The ever-growing Marvel Cinematic Universe reached its 17th installment in the end of 2017 with “Thor Ragnarok” (the third MCU movie in just a year, after “Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2” and “Spider-Man Homecoming”). It is also the third entry in the sub-franchise revolving around the mighty Thor, portrayed by Chris Hemsworth since the first movie back in 2011.
Widely considered to be the weakest series in the MCU, the “Thor”-movies received pretty favorable reviews with the first one, but much worse to downright terrible ones with the 2013 second film “The Dark World”.
Taking these things into consideration, people were worried, how the third film would turn out, but the announcements of the film incorporating aspects of the popular comic-book story-lines “Ragnarok” and “Planet Hulk” (thus confirming that the Hulk would join Thor in his movie) raised the spirits again.
Embracing The Oddity
Following the success of the two “Guardians Of The Galaxy” movies, “Thor Ragnarok” stopped taking its title character serious (well, as serious as an MCU-movie could be) and just embraced the ridiculousness of a blond hammer-wielding demigod from outer space throwing lightnings around like a crazy person and going on adventures with a green rage-monster called ‘Hulk’ and just hired director Taika Waititi and cast Jeff Goldblum. Because the world might not deserve Jeff Goldblum, but god knows we desperately need more Jeff Goldblum. All the Jeff Goldblum. And all the Taika Waititi. Bless those guys. Bloody bless them.
Sufficient to say that the film did what every Marvel movie does: Make a whole flip-ton of money! Critics, audiences, and wallets all over the world love this movie, as did yours truly (it might be my favorite MCU movie to date).
The MCU and Thematic Continuity
As with any character in the MCU, Thor’s thematic structure was basically non-existent. Since Kenneth Branagh directed the first installment, Patrick Doyle went along with him, instructed by Marvel to make his best Steve Jablonsky impression (yet somehow, fortunately, delivering a pretty good score). When Branagh wasn’t hired to helm the sequel, the studio brought in Carter Burwell, only to discard him for Brian Tyler (who scored “Iron Man 3” the same year in a desperate try to make him the main Marvel composer).
Tyler then ditched Doyle’s theme, making the nonsensical claim, that they wouldn’t fit the more grown-up and developed Thor now because thematic development apparently is non-existent. I mean, it’s not like we’re living in a world where John Williams turned his creepy-ass Emperor theme from “Return of the Jedi” into an annoying happy-sappy children-song in “The Phantom Menace”, right?
Anyway, Tyler’s entry was pretty well received overall, although criticized for his kinda standard-theme. He did make the effort to use that theme in “Age Of Ultron” at least, so that must count for something.
After “Age Of Ultron” however, there has been some yet-to-be-cleared-up fallout between Tyler and Disney, so Tyler got the boot as well and all bets were off for the third “Thor” movie.
Hiring Mark Mothersbaugh
Cue the huge gasp of surprise as Mark Mothersbaugh got confirmed as the new composer. As pleased as everyone was, nobody expected this, but if you have heard his two “Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs” scores, you knew you were up for a treat.
Reportedly, Waititi (by the way, if you don’t know who that is, close this review and watch “What We Do In The Shadows”… but come back after that… please!) viewed the film as a modern “Flash Gordon” and would have loved to get Queen for the soundtrack, but since Freddie Mercury is not among us anymore, he went for Mothersbaugh who jumped immediately on the chance to work with Watiti after having seen “What We Do In The Shadows” and “The Hunt For The Wilderpeople”.
Mothersbaugh got what Waititi was going for right away and settled for a combination of a traditional full-orchestra and choir combined with retro-synths. Lots and lots of retro-synths.
The Overall Soundscape: A Much Needed Breath Of Fresh Air
He couldn’t have made a better decision. “Thor Ragnarok” is such a breath of fresh air, music-wise, it’s a bliss. The soundscape itself is worth every single minute you spend within it and, to be honest, this is the sound I was hoping for when Tyler Bates got attached to “Guardians Of The Galaxy”, which was full of references to the 70s and 80s, including its collection of songs.
