Thor: Ragnarok has been a raging success for Marvel on almost every front. Not only did it breathe life back into the Thor franchise, which many consider to be the weakest of the Marvel solo films, but it also addressed one of the biggest issues fans and critics have with the cinematic universe: the music.
While the Marvel film scores have always been good, mostly servicing their respective films, they’ve never been particularly memorable beyond their initial screening. Marvel’s response to the criticism was bringing in Mark Mothersbaugh, a musical veteran who has scored over 200 movies and TV shows as well as a member of the Rock band DEVO.
Bringing in Mothersbaugh was a success, with Thor: Ragnarok‘s score being lauded as one of the best scores in Marvel’s long, diverse musical history. Mothersbaugh’s score was fun, loud, and featured ’80s inspired synths, which perfectly matched up with director Taika Waititi’s vision. This makes it no surprise that Waititi himself requested Mothersbaugh, the composer revealed when speaking exclusively with Heroic Hollywood about the film’s score:
“It was at the request of Taika Waititi,” Mothersbaugh said. “We met, we hit it off, and one thing led to another and we both had been paying attention to what critics and the internet had been saying about the music of the Marvel movies, and we just wanted to see if we could up the ante a little bit, without disrespecting Marvel in any way, because it’s such a strong, amazing franchise. We were just trying to open up the envelope a little bit.”
Taika Waititi’s first big-budget Hollywood picture was Thor: Ragnarok, but before landing the gig, he was making strides in the independent world with comedies such as What We Do In The Shadows and Hunt For The Wilderpeople. It turned out that Mothersbaugh was a fan of Waititi even before he started working on Thor: Ragnarok.
“Yeah, I didn’t even know at first. I’m not a big vampire fan but I liked What We Did In The Shadows, it was a really amazing and just really clever, well made film,” Mothersbaugh said. “But I didn’t pay attention to who was directing it or anything, it just happened to be on my TV set. And then I went out and saw Hunt For The Wilderpeople, and after I saw that I was like ‘Who did this? Who’s this Taika Waititi guy?’, it made me wanna find out who he was. When I got the call, it was like he was fresh in my mind. It was kinda cool”.
Working with Marvel means that you have to work within the rules the company has laid out, but Mothersbaugh saw that as an opportunity to depart from what had already been done.
“Even in Taika’s movie before this, it was a really staggering departure from what you would expect from a movie that takes place out in the New Zealand, away from civilization, and to have a 70’s style synth was a pretty radical approach,” Mothersbaugh said. “Well, what we wanted to do is bring in elements that were unexpected to the world of Marvel, but still when you have all these characters with all this gravitas and they’re strong, they’re superheros, an orchestra is a really great way to convey that kind of weight and heft and muscle. So, it’s like we’re trying to honor the strength and everything that makes you a superhero. I wanted to honor all of that stuff and just bring in things where we could.”
One of the most memorable parts of the Ragnarok was the world of Sakaar, where Thor was introduced to Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster, who organized a gladiator match between the God of Thunder and Hulk. Composing music for the upbeat, funky world of Sakaar was one of the places where Mothersbaugh could do as he pleased, seeing that the world hadn’t been explored prior to the film.
“The easiest place was the world of Sakaar, that was my first entry place because that was uncharted territory. Jeff Goldblum was kind of an atypical Marvel character in that area too, in a way,” Mothersbaugh said. “That was the best way in with bringing in new electronics, synth electric electronics, and remodulated electronics, things that were actually quite appropriate because with those kind of sounds, remodulation and circuit bending, what they kind of create is a primitive futurist sound. So what I was trying to accomplish was something that sounded like science-fiction Gamelan music for some of the music in the background in Sakaar. It was like chemicals, the synths on top of the orchestra, they were like chemicals that represented precious metals in many parts of the universe.”
One of the major components of the score was the use of synths, which stemmed from Taika’s musical taste, as well as Mothersbaugh’s experience in synth-based music with his band DEVO, who have had classic hits like “Whip It”.
‘Taika gave me a very eclectic set of pieces of music that he was listening to while he was working on the movie, and it included kind of interesting esoteric New Zealand art bands and early 70’s synth music,” Mothersbaugh said. “We were both in agreement and we just really had to be sensitive to Kevin and the crew over there because everybody at Marvel was very, well, it was a very impressive company to work with it.”
Mothersbaugh then added that he was surprised as to how smooth and interesting the process of working with Marvel was, especially with how the studio operated so smoothly.
“I had no opinion [of Marvel] because I had never worked with them before, and if anything, after doing over 200 movies, TV shows, and videogames, I can be cynical at times. I have to say that my experience at looking at that company really gave me a strong appreciation of how invested everyone at the company is in the final product. How much they care about what’s going on, and the attitude they have, the composure. Back in time, at these big corporations, the guy on top, he usually was only interested in knowing the directors, the actors, and definitely the producers. There wasn’t much dialogue happening with the music producer. Kevin came to one of the meetings I had with the music editors, and he was sitting beside me, and I was like ‘who is this guy’, and they were like ‘That’s the head of the company’. And he’s sitting there with playing music for him, and he’d be thinking about it and they’d be like ‘Kevin really liked this and Kevin liked that’, it was a really pleasant working situation.”
As an artist, hearing your work must be difficult, seeing as how you’ve spent countless hours working on it and perfecting it. Beyond that, hearing the final product must be an interesting experience, with Mothersbaugh commenting on how each time he’s seen the film, he’s experienced something different.
“I’ve seen the movie three times, I saw it at the premiere, I saw it at the Academy, and I saw at TV theatre out in Hollywood, and each time I’ve watched the film, I’ve heard it on different sound systems, so it sounded different at each place,” Mothersbaugh said. “At the premiere, they had a huge crowed, so they cranked it up like it was a rock concert, so it was a little hard to hear the dialogue. All three times I’ve heard it, there’s different things that I like more. Overall, my favorite piece might be just Thor’s Theme because that was the first thing I wrote for the film. After meeting with Taika, and reading the first pass of the script, and hearing Kevin’s consensus of the film, it inspired me to write the music that became Thor’s theme.”
Clearly, Mothersbaugh’s work paid off, which means that he could be potentially working for Marvel again, something he says he hopes to do.
“I would love to work with them again,” Mothersbaugh said. “I enjoyed it, and I hope when Thor 4 comes up, I hope they think about hiring me!”
Thor: Ragnarok is currently in theatres.