wilson. In these situations, however, Captain America’s theme is no longer tied to the actions and agency of the modern-day Steve Rogers—instead, it represents the shield, his past life, his former home, and the Captain America mantle more broadly. Indeed, as Endgame depicts Rogers’s willingness to reclaim the domestic life he missed as a superhero, the soundtrack increasingly separates Rogers’s motivations from the militaristic bearing of his theme.

Instead, Rogers’s story ends with the nostalgic sound of Kitty Kallen’s and Harry James’s 1945 recording of “It’s Been a Long, Long Time.”

This song is first associated with Steve Roger in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, when the album plays diegetically to cover Nick Fury’s presence in Rogers’s apartment. In this guise, Fury exploits Kallen’s song for his own tradecraft, as if Rogers’ nostalgia for the forties was co-opted for SHIELD’s spy games. It’s fitting, then, that Rogers reappropriates the song in the final moments of Endgame, when we see him dancing with his love interest, Peggy Carter. In successfully shedding the militaristic Captain America theme for Kallen’s sentimental ballad, he finally attains the promised domesticity denied to him since his sacrifice in Captain America: The First Avenger.


Just as Endgame’s score reflects the rich history of the MCU, the music also signals the MCU’s willingness to grow beyond that history. We not only watch as the heroes and villains progress (or regress) beyond the ideals that once motivated them, but hear their journeys paralleled in thematic treatment of their music, which signals the distance they’ve travelled since their first appearances. In Western classical music, we’re taught to listen for the recapitulation of themes, anticipating thematic return (in the home key) as a prerequisite for final cadence. The music of Endgame plays with that expectation, allowing its final cadence—its Endgame—to showcase the growth sustained by the characters as they became Earth’s mightiest heroes.
<1>Indeed, Silvestri’s charitable treatment of Thanos’s mission no doubt contributed to the numerous campaigns to rehabilitate the character, as popularized by the popular subreddit, r/thanosdidnothing wrong.

Bradley Spiers is a doctoral candidate in Music History and Theory at the University of Chicago. His research covers music’s intersection with film, machines, and the mind, a topic he historicizes in his upcoming dissertation, Galatea’s Song: Music and the Genesis of Artificial Life. You can follow him on Twitter @SpiersBM, for his thoughts on musicology, media, and technology.

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