Thank god that, three years later, former DEVO-leader Mothersbaugh went for that sound and even fully explored it.
This could have easily ended up as a serious case of “style over substance”, like the two seasons of “Stranger Things” which simply used some 80s toys without thinking about storytelling at all. Or it might have turned out to be a standard orchestral score which only utilizes the synths in two or three tracks, making them stick out like a sore thumb, but fortunately, that did not happen. The electronics are there from the first minute, as is the orchestra and both last throughout the whole score, complementing each other in wonderful ways. The best examples of this are probably “Arena Fight” and “Flashback”, which combine both sides of the spectrum organically. Then you have tracks like “Sakaar Chase” and “What Heroes Do”, which are completely synth and “Devil’s Anus” and “Asgard Is A People” which focus on the orchestra.
That way, the whole score feels balanced and coherent, which, by all means, it has no right to!
The next stand out section is the percussion. Having it’s first big moment around halfway through the “Ragnarok Suite”, it uses crystal clear mixed Taikos to remind you, that, despite all the spaceships and laser-guns, you are still in a fantasy-setting centered around two rather primal characters. The best percussive track, however, is “Arena Fight”. Underscoring a gladiator-battle between Thor and Hulk in a giant interstellar arena, this piece is a great example of how to mingle the synths and orchestra and beef them up with some hefty percussion. Mothersbaugh went the extra mile to set up the recording studio for that track in a way, that had all the drummers surround the mics, in order to give the listener the feeling of being right there in the middle of the arena, joining his/her heroes in this brawl.
If you are unsure about Mothersbaugh’s orchestral writing, you also look no further than this cue, because the brass alone will make you happy! It’s powerful and layered! And notice at around 2:50 how the strings play the arpeggio which before was performed by the synths in that track (not unlike the “Stranger Things” opening).
There are two tracks, that differ from the rest of the score, however. First, we have “Weird Things Happen”, which replicates the sound of Michael Giacchino’s “Doctor Strange” through the use of zither etc., though without directly quoting the theme. Then we have “Twilight Of The Gods”, or at least, the first 2 minutes, in which a mourning fiddle highlights Odin’s ruminations.
Restoring Thematic Continuity
Now that we’ve covered the general sound of the movie, let’s get to the themes. Motherbaugh’s main theme is already a small stroke of genius, as its basically just a further exploration of Tyler’s theme, thus showing him, how it should be done: Doing your own thing while not screwing over continuity. As a matter of fact, the film even fully quotes Tyler’s music in a hilarious gag, having an on-screen choir perform “Into Eternity” during a theater-recreation of “The Dark World”. Another Tyler (and Danny Elfman) reference can be found during the gladiator-battle (though not on the album), as Thor tries to comfort the Hulk in order to have him transform into Bruce Banner, using some sort of poem or lullaby that got established in “Age Of Ultron” for Banner and Natasha Romanoff to bond over. “Thor Ragnarok” makes fun of this plot-point, yet has the decency to have the theme for the lullaby by Tyler and Elfman play during Thor’s attempts.
Last but not least, there is another, quite mindblowing, piece of continuity: Mothersbaugh reprises Patrick Doyle’s original “Thor”-theme! During a pretty significant scene even AND, as if this wasn’t enough, he puts it in counterpoint with his own, new theme! I won’t spoil what happens in that scene, but it fits perfectly! You can hear this gem in the last part of “Where To?”.
