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‘Captain Marvel’ Marks the Debut of the MCU’s First Female Composer

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By  · Published on June 15th, 2018

In bringing Pinar Toprak on board for such a vital tentpole film, Marvel is changing the landscape for women composers for the better.

With every new Captain Marvel announcement, the Marvel Cinematic Universe only seems to be upping the ante of our expectations in the best possible way. I still remember the sheer palpable joy that accompanied San Diego Comic-Con 2016 when Oscar-winning actress Brie Larson was officially cast as Carol Danvers. That was the first concrete development for the film, which will be the first solo outing for a female superhero in the MCU. As we continued to watch the Captain Marvel production closely, it thankfully keeps delivering.

Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck of Mississippi Grind and It’s Kind of a Funny Story fame were eventually chosen to helm Captain Marvel, putting at least one woman behind the camera of Carol’s crucial story. The film then went through a slew of scriptwriters on its journey from concept to screen, which included contributions from Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Nicole Perlman and Inside Out‘s Meg LeFauve. Marvel Studios has since brought in more women to pen Captain Marvel, adding Tomb Raider‘s Geneva Robertson-Dworet, and GLOW‘s Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch to the list of scriptwriters working alongside Boden and Fleck.

Captain Marvel has since made another breakthrough, this time in its music department. Variety has revealed that Pinar Toprak will be scoring Captain Marvel, making her the first woman to compose music for any MCU film to date. Prior to Captain Marvel, Toprak’s credits already demonstrate a burgeoning career. She has been regularly composing since 2003, and has received two International Film Music Critics Association Awards for her work, namely the romantic comedy The Lightkeepers and the documentary The Wind Gods. In the last year or so, Toprak contributed to the popular video game Fortnite provided additional music to Zack Snyder’s Justice League, and currently writes the music for Syfy’s serial Superman prequel, Krypton.

Toprak’s involvement in Captain Marvel is nothing short of stellar, especially when it comes to putting women composers in general on the map. It’s no secret that when it comes to films that earn top dollar, women tend to be sorely underrepresented. However to make matters worse, things are particularly dire in the music department. San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film revealed in their annual Celluloid Ceiling report that a mere 3% of composers who worked on the top-grossing films of 2017 were women, and this shameful figure was but a replication of their results from 2016.

This measly 3% is obviously not at all indicative of the actual talent and the sheer number of women composers who are out there struggling to make their talents known. Notably, filmmaker Sara Nesson highlighted some of these fantastic women in her documentary Women Who Score (which is available to watch in full below). The short film centers on a concert sponsored by the Alliance for Women Film Composers, which was co-founded by Emmy-nominated and winning composers Laura Karpman (Paris Can Wait), Miriam Cutler (The Hunting Ground), and Lolita Ritmanis (Batman: The Killing Joke). The aim of the showcase was to promote the talents of just 20 composers, allowing them to perform their scores with a live orchestra.

Women Who Score may be only 12 minutes long, but through interview segments and snapshots of the frantic two-day rehearsal period leading up to the final concert, Nesson captures the very essence of the dilemma faced by women composers. The documentary puts names and faces to the scores we may have heard and appreciated in movies or on TV in the past, yet the statistical reality of success for female composers desperately prove that more representative hiring practices are in order in the long run.

As AWFC treasurer and fellow composer Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum (Stockholm, Pennsylvania) succinctly puts it in the documentary:

“We do not want to have the Alliance of Women Film Composers in five years. We want it to go away. But right now, we need it.”

Women Who Score posits that “women are not known for their scores, but they are winning awards.” For the most part, this is true, as there is but a smattering of them who have managed to break through with well-known, acclaimed, or financially profitable films. Women like Rachel Portman (Chocolat), Debbie Wiseman (Wilde), Wendy Carlos (A Clockwork Orange), and more have risen above the male-dominated masses and made names for themselves. But there simply ought to be more. Especially since only six women, including Portman, have been Oscar-nominated for their scoring work.

This is what makes Toprak’s blockbuster film debut so exhilarating. To get an opportunity to compose for any tentpole film would be cause for celebration given her promising career. However, the MCU’s reputation for delivering top-quality and extremely profitable entertainment cannot be overstated (their latest, Avengers: Infinity War, just passed $2 billion at the global box office). These days, if you want exposure, Marvel is one of the best ways to get it.

In terms of determining whether or not Toprak would be a good fit for a Marvel movie, fans need not worry either. From what is known about Captain Marvel so far — particularly of its status as a period film in the MCU timeline — Toprak’s style definitely works. The lilting, longing nature of her best scores recalls an air of nostalgia; it feels like the ideal counterpart to Alan Silvestri’s score for Captain America: The First Avenger. For some evidence, take a listen to her moving compositions in The Wind Gods below.

Toprak joining the Marvel family marks something momentous for women composers as a whole. For a small composer getting her big break, this could be the start of an illustrious career. Yet for the landscape at large, Toprak’s hiring should be treated as the mere tip of the iceberg, with many more monumental announcements like it to come.

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Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)