Having debuted in the clash between the Avengers that was “Civil War”, a new reincarnation of Spider-Man, the third one in recent years, begins to struggle with his newfound identity as the web-slinging super hero returns to cinema screens all around the world.
As a consequence of Marvel and Sony Entertainment having finally made up a deal to ultimately share the character rights for writer Stan Lee’s popular creation, Kevin Feige and his fellow executives successfully integrated the character into the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe. Focusing on Peter Parker trying to balance high school life, facing normal everyday teenager problems, with being Spider-Man and simultaneously fighting villains such as the powerful Vulture, the movie features a much younger impersonation of Marvel’s super hero than ever before as portrayed by shooting star Tom Holland. Backed by an all-star cast including the acting talents of Robert Downey Jr. as his alter ego Iron Man, Michael Keaton, singer Zendaya, Jon Favreau and Marisa Tomei, directed by Jon Watts, “Spider-Man – Homecoming” is meeting overwhelmingly positive reactions. Critics are enthusiastically praising the performances, the sense of humor throughout the film and, last but not least, its musical score.
Being no stranger to the MCU, Award-winning composer Michael Giacchino was chosen to spin a score for the studio’s newest, highly anticipated solo entry. Having already provided original music for last year’s “Doctor Strange” and the new MCU logo, Giacchino, upon hearing that a Spider-Man reboot was in the works, immediately called Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige, telling him how much we would love to contribute another composition to one of his upcoming projects. Given Giacchino’s immense reputation as one of Hollywood’s leading and, by far, most sought-after composers – after all, he’s the first one to helm Star Trek, Star Wars, Pixar movies and Marvel films altogether -, this has been a wise decision, as the seemingly never-sleeping Giacchino, whose recent output slowly starts to mirror Hans Zimmer’s quantity-like, successfully follows in the footsteps of composers Danny Elfman, James Horner and Zimmer and the Magnificent Six, a group of RCP-based musicians, having influenced the musical soundscape Spider-Man has settled in since his first live-action cinematic debut in 2002.
For “Spider-Man: Homecoming”, Giacchino once again shows his faith in the not to be underestimated power of a traditional symphony orchestra that is supported, in order to highlighten the main character’s young age and his relentless energy, by pizzicato violins, weird, plucky guitar sounds and an extra rhythm section including buckets, odd metal objects and a plastic oil drum as the kick drum, adding an occasionally-used pop vibe to the composition. Especially in a time where complex orchestral action scores, not afraid of overflowing with emotion, become the exception rather than the general norm, Giacchino’s heavy reliance on memorable orchestral themes, combined with his incredible musical talent as an intelligent storyteller, is wonderfully refreshful. As expected, the recording mix is very dry, not unusual for the composer; however, in that regard, his latest project seems to set up new standards as, from time to time, the orchestra sounds far too compressed which makes up for a rather cheap impression.
The thematic material the composer introduces early on comprises four main identities, the first and most frequently used one clearly attributed to the title character himself. For Spidey, Giacchino creates a rousing fanfare, build off a six-note motif, characterized by its unashamedly heroic nature, that wonderfully showcases both youthful energy and reckless freedom as portrayed by actor Tom Holland. At first presented in a playful variation in “Academic Decommitment”, the theme cleverly evolves over the curse of the film – a process quite similiar to how the composer handled the thematic development in Marvel’s latest “Doctor Strange” – , until Giacchino unleashes it in all its heroic glory in the conclusive suite. Facing severe competition from Danny Elfman and James Horner’s superb themes, Giacchino’s newest take comes across as catchy and dynamic as one could have hoped for, and while it might not be as sophisticated as prior franchise entries, it is simply impossible to deny its utterly infectious nature. Having stated in several interviews that he wanted the theme to steadily grow over the curse of the movie, incorporating it in numerous different arrangements, the composer brilliantly succeeds in crafting an incredibly memorable theme, finally breaking longstanding traditions of creative negativeness in the MCU, you will find yourself humming the melody over and over again, even after walking outside the cinema.
Another theme is associated with the story’s main antagonist, Vulture, described by producers as “the dark Tony Stark”. Often brutally intonated by the brass section, supported by harsh timpani, is a four-note motif symbolizing the character’s simple yet threatening way of behaviour. Giacchino himself says he wanted to create a very Hitchcockian theme. “There are two ideas: low brass that’s big and ready to attack, and this rhythm thing, with low strings on different notes. It’s more of a cluster. It’s this idea that this guy’s a little twisted. You think this guy is going to do the right thing, but then it’s completely not the right thing.”
