Home > Reviews > CAPTAIN MARVEL – Pinar Toprak


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Captain Marvel is being touted as a game-changing film in a number of important ways. As the 21st official entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe series of films that began with Iron Man in 2008, it’s the first to be led by a female protagonist, and the first to have a female director, with Anna Boden co-directing alongside Ryan Fleck. In an era where the promotion of woman-centric films and female filmmakers has been such a major issue in Hollywood this is encouraging, but it’s also sobering that this is such news, by way of the fact that this hasn’t been done before. Assuming that Captain Marvel is the gigantic box office hit that many expect it to be, going forward one would hope that male and female filmmakers are given the same opportunities to succeed as each other, in an environment where talent and creativity are more important than gender, and where female protagonists in films are just part of the norm and not rare events that need to be singled out for special praise.

The film is set chronologically between Captain America and Iron Man and stars Brie Larson as Vers, a member of an intergalactic star force from the Kree Empire, who have been engaged in a centuries-long conflict against the Skrulls, a race of alien shape-shifters. During one skirmish between the Kree and the Skrulls, events eventually lead to Vers crash-landing her vehicle on Earth – specifically Los Angeles in the 1990s – where she is intercepted by Nick Fury and Phil Coulson, agents of the newly-formed S.H.I.E.L.D. organization. Naturally, both the Kree and the Skrulls follow Vers to Earth, and more violence ensues – but not everything is as it seems, as Vers discovers things about her own past, and her relationships with both the Kree and the Skrulls, that cause her to question her very identity. The film co-stars Samuel L. Jackson and Clark Gregg as Fury and Coulson, alongside Jude Law, Ben Mendelsohn, Djimon Hounsou, Lee Pace, Lashana Lynch, Gemma Chan, and Annette Bening.

The final piece of the Captain Marvel puzzle is its score, which appears poised to be yet another game-changing element in the ‘women in Hollywood’ conversation. Much has been made lately of the fact that, although two women did win Oscars in the 1990s (Rachel Portman and Anne Dudley), the number of female composers working in film music is significantly low compared to other disciplines within the film industry. Prior to the release of this film, only one film in the list of the Top 500 Highest Grossing Films of All Time was scored by a woman as lead composer – Rachel Portman’s The Vow in 2012 – while the number of $100 million grossing films scored by women can probably be counted on one hand. In 2018, less than a dozen major films were scored by female composers. In recent years this imbalance has begun to be seriously addressed, with the creation of the Alliance for Women Film Composers, and the leadership of people like Laura Karpman and Lolita Ritmanis, and it could be that the score for Captain Marvel represents the first major step forward stemming from their efforts.

The score for Captain Marvel is by Pinar Toprak, who by scoring this film becomes the first woman to be the lead composer of a major studio action film since Shirley Walker scored Memoirs of an Invisible Man in 1992. For those who don’t know, Toprak was born in Istanbul, Turkey, and moved to the United States in the late 1990s to study music at Berklee in Boston. Film music was always her career goal, and she cut her teeth working for Hans Zimmer at Media Ventures as an assistant on a number of his most prominent films during that period, before setting out on her own. For many years she toiled away, writing great music for a series of awful movies, many of them Syfy Channel monster flicks. However, she began to receive some attention towards the end of the decade when she won back-to-back IFMCA Awards from the International Film Music Critics Association, for the gentle comedy-drama The Lightkeepers in 2010, and for the yachting documentary The Wind Gods in 2011. She contributed additional music for the DC super hero film Justice League in 2017, wrote music for the world-wide video gaming phenomenon Fortnite, scored the groundbreaking TV series Krypton in 2018, and won a third IFMCA Award for another yacht racing documentary, Tides of Fate, just a month or so ago – but is now poised to make her big league breakthrough with Captain Marvel, which she was hired for after a lengthy audition process involving hundreds of other composers. Toprak wrote a lengthy demo piece, and personally hired a full orchestra to record it, which impressed the directors and producers immensely.

All this is certainly important, and constitutes a groundbreaking moment for women in film music, but it would all be for nothing if the music itself wasn’t very good. Thankfully, it is; Toprak’s score stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the best music written for the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date. It’s a blockbuster epic which combines some truly outstanding and densely complicated action music with a hefty dose of 1990s nostalgia, and a bold and memorable main theme. That main theme is first introduced in the opening cue, “Captain Marvel,” and is an 8-note flourish for resounding brass that acts as a fanfare herald for the heroic actions of the character. It re-occurs frequently throughout the score – more on that later – but one of the things I appreciate most about it is how Toprak is able to change its appearance and texture, using different orchestrations and even vocals to alter its mood.

