Musical Mutations: The Music of the X-Men Films
The end of an era arrived this summer with the release of Dark Phoenix, the seventh film in Fox’s X-Men saga that began in 2000 with Bryan Singer’s X-Men. Following the original trilogy, Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class attempted a reboot with younger actors, but which became more of a prequel, as Singer returned for Days of Future Past, mixing in the original cast. With the recent acquisition of 21st Century Fox and their movie franchises by Disney, X-Men now returns to Marvel, making Dark Phoenix the end of this iteration of the mutant team-up. Fans now eagerly anticipate how Disney will work the X-Men into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In this article, I will discuss the trajectory of how the musical themes in the series developed, discuss different thematic approaches to some of the main characters, and share an interview I did with composer John Ottman about his work on three of the films.
The legacy of the X-Men films to date is varied; X-Men in 2000 was one of the major breakthroughs in showing film studios that audiences were ready for comic book movies. Over nearly two decades, Fox delivered three fan-loved and critically acclaimed films: X2, First Class, and Days of Future Past. However, as a whole, the franchise suffered from missteps in storyline and continuity that made even some of the better films confusing. Similarly, the franchise received a varied treatment in the use of musical score and themes for the characters. The series got off on the wrong foot back in 2000 when Michael Kamen was brought in since Singer’s usual suspect composer (pun very much intended), John Ottman, was unavailable. Ottman came back for X2 and ignored Kamen’s themes, but also produced one of the better scores of the franchise that coincided with one of the better films.
X-Men 3: The Last Stand derailed the franchise in a variety of ways. Singer had set up the Dark Phoenix story at the end of X2, leaving Jean Grey beneath the lake, but plans for him to end the trilogy went off course after Singer left to direct Superman Returns (and Ottman with him). Matthew Vaughn was brought on to replace him but left due to disagreements (he would later come back and attempt to reboot with First Class), and Brett Ratner took over. The Phoenix plot was muddled with the “cure” plotline from Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men comic run and a whole slew of other poor decisions left fans confounded and basically ended any interest in the franchise. With Ottman no longer involved, John Powell was brought in, the third composer in three films. It is unfortunate that Last Stand was such a mess and so disliked because Powell wrote a fantastic score, one that worked well as a superhero score as well as a complex and interesting listen on album. It remains one of my favorite scores of the genre.
With Last Stand effectively ending that iteration of the X-Men franchise, Matthew Vaughn developed First Class five years later in 2011, which was meant to be a reboot and new trilogy by Vaughn. Henry Jackman, who had worked on many of Vaughn’s other films, was
brought on for the score. Well received by both critics and fans, First Class brought the franchise to the 1960s and explored the friendship between Charles Xavier and Eric Lensherr and the beginning of their journeys to become Professor X and Magneto. The full trilogy never materialized, however. Following the film’s success, Bryan Singer, who had been a producer of First Class, retook the reigns and developed Days of Future Past, pulling the new cast into the 1970s and bringing in the original trilogy’s cast to represent the characters in the future, all linked by Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine. Based on one of the most popular comics, Days of Future Past is one of the better entries in the franchise and was an incredible use of both sets of actors. John Ottman, of course, returned alongside Singer, brought back his original X-Men themes and also wrote a new theme for Xavier. While I very much like this film, I do wonder what might have been had Vaughn been able to flesh out the First Class trilogy as originally planned.
With Singer at the helm of the franchise again, the team moved the series to the 1980s and developed the Apocalypse storyline. While the film reintroduced a younger Cyclops and Jean Grey and hinted at some of the fun team ups from the 80s and 90s comics and animated series, the film bogged down with attention to Apocalypse. This and a few other strange choices (like the unnecessary destruction of the X-mansion for the sole purpose of killing off Havok and giving Quicksilver another film-stealing scene), the film was not well received, although I have to admit I do still enjoy it. John Ottman again returned with Singer and produced my favorite of his three X-Men scores where he worked the main X-Men theme more into the score as well as developed a new Jean Grey theme that hinted at the rise of Phoenix. I will discuss this more below.