This is directly contrasted with a beautiful love theme Giacchino makes use of to underline the romantic relationship between Peter Parker and Liz Thoomes, Vulture’s daughter. Written for solo flute and warm strings, it is used very sparely throughout the album, sadly, but when it appears, it adds up quite a lot to the musical narrative, providing a moment of belonging and youthful excitement.
Rounding out the thematic palette, and this one actually comes as a huge disappointment, is yet another theme for Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man. Sure, the character has most certainly changed a lot since its first-ever appearance after having successfully launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2008. However, the fact that Giacchino decided to come up with a new musical identity instead of relying on the previously established thematic canon by composers Ramin Djawadi, John Debney, Brian Tyler and Henry Jackman is completely incomprehensible, at least to me. A composer of Giacchino’s caliber – who has shown numerous times that he is in fact very well capable of integrating older material into his own scores by understanding the value of thematic continuity within a franchise – should have clearly known better.
Honoring the character’s rich musical legacy and conveying a spark of nostalgic fun, the score starts off with Giacchino’s very own take, instead of using his Marvel fanfare, on the classic 1960s tv theme by Paul Francis Webster and Bob Harris, played during the movie’s opening logos. Vibrating strings, dominant timpani rolls and rousing brass, constantly pushed forward by electronics and a guitar, introduce the listener to the familiar yet all-new world of Spidey.
The subsequent “The World is Changing” opens with a burst of Alan Silvestri’s popular “Avengers” theme, acting as a reminder of the extraterrestrial technology left over from the gigantic fight between the Avengers and Loki’s army that formed the finale of Marvel’s first-ever “Avengers” film. This technology is now illegally used by Vulture, the story’s antagonist, whose theme soon takes center stage as he persuades his former employees to create and sell advanced super weapons out of it. Lazy pop arrangements, but not as massive as in Hans Zimmer’s electronic-heavy “Amazing Spider-Man” score, dominate “Academic Decommitment” in which Giacchino first introduces his brand-new Spidey theme, often highlighted by various pizzicato techniques quite fittingly imitating the relentless energy actor Tom Holland brings to the character. “On a Ned-To-Know Basis”, in which solo flute and rhythmic snare drum riffs constantly drive the main melody forward, continues that path.
“High Tech Heist” marks the album’s first action cue. Build around a super-infectious woodwind motif, the composer adds a slight jazz vibe whose pure optimism is further enhanced by the dynamic brass writing. This is followed by “Drag Racing/An Old Van Rundown” which, over the curse of four minutes, starts off as yet another jazz take but soon develops into a rousing action sequence continually moving around the Spider-Man theme that appears, highlighted by frenetic brass, in various super-infectious pizzicato arrangements. After having discovered Vulture’s associates selling weapons to local criminals, Peter is rescued by Tony Stark after suffering from an attack by Vulture himself. A brassy statement of the composer’s brand-new Iron Man theme ends the cue. Giacchino’s talent for musical storytelling is shown in “Webbed Surveillance” in which the Spidey and the Vulture theme cleverly play off, watching each other furtively as if they were maintaining a predator-prey interaction.
The pair of “No Vault of His Own” and “The Baby Monitor Protocol” once again centers around Spidey’s playful yet infectious identity, with the former briefly introducing a love motif attributed to Peter Parker and Liz Thoomes, before Giacchino unleashes the score’s by far most entertaining action set piece, the five-minute “Monumental Meltdown”, which, both in terms of structure and composition, sees the composer returning to his “Medal of Honor” roots: Taking a rhythmic action figure first performed on woodwinds, Giacchino makes it the pulse of the on-going orchestral tension constantly dancing around the previously established thematic material. Having successfully saved his school friends from getting killed by the explosive Avengers Technology in a nearly destroyed Washington Monument elevator, a noble brass statement of Spidey’s theme emerges.