The Minor Flaws
The only real drawback is, that the score doesn’t offer many other themes. Hulk seems to be mostly represented by the lower brass regions (though there seems to be a small moment, which can be heard halfway through the “Ragnarok Suite” and in the “Arena Fight”, even a little bit in “Asgard Is A People”, but it won’t stick with you much. Loki sadly gets no idea at all, neither a reprise from Doyle or Tyler nor a new one, despite him having an arc over the three movies as well (well, four, since “The Avengers” should count, too). Then there is the new villain, Hela, portrayed marvelously by Cate Blanchett basically returning to that one short “evil Galadriel”-moment from “Fellowship Of The Ring”. She does have a theme, but the melody itself is pretty anonymous. Her musical identity mostly lives through an ominous female vocal, closing the “Ragnarok Suite” and getting further, albeit short moments in “Twilight Of The Gods” or “The Vault”, among others.
There are big orchestral statements of her theme (“Twilight Of The Gods, again and in “Hela vs. Asgard” for example) but since the melody never really ingrained itself into the audience’s head, they tend to dissolve among the general action music.
The most treatment is really reserved for Thor himself (understandably so) and the statements of his theme range from big and epic (“Ragnarok Suite”) over sci-fi-synths (“What Heroes Do”) to full-on 80s-rock cheese, complete with electric guitars and drums of awesomeness (the absolutely magnificent title-card “Thor: Ragnarok”).
Storytelling Through Orchestration
So, if you want a leitmotif score, this will disappoint you. The themes are there and they do get their development, but there will be long stretches of music, with no clear statement of any of them, especially in some of the action tracks. The good news is, that Mothersbaugh manages to still have the action interesting and engaging. Instead of taking the easy way out and just throw some synth-arpeggios and string ostinati at the screen, he still carefully leads the orchestra through the action on screen. Particular instruments setting in at particular times, intricately planned brass-hits or a carefully placed synth-glissando will still do their best to tell you the story and while it’s certainly not “Lord Of The Rings” in its accuracy, it knows how to keep you interested. “Running Short On Options” and “No One Escapes” prove that.
Even the synth-only tracks are crafted with much care. They are almost exclusively used in the scenes that take place in Jeff Goldblum’s living room (you might try and tell yourself that that’s a set or a green screen and that he is wearing a costume, but we know better). The duo of “Where Am I?” and “Grandmaster’s Chamber” is the first to lead the listener into Jack Kirby’s wet dream that is the planet Sakaar, where the Grandmaster (Goldblum) lives. Although they are not action tracks, they don’t just go off into aimless noodling. “Sakaar Chase” then takes the synthiness on an all-out ride.
But Mark Mothersbaugh wouldn’t be Mark Mothersbaugh without providing some of his own usual weirdness. If you don’t know what I mean, just check out his anecdotes from the “SCORE” documentary that came out earlier this year. This man might be related to Danny Elfman. Anyway, “Parade” is a source track playing in a scene where Thor and Banner (NOT Hulk) try to blend into a crowd celebrating the green angry champion and it’s as catchy as it’s awesome and fitting. A Wide array of carnival drums looped under some crazy synths…what’s not to love? Mothersbaugh even reprises that theme in the end title piece “Planet Sakaar”, which is wildly entertaining itself. Just like the title-piece, it goes all-out on the “Flash Gordon”-vibe. This shouldn’t work, but it does.
If all of this didn’t convince you, that “Thor Ragnarok” is one of the best scores of the year and one of the best from the MCU, then fear not, as I saved the real dealmaker for last.
The Peak Of Human Creation
Admit it, you’ve always known that superhero-music lacked something. Not just modern superhero-music. All of superhero-music. Be it John Williams, Danny Elfman, Elliot Goldenthal, Neil Hefti, Shirley Walker, Jerry Goldsmith, Hans Zimmer, James Newton Howard or James Horner. Each has done great things for the genre, but none ever dared to give the universe what is truly needed. Mark Motherbaugh, our lord and savior realized that well, wrote “Grandmaster Jam Session” and did what needed to be done:
Having a digitally processed Jeff Goldblum sing “Taika Waititi”.
Thank you, Mr. Mothersbaugh. Humanity is forever in your debt.