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Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness
  • Composed by Danny Elfman

My problem with Doctor Strange as a character in a film is that because he can seemingly do just about anything at any time, I struggle really to see how you can eke much drama out of him. His second outing with his name on the poster attempts to solve this problem by pitting him against Wanda, the Scarlet Witch, who can seemingly also do just about anything at any time. Great drama this truly does not make, so to make up for the lack of any compelling plot we head into the Multiverse, which allows the studio to provide some moments where people can scream out “hey, there’s that character I recognise from that other thing!” and derive unlimited pleasure as a result. Sam Raimi is the director and we do get treated to some unmistakable Sam Raimi moments, but the film struggles to find any particular identity. Wanda’s arc is identical to the one we’ve already seen in her tv show, which makes me wonder what the point of the tv show was; Strange himself is now presented as a wisecracking Tony Stark substitute, and Benedict Cumberbatch – fine actor though he undoubtedly is – isn’t particularly suited to that. As my friend – I’ll protect his anonymity by calling him Mr X, though his real name is John – said, all these things have a bit of a Lethal Weapon 4 vibe these days, with all the characters joking around with each other and the stakes always seeming to be there only as a vehicle to set up another jape.

If ever a film score sums up the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s peculiar approach to musical continuity, it’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Raimi brought along his favourite composer, Danny Elfman, for the ride. Elfman half-scored a previous entry in the MCU (the Avengers film that nobody remembers) and, more importantly, is clearly the number one guy when it comes to scoring comic book movies, and has been for decades. But he’s Danny Elfman, and this is the second film in a series (kind of, anyway – I know Strange has been in about 35 other movies since his first one). And the first film in the series didn’t just receive a great score by Michael Giacchino, the character himself didn’t just receive a great theme – he actually got a distinct sound. I’m not entirely sure what inspired the psychedelic sound Giacchino came up with for the first picture, but whatever it was it certainly worked, and that sitar-and-harpsichord sound then became Strange’s signature throughout all the other films that followed.

Danny Elfman

Until this one, that is. For once we actually did have musical continuity in the MCU, for Doctor Strange. But honestly you’re not going to hire a composer of Elfman’s standing and then ask him to ape someone else’s sound (you’d just hire the someone else); and so what we get is a pure Elfman score. What he does do – and I’m not entirely sure why – is use Giacchino’s theme as the character’s primary identity during the first half of the score, before using his own, considerably less memorable, theme for Strange as the primary one in the second half – but, understandably, he doesn’t maintain the distinctive sound that Giacchino established. Instead he goes his own way – and the score is about as Elfman-y as it gets.

I must admit, the first few times I listened to the album, I was singularly uninspired. Part of the reason for this is that Elfman makes you work quite hard to get his themes – they’re there, with recurring themes for both Strange and Wanda (he doesn’t use Christophe Beck’s theme for the latter at all, though ironically there is this flute arpeggio phrase from her theme contained within this score – but since Beck stole it from Elfman in the first place, I’m not sure it’s anything to do with Wanda). I don’t mind working hard with a score to explore its depths, but I’m not sure a brainless comic book movie crying out for something distinctive to hit it is the best place to do this.

Within the film, the score is so loud all the time, it doesn’t really leave much of an impression, but repeated listens to the album have seen it grow on me as a standalone listen a great deal. Elfman leaves nothing on the table – he goes all in, all the time, and there’s some rollicking action music here. The opening “Multiverse of Madness” throws us straight in – we get statements of both characters’ themes, both clearly written to allow them to be adapted into action situations like this, and it’s not long before we’re hearing every action music trick in the composer’s considerable book. “On the Run”, “Gargantos”, “Battle Time” – there are various enormous, and enormously entertaining, action cues. I do love what he does with the Giacchino theme in the latter, producing the score’s primary Elfmanised version of it (a little like what he did with Alan Silvestri’s theme for Avengers: Age of Ultron).

We do get some lighter moments – the sweet “Are You Happy?” and the emotionally strained “Not a Monster” are perhaps the pick of these. The score’s most celebrated sequence comes in “Lethal Symphonies”, which incorporates Bach and Beethoven’s most famous few bars into an epic battle piece (which sounded from the first moment I heard it as if it had been arranged by Michael Kamen); again in the film I found the scene to fall completely flat (Raimi doesn’t seem to commit to it quite as Elfman does) but it is entertaining on the album.

