Home > Reviews > DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS – Danny Elfman

DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS – Danny Elfman

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS PLOT SPOILERS. IF YOU HAVE NOT YET SEEN THE FILM, YOU MIGHT WANT TO CONSIDER WAITING UNTIL AFTER YOU HAVE DONE SO TO READ IT.

Twenty years after having essentially kicked off what is now the Marvel Cinematic Universe with the original Tobey Maguire Spider-Man (yes, it’s MCU canon now), director Sam Raimi has come full circle with the 28th entry in this never-ending series of films: Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. It’s a visually mind-boggling, conceptually brain-melting, completely bonkers super-hero fantasy action extravaganza, and is the second film to focus on Dr Stephen Strange, the former brilliant neurosurgeon who, following the events of the first film, has become a master of magical and mystic arts, and an ally to super-heroes across multiple subsequent Avengers and Spider-Man films. Multiverse of Madness is essentially a sequel to both the original Doctor Strange AND Spider-Man: No Way Home, but is also critically linked with the TV series WandaVision, to such an extent that anyone with little to no familiarity with any of these predecessors will have no idea what’s going on.

In terms of the plot… jeez. It’s almost too convoluted to summarize, but in a nutshell there is a teenage girl from a parallel universe named America Chavez, who has the power to travel between universes and dimensions but cannot control it. She is being pursued by a demon who wants her powers, and is being helped by her universe’s version of Doctor Strange… but then, while engaging in an epic battle in the space between dimensions, she accidentally transports herself to this universe and meets this universe’s version of Strange, who eventually realizes that someone much closer to home is manipulating all the events. The film stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Strange, Xochitl Gomez as America, Elizabeth Olsen as the Scarlet Witch Wanda Maximoff, and Rachel McAdams as Strange’s colleague and former love interest Christine Palmer, plus Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Wong in major recurring supporting roles.

From there on the plot descends into complete chaos – there are ancient books that leave curses on those who use them, enormous one-eyed tentacle monsters, rock demons living in mountaintop temples, zombies and ghosts, and multiple versions of the same character across multiple universes, plus surprising cameos from other franchises, and so much more. It’s completely loopy, sometimes makes absolutely no sense, and is easily the most gonzo mainstream superhero movie in decades, but it’s also massively entertaining if you just sit back and let the visual creativity wash over you. There’s one scene in the film where Strange and America are literally falling through different dimensions in space and time, changing to a new one every five-to-ten seconds, and it’s just a staggering visual feast that has to be seen to be believed and begs to be watched multiple times just to experience it all. The whole thing is peak Sam Raimi, who is clearly having the time of his life directing this – the whole thing is littered with homages to his early career, camera angles and editing and stylistic choices that recall everything from the original Evil Dead to Darkman, and more, turned up to the max. Best of all, the fact that genuinely great actors like Cumberbatch and Olsen lean into all this madness with sincerity and conviction allows you to take it just as seriously as they do.

The irony of this is that Raimi was not originally attached to direct this film – when it was originally announced the first film’s director, Scott Derrickson, was on board, but he left during pre-production, and Raimi came in to replace him. Derrickson’s departure also led to a music change, with the first film’s composer Michael Giacchino departing, and Danny Elfman coming in to replace him. Elfman was, of course, also the composer of Raimi’s original 2002 Spider-Man, and along with John Williams is one of the architects of the contemporary superhero score sound, going all the way back to Batman in 1989. It’s also not is first Marvel rodeo – he wrote half of the score for Avengers: Age of Ultron back in 2015 – but having Elfman back writing a big orchestral score for a big superhero adventure is a thrill.

In many ways, Elfman’s score for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is just as bonkers and chaotic as the film itself, but it’s also terrifically entertaining. However, like many of the Marvel scores before it, the issue of thematic content and internal musical consistency is something worth discussing, as Elfman both uses pre-existing Marvel themes for certain characters, while also creating new ones – including ones for the characters who had those existing themes. Elfman said he would refer to Michael Giacchino’s Strange theme in a similar way to how he used Alan Silvestri’s theme from The Avengers when working on Age of Ultron, and that’s actually quite an apt comparison in that he does quote Giacchino’s Doctor Strange theme several times in the course of the score – you can hear it very clearly at 0:37 in “On the Run,” at the very beginning of “Gargantos,” with an almost spiritual reverence at 0:26 in “Strange Statue,” and with heroic grandeur at 2:03 in “Battle Time” – but he then gradually transitions out of it in favor of a new Strange theme original to this film. The unique instrumentation that made Giacchino’s Doctor Strange theme so interesting – sitar and harpsichord – is also mostly gone this time around, replaced instead by a more conventional orchestral ensemble.