The dreamy and wistful version of the main theme in “Waking Up” features a lovely vocal performance by Tori Letzler; the slower and more tonally conventional statements for strings and woodwinds in “Learning the Truth” and “This Isn’t Goodbye” are lovely; and there are especially notable heroic explosions of thematic grandeur in cues like “Breaking Free,” “Hot Pursuit,” “Escaping the Basement,” the noble and patriotic “New Clothes,” and many others. Not only that, Toprak also deconstructs the main theme into a smaller 2-note motif which she uses as a jumping off point for many of the score’s kinetic action sequences (1:01 and 2:30 in “Escaping the Basement,” for example).

The orchestrations throughout the score are uniformly excellent, making wide and varied use of the large ensemble. A lot of scores use large orchestras, but far too often the composers don’t seem to bother doing anything fun or interesting with them; this is absolutely not the case here. The different performance techniques Toprak uses are excellent, and there are numerous times where she introduces an unexpected sound or combination of instruments, for no other reason than it’s a cool thing to do. The depth of the brass section especially is superb, and several of the action cues feature pianos doubling the basses deep down in the mix, adding a different aural texture to tracks like “Finding the Records” and “Escaping the Basement”.

The increased use of fluttering and trilling woodwinds in some of the score’s more low-key mid-album cues, like “Lifting Fingerprints” and the aforementioned “Finding the Records,” gives them a jazzy, caper-like, almost Mission Impossible vibe. Toprak even engages in some more abrasive moments of dissonance, such as the strings in “Space Turbulence” that give the cue a sense of dread-filled anticipation.

The electronic sound design, which Toprak worked on with Letzler and her husband Steven Davis, is interesting. Many of the score’s early cues for scenes set on the Kree planet Hala use them frequently, especially pieces like “Boarding the Train” and “Why Do You Fight,” but the electronic sound palette is richer and more varied than one might expect, and reminds me of the work Daft Punk did on Tron Legacy. I don’t have the technical expertise to describe the actual synth elements or keyboard sounds, but in emotional terms they sound appropriately alien and other-worldly, but then also have a familiar quality that speaks to a lot of the film music conventions of the late 1980s and early 1990s – this is the sort of zeitgeist that Mark Mothersbaugh also tapped into for Thor Ragnarok. As the score progresses, the bubbling electronic textures work their way into many of the action cues too, allowing the musical traditions of both Hala and Earth to collide.

A few moments of emotional introspection occur in “Learning the Truth and “High Score,” during which Toprak breaks out her full string section and produces some extended passages of genuine warmth and tenderness. The subtle interpolation of more of Tori Letzler’s vocal tones, gentle harp glissandi, and soft pianos in the latter cue make it a score highlight.

And then there is the abundant action music, which is just excellent. There’s so much going on in them, with different instruments playing off each other in intelligent ways, percussion writing that combines with relentless string ostinatos and punchy brass pulses, and rhythmic ideas which constantly change tempo so that they don’t stagnate. These pieces are teeming with highlights: the opening moments of “Entering Enemy Territory,” which remind me of Danny Elfman’s Spider-Man; the mindboggling sequence of flutter-tongued brass 3:06 into “Breaking Free,” and so much more. Several of the action cues for the scenes set in Los Angeles after Vers crash lands through the roof of a Blockbuster video also feature a set of Michael Kamen-style electric guitar licks that act as a leitmotif for Nick Fury and Agent Coulson; as such, cues like “Hot Pursuit,” “Lost the Target,” and “Escaping the Basement” offer a wonderful piece of throwback nostalgia to Riggs & Murtaugh from the Lethal Weapon movies, alongside all of Toprak’s dense and complicated action rhythms.

Perhaps the score’s only drawback is the lack of clear and recognizable thematic elements for the majority of the film’s secondary characters and concepts. They probably do exist – I’m thinking about two possible thematic ideas that crop up in “Learning the Truth” and “Interrupting Something?” – but even after listening to the score half a dozen times and seeing the film I found myself unable to categorically identify any recurring ideas related to Yon-Rogg, Talos and the Skrulls, or the Supreme Intelligence. While this is a touch disappointing, it’s a minor flaw in what is otherwise an outstanding work.

The conclusive sequence from “Interrupting Something?” through to the end of “More Problems” represents the score’s high point in terms of high octane action, and will likely be its most popular passage. Here, Toprak combines both Captain Marvel’s theme and the electronic sound design elements with the entire orchestra in a sensational 16-minute period; the action material in “I’m All Fired Up” and “More Problems,” specifically, is just outstanding, and is probably the best music that Toprak has written in her career to date. The slow build-up of power and grandeur in “I’m All Fired Up,” especially when Toprak re-introduces the flutter-tongue brass idea after the 2 minute mark, is goose-bump inducing stuff, while the action in “More Problems” is relentless, heart-stopping, and at times truly epic. The explosion of orchestral carnage at 1:39 is just magnificent – listen to how each section of the orchestra is doing its own thing, rhythmically, but how it all fits together perfectly (also: tubular bells!) Listen at 3:06 to how the action motif keeps getting passed back and forth between the French horns and the trombones, keeping the motif fresh and alive, while the strings whirl and dance around it. It’s all just outstanding.