Somehow, yet again, despite a brilliant set up of the Phoenix storyline as he did with X2, Singer didn’t return to follow it through. Longtime screenwriter and producer of the series, Simon Kinberg, took over as director for Dark Phoenix. If you look through IMDb, you will note Kinberg also co-wrote Last Stand, the last time they tried the Phoenix storyline and you might wonder why he was given a second chance. The critically-panned and low box office performance of the film will only reiterate that question. With another decision from left field, Hans Zimmer was brought on as the composer. Firstly, I am a huge Zimmer fan, especially of some of his scores in the superhero genre, particularly The Dark Knight. However, I wasn’t sure how his darker, heavy-handed bass and sound design style would translate to the X-Men. As expected, his score is synth-driven and uses a two-note theme for the X-Men as opposed to the bold and heroic thematic style of Ottman and the other composers. The Dark Phoenix score is a mix of Zimmer’s old and new styles, fusing the style of Interstellar and Dunkirk with his action style from the 1990s like Broken Arrow and Crimson Tide, which is appropriate because of the time period of the film. Generally, the score works, but it provides a very different tone to the franchise.
What the X-Men films have provided is a multi-faceted set of films and scores that represent different filmmakers and composers approach to the mutant team up comics. The differences between John Ottman, John Powell, and Hans Zimmer’s scores, for example, are really interesting. Below I will discuss some of the major thematic works of the composers for the different characters as well as my interview with John Ottman on his thoughts about the franchise.
There have been many versions of an X-Men theme composed for the franchise, including three for the first trilogy, due to the use of three different composers. Kamen’s original theme for X-Men is a four-note motif that appears throughout the film in a few key places, such as “X-Jet” and the finale sequence in a heroic fanfare style, as one would expect from Kamen. This theme is reminiscent of the first part of the 1990s animated guitar theme for the X-Men and was most certainly based on it. In the “End Credits”, the theme is expanded to include a secondary descending motif. Overall, Kamen’s score is functional, provides a musical identity to the X-Men for their first time on the big screen, but isn’t very memorable as a prominent theme.
A true musical identity for the X-Men arrived with John Ottman for X2, which consists of three parts, all of which are recognizable both together and separate: a pounding introduction, a trilling brass fanfare, and a slower brass anthem, all introduced in “Opening Titles”. The fanfare part is the most recognizable, and Ottman even worked it into the Fox fanfare. He had this to say about it:
Ottman: With X2 I did a nod to my theme within the Fox fanfare. At the time, they freaked out and it got taken out. So, I made sure that when I was editing Days of the Future Past I put it on the logo from day one. I also pushed for us to keep the classic prologue and fanfare intro. The studio executives loved it, so it was secure and finally got to have its little moment within the fanfare. For me it was a satisfying overt message that the theme was back, and so was the franchise.
In X2, the X-Men exist as a team and the main theme is therefore critical to noting key moments of the X-Men team as a character. There are brief hints at the fanfare motif in “Storm’s Perfect Storm”, “Mansion Attack” and “Playing With Fire” as well as a subtle hint to it in the extended cue “I’m In”. Most of these are worked into the overall action scoring as brief statements in the score, for the fanfare, coming in as quick two-note statements. There is then, of course, the full statement of the theme with the finale “We’re Here to Stay” before moving into the End Titles suite. This suite has an awesome statement of the theme with the orchestra directly following the reworked main title.
With Ottman’s return for Days of Future Past and Apocalypse, these two films are vastly different than X2 in a variety of ways, especially in that they were made a decade apart and use a different cast, with the X2 cast as darker, older futuristic versions of their original characters, and Apocalypse having a 1980s feel. This provided Ottman with the opportunity to update his take on the X-men, return to some of his old themes, and also rework them in new ways:
Ottman: I’m a big believer in continuity within franchises; James Bond, Mission Impossible and Star Wars being good models. With X2, the franchise had found its footing, and I felt I had really defined that universe with my themes. So the intention, of course, was to continue with those into X-Men 3 and expand upon the seedlings I had planted. X3 also would have been a much different script from what was made. But then we ended up making Superman Returns, and the pastiche I created was abandoned. With the advent of Days of Future Past, Ian McAllen, Patrick Stewart and the gang were back, so it was like old times going back and resurrecting my main theme.