The nature of the score, with all its big moments (most of the album’s tracks could come from a grand finale) mean that when you do get to the actual finale, it’s not particularly grander than anything that has come before, but that doesn’t mean to say it isn’t satisfying. I don’t really know where to say it starts (you could pick just about any part of the score and identify it as the start of the finale), so I’ll go with “Getting Through” which sees Elfman paint in gloriously broad dramatic strokes. From there until the great main titles piece it’s just non-stop thrills, with perhaps the grand “Only Way” with it’s sweeping grandeur being the pick of the cues, and the one where I imagine it’s most likely the composer ripped his shirt off, Coachella-style, during the recording session.

I don’t say this as often as I used to (it’s so standard, it doesn’t feel worth mentioning) but the album’s far too long. I wonder if it’s the length that kept me from really appreciating just how much great music there actually is on it; chopping twenty minutes or so would probably improve it no end. Oddly, it was originally released (at great length) on streaming only, before finally becoming available for purchase at even greater length with three bonus tracks, containing “spoiler” music for the characters who show up so the audience can collect those tokens. Two of them are just shoved at the end; the other is included in the main programme. Not sure what that’s all about. Still – many, many listens after my initial disappointment, the music has grown on me massively. I’m really not sure about it in the film, but as an album it contains some of the best “big” Elfman moments in a number of years. It’s not as consistent a listen as some of the better recent Marvel efforts (like Black Widow) and it’s a shame it doesn’t have any kind of distinctive sound like the first Doctor Strange, but it’s nice to hear this composer flex his muscles to this extent again. Now, onto the next film in the MCU (there’s always another one just about to be released) – let’s see how Thor gets on with his fourth different composer across his four movies. Continuity be damned.

Rating: *** 1/2 | |

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  1. Momo (Reply) on Saturday 2 July, 2022 at 17:01

    Yup you hit the nail on the head James. If you know a character has the ability to be anywhere or do anything at any time, they can never be in any actual peril and there’s no suspense or drama. I had the exact same problem with The Passion of the Christ. It’s like Jesus, you’re the son of God, just snap your fingers and get out of there.

  2. MPC (Reply) on Sunday 3 July, 2022 at 00:30

    Elfman did a big disservice to Giacchino with this score. Yes, he quotes Giacchino’s theme — but as you pointed out — he eliminated the unique sitar and harpsichord backing. Even Mark Mothersbaugh used the sitar and harpsichord tone for Strange’s one scene in “Thor Ragnarok.”

    Compared to “Spider-Man: No Way Home”, Giacchino bent over backwards to quote Elfman’s themes several times in the film at appropriate places. Elfman uses Giacchino’s theme, like, twice in “Multiverse of Madness.” Then again, Giacchino quoted Horner’s Amazing Spider-Man theme once in NWH, so I guess that evens it out.

  3. Marco Ludema (Reply) on Sunday 3 July, 2022 at 09:27

    I personally both enjoyed the movie and score a great deal, but I do agree that the original Strange theme was done a disservice. It took me a few listens to appreciate the first Strange soundtrack, but I do consider it one of the best Marvel scores and themes now.

    I feel like Elfman treated the theme as an introduction cue of sorts: nearly all of the Strange variants get underscored by their original theme once. The new theme I’d consider the “Multiversal Strange” theme: it starts to appear once the dimension-hopping begins. That’s how I’m seeing it, anyway.

    Still, I hope the third movie brings the OG main theme back in a proper way. Its appearance in No Way Home shows there still can be done a lot with it. I also hope that this album signals the end of licensing issues for “other” themes. Those cues on DS2 were some of my favorites.

  4. ghostof82 (Reply) on Monday 4 July, 2022 at 16:43

    The MCU becomes increasingly irrelevant, I REALLY disliked No Way Home it was such an exercise in stupid fan-service and less about telling a dramatic story with any real stakes: did no-one else notice that the real bad guy who set everything falling apart was that idiot Spidey? And Doc Strange was such an obvious (albeit unlikely) Tony Stark substitute/foil for the selfish web-slinger. “Not my Spider-Man!” on a tee-shirt please, lol.

    I’m amazed anyone reviews soundtracks for MCU movies though. They are uniformly dull and lazy and horrible.