The Marvel Cinematic Universe's interconnectivity is what makes it the most unique franchise in Hollywood history.
The ever-expansive saga utilizes far more than just cross-over characters to establish a sense of familiarity in all of its projects. Films like Captain Marvel and Black Widow omit other Avengers from their solo stories, but both close with chords from Alan Silvestri's recognizable theme for Earth's Mightiest Heroes.
As the MCU takes its first crack at a new medium, establishing familiarity is crucial to retaining the franchise's interconnectivity. Marvel Studios' first animated adventure, What If...?, brings back fan-favorite heroes in cartoon form, but doubles down on the MCU vibes with its score.
What If...? Composer Draws Inspiration from MCU's Past
What If...? has riddled the vast unknown with a familiar soundtrack.
Speaking in an exclusive interview with The Direct, What If...? composer Laura Karpman noted there were numerous scores from MCU past she was eager to get her hands on.
"We knew we wanted to use the Guardians of the Galaxy theme. We knew we wanted to use Captain America's theme. My very first session with them, I said, 'Let's do something with it; let's turn it upside down. Let's turn it backwards.' For example, with Doctor Strange, it's very different. It focuses on something so different from the movie did. It's about doing something new, but grabbing the harpsichord. That's all we really needed to do was touch on that beautiful music choice by Michael Giacchino and play with that."
Despite using their themes, Karpman "didn't talk" to previous MCU composers directly, but rather spoke to them "through their music."
"I didn't talk to them. I know [Black Panther composer] Ludwig [Göransson] very well, he's a friend. He's been to the house. I talked to them through their music, which was really fun and really interesting to break it down and see what makes those scores tick. Having access to materials that really helped figure that out. For Black Panther, it was really fun to play with stems with the 808 sounds or with the great flutes or the yells and combine them with orchestral music that's new, or that comes from the Guardians of the Galaxy stuff. It's like being a mash-up artist but having to do it with a symphony orchestra."
With an anthology series that includes nearly every MCU character, Karpman turned to the franchise's crown jewel, Avengers: Endgame, for inspiration.
"We talked a lot about Avengers: Endgame too and how Alan [Silvestri] used his own themes in the themes of others, and how you touch on them but then move on. I think that also set a boilerplate for how we would do this. Touch on it, then go on."
This foundation allowed for What If...?'s stories to be recognizable yet unique, which Karpman notes factored into the show's music as well.
"It plays with the MCU, but it's its own thing too. I think that's what I loved. It's like a push-pull. You feel like you've got the grounding of the MCU, but then you take off to these really wild and interesting places. Musically, I think that's the case too."
Karpman has her fingerprints on much of the nine-episode soundtrack, but she points to the pilot for her proudest work.
"Peggy becoming Captain America, or Captain Carter, that's an obvious one. Seeing that kind of female empowerment was something that I really loved. Honestly, when I sat with the writers and heard the directions they were going, a lot of it had to do with female empowerment, and that was super exciting. I love that aspect of the show."
Bringing Iconic MCU Themes to Animation
What If...? represents the MCU's first of many planned adventures into animation. With a number of future cartoon shows in the works, Karpman was tasked with the tall order of setting the tone for animated Marvel Studios scores while also retaining the familiarity of the MCU's 13 years of projects.
Tony Stark once advised Peter Parker to not do anything he would or wouldn't do, noting the teenage Avenger has "a little gray area" where he should operate. Karpman looks to be operating under the same guidelines but understands how to ride the fine line much better than the MCU's Spider-Man.
Karpman approached composing What If...? exactly how a new composer to an established franchise should. Her emphasis on turning scores of old "upside-down" and making sure to "touch on" the familiar beats but "move on" shortly after is what gives What If...? its own identity. Like all MCU projects, it's clearly part of the fan-favorite franchise, but its unique sounds allow it to stand on its own.
New episodes of What If...? drop every Wednesday, streaming exclusively on Disney+.