Captain Marvel's Composer Explains How To Create An Iconic Superhero Theme

Composer Pinar Toprak attends the Los Angeles World Premiere of Marvel Studios' Captain Marvel at the Dolby Theatre on March 4, 2019 in Hollywood. (Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney)

Captain Marvel is the 21st — yes, twenty-first — chapter in the neverending Marvel movie universe. (We don't believe you, Avengers: Endgame.) It's also the first Marvel flick with a female lead, a female (co-)director, and a female composer.

"A lot of things, unfortunately, are thought to be male-themed, right?" Pinar Toprak said this time last year, while working on the score for the comic book series Krypton on cable channel SyFy. "So this is nothing different, and we can talk philosophically about why that is. The world doesn't change by thinking the same things, by the limitations. The world changes by thinking, OK, it's been like this for a while, but there's no reason why it needs to keep being like this. And music, and art in general — it's genderless. Because emotions are genderless."

BREAKING THE MUSICAL GLASS CEILING

Captain Marvel isn't just the first Marvel film scored by a woman, it's one of the highest-profile blockbuster assignments a woman has landed in a field that's long been dominated by (white) men.

"I'm a big Marvel fan," Toprak said. "I'm a big fan of the whole superhero genre in general, but Captain Marvel means something — something more. I wanted to be a part of that legacy, if I could. I remember getting the call from Laura Engel, who's one of my agents, and she's like: 'We might be able to get you an opportunity to demo.' And for me, even just that was the accomplishment, right there — because I didn't even actually think I was going to get it."

When a composer gets the chance to write a demo — essentially, auditioning to score a movie — they normally just create the music inside their computer.

"I had the option to just either do it in the box, with all MIDI mockups, or... not," Toprak laughed. "I went with 'not,' and I went and hired a 70-piece orchestra."

She paid for that orchestra — not cheap — out of her own pocket, and recorded her initial instinct of a main theme for Captain Marvel.

"And it miraculously worked," she said.

CREATING A THEME THAT'S UNFORGETTABLE

Toprak grew up in Istanbul, Turkey. She wanted to be a film composer since she was a little girl, and came to the U.S. in the late '90s to study jazz and composition. She apprenticed with composers Hans Zimmer and William Ross, and over the past decade she's mostly scored indie films and TV movies. But she's recently started to blow up — writing additional music for Justice League alongside Danny Elfman, scoring the massively successful online game Fortnite — and now, Captain Marvel.

"[Captain Marvel's] incredibly powerful, yet she's got this really human, vulnerable side to it, that doesn't take away from the strength," Toprak said, describing her take on the character. "And once I found out it's the '90s, too, it's like... it's a gift [laughs]."

"Once I actually saw the film," Toprak said, "I really felt like what I did at first wasn't unique enough. And I wanted to write a theme that was really her. Now that I got to know her a little better, I felt like, OK, I could do something better. And hopefully something that's more singable and memorable. It's the human side — it's the heart, I think. I wanted to make sure I captured the heart somehow."

The pressure started to get to Toprak.

"People were like, 'Oh, we can't wait to hear Captain Marvel theme! We wonder what's it going to be like,'" Toprak said. "So I'm psyching myself out a little bit in the studio, playing a whole bunch of things, and I wasn't happy with any of it. And I'm panicking. 'I'm never going to write a note again!' You know, very typical writer thing to say. So I put my shoes on, I took a walk around my neighborhood. I knew how I wanted to start the theme. I knew the first two notes."

Many of the most famous superhero themes — think John Williams' Superman — open with a regal fifth interval.

Toprak wanted to set hers apart, and write a theme that would be instantly recognizable just from those first two notes. She chose the aspirational, sky-reaching feeling of a minor seventh.

"So I just started humming those two notes, and trying a few things," she said. "People must have thought I was crazy, because I was literally walking and humming to myself. And I came up with something that I... didn't hate too much [laughs]. I called someone who's on my team, and also a dear friend of mine — I was like, 'What do you think about this theme?' He was like, 'Pinar, hang up the phone right now and record it on your Voice Memo.' So that's what I did. And, believe it or not, that is the Captain Marvel theme now."

After capturing Captain Marvel with a melody, "we wanted to make sure we find the right themes for the Kree and Skrulls as well," she said. "And we wanted to create different worlds, distinctive worlds, for both Hala" — the planet where Vers/Carol (Brie Larson) starts out — "and Earth. The cosmic scenes are a lot more analogue synthy. And then as we come to Earth, there are times it's quite Lethal Weapon-like with the action scenes. Some of the writing that I really love in the '90s, especially the action bits, it's very dynamic and very notey, if that's a word. The current action writing style is a bit more repetitive. But '90s action, it changed all the time, and was really dynamic, and a lot of layers going, and really intriguing and fun. And it takes a long time to write."

Captain Marvel came out this past weekend — it's Toprak's 20th feature film and biggest gig yet. This past week also marked the release of the soundtrack album for her Krypton score. But the date has another, deeper significance to her.

"My father passed away 10 years ago," she said. "He supported me in ways that I couldn't have ever imagined a father could. We're not talking about financial support, because there wasn't a whole lot of that. But in terms of a father believing in his daughter, at such a young age — it was mid-'90s in Turkey, and when I told my dad 'I'm going to move to Hollywood and score Hollywood films,' he didn't think I was crazy. He actually thought that it was possible. And that made everything possible after that, that belief."

A version of this story also ran on KPCC's The Frame — you can listen here.