CS Soapbox: Why Mark Mothersbaugh’s Ragnarok is the Most Eccentric MCU Score
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has done a lot of things right over its decade long (and counting) run, but, for whatever reason, has remained curiously subpar in the film score category. After 23 films, it’s weird to think that only Alan Silvestri’s work on the Avengers films has left much of a cultural impact, and even then only due to its rousing — and, frankly, quite remarkable — main theme.
The MCU features plenty of talented musicians, namely Patrick Doyle, Craig Armstrong, Henry Jackman, Michael Giacchino, Ludwig Göransson and John Debney, just to name a few, but, until recently, failed to create musical continuity between films. This glaring oversight came to a head back in 2016 when a video criticizing modern film scores and the MCU in general was published on YouTube and instantly went viral:
Around this same time, Taika Waititi and composer Mark Mothersbaugh were neck deep in Thor: Ragnarok and very much conscious of the criticism surrounding the MCU’s film score process. As such, rather than opt for a traditional score designed around temp music, the duo decided to create something far more unique that would perfectly mesh with Waititi’s wild visuals and idiosyncratic style.
The result? Perhaps the most eccentric score to come out of the MCU thus far.
Packed with 80s influences and hip electronic beats — yes, I said hip — Thor: Ragnarok provided Waititi’s unusual blockbuster with an extra dose of quirk and remains a decidedly unconventional big budget action score far removed from the likes of Silvestri, Giacchino and even, despite its fundamentally electronic design, Hans Zimmer. In truth, the results are comparable to a late 80s or early 90s video game soundtrack, although Mothersbaugh still brings the heat in terms of crafting a truly epic sound thanks to his use of choir, keyboards, a massive 100-piece orchestra and overabundance of Taiko drums. You could say Thor: Ragnarok is unconventionally conventional.
“The intention was never to destroy something that’s already there that’s great and that there’s a fan base for,” Waititi told Entertainment Weekly back in 2017. “It was only to give them something new that was not offensive and was something that they would feel elevated the things and characters that they love. So that was our goal. Our goal was never to deconstruct things. It was more to expand.”
Originally, Waititi wanted Queen to handle the soundtrack to further push the Flash Gordon influence of the film but ultimately decided against the idea and turned to Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh.
Mothersbaugh started out in the art-punk band Devo, but turned his attention to TV shows, video games, commercials and films in the 90s and quickly gained prominence due to his work on Pee-wee’s Playhouse, the Nickelodeon cartoon Rugrats, House of Lies, films such as Happy Gilmore, Dead Man On Campus and Drop Dead Gorgeous, as well as Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou — as perfect a match between director and composer as you’ll ever find.
More recently, Mothersbaugh has teamed up with Phillip Lord and Christopher Miller on their productions of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, 21 Jump Street and its sequel, 22 Jump Street, and The Lego Movie and demonstrated a flair for crafting eclectic scores bursting with energy and unusual instrumentation.
In other words, his unique abilities were well suited for Waititi’s unconventional style.
REVENGE OF THE SYNTH
For Thor: Ragnarok, a film described by Waititi as a 70s/80s sci-fi fantasy, Mothersbaugh opted to lean on old school aesthetics: synthesizers. No, really. A lot of synthesizers.
Entire tracks are rendered via synthesizer, namely “The Revolution Has Begun” and “What Heroes Do,” among others, while “Arena Battle” and “Asgard is a People” cleverly blend synths with traditional orchestra to great effect almost to the point where the musical designs sound as if they are in direct contention with each other; a facet that impeccably highlights Thor’s struggles to adapt to the strange planet Sakaar.
Mothersbaugh used circuit bent instruments and wind modulation to achieve a primitive gamelan sound via synthesizers to ultimately achieve a sound that was, as he described it, “future primitive.”
“…Taika (Waititi) and I are both fans of early synth things,” Mothersbaugh told The Conway Daily Sun. “In the process of listening to different music that Taika was interested in, as something to help become an avid influence to the Marvel sound, I went down to the basement here at my studio and I have an archive of all the old stuff. I was the one who was in charge of that in Devo — of keeping everything for the future. So, I had all these synthesizers from the ’70s and ’80s, and we went down and pulled some out and used them. My intention was to come up with a future primitive sound to augment that big Marvel sound that we are familiar with — the 100-piece orchestra, 35-piece choir that I used for the film. I wanted to augment that with these kind of retro synths, so if it sounds like Devo, that’s how it happened.”
This approach suits the film well. And while there are any number of cues featuring what one might call “standard superhero music,” Mothersbaugh’s techno rhythms and keyboards keep the music from veering too far into conventional territory.
Mothersbaugh’s score works so well in the film because the composer actually takes the time to tell a story with his music. So much so that the music becomes a supporting character.
Early on, when Thor travels to Asgard, the music is largely orchestral in nature. Once Thor lands on Sakaar, the music leans towards the aforementioned synthesizers and primitive future beats. Thor’s heroic actions are scored in a traditional orchestrated manner (with underlying synth), while his more comedic antics around Sakaar lend themselves to Mothersbaugh’s electronic rhythms. It’s an interesting dynamic that, appropriately enough, reverts back to Patrick Doyle’s Thor theme at film’s end once the God of Thunder settles on his new role as the ruler of Asgard. Perfection.
Plus, throw in Led Zepplin’s The Immigrant during the opening and closing action sequences and you have yourself a unique soundtrack that perfectly captures the spirit of Taika Waititi’s terrific film. In the massive Marvel Cinematic Universe, Mothersbaugh’s work truly stands out as one of the better musical efforts in a sea full of bland retreads.
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