A good theme will be made timeless as long as the surrounding material is good. So even though there was an initial fear that DOFP might feel dated with a 10-year-old theme, it’s all about context. Having said that, because there was this paranoia, I incorporated some modern synthesizer elements within the theme. It also made sense because DOFP was decidedly a more modern and darker approach. Then with X-Men Apocalypse, this was flipped on its head, because this film really required a good old epic film score.
To be fair, Days of Future Past didn’t lend itself well to the X-Men fanfare because in neither time line were the X-Men really together. However, Ottman is able to hint at his theme in a few instances, with the build-up rhythm in “Costly Escape” and then a short version of the fanfare during the beautiful brass piece of “Join Me”.
Apocalypse is a different story. In many ways, this is the first X-Men film since the first two that has the X-Men exist as a team, and it lends itself more to the 1980s style of the X-Men and the more classic feel of the franchise. The film is full of new thematic material, primarily for Apocalypse, but works in the main X-Men theme in a greater capacity than any previous film. After the collapse of the pyramid segues into the main titles, the theme is first brought into the beginning of “New Pyramid” with the French horn, and then again as a very slowed down version of the fanfare in “The Magneto Effect” as the team comes together to fight the Four Horsemen (see 03:15). The major use is during the finale sequence against Apocalypse when the team comes together and when Jean accesses the Phoenix force. In “Great Hero/You Betray Me”, the fanfare comes in as part of the action sequence. Finally, in the beautiful highlight cue “Like A Fire”, when Jean unleashes her power, we get a full orchestral statement of her new theme (to be discussed below) accented with statements of the X-Men theme. The film ends with a brief statement of the theme in “Rebuilding/Cuffed/Goodbye Old Friend” and then the awesome reveal of the classic costumes in the Danger Room in “You’re X-Men/End Titles”.
Ottman’s thematic work for the franchise is really excellent and it was fortunate that he was able to return to DOFP and Apocalypse after X2 to give new life to the themes. It is, again like with X3, unfortunate that he did not get to round out the development of these scores in the third films after such great setup.
A third main theme for the X-Men came with John Powell’s The Last Stand. This theme takes inspiration from Ottman’s with a similar orchestral bombast, a pounding rhythm with a fanfare over top. In this score, however, the theme is used frequently as the central heroic theme for much of the time the team is on screen. This style is introduced in “Bathroom/Titles” and then has similar heroic statements in later cues such as “Fight in the Woods” and “Attack on Alcatraz”. However, Powell also uses the theme in a slower style, first in “Examining Jean” and at the end in “The Last Stand”. Some critics reviews have suggested “The Funeral” has an additional theme, but it’s really a slowed down statement of the X-Men theme, here used for Xavier.
The last main theme for the X-Men films was by Henry Jackman for First Class. The foundation for this theme is a moving string line that in and of itself is a theme used frequently and has a few different iterations, even in the title cue “First Class”. The theme lacks the fanfare style of the original trilogy themes but does have a heroic melody nonetheless. The first cue that begins developing this theme is “Cerebro” where Xavier first tries out his brain power extension device built by Hank. Here the theme is brought in through multiple layers one at a time until it becomes the main theme as Cerebro turns on. At that point, fast percussion comes in behind the orchestra similar to Kamen’s theme. An electric guitar variation of the theme is used in “X-Training” and the theme returns frequently during the action sequences of the second half of the film. A slow variation in “X-Men” introduces the team as a team for the first time.
An additional X-Men theme actually exists, which was written by Tyler Bates for Deadpool 2. It has a similar melody to Powell’s main theme but more of a fanfare feel. It also has a parody feel to it, in its over-the-top sound, but that is obviously intentional. The theme is used a few times in the film, particularly in “X-Men Arrive”, “Docking” and “Courage Motherf*cker” and a slow statement in “Sorry For Your Loss”.