In addition to the two themes for Strange there is also a recurring theme for Wanda, which is an extrapolation on the four-note Wanda theme that Elfman wrote for the character on Age of Ultron, and which has its roots in a theme Elfman wrote for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory back in 2005, among others. What’s interesting about Wanda’s Theme is that it is built around mostly the same chord progressions as the new Strange theme, but they are sort of inverted, which offers an interesting illustration of the fact that, at the heart of it, both characters are flip sides of the same coin. One of the main issues in the film is a magical book called the Darkhold, which gives those who use it great power, but which also comes at a cost for the user. During the course of the film both Wanda and Strange use the Darkhold for their own ends; Wanda’s usage of it is immediately destructive, but Strange has just as much potential to cause inadvertent damage to other parts of the multiverse – and the fact that Elfman uses his music to illustrate these similarities rather than their differences is clever.

The final new theme is a theme for America Chavez, a more straightforward orchestral affair which has a hopeful, noble, innocent, aspirational tone. There are other minor motifs too, relating to the Sorcerer Supreme Wong, to the octopus demon Gargantos, and maybe a couple of others too, as well as some musical easter eggs for the character cameos in one particular scene, some of which are on the soundtrack, and some of which are not, but we’ll get to that later.

The whole score develops as an extended exploration of these three character themes – Strange, Wanda, and America – and the amount of creativity Elfman shows in putting them through so many variations is seriously impressive. Nearly every cue on the soundtrack features multiple statements of one, or both, or all three themes, and so to list them all, or to try to illustrate all the multiple combinations and variations would be an exercise in futility, so instead I’m going to pick out a few highlights. For example, in the opening cue, “Multiverse of Madness,” I love how the statement of Wanda’s theme for children’s voices drives home one of the film’s key points about Wanda’s reasons for exploring the multiverse in the first place – her desire to reconnect with Billy and Tommy, the children she lost during the events of the TV series WandaVision.

I really like how, in “Strange Awakens,” Elfman chooses not to use his theme for the moment he wakes up from his multiverse nightmare, but instead uses a soft arrangement of America’s Theme for pretty guitars and soft woodwinds, foreshadowing her appearance in his life. Later, in “The Apple Orchard,” Elfman scores the encounter between Wanda and Strange, when he comes to seek her help with America, with fragments of Wanda’s theme underpinning it all, moving around in the electronic pulses, in the string figures, and in the harp textures, until the whole thing becomes darker and more tumultuous amid the revelation that Wanda has actually been the one sending the demon monsters in the first place. Some of the string writing here has the same eerie quality from scores like Dolores Claiborne, which I really like.

The piano statement of Strange’s theme in “Are You Happy,” which underscores the conversation between Strange at his ex-girlfriend Christine at her wedding to someone else, is lovely; romantic, bittersweet, and a little sad. The version of America’s theme in “Discovering America” is excellent – sentimental, warm, a little inquisitive – and then the combination of both these themes in “Stranger Things Will Happen” becomes grander and more imposing as it develops. “Journey with Wong” which underscores the scene where Wanda and Wong journey to Mount Wundagore to identify the source of the Darkhold’s power, features an unusual arrangement of Wanda’s Theme that includes a peculiar buzzing timbre on the strings that is reminiscent of Christopher Young’s writing for Hellraiser; then the subsequent “Home?” sets Wanda’s theme in an array of shifting colors and off-kilter textures that veer from light horror to searing emotional tragedy, as Wanda uses the Darkhold she finds in Wundagore to ‘dream-walk’ into another dimension and take control of the body of her multiverse counterpart, who lives a suburban life with her own versions of Billy and Tommy.

One cue, “A Cup of Tea,” is a terrific throwback to Elfman’s psychedelic early days, and uses all manner of weird textures – fuzzy guitars, a rock drum kit, Shrunken Heads-style chattering voices – to score the scene where Strange and America are drugged by Strange’s old nemesis Mordo, the sorcerer supreme in one of the many other dimensions.

Beyond this, some of the most impressive parts of Multiverse of Madness involve action. Several action sequences – “On the Run,” “Gargantos,” “The Decision is Made,” “Battle Time,” “Not a Monster” – are vintage Elfman, and contain stylistic textures, rhythmic patterns, instrumental combinations, and chord progressions that echo scores like Sleepy Hollow, with a little of the first Batman, a little of Age of Ultron, a little Justice League, and even a little Hulk thrown in for good measure. Elfman’s action style has of course altered over the last thirty years – it’s denser and punchier and more rhythmic now, and lacks some of the melodic fluidity and panache of his earliest genre efforts – but there is still plenty to enjoy. “On the Run” opens with some offbeat staccato rhythmic ideas, and the stirring first performance of America’s theme at 1:00 is impressive, as is the immense use of howling horns and screaming choir in the finale. “Gargantos,” which accompanies Strange and Wong’s fight with the one eyed space octopus on the streets of New York, is flamboyant and complex; imposing brass heralds the monster, while the huge orchestra, choir, and synth percussion elements follow the rhythms of the fight. There is a spectacular moment in “Not a Monster” around the 2:00 minute mark when both Strange’s theme and Wanda’s theme play in action counterpoint to each other, in clear musical conflict.

