The latest outing for Marvel's hammer-wielding Asgardian hero, Thor: The Dark World picks up after the conclusion of Kenneth Branagh's surprisingly entertaining first instalment. Game of Thrones director Alan Taylor takes over this time, as beefy Thor (Chris Hemsworth) must team up with Earthbound love interest Jane (Natalie Portman) and his scheming half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to prevent the universe from being plunged into eternal darkness. It hasn't quite received the warm reception accorded the first movie but critics have been unanimous in their praise for Hiddleston, whose serpentine, devious performance many say is the film's highlight.
In musical terms, the score for The Dark World has a tempestuous history. Taylor signed surprise choice Carter Burwell to take over from original composer Patrick Doyle, reportedly with much enthusiasm. Interesting as it would have been to see Burwell score this kind of movie (he's more commonly associated with the Coen Brothers and critically acclaimed drama), it didn't work out. The powers that be deemed Burwell an insufficient choice and he was replaced with Brian Tyler, himself fresh off the score for fellow Marvel property Iron Man 3. It's the latest chapter in the messy musical history for these movies, which have seen a 'revolving door' of composers. These have included, among others, Ramin Djawadi and John Debney (both for the Iron Man franchise) and Alan Silvestri (for Captain America and The Avengers).
Yet regardless of the unhappy circumstances surrounding his appointment, Tyler has yielded a thrilling score that is one of the most entertaining to have emerged from the Marvel universe. Tyler is in a unique position to bridge the controversial sound of Hans Zimmer's Remote Control studio with the old-fashioned bombast of Hollywood's Golden Age. It's a balancing act he pulled off in Iron Man 3, and it works similarly well here. However, given that the character of Thor is located in a more fantastical, mythological universe than Iron Man, it gives Tyler a chance to ramp up the orchestral and choral forces.
The end result is terrific. The colossal main theme comes bursting out of the traps in the opening track "Thor: The Dark World", which overlays a thunderous brass rhythm with a chanting choir. It's unashamedly stirring stuff and unafraid of celebrating the central character's heroism. This was a problem Patrick Doyle faced in his score for the first movie, with the action music at times seeming compromised; thankfully, Tyler appears to have faced no such obstacles here.
It's a good thing the main theme is so memorable because Tyler leans on it heavily over the course of the score, especially during the action cues. Tracks such as the propulsive "Asgard" and "Battle of Vanaheim"; and the enormously exciting and frenetic "Escaping the Realm" mix massive orchestral forces with the epic choir to brilliant effect. The escalating brass work in "Asgard" is especially effective, a fitting testament to the majesty of Thor's home world. In contrast to the bombast of the main theme, there's an altogether more mournful and melancholy piece for the character of Loki, Thor's treacherous half-brother, first introduced in "Lokasenna". A vocal theme performed by the noted Iranian singer Azam Ali (who also collaborated with Tyler on TV mini-series Children of Dune), it has a beauty and depth of feeling that goes beyond the usual standard of music for these movies.
The majority of the score alternates between these two ideas, musically playing off the brawny Thor against the conflicted Loki. There's also a moody portentous piece for chief baddie Malekith (played by Christopher Eccleston) introduced in "Origins" (effectively the pre-title sequence in the film) which again earns points for colossal volume. Noteworthy renditions of Loki's theme come in "The Trial of Loki"; "Into Eternity"; and especially in "Shadows of Loki" (where it gains an ecclesiastical quality) and "Sword and Council" where the music attains unprecedented, tragic heights. It's especially moving music for a popcorn blockbuster, and especially pleasing to note in an era of film music where manipulating emotions has come to be seen as old hat. Perhaps its most impressive appearance is in the swirling and powerful "Vortex", with the music gaining a sense of mystique that is genuinely breath-taking.
Thor's theme by contrast seeks to blow the socks off the listener every time it appears. "Thor, Son of Odin" and "Journey to Asgard" positively erupt with power; in fact, in the latter, it's intelligently linked to Loki's theme to indicate the fractious alliance that comes into play between the step-brothers. Unsurprisingly, Thor's theme dominates the colossal five-part finale, running from the highly dramatic "Convergence" through to "As the Hammer Falls", where Tyler lets rip with every tool in his arsenal. Pounding brass, rhythmic strings and chanting choir, interspersed with regular blasts of the theme, give a real sense of a fight to the end (in this case occurring at London's Greenwich Observatory!) There's little time to breath once that's over, as Thor's theme gets one final mighty appearance in "Legacy", as if to remind us whose film this is. It's thrilling and stirring stuff.
Following that, there's another little treat in the shape of the brass-led "Marvel Fanfare" that Tyler has composed for the company logo that appears at the start of the film. It would seem that in the space of one year, Tyler has made his mark on the musical legacy of the studio in more ways than one, and that's a very good thing indeed. Thor: The Dark World is a terrifically enjoyable, old-fashioned soundtrack experience that doesn't hold back on the emotions or the drama. The unashamedly bold theme for Thor himself, coupled with the moving theme for Loki, gives the score real substance, bolstering the film's emotional impact whilst also communicating the film's narrative as a separate listening experience.
It's a long album but Tyler's skill at putting variations on the main themes ensures it's rarely dull. One can only hope that given his work on this and Iron Man 3 that Marvel will allow bolder scores into their movies in future, ones that aren't afraid of sounding, well, heroic (after all, these are superheroes we're dealing with). Tyler has become the first person to score two Marvel movies within the space of one year and yet it remains unclear whether he'll be back again, given the infamously fickle approach to picking composers for these movies. If he doesn't come back, then at least 2013 is a year to be celebrated, a year in which Tyler delivered two top-flight Marvel scores that successfully bridge the sound of the old with the sound of the new.
Here is an interesting video where a neurofeedback practitioner has used Brian Tyler's music from "Thor: The Dark World" to demonstrate how brainwave patterns synchronise to music.