Hans Zimmer wrote a two-note main theme, or really a motif, for the X-Men in Dark Phoenix, which is quite opposite to the approach of the other composers as it is not a heroic anthem in any way. The theme is similar to his from Man of Steel. It is introduced in “Gap” with piano chords underlain by a higher pitch piano moving line. The theme expands in this track to receive its only full statement on the album and is performed with synthesized brass over pulsing electronics. Piano and percussion mix in for a brief moment when the score does take on a tone that could resemble a heroic anthem. For the remainder of the album, this theme comes in in its shorter two-note version as a motif that is used sporadically around the rest of the score. The end of “Intimate” has a faster-paced pulsing statement of the theme, for example. A better version of this theme can be found on the second album Zimmer released, Xperiments from Dark Phoenix, in the track “X-X”. What this theme does not do, however, is provide much of a musical identity for the X-Men the way John Ottman’s main theme did.
Kamen introduced Cerebro with a whirling motif mixed with light percussion and whispering voices, which can be heard in both “Jean Uses Cerebro” and “Cerebro”, and both also include some of the main theme. Ottman’s take on Cerebro is different. Rather than the racing-across-the-globe feel of Kamen’s cues, he takes a slower approach with solo violin and piano.
Cerebro takes the back seat for many of the other films, but is introduced in the prequel First Class. Second half of “Cerebro” from Jackman’s score returns to the whirling style and fast percussion of Kamen’s theme. However, Jackman also takes the opportunity to develop his main theme here, as it is one of the frameworks of the X-Men. This approach is much more like Kamen’s, and makes for one of the highlights of the First Class soundtrack, bringing together the wonder of Xavier first experiencing the expansion of his powers and also a momentous step in the development of the X-Men.
A theme for Charles Xavier is somewhat absent for the first trilogy as his moments are often overshadowed by Cerebro or the X-Men, mainly because these two themes integrate and refer Professor X. For Days of Future Past, however, Ottman wrote a new theme for Xavier, “Hope”, which is a unique sound for the X-Men franchise, reminiscent of Zimmer’s “Time” cue from Inception. The theme is used prominently in the film, making up a large part of the underscore for non-action moments, and is interestingly used in both future and past settings, particularly when the two Xaviers link in “Charles n Charles”
Initially, I thought it strange that for a character who became so central to the original trilogy, Wolverine received no musical identity. However, John Ottman corrected me during our interview.
Ottman: Wolverine actually had a brief motif in X2. When doing character themes, you’re really dependent on-screen time with the character, or scenes lending themselves to an actual theme moment. Wolverine’s theme plays during his discussion with Stryker in the augmentation room, as well as the end of his fight with Lady Deathstryke.
I would say that for screen time, Wolverine wins by far in these franchises. This is actually one of my main complaints with the films that Logan overshadows many of the other characters (Cyclops especially), and takes center stage in place of what should have been ‘team up’ movies. And yet, he has little thematic development, musically. I do actually like the Wolverine theme that Harry Gregson-Williams wrote for X-Men Origins: Wolverine quite a lot, but that is beyond the scope of this article.
Eric Lensherr/Magneto is one of the more interesting characters of the varied franchise, intensely portrayed by both Ian McKellan and Michael Fassbender, both of who help make Days of Future Past such an excellent film. Yet, like the rest of the series, the thematic portrayal of Magneto has varied. Despite the thematic depth of Powell’s The Last Stand, for example, there is no Magneto theme.
Kamen’s theme for Magneto is an ambient bass chord with pounding percussion, timpani, for example, in “Magneto Stand Off” and while this works with Magneto as the villain in the first film, it does not compliment the character’s complexity. That having been said, the approach generally works as all of Magneto’s scenes in X-Men are in sewers and dark rooms. It is the later films that explore the character in more depth where some of his thematic development occurs. For X2, Ottman wrote a descending motif for Magneto that appears briefly, but that he expands for the character’s larger roles in DOFP and Apocalypse.
Henry Jackman’s Eric Lensherr/Magneto theme from First Class is actually similar to Ottman’s short Wolverine theme, perhaps due to initial temping with it. Jackman’s take is harsh and militaristic and provides a well-developed and new identity for Magneto for his younger years. Ottman, however, did not continue this, he reverted his motif back to Wolverine for DOFP and brought back his Magneto theme:
Ottman: Even though my descending theme for Magneto had a brief iteration in X2, I continued it in DOFP and Apocalypse, even weaving it into his introspective music. Many might not have noticed, but I could go to bed knowing there was continuity for him among those films. So it was really strange for me on DOFP when people were referencing Magneto’s theme from First Class. For me, that was actually my theme for Wolverine from X2, so I put back Magneto’s motif the way I saw it and returned the theme to Wolverine very subtly in DOFP.
