Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Theme as Easter Egg: Illusions of Organicism in Avengers: Endgame

By Grace Edgar

In one of the final scenes of Avengers: Endgame (Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, 2019), the camera sweeps around Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr.) memorial service, panning across generations of Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) characters, played by some of the most famous Hollywood stars. For example, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) attended the ceremony, although they were absent for most of the film. In the midst of all these instantly recognizable characters (and actors) is a tall, teenaged boy that viewers might not immediately place. And for good reason—this is the first time audiences have seen him in a MCU film since Iron Man 3 (Shane Black, 2013), where he, as a child, played Harley Keener, the boy who helps a traumatized Tony repair his suit.

Keener’s unexplained reappearance in Endgame, six years after his minor role in one of the less impactful MCU films, qualifies as an Easter egg: a hidden reference communicating extra information to the informed viewer.<1> MCU films are dotted with references to previous and future films and comic book lore, rewarding particularly attentive audience members and/or longtime comic book readers. I argue that the MCU Easter egg phenomenon extends to the film score, that we might use the term to theorize some of the reappearances of themes. Here I follow Jonathan Godsall’s recent repurposing of the term to describe buried intertextual references in film scores (Godsall 2019, 65–66). What is remarkable in the particular context of the MCU is the way character themes that once dominated entire scores are reduced to Easter eggs in successive films, reappearances which seem designed to go unnoticed by most audience members.

The demotion of once-important themes to barely recognizable Easter eggs speaks to a larger and well-documented phenomenon in the MCU film scores: thematic inconsistency. The MCU famously differs from longstanding film series like The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, both of which have established a legible repertoire of associative themes.<2> Where these relatively stable thematic universes paper over some of the stark stylistic contrasts between films, the MCU’s inconsistency highlights differences in creative direction. Although Kevin Feige, the president of Marvel Studios, has overseen the direction of the franchise from the beginning, the creative teams for each film have shifted radically, even within series. As Figure 1 summarizes, the MCU consists of 22 films by 17 directors scored by 14 different composers. Incoming composers seem to feel little pressure to honor pre-existing themes for characters, leading to a lingering sense that composers are continually reinventing the wheel. For example, the three scores for the Iron Man films bear little resemblance to one another, each composer offering their own version of a character theme.<3>

Figure 1: MCU Directors and Composers by Film
Iron Man
Jon Favreau
Ramin Djawadi
The Incredible Hulk
Louis Leterrier
Craig Armstrong
Iron Man 2
John Debney
Kenneth Branagh
Patrick Doyle
Captain America:
The First Avenger
Joe Johnston
Alan Silvestri
The Avengers
Joss Whedon
Iron Man 3
Shane Black
Brian Tyler
Thor: The Dark World
Alan Taylor
Captain America:
The Winter Soldier
Anthony Russo and
Joe Russo
Henry Jackman
Guardians of the Galaxy
James Gunn
Tyler Bates
Avengers: Age of Ultron
Tyler and
Danny Elfman
Peyton Reed
Christophe Beck
Captain America:
Civil War
Russo brothers
Doctor Strange
Scott Derrickson
Michael Giacchino
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Spider-Man: Homecoming
Jon Watts
Thor Ragnorak
Taika Waititi
Mark Mothersbaugh
Black Panther
Ryan Coogler
Ludwig Göransson
Avengers: Infinity War
Russo brothers
Ant-Man and the Wasp
Captain Marvel
Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck
Pinar Toprak
Avengers: Endgame
Russo brothers

Alan Silvestri, the composer for three of the four Avengers films, had the opportunity to standardize character themes in his 2012 work for Marvel’s The Avengers (Joss Whedon). Yet, as his comments in a 2012 interview with Film Score Magazine indicate, the creative team decided against having individual character themes: “We knew that if we were to have a theme for every character in this movie, the music would get very clunky and intrusive. So I stayed away from all of that.” Instead, his goal was to create a memorable theme for the larger group of heroes: “The Avengers.” Certain characters, however, did have their own themes, some more noticeable than others, making the musical representation unequal and uneven. For example, “Captain America” from Captain America: The First Avenger (Joe Johnston, 2011), written by Silvestri, returns in fragments several times throughout the score. At Whedon’s behest, Silvestri also wrote a theme for Black Widow. Silvestri used similar language when he described his process for writing the score for Avengers: Infinity War (Russo and Russo, 2018), his first MCU film in six years. In an interview with Heat Vision, Silvestri mentioned the notion of “[giving] each character’s musical theme a nod” came up, but the consensus was “it would be more of a distraction to even attempt it.”

Individual themes for characters do return, however, in both Infinity War and Endgame. “Captain America” plays a large role in Endgame in particular, as Bradley Spiers explores. As Ryan Thompson suggests, part of the reason Silvestri foregrounds “Captain America” is because it is rife with characteristic features, unlike some of the themes for Doctor Strange, Thor, and Iron Man, which are easy to conflate (see transcriptions in Thompson’s post).

“Captain America” is the exception to the rule—most of these returns seem downplayed in the score, their distinguishing markers obscured. The creative team’s concern that integrating individual themes would distract the viewer explains why such references tend to be buried. For example, when Scott Lang returns from the quantum realm, we hear a slower version of “Ant-Man” in the strings. This theme, which once saturated Christophe Beck’s score for Ant-Man (Peyton Reed, 2015) now returns in anemic form, without its punchy, syncopated accompaniment. Another example is the brief return of Michael Giacchino’s “Doctor Strange” during the return to the New York battle sequence, just before the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) asks the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) for the Time Stone.<4> Again, the absence of individuating features make this appearance hard to notice: the theme is missing its distinctive harpsichord timbre. Yet another example is the brief return of “Black Widow” when the team mourns her death.

This Easter egg phenomenon is one facet of the MCU’s larger project: convincing the viewer that the universe is cohesive and planned down to the minutest detail, when, understandably, the presence of so many content creators has led to some continuity errors and inconsistent characterizations. Composers might revive (briefly) forgotten character themes, just as writers may attempt to resolve dropped plotlines—Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) relationship with Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) makes an unexpected (yet perfunctory) return in Endgame, to give one example. Although many viewers will miss Easter eggs, a significant segment of the fan base scours each film for evidence to fuel their theories and predictions. The creative team is certainly aware that their films are digested in this fashion; as James Deaville argues in his post, even the trailers for Endgame seemed designed to encourage such scrutiny, all the while obscuring details of the plot. Devoted listeners might find these Easter eggs, feel delighted at the return of previously defunct material, and, perhaps most importantly for Marvel, believe the musical universe to be organic and unified rather than inconsistent and fragmented.
<1>The term “Easter egg” originally described hidden messages in older video games.
<2>I use Matthew Bribitzer-Stull’s definition of an associative theme (2015, 10): a theme linked to a dramatic element. Within this category, a leitmotif fulfills two further functions: it develops musically as the dramatic situation changes, and it plays a role in defining the larger musical structure. I see most of the themes in the MCU as associative and not leitmotivic.
<3>Mitigating this somewhat is that Tony Stark is often represented by classic rock and/or electric guitars. Associational timbres lend his musical portrayal more consistency.
<4>I am grateful to Ryan Thompson for drawing this example to my attention.
Grace Edgar is a PhD candidate in the historical musicology program at Harvard University. Her dissertation, "Hearing Hollywood Women: Music and Gender in Action Films, 1950s-1980s," concerns the thematic representation of women in Cold War-era action cinema.

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