One final thing I want to touch on is that, despite the fact that she obviously had to tailor her music to that of the corporate Marvel sound, so much of Toprak’s personal voice is nevertheless clearly retained throughout the score. The multitudinous action writing has its genesis in The Wind Gods, especially the way she uses specific rhythmic ideas that move between the brass and the strings that I talk about above. The more emotional aspects of the score, especially the phrasing of the vocals, can be heard in things like the 2011 score The River Murders. A lot of the electronic sound design was prevalent in her score for Krypton, but can also trace its lineage all the way back to one of her first ever solo scores, Behind Enemy Lines II: Axis of Evil, from 2006. This is why, in many ways, Captain Marvel feels like the culmination of her career to date; everything that has always been great about her music is brought together in this one score, and she is using that as a launch point for her work going forward.

I don’t want to continue banging on about the groundbreaking nature of Captain Marvel, and how Pinar Toprak is shattering glass ceilings by being the first woman to score a film of this magnitude in almost 30 years, but it is something that cannot be overlooked, nor its importance overstated. It shouldn’t have been something that needed to be proved in the first place (because composers like the late great Shirley Walker, and Anne Dudley, and Debbie Wiseman, and Jane Antonia Cornish, and Deborah Lurie, and Penka Kouneva, and Lolita Ritmanis, should have already proved it), but with this score Toprak has shown beyond doubt that female film composers are just as capable of writing thrilling, compositionally excellent, emotionally captivating music for major studio tent-pole action films as anyone else. Hopefully, going forward, women will be considered for EVERY feature film on an equal footing with all their peers, and that composer assignments will be purely about talent instead of gender.

Buy the Captain Marvel soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Captain Marvel (2:15)
  • Waking Up (1:29)
  • Boarding the Train (1:30)
  • Why Do You Fight? (1:14)
  • Let’s Bring Him Home (1:39)
  • Entering Enemy Territory (3:33)
  • Breaking Free (5:24)
  • Hot Pursuit (4:35)
  • Lost the Target (2:10)
  • Lifting Fingerprints (1:32)
  • Finding the Records (5:20)
  • Escaping the Basement (4:23)
  • Photos of Us (1:56)
  • Learning the Truth (3:16)
  • New Clothes (1:04)
  • Space Turbulence (2:58)
  • High Score (2:35)
  • Interrupting Something? (1:30)
  • Trapped (3:20)
  • I’m All Fired Up (3:20)
  • More Problems (8:16)
  • You Could Use a Jump (1:45)
  • This Isn’t Goodbye (2:29)

Running Time: 67 minutes 36 seconds

Marvel Music/Hollywood Records (2019)

Music composed by Pinar Toprak. Conducted by John Ashton Thomas. Orchestrations by John Ashton Thomas, Tommy Lawrence, Geoff Lawson and Andrew Kinney. Special vocal performances by Tori Letzler. Recorded and mixed by Alan Meyerson. Edited by Steve Durkee. Album produced by Pinar Toprak.

  1. Kevin
    March 14, 2019 at 8:01 am

    “It shouldn’t have been something that needed to be proved in the first place…but with this score Toprak has shown beyond doubt that female film composers are just as capable of writing thrilling, compositionally excellent, emotionally captivating music for major studio tent-pole action films as anyone else.”

    Speaking for myself, I never needed proof of this. One of my favorite composers is Yoko Kanno, who wrote superb music for action anime such as Macross, Gundam, and Escaflowne.

  2. silenig
    March 15, 2019 at 3:45 pm

    Yeah, several female composers have always been among my favourites too. Other than those already mentioned: Eleni Karaindrou, well known (among other things) for her collaborations with the late director Theo Angelopoulos. Michiru Yamane,who defined the sound of the Castlevania series of video games. It’s not necessary for a film to feature a female main character or superhero for a female composer to provide the music.

  3. Jimmson
    April 20, 2019 at 3:02 am

    I came here to read a review on the music of Captain Marvel, I stopped reading after the 3rd paragraph where the writer was STILL going on about their political viewpoints and virtue signalling.

    • Jonathan Broxton
      April 20, 2019 at 7:28 am

      I guess context isnt a thing in your world.

  1. January 19, 2020 at 5:10 pm

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