“Magneto’s Escape” is the highlight for the character from X2, and the theme also appears
in the original film End Credits, available on the expanded La La Land Records release. “Raising RFK/Magneto Descends” from DOFP is similar in the use of the theme against a large orchestra for the rise of the villain. For Apocalypse, Magneto’s arc is greater as he goes from a father and husband with a job as a metal worker back to Magneto. Ottman takes the theme and reworks it into a more versatile theme instead of the small motif it had been before. The thematic statements are more drawn out and quiet in “Eric’s New Life” and “Eric’s Rebirth” although the latter has a moment toward the end similar to his Escape sequence.
A barely used side-character in the first film, Jean does not get a musical treatment until X2. Ottman wrote a beautiful uplifting theme for Jean that is hinted at a few times – “Jean’s Hallucinations” and “Jean and Logan” – before getting full statements in “Goodbye” and the middle section of the End Credits suite. I’m sure Ottman would have flipped this on its head for the Phoenix story. He did, however, make good on the chance to return to his X2 themes at the end of DOFP with “Welcome Back” when Logan wakes up in the future after resetting the timeline. However, he wrote a brand new theme for Jean for Apocalypse.
Ottman: As a big believer in continuity, I really struggled to use my Jean Grey theme from X2 for the young Jean in Apocalypse. But it just didn’t work. I tried to make it young and innocent, but the structure of it just didn’t lend itself to her youth. So I had to go back to the drawing board, and instead wrote a new one that climaxed when she flares up. Obviously, I would have loved to further develop it to its final conclusion in Dark Phoenix. But once again, this three-film cycle ended up being incongruous, concluding with a different scoring approach. This was the prerogative of the filmmakers, as I wasn’t involved in the making of this one. It’s not unusual to change the musical style within a franchise; but like with Mission Impossible or James Bond, at least the theme stays intact to keep that world continuous. Hans did a nice catchy theme for Dark Phoenix that had a cool factor. But I’m a bit biased, given my history with the films, wishing the franchise had followed through with mine.
The theme for Jean in Apocalypse is introduced with quiet piano in “You Can See” as a four-note motif that is reminiscent of Morricone’s Ecstasy of Gold in melody. The theme is not developed extensively for the film, as Jean has a minor role, but Ottman does get to blow it up when, as he says above, Jean ‘flares up’ to destroy Apocalypse in “Like A Fire”. Despite The Last Stand doing the whole Phoenix story, this scene in Apocalypse was the first time we’ve actually seen a Phoenix-like moment in an X-Men film. Ottman’s scoring is beautiful, building the Jean theme as she comes into Xavier’s mind to pull him out and then walks out into the air to ignite and wipe out the villain. The sweeping strings performing the theme with an elegance beauty call to mind the beauty of fire in the immolation rather than the violence. It is also here, mixed in behind the Jean theme, that Ottman reprises the X-Men main theme. This is followed by a full choir statement of the Jean theme and more of the main theme in the brass. One of the best moments in the whole franchise, both cinematically and musically, makes me wish Ottman had been able to finish the Dark Phoenix storyline. The theme reprises quietly in “Rebuilding” and gets a full orchestral treatment in the “End Titles” followed by a more militaristic horn and choir statement mixed again with the main theme from X2.
While not necessarily a distinctly separate character, and therefore its thematic work is tied to Jean Grey’s, the Dark Phoenix force and storyline lends itself to a different approach to scoring. John Powell and Hans Zimmer’s takes on it were vastly different and yet have similarities. As mentioned above, Ottman twice was able to thematically build up to the Phoenix storyline and then had the films taken over. It would be amazing to hear what he would have done with either Jean Grey theme, but I was especially excited for the Apocalypse theme, which had moved more toward the Phoenix than the one from X2 had, strongly hinting at where he would have gone with it in the choir and the militaristic horn statements in the End Titles.
