Composers for Marvel’s TV Universe Strike a Different Chord

Traditionally, when comic-book super-heroes are adapted for the screen, they are accompanied by big orchestras playing heroic themes. Think John Williams’ “Superman” theme or Danny Elfman’s “Spider-Man” music.

For its TV series, however, Marvel has thrown out the old rulebook. Like the Marvel Universe itself, not every hero is alike; some of them don’t even wear colorful costumes. No fewer than 13 series based on Marvel Comics are either on the air now or will be by this time next year, and their scores are as diverse as the characters themselves.

“I love what Marvel has done,” says Dawn Soler, senior vice-president for music for ABC Studios, which oversees most of the Marvel series. “They are not locking into a ‘Marvel sound.’ Super-heroes are becoming a different thing than they were way back when. They are worlds apart. Every score is different.”

The approaches vary widely, from the psychedelic colors of “Legion” to the noirish jazz of “Jessica Jones”; from the gritty textures of “Daredevil” to the urban sounds of “Luke Cage”; from the classic orchestral heroics of “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” to the propulsive synths of “Iron Fist.”

Sean Callery, who composed the Emmy-winning theme for “Jessica Jones,” is now busy composing the music for “Inhumans,” the ABC series based on the super-powered race created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in their “Fantastic Four” comics of the ’60s. It’s such a big deal that it will debut as a movie on IMAX screens Sept. 1 before beginning its TV run on Sept. 29.

Partly because of the IMAX showing, but also because “it takes place across two planetary bodies, and there are more than half a dozen characters with superhuman abilities,” says Callery, ABC approved a 68-piece orchestra for the nearly 70 minutes of music for the first two episodes. It’s the largest ensemble of musicians Callery has ever had in television.

“It’s a big production with a lot of characters, and a sense of adventure,” says Callery. “This is the most thematic I’ve been with any show I’ve worked on. At its core, it’s about a royal family, so there are some grand themes for the kingdom and the family.”

It all started four years ago, when “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” became the first Marvel movie/TV crossover, shifting agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) from the big-screen “The Avengers” into TV. Composer Bear McCreary has averaged 55 to 60 musicians for every episode and reached “into the upper 90s” for the most important ones.

“It was the first show from the new Marvel Studios brand,” notes composer Bear McCreary. “The cinematic outings all had a consistent orchestral sound. There was a sense that it had to connect; you were plugging into the broader cinematic universe through a television lens.”

As the seasons and stories have progressed, McCreary says, “the score became a little more intense and more electronically driven. In the third and fourth seasons, electronics really moved to the forefront as we got into more stories about Inhumans and the digital world our characters inhabit. But the orchestra is always our foundation.”

Most musically surprising in this Marvel world is the soundscape conceived by Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Adrian Younge for “Luke Cage,” which Muhammad describes as “a confluence of multiple genres, a bit of hip-hop, soul, psychedelic rock and classical, combined to show the depth, range and complexities of all the characters.”

Set in Harlem and featuring an African-American ex-convict with superhuman strength, the series needed music that suggested “pride and value of self and community, fitting of the many dynamics within the show,” says Muhammad, the producer-DJ from A Tribe Called Quest.

Producer Cheo Hodari Coker’s love for hip-hop “was the basis for his vision for the sound of Luke Cage,” Muhammad adds, “bridging sampled music with live instrumentation. Adrian would play bass and drums, and I would play guitar and keys, or vice versa.”

Such fresh approaches have begun to dominate the Marvel TV landscape. When Jeff Russo started on FX’s “Legion,” he wanted to “invite the viewer to share in David’s experience, which is mostly not knowing the difference between reality and hallucination… to invite them to be as disoriented as David,” the character played by Dan Stevens.

So in discussions with showrunner Noah Hawley, they came up with what they called “the soundtrack of schizophrenia in the ’70s”: Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.” Russo found a rare synthesizer used on that album, the Synthi AKS, and began experimenting with it, recording and writing melodies around its unusual sounds.

On “Iron Fist,” the challenge was to find “a unique sound and color palette to distinguish it from the other Defenders,” says composer Trevor Morris. “Danny Rand is a younger character and listens on his headphones to music from the ’80s and ’90s, so it was very much an all-synth style score.”

Rand is a billionaire Buddhist monk with martial arts training, so Morris “toyed a lot with how much Asian influence to add. In the end we did add some of those flairs, but heavily processed, in keeping with the modern approach.”

Meanwhile, for “The Punisher” (a vigilante series starring Jon Bernthal, debuting later this year on Netflix), composer Tyler Bates “really wanted to get into the dark corners of the Punisher’s mind,” and began by playing blues guitar. But “it had to be more of a broken blues,” he explained, sometimes with talkbox effects and other “guitar noises,” as he puts it.

“I love playing music like that,” Bates says. “The rough edges and broken nature of it leaves a great deal of space for emotion and interesting color – and a bit of an attitude. Otherwise it’s not going to be an authentic expression of the idea. There’s a darkness in there that I’m happy to tap into.” He also plays guitar-viol and melodica in the score.

Like Callery, composer John Paesano has done two Marvel TV series: first “Daredevil,” about a blind lawyer-turned-vigilante super-hero, which debuted in 2015 and is about to enter its third season; and “The Defenders,” whose eight episodes debuted over the weekend on Netflix.

For “Daredevil,” “the fanfare-ish type of theme had previously been done,” Paesano said. Showrunner Steven DeKnight “wanted the music to be dark, gritty and minimalist,” although by the second season Daredevil had acquired a costume and the show was taking on more of a classic comic-book feel. “It was tricky to figure out a good balance: minimalistic but also epic,” Paesano says.

For “The Defenders,” which teams up Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and iron Fist, “we’re still geographically in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, but now we’re dealing with outright superheroes that our audience is familiar with,” Paesano explains, “so there was more license to push the envelope and lean a bit more into the orchestral colors.”

This required more of a hybrid approach, so in addition to Paesano’s synths, Marvel approved a 30-piece orchestra. He borrowed the “colors” of each character’s music from the other shows to remind viewers of their individual personalities.

“Runaways,” debuting on Hulu in November, deals with teen-agers who band together to battle their own parents’ criminal enterprise. Musically, says composer Siddhartha Khosla (“This Is Us”), producers Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage “wanted something that the Marvel Universe hadn’t touched upon, musically, yet.”

His answer: analog synthesizers from the 1980s, specifically the Juno 60 and the Oberheim synths “that you might have heard on Depeche Mode records,” he notes.

“There is something outside the norm about Depeche Mode; it felt ‘outsider’ to me, and ‘Runaways’ has a kind of alternative feel. There is an element of rebellion, so sonically going for something that is a little bit outside the box, non-traditional, I felt was an appropriate approach. I feel like I’m making art on this show.”

Still to come: Mark Isham’s music for “Cloak & Dagger,” on Freeform, expected to have a jazzy New Orleans flair.

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