For eleven years we have been bedazzled by the largest shared film franchise ever created, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Now approaching the final stages of its Phase Three development, Captain Marvel arrives as the penultimate film, with the resolution of the infinity war crisis close on its heals. Helmed by directing duo Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, this latest comic book picture was released on International Women's Day, featuring a newly revealed Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) as a crucial player in the approaching Avengers: Endgame, and also featuring the first-ever MCU score written by a woman. Not only is this the first MCU score composed by a woman, but it is the biggest profile picture scored by a woman. Ever. The composer in question is accomplished 38-year-old Pinar Toprak, who arrived a little late to the scene and made her entry with a bang. Toprak was raised in Turkey, studying classical guitar and moving to America at the age of 17 to pursue her career aspirations. She went on to study jazz at Chicago and complete a composition degree at Berklee. Following her studies the composer joined Hans Zimmer's studio, winning two IFMCA awards for The Lightkeepers (2009) and The Wind Gods (2013) shortly thereafter. She has since come to be known for scoring the science-fiction series Krypton and the popular online video game Fortnite, with an additional music credit for the 2017 Justice League. A self-professed comic book lover, the theme for Captain Marvel was a big concern for Toprak, as it would be for anyone faced with composing such a monumental superhero score. Traditionally, most hero themes have begun with open fourths and fifths, a precedent set in film scores by John Williams and based in a much older tradition, reaching as far back as hunter-gatherer societies wherein the hunter would blow a horn to communicate the location of prey. To quote Toprak, “My theme opens with a minor seventh... because higher, further, faster is Captain Marvel, right?” Indeed, the minor seventh interval pushes the limits in more ways than one. The theme enters with triplet ostinato rhythms and trading arpeggiations, joined by the horn melody on the third bar. The minor seventh that opens the melody is generally considered to be one of the most dissonant melodic intervals in Western Classical music, and yet its application here feels almost natural. Through continued repetition and isolation within the score the minor seventh does not merely cease to feel moody within major tonalities but changes the prevailing attitude of the interval from that of tragedy toward that of renewed strength. It is worth noting too that the raised sixth pitting the theme in the dorian mode acts as a graceful resolution to the feeling of suspension instilled by the minor seventh. Toprak's idea for the theme was thought up while humming one day a short while after getting the gig, and is said to still be on the recording device she had with her. Though likely this was not intended to be subversive in any way, one cannot help but appreciate the use of horn on the melody here. Of the 90-piece orchestra and full compliment of instruments Toprak had to pick from in Abbey Road Studios, she chose the horn. Why might that matter? Because this is possibly the first time in history a horn has been used to represent a female protagonist. Traditional feminine instruments have been strings and woodwinds, whereas brass and percussion have long been seen as the masculine instrument families, so to hear this simple association within the film is itself another small victory.
Hybrid orchestral and electronic music takes shape with colourful analog synthesizers throughout much of the rest of the score, continuing in the retro vein Mark Mothersbaugh introduced to the MCU with Thor: Ragnarok. The '90s synth is used ironically as a futuristic device, appearing when space travel and signs of intergalactic life are present in the film. In addition there are two thematic devices used. The first is the Starforce motif, heard a fair bit toward the beginning when Danvers trains and operates with the Starforce team ("Let's Bring Him Home"), and the second being that of the Skrulls ("Breaking Free"). The Skrull theme is particularly effective as a red herring, reappearing with alleviated dissonance as our perception of the Skrulls develops ("High Score").
The excerpt of the Skrull theme above displays the principle figure in the top bass clef, with harmonization per the "captain Marvel" cue to follow, and the brackets and arrow provided demonstrate where the melody changes voices, in this instance achieving a brief Klangfarbenmelodie.
Performances by soprano Tori Letzler can be heard in a few instances when Danvers attempts to recall her past life, emulating her hazy thoughts and feelings ("Waking Up" and "Photos of Us"), and a bluesy, electric guitar is frequently used for Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). The electric guitar is joined by bongos and a furious drum kit, reinforcing the feeling of a '90s era film and in this case drawing attention to the cop-action genre films so popular to the decade ("Hot Pursuit"). The cue "Lifting Fingerprints" gets really old school, using electric bass, clandestine woodwind shots, purring flute trills, and harp as Fury engages with his creative spy techniques, with romping bassoon and cymbal brush from "Escaping the Basement" concluding the scene. The two most satisfying cues bringing the score home are by and large "I'm All Fired Up" and "More Problems". The climactic sequence begins with "Trapped", wherein low, electronic swells, glistening synths, and searching glockenspiels await the judgement of the Supreme Intelligence, followed immediately by "I'm All Fired Up". This powerful cue takes advantage of a slow build, using running string ostinatos, heavy brass triads, and added layers of rhythm and instrumentation to give one a sense as to the extent of Danvers' full power prior to her escape. "More Problems" is easily the best action cue offered by an MCU film so far, and it is the perfect accompaniment for the personal and cosmic battles endured at the end of the film. Toprak employed quick shifts in texture and instrumentation to ride the flow of the sequence, remaining responsive to the constant onslaught of battle as well as the brief respites, all the while growing more exhilarating. Percussive battery, brass clusters and fanfares, and inexhaustive strings make up the bulk of its substance, with the minor seventh creeping in halfway through the cue as Danvers gains the advantage. The telltale synthesizer roll enters a couple of minutes later during her confrontation with Ronan the Accuser, concluding with a beautiful statement of the main theme. Captain Marvel sits comfortably as one of the most accomplished MCU scores to date. The music has warmth, sensitivity, perception, heroism, and everything you could ask of a composer, offering indefatigable proof (not that we should need any) that Toprak, and the many women beside her in film composition, are more than capable of holding their own in what has long been a boys club. So here is to the many scores big and small to come from women composers. May they be as marvellous. #PinarToprak #MarvelCinematicUniverse