For X-Men 3: The Last Stand, John Powell came in for his first foray into the superhero and comic book film genre. His score is massive, performed with a large orchestra and choir and pulls out all the stops. As discussed above, he wrote a slew of new themes including an X-Men main theme, which he uses liberally, and one for Angel and the ‘cure’ subplot. Equally central to the score is his theme for Dark Phoenix, which is an unusual melody, consisting of multiple segments that are used in a variety of ways. The theme opens with a four note motif and is followed by a longer segment that contains an augmented second, which gives it a sound that is typically reserved for Arabic settings. The theme is introduced in “Whirlpool of Love” when Cyclops inadvertently wakes Jean from her psionic chrysalis in Alkali Lake. Immediately, the theme comes in strong with full orchestra and choir symbolizing Jean’s power.
The theme reprises in a few quiet iterations in cues like “Dark Phoenix” and “Jean and Logan” before Powell truly unleashes it in “Dark Phoenix’s Tragedy” when the team encounters Jean at her childhood home and she molecularizes Professor X. Pounding timpani and percussion run in a moving string line with the theme backed by bombastic low brass. The theme comes in with a strong full statement with chaotic brass and flute trills before a building three-note variation of the theme over pulsing trumpet. The cue cuts and changes to the fully choral “Farewell to X”. The theme is able to build in a similar manner a second time over, and this time doesn’t cut out, but comes to a massive and stunning finale. Coming in quietly at the end of “Battle for the Cure”, Powell starts the buildup again with bombastic low brass and full choir over trilling trumpets in “Phoenix Rises”. The difference here from the earlier big cue is the chanting apocalyptic choir. Powell varies the theme again over timpani and some interesting orchestral syncopation underneath. At the point where the score cut previously, Powell brings in a full, incredible statement of the theme in both orchestra and choir over trilling trumpet and pounding percussion before quieting to solo choir.
The Last Stand remains a favorite film score, but it was somewhat too much for the film. Powell’s thematic development makes it a very interesting listen, but a lot of the score was lost amidst the chaos of the film, which effectively killed the X-Men franchise until the soft reboot of First Class. Fast forward thirteen years and the same team decided to redo the Phoenix storyline in this year’s Dark Phoenix. The film is not as bad as critics and the box office failure suggest, and while it tells a slightly more comic-accurate version of the story, it still makes some of the same mistakes as Last Stand. One change is the sound of the film. Hans Zimmer’s score is about as opposite as one could get from Powell’s, and takes a very different approach from the largely orchestral scores of the rest of the franchise. However, it actually works quite well, providing a new sound for the X-Men and a distinct tone to the film.
Zimmer’s theme for Dark Phoenix is introduced in “Dark” with quiet female vocals. The theme can be heard in a larger version in “Deletion” with both vocals and horns. It is a strange motif consisting of a repeating high note then low note providing a sense of falling tonally. Another difference from this soundtrack to previous films is, in typical Zimmer fashion, they are single-word named album tracks that are more suites of music than single film cues, so it is hard to correlate album tracks to scenes from the film. However, the climax cue, “Insertion”, is when Jean is dismantling the train at the end. A bold statement of the Dark Phoenix theme in brass rises above chaotic synth elements, and during the film is clearly audible even over the noise of the action sequence. A second variation on the theme is later in the same track and choir is mixed in. The track closes with the theme performed by haunting solo female vocals as it was introduced in “Dark”.
The final entry in the FOX X-Men films leaves a lot to be desired by fans of the comics, especially the Dark Phoenix Saga. Spanning nearly two decades, the films laid some of the major groundwork for the current trend in superhero and comic book movies, but also suffered from certain poor decisions in producing the films. The music of these films also helped define what a superhero film score should sound like. While there has not been a consistent composer for these films, continuity and thematic development over them only occurred on a small scale with the three films that John Ottman scored, which strangely spanned the two sets of films, linked by Days of Future Past. With the X-Men now under Disney’s umbrella and back home with Marvel, expectations are high while us fans patiently wait for them to be integrated into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I trust that Marvel will do a better job. However, it remains to be seen how the musical development of the rebooted X-Men will be handed, as the MCU has had its own issues with composer continuity. Regardless, it will not be too long before the mutants return to the screen and a new era will begin for the X-Men.