The Illuminati sequence – which covers the cues from “Tribunal” through to the end of “Buying Time” – underscores the sequence where Strange is brought for judgement before a panel made up of multiverse versions of Charles Xavier from the X-Men, Peggy Carter from Captain America, Monica Rambeau from Captain Marvel, and Reed Richards from the Fantastic Four, among others. The entire sequence finds the orchestra heavily layered with both dark electronic textures and more hopeful choirs, but the soundtrack is sadly missing the cue that accompanies the spectacular fight sequence between Wanda and the Illuminati, into which Elfman incorporates clear statements of both Alan Silvestri’s Captain America March (for Peggy) and the theme from the 1990s X-Men animated TV theme by Haim Saban and Shuki Levy (this version of Professor X is the one from the show, NOT the one from the 2000s movie series). I didn’t catch any lip service to John Ottman’s Fantastic Four scores, or to Pinar Toprak’s score for Captain Marvel, but even so the omission of this cue from the soundtrack is a massive shame, as it’s one of the standout musical moments in the score.

Later, the Sinister Strange sequence – which covers the cues from “Looking for Strange” through to the end of “Lethal Symphonies” – underscores the sequence where Strange and a multiverse version of Christine are stranded on yet another version of Earth and encounter a damaged version of Strange, entirely corrupted through over-use of the Darkhold. The first cues in the sequence are moody and eerie, and use a series of growling synths, slithery strings, and descending bass notes full of tension and understated horror, until the whole thing explodes in perhaps the score’s standout cue: “Lethal Symphonies”. This utterly insane but creatively brilliant cue accompanies the fight between Strange and his Sinister counterpart where they turn pieces of sheet music into weapons and fling magical music notes at each other like arrows – which results in wicked explosions of different parts of both Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 and Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, leaping and spiraling out of control and colliding against each other, within Elfman’s chaotic action music. It’s completely silly, but so much fun, and so innovative, and I’m just sad it only lasts for 108 seconds.

In the finale, “Getting Through” features some especially superb brass writing, layered between trombones and horns. “Only Way” features a bold and heroic version of both Strange’s Theme and America’s Theme, while “Trust Your Power” features the score’s most inspirational version of America’s Theme, as she finally learns to control her multiverse-jumping skills and use them to battle an increasingly unhinged Wanda; the development of the theme from quiet writing for piano and choir to more epic orchestral proportions is excellent. “They’ll Be Loved” is the score’s emotional climax, as Wanda finally physically enters the alternate universe where her children are alive, only for them to recoil from her in horror, finally making her see her error. The cue is a series of powerfully emotional explorations of Wanda’s theme for orchestra and chorus, which often rise to strong and dramatic crescendos. The conclusive “Farewell” is full of sweeping orchestral-and-choral tones, mostly variants of both America’s theme and Strange’s theme, accentuated by Elfman’s familiar ‘magical lullaby’ sound replete with chimes and harp glissandi, and then the coda “An Interesting Question” gives the initially misleading scene of Strange confidently strutting around New York an upbeat, peppy vibe, as well as some faint echoes of Giacchino’s original Strange orchestrations – until a ‘third eye’ shockingly appears in his forehead and everything descends into dissonant chaos.

“Main Titles” is the first part of the end credits sequence and features epic arrangements of Strange’s theme, Wanda’s theme, and America’s theme, back to back, with a classic Elfman sound that has echoes of his 1980s zaniness. The very final cue, “An Unexpected Visitor,” is a 30-second stinger heralding the appearance of Charlize Theron as the sorceress Clea in the film’s mid-credits sequence, the likely set-up for Doctor Strange 3.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is very impressive, and for me is probably the most purely entertaining Danny Elfman score since Justice League back in 2017. While some will decry him for (mostly) abandoning the musical ideas that Michael Giacchino established for the first Doctor Strange film in 2016, at this point I’ve essentially reconciled myself to the fact that different sequel composers in the MCU are going to go their own way, and now take any acknowledgement at all of the series’s musical continuity as a bonus. The fact that Elfman went as far as to quote Giacchino, Alan Silvestri, and the animated X-Men series, while bringing back his own Wanda ideas from Age of Ultron, is actually pretty good. When you combine all this with the new themes for Strange and America, it sets a decent base for an enjoyable narrative journey, and then when you have the flamboyance and classic Elfman sound of a lot of the action music, and the kookiness and gonzo creativity of cues like “A Cup of Tea” and “Lethal Symphonies,” there is a lot to unpack and enjoy.

