A version of this story about Laura Karpman and “Ms. Marvel” first appeared in the Down to the Wire: Drama and Limited Series issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
The lead character in “Ms. Marvel” is Kamala Khan, a 16-year-old Pakistani-American girl from New Jersey who happens to be a huge fan of the Avengers and who develops special powers and becomes a superhero herself. Obviously, that gave composer Laura Karpman a lot to think about when she wrote her Emmy-nominated score (and theme music) for the series, which stars Iman Vellani as the title character.
“We wanted it to have a young, hip sound at times,” said Karpman, a Juilliard-trained composer whose other work includes the movies “Paris Can Wait” and “Resort to Love” and the TV series “Lovecraft Country” and “Why We Hate,” for which she won an Emmy in 2020. “We wanted it to have a recognizable kind of Marvel sound. And I also wanted to do collaborations with South Asian musicians, because a lot of the episodes are about her heritage and background, so it was key that we bring the authenticity of those rich musical traditions.”
But how do you fit all of that into one score? It started with “‘Ms. Marvel’ Suite,” a 4.5 minute composition that served, she said, as “proof of concept” for her approach to the music.
“It starts out very traditional, almost like ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’ by Aaron Copland,” she said. “And then it immediately changes and hip-hop beats start coming that I had programmed by a fantastic DJ, DJ Dummy. And then Raaginder, who is an incredible Pakistani musician, starts playing on the violin.
“So you hear the first two bars, then you go into something else right away, then you break out of that and go into something more mysterious, then you do something more actiony,” she continued. “Because her energy is so fast-paced, there’s a stylistic change every two to four bars. And honestly, that’s one reason I was brought in, because I’m stylistically aerobic. I know how to do stuff like that. It’s not easy, but I can do it.”
Karpman had worked with South Asian musicians in the past, and found that musical landscape to be vast. “It’s such a rich tradition that talking about South Asian music is like talking about Western music,” she said. “It’s such a massive musical tradition that I have only scraped the surface of what people spend lifetimes studying. It’s deep, it’s big and it can do anything you want it to do. You just have to have the right collaborators, which I did, to lead the way with authenticity.”
At the same time, though, she had strong ideas about why the music should remain at least partly grounded in the sound of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. “When you bring these fantastic different voices into the MCU, you want to think about how much you bring them into the MCU and how much the MCU goes to meet them,” she said. “There’s something about a superhero theme that’s very embracing and very inviting and that is understood as a trope of cinematic music. So I personally feel that it’s important to not other somebody by having a different kind of theme.
“I think it’s good to bring them into the MCU and make them a part of the Avengers, a part of the world of Captain Marvel or the Guardians of the Galaxy. Bring them in and embrace them, and then work with how you create the differences and the individuation.”
Asked whether it was key to have a female composer write the music for a female superhero, Karpman paused. “It’s a complicated question,” she said. “Because then you have to ask yourself the question, Does it need to be a South Asian woman? It goes deep. Does ‘Lovecraft Country’ (on which she collaborated with Raphael Saadiq) need to be a Black composer? I don’t think anything has to be anything, but I think different people bring different perspectives to different projects. And having a diversity of perspectives on any project is hugely important. That’s the beauty of collaboration.
“I think as a queer woman working in Hollywood, I understand what it is to be an outsider. I understand what it is to be othered. I understand what it is to not have opportunities. So this was an incredible opportunity for 50 reasons.”
She laughed. “That’s the beginning of a really long and important conversation that we need to keep having about who should be telling whose stories and why.”