While the first part of the two-tier “A Boatload of Trouble” is clearly intended to act as a buildup to the latter, accompanied by fluffy woodwind flourishes, Vulture’s sinister theme begins to emerge in the second part, ending with a powerful brass rendition. “Ferry Dust Up” continues the frantic action writing that is suddenly brought to an end by Giacchino’s new Iron Man theme receiving a bold brass statement. The subsequent “Stark Raving Mad” unexpectedly adds a slightly romantic vibe, warm strings lead over to a beautiful violin solo, underpinned by mellow guitar chords. Contrasting the light-hearted atmosphere, the three-minute “Pop Vulture” features some rather uninteresting suspense scoring, probably marking the score’s only dull moment as Peter unexpectedly finds out his antagonist’s real life identity.
Hastily, Peter leaves his Homecoming ball in order to prevent Vulture attacking the Avengers. From “Bussed A Move” on, which features the score’s most unashamedly heroic take on the Spider-Man theme outside the end credits, the action takes center stage: Exhilarating brass and string writing dominate the five-minute “Lift Off” in which Giacchino intelligently weaves in and out various thematic statements accompanying the on-going fight as continued in the brass-heavy “Fly-By-Night-Operation“. The subsequent “Pop Vulture” (yes, that’s actually a real cue title…) opens with creepy strings soon exploding into another huge statement of Vulture’s theme before the orchestra calms down and ends the cue with a majestic version of the Spidey theme.
After the non-stopping action has finally come to an end, “A Stark Contrast” focuses on conciliatory tones: Following up another brief cameo of Alan Silvestri’s “Avengers” theme – probably the only MCU theme that has been constantly used by every assigned composer -, Giacchino gives his bold Iron Man/Tony Stark theme time to breathe before the composer adds a nice build-up of the score’s Spider-Man identity to musically reflect the character’s newly acquired maturity as he turns down Stark’s invitation to join the Avengers full time. “No Frills Proto COOL!”, which sees Peter Parker putting on his new Spider-Man outfit, presents yet another outburst of the main theme which only lasts about half a minute before the conclusive “Spider-Man Homecoming Suite” once again summarizes the score’s three main identities assembled into one coherent listening. Starting off with a playful variation of Spider-Man’s theme, it soon develops into a rousing brass fanfare, whose optimism suddenly ends as the cue leads over to Vulture’s sinister four-note motif. A glimpse of the love theme, performed on flute while underpinned by warm strings, lightens up the atmosphere, anticipating one last heroic statement of the score’s main theme, that ultimately closes out the 66-minute album.
Marvel’s scores have, as long as one could even remember, always suffered from fairly generic thematic writing and rather bland action scoring. However, with Giacchino having entered the franchise with his recent “Doctor Strange” and “Spider-Man” works, the composer has most certainly brought a new kind of musical intelligence to the long-lasting series, providing a worthy successor to the character’s pre-existing thematic canon. The, as by now, unchallenged compositional complexity Elfman has given to Spidey as well as the sweepingly symphonic sound James Horner created still remain unmatched, but Giacchino succeeds in mingling together both of these styles into a coherent narrative that is further strengthened by its strong thematic development – hearing the villain theme actually fighting the hero theme as the composer simultaneously plays both of them in different keys to show triumph and failure is a pure joy to listen to.
Recently, people have often complained about Giacchino becoming the “King of Blockbuster Franchises” – and in all honesty, it is true, he is literally everywhere -, but as long as the final result maintains such a high quality, there is absolutely nothing to worry about. As by now, Danny Elfman might hold the reins as the king of superhero scores, but Giacchino, by helming the recent Marvel efforts, succeeds in providing a highly satisfying take on “Spider-Man” as well.
Music composed by Michael Giacchino. Conducted by Marshall Bowen. Orchestrations by Jeff Kryka, Williams Ross, Marshall Brown, Cameron Patrick, Curtis Green and Michael Giacchino. Album produced by Michael Giacchino.
1. Theme (From “Spider Man”) – Original Television Series
2. The World is Changing
3. Academic Decommitment
4. High Tech Heist
5. On a Ned-To-Know Basis
6. Drag Racing / An Old Van Rundown
7. Webbed Surveillance
8. No Vault of His Own
9. Monumental Meltdown
10. The Baby Monitor Protocol
11. A Boatload of Trouble Part 1
12. A Boatload of Trouble Part 2
13. Ferry Dust Up
14. Stark Raving Mad
15. Pop Vulture
16. Bussed a Move
17. Lift Off
18. Fly-By-Night Operation
19. Vulture Clash
20. A Stark Contrast
21. No Frills Proto COOL!
22. Spider-Man: Homecoming Suite
Album available on Sony Masterworks.