Comics

That Metal in Your Bones Soundtrack: The Music of Iron Man

Brett Mobley
Splash Art from Invincible Iron Man #500. Interior Art: stills from Iron Man (2007).

Iconic sound effects like Wolverine's snikt or Spider-Man's thwip have always been crucial in comics storytelling. Iron Man and Iron Man 2 director Jon Favreau has shown how the right soundtrack can come to identify a superhero in the same way on the big screen…

Iron Man and Iron Man 2 are movies to rock out to, featuring half a dozen AC/DC tracks, Black Sabbath, Queen, The Clash, Daft Punk, and even a touch of 2Pac and Dr. Dre. The AC/DC, however, has become particularly, closely associated with the franchise, and I for one have a hard time listening to “Back in Black” with out thinking of the opening scene from Iron Man.

With Iron Man 3 on the horizon, I’ve recently re-watched the first two films and was struck by the continuity of sound in them. The effects for Iron Man’s suit—which are awesome and incredibly evocative—the score, and the music chosen were thematically unifying in the same way sequential art is in comics. By evoking AC/DC in association with Iron Man’s perhaps reckless bravado, Favreau and Debney achieved the same sort of effect that we get from an iconic thwip. Nevertheless, there are obviously important differences to consider between comicbooks and comicbook movies.

Scott McCloud gives us a concise and profound differentiation between comics and film. Early in Understanding Comics, he writes, “Space does for comics what time does for film.” I would add and argue though, that space and typography do for comics what time and sound do for film. Reading comics requires a lot of imagination and genuine work on the part of the reader. Unlike film, there are no sound effects techs to give us those thunderous, resounding Mjölnir clangs or those terrifying, guttural Hulk roars or those pneumatic, industrial clinks of Iron Man’s armor. Spider Man’s iconic twhip or Wolverine’s menacing snikt or Nightcrawler’s ambiguous bamf guide us onomatopoetically, but aren’t quite the same. Internal typography, balloon styles, and sound effect icons, and motion lines all contribute to the continuity of a comic, just as the score and sound effects contribute to the unity between sequel films.

A good way to talk about this though, might be by way of a good and bad example: Sandman and the Twilight franchise, which I loathe to admit that I’ve seen.

Imagine for instance, if while reading Sandman, the speech balloons of Morpheus, which are an inky, eerie, tendrilled cloud of nightmare in my annotated edition, suddenly became a basic, white speech balloon using comic sans for text. Imagine for instance if during issue #13 “Men of Good Fortune,” in which Dream visits ‘the man who refused to die’ once every hundred years—in the same pub no less—if Dream’s iconographic features changed? The one thing that holds that issue together, through all the time arranged via space (represented with changing styles of clothing, changing architecture, changing dialect, and changing supporting characters) is the Prince of Stories’ eyes, black pits with starlight shining out of them, and his word balloons. If any of those components were not thematically unified the comic would be impossible to read.

On to my bad example, now: the Twilight films. The first film had a gorgeous arrangement of gothic and folk tracks, where as the second had a more orchestral score. Carter Burwell’s soothing score, highlight movements of the first Twilight which I suppose, were about love or something juxtaposed well against the tracks from Paramore, Linkin Park, and Iron & Wine. The second film, however, had a significantly more “classic” movie score, with all its ambient horns and strings. Fans (and this non-fan) alike noticed and felt like it separated the movies, perhaps by disrupting an internal logic.

The Iron Man films, so far, have not suffered from this problem. Favreau and Debney and Zimmer created a cohesive sound in the first two films that, while occasionally varying between registers, retains a heavy metal vibe with an industrial tonality. The heavy beats of Iron Man hammering out pieces of his first suit and the heavy beats of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” coalesce into an aesthetically pleasing whole. The second film carries that forward by using the same sorts of sounds and musical choices. Tony Stark’s battle with Rhodey includes “Another One Bites the Dust,” “Robot Rock,” and “It Takes Two,” recalling the first films’s use of classic rock, dance, and rap through out.

As I said, it is difficult not to think of Iron Man now, when I hear “Back in Black,” but what is interesting about that to me, is not the association—because that is a marketers holy grail—but rather the continuity produced in the film, which mirrors the way continuity is produced in comics. Sound is an important part of how we imagine our heroes, and I for one am as much enamored with the trademark sounds of Iron Man in the films as I am with his trademark look in the comics.

Nevertheless, since there is a continuity break between the first two Iron Man films, that is to say Shane Black—who is simply an awesome director who can really push the humor-action genre to great heights—is directing Iron Man 3, I wonder if the comicbook movie will retain its trademark sound. Joss Whedon even made sure that Iron Man and AC/DC were inexorably linked, by using “Shoot to Thrill” in Avengers to introduce Iron Man. So here's hoping, right?

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