“Time…Space…Reality…It’s more than a linear path,” declares Uatu the Watcher (voiced by Westworld’s Jeffrey Wright) in the opening credits of Marvel Studios’ new What If…? anthology. “It’s a prism of endless possibility. Where a single choice can branch out into infinite realities…creating alternate ones from the worlds you know.”
That’s just a fancy way of saying, “Welcome to the Marvel Multiverse! Have a seat, make yourself comfortable, and strap in because things are about to get really weird!”
***WARNING! The following contains certain spoilers for the first four episodes!***
What If…? is a distillate of the MCU’s fourth phase, which — based on WandaVision, Loki, and the first trailer for Spider-Man: No Way Home — is clearly committed to the concept of alternate realities stacked on top of each other. In other words, Kevin Feige & co. are boldly taking the shared comic book mythos where it’s never gone before.
The Star Trek comparison is rather apt since What If…? composer Laura Karpman looked to classic science fiction while crafting the title music for the animated series that not only remixes the MCU films we know, but their scores as well.
“They told me very early, before we even had animation, that there were gonna be images of shattering glass,” Karpman tells Forbes Entertainment. “So, we shattered glass out here on my patio, we recorded it, then we reversed it, and played with certain sound effect aspects of it … I’m singing behind the French horn theme [which is] almost like a tribute to ‘60s sci-fi, where you’ve got the female voice.”
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Aside from that central motif, however, each episode proved to be a different animal.
“I think it was really taking each one head-on and saying, ‘What does it need? What does this particular episode need? How does it live within the MCU? How does it depart from the MCU? How do we dress that musically?’” Karpman says. “Because everyone one of them lives within it and then leaves it to a certain extent. I think that’s the kind of challenge that you have to look at and then reflect that challenge musically.”
Over the course of the last 13 years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has benefitted from some of the most talented composers on the planet — from Alan Silvestri, to Michael Giacchino, to Ramin Djawadi, to Mark Mothersbaugh (the list really does go on). Karpman got to play with all of their scores, mixing and matching the pieces around like an imaginative kid playing with several LEGO sets at once.
For the season premiere, in which Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) takes the super-soldier serum instead of Steve Rogers, Karpman used Silvestri’s main theme for Captain America: The First Avenger as a baseline before flipping it on its head.
“I literally took the Captain America theme, I wrote it down on a piece of paper, and then wherever the notes went up, I went down for the Captain Carter theme. I literally did a mirror image of it,” she explains. “It’s funny because I had access to all the scores, but a lot of the time, I almost preferred to do it by ear because it was almost easier to listen, take it in, draw from it what I wanted, and then leave it and do something else.”
Episode 2 proved to be a little trickier because it needed to blend two movies into one: James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy (scored by Tyler Bates) and Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther (scored by Ludwig Göransson). The story follows T’Challa (voiced by the late Chadwick Boseman) who adopts the mantle of Star-Lord after Yondu (Michael Rooker) takes the Wakandan prince under his wing instead of young Peter Quill.
“It was, ‘Let’s take elements out of Ludwig’s score that are not orchestral, that are the other signatures that he so brilliantly put into that score. Let’s take Tyler’s theme and let’s mash em’ up and see what happens,’” Karpman says. “And it strangely works together pretty darn well, I think. I also think in 102 there’s a heist, which is original. That’s like groovy jazz — like an Ocean’s 11 type of thing.”
That was merely a warm-up compared to Episode 3, an Avengers-based murder mystery that plays out like a condensed crash course of the entirety of Phase 1. Instead of trying to mash six movies worth of scores into a 30-minute runtime, though, Karpman simply decided to just do her own thing.
“For 103, it was really writing an original [score],” she adds. “Even though it’s this kind of Avengers thing, it was really more about writing an original theme for the mystery assassin. It was less about Avengers music and more about, ‘What is going on in this thing and who’s doing this?’”
The fourth and most recent installment presents a timeline in which Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) heads down a path of dark magic following the death of his colleague and love interest, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams).
For this one, Karpman wanted to tell “a very, very tragic love story” that explores the idea of “Where do you have control and where don’t you?”
“[It’s] very, very sad and strange and tragic,” she continues. “The idea was to come up with a repetitive motif because it obviously fits in with the way the story is told and grow it and grow it and grow it and grow it.”
Despite the fact that Episode 4 was first in line to probe the depths of multiversal mayhem we’ll eventually see in Spider-Man: No Way Home and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Karpman insists that she didn’t see it that way.
“It’s more [about] this guy [who] can’t be with the person he loves,” Karpman explains. “It doesn’t work. It’s not working, it’s not working, it’s not working. It’s not like the opening of the first film where you’ve got cities melting. It’s just he can’t make it work — no matter what he does, no matter how powerful he becomes. That’s a powerful statement about a love that isn’t working for whatever reason.”
The first four episodes of Marvel Studios’ What If…? are now available to stream on Disney+. Episode 5 premieres on the subscription service next Wednesday, Sep. 8.
What can we expect from the rest of Season 1? “A wild ride,” Karpman teases.