Twenty-three movies in and there have been some incredible composers lending their talent to the Infinity Saga’s theatrical releases, from Ramin Djawadi (Game of Thrones; Westworld) to Alan Silvestri (Back to The Future; Predator) and Michael Giacchino (Lost; The Incredibles). Also, the brilliant Ludwig Göransson (set to return to score season 2 of The Mandalorian), who had an amazing 2019 as his work on the Black Panther soundtrack and Donald Glover‘s This Is America gained him both popular and critical acclaim as well as an Academy Award and a couple of Grammys to go with it.
But even though the MCU has tried to follow a somewhat more classical path when it comes to its soundtracks, with orchestral leitmotifs throughout, there have been several movies where songs, not the score, have taken a step forward and gained significant importance to the plot and the characters themselves. I mean, little did we know that the use of ACϟDC’s “Back in Black” (1980) in the very first scene of the very entry in the franchise would have such an emotional pay-off more than eleven years later as it springboarded Spider-Man back into action. “I LOVE LED ZEPPELIN!”
But it was 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy that became the epitome of song usage in the MCU, something made very clear from it’s first few minutes. We got to see the young Peter Quill listening to 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love” (1975) outside his mother’s hospital room to try and cope with the weight of the moment, and then his older self dancing through a Morag temple while singing along to “Come and Get Your Love” (1974) by Redbone, in stark contrast to the eeriness around him. We later learned that the songs Quill kept with him were part of a mix-tape his mother gifted him with her favorite songs from the 60s and 70s. For him, those songs became an escape, something to brighten up his days, a constant presence in his life, a reminder of better times, and a way to keep his mother’s memory alive. And since music mattered so much to Quill, at such a raw and relatable level, it became relevant to the audience as well. The same happened in the previously mentioned scene from Spider-Man: Far From Home, when the audience likely mimicked Happy Hogan’s reaction, in all its nuanced glory. And this is when you know that the use of songs, often a gimmick to shoehorn a random ambiance in specifics scenes, is adding to the story in a way that feels earned.
By choosing such a specific timeline to introduce Carol Danvers, it was obvious from the start that Captain Marvel would try banking on 90s nostalgia. The very first trailer started with Vers crashing into a Blockbuster and the callbacks were omnipresent throughout the movie itself. Giant cell-phones, pagers, and dial-up internet made for an inverted technology shock, as both Carol and the audience had to adapt to such an archaic landscape. But even with all these references, the real hook was to be the music. As James Gunn realized, that’s where the emotional response from the audience could easily pay dividends later on. By adding that extra level of relatability to Carol it could help make the character even a bigger fan favorite than she ended up being. But even though the songs were there it all felt a bit disconnected both because of the way they were used and Danvers’ (non-)reactions to them. It all made for a somewhat disappointing experience since it had the potential to become something truly magnificent, perhaps even surpassing the response to Guardians’ accomplishments in this specific area.
The approach seems to have been to simply insert 90s songs into the movie, highlighting their presence and trying to get an audience reaction, but sadly bypassing their importance to the characters. As co-director Anna Boden stated during an interview with AMC:
We can’t compete with Guardians of the Galaxy. [That] was its own special thing. But we do have a movie that takes place in the 90s, and you will hear some 90s music, hopefully stuff that reminds you of the past. We’re playing a lot with songs that we forgot about or just haven’t heard in a long time, but that really bring us back to a certain moment.
Guardians was clearly something special. But not trying to accomplish something equally noteworthy seems to have been the first step to not getting there in the first place. Most of the song choices were from the 1992-1995 era, being R.E.M.’s “Man On The Moon” (1992) one of the earlier releases but seeing that Carol had left Earth in 1989 this meant that there would be no reason for her to have any sort of connection to them. When they showed up in the movie it always felt a bit bland. The audience could even be connecting with the songs, but once the main character felt so removed from them that could even almost retract that initial nostalgic feeling. There wasn’t even really any effort to try and make Carol connect with them, since she never really acknowledged the ones that happened to be playing in the background. This all felt a bit out of character since throughout the movie, and if you leave out the Air Force Flightsuit and her Kree uniform, she basically is just seen wearing shirts with band logos on them, from Nine Inch Nails to Guns N’ Roses and Heart, meaning she wasn’t oblivious to the art form.
The final confrontation with the Supreme Intelligence late in the movie, just before Carol goes Binary for the first time, always felt like the perfect example of the way musical callbacks were mishandled. This was an interface where, as stated in the movie, characters mostly only found what they took there, so there would be little point in having Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” (1992) playing since Carol probably didn’t even know the band, that was just releasing their first album at the time she was abducted. And even if you could argue that it was the Supreme Intelligence the one responsible for choosing the song, that wouldn’t be that intelligent as the eventual reaction it was trying to get out of Carol would be as empty as the lies she kept in her mind.
Halfway through the movie, the scene where Fury meets up with Carol at Pancho’s Bar makes for a great metaphor for the way songs were used in the movie. When asked to prove she isn’t a Skrull, and without blinking, Carol’s choice is to blow up a jukebox using a photon blast. The same jukebox that probably provided her numerous nights of entertainment at that same bar with Maria Rambeau, as we caught a glimpse through flashbacks. If music was supposed to help with her amnesia and help to bring the old Carol back, if it was supposed to bring the audience closer together to relive the 90s through her eyes, it just died a very painful death. With a photon blast to the face.