I do acknowledge that, like the film itself, the whole thing can sometimes feel like overkill. Ideas come at you thick and fast, and it all whizzes along at such a breakneck pace with so many different things to focus on, that it can be difficult to pin it down and figure out what it’s all about; as such, I can see how some listeners might consider the whole thing to be messy and a bit all-over-the-place. Personally, though, I found the journey through the score much like the journey through the film – a creative, freewheeling super-hero extravaganza which, if you look past the all the bug-eyed monsters and inter-dimensional zombies and the inherent silliness that goes with it, actually contains a lot of depth and heart.

Buy the Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Multiverse of Madness (2:37)
  • On the Run (2:17)
  • Strange Awakens (0:47)
  • The Apple Orchard (3:18)
  • Are You Happy (1:08)
  • Gargantos (2:50)
  • Journey with Wong (1:44)
  • Home? (4:08)
  • Strange Statue (1:43)
  • The Decision Is Made (1:14)
  • A Cup of Tea (3:58)
  • Discovering America (0:47)
  • Grab My Hand (1:14)
  • Battle Time (3:11)
  • Not a Monster (2:38)
  • Forbidden Ground (2:29)
  • Tribunal (2:13)
  • They’re Not Coming Back (1:00)
  • Stranger Things Will Happen (2:56)
  • Buying Time (3:39)
  • Book of Vishanti (2:45)
  • Looking for Strange (1:38)
  • Strange Talk (3:32)
  • Lethal Symphonies (1:48)
  • Getting Through (5:34)
  • Only Way (2:51)
  • Trust Your Power (2:54)
  • They’ll Be Loved (3:59)
  • Farewell (2:29)
  • An Interesting Question (3:13)
  • Main Titles (2:36)
  • An Unexpected Visitor (0:32)

Running Time: 79 minutes 26 seconds

Marvel Music/Hollywood Records (2022)

Music composed by Danny Elfman. Conducted by Rick Wentworth. Orchestrations by Steve Bartek, David Slonaker, Edward Trybek, Jonathan Beard, Henri Wilkinson and Marc Mann. Additional music by Chris Bacon. Original Doctor Strange theme by Michael Giacchino. Recorded and mixed by Dennis Sands, Peter Cobbin and Kirsty Whalley. Edited by Chris Barratt. Album produced by Danny Elfman.

  1. ANASTASIOS 99
    May 11, 2022 at 1:15 pm

    I listened to Elfman’s soundtrack. I want to be honest. I do not appreciate the film and the character Dr. Strange. I wrote for another music page a bad review of the film and music that Giacchino wrote about Dr. Strange. He wrote an annoying musical theme without a heroic identity for Dr. Strange. It makes sense of course, because the character is very boring and for no reason so well known. It’s a Marvel’s business ploy to fool the sometimes obsessed people, who fall victim to companies, and ignore really interesting films. It is money, capital, that governs people. I listened to Elfman’s soundtrack, without having seen the film, of course, I will not make this mistake .. Only Elfman did the music surprise. I was disappointed to learn he wrote music for the second film. But he is Elfman, the second best composer of cinema music in the world, after her father music cinema, John Williams and Howard Shore with Alan Silvestri. Elfman wrote a respectable epic music score. It is an epic with choirs, thick, heavy winds, huge drums, made an epic musical environment It’s like a dark Elfman- music style camp. He is a worthy successor of his soundtracks for Avengers 2, Justice League, Hellboy 2. He is the well-known. He is the well-known charismatic composer of the old music school, vintage, with amazing music that lifts the minds of the listeners, bombing, that shakes your ear. Elfman’s music is on alert, they do not allow you to be indifferent. It is an epic experience. Elfman wrote music that reaches up to God in volume, without pause. I think he writes to write to launch his music talent. Although of course he has proved it for many years. It is a pity
    and I was disappointed for one reason only.It’s that Elfman wrote epic music, he used it his musical arsenal, charisma, his strength, abilities, skills, for a very indifferent, odorless, boring, useless, stupid for a hero, man … Why Elfman ?? He should have written this musical score for a new Venom, for example, not for dr. Strange .. You mean the credit goes to Elfman. Not in the movie and in character. Elfman’s music theme is much nicer in the genre than Giacchino. We begin with a music theme for the madness (!), i think thought Elfman write a music thene for the title in the film. We heared it in the track “main titles”. Music style Elfman like a cover for Beetlejuice theme (!) and Hulk theme, we heard it a cover on the strings. Also, reminds some moments Spiderman, Batman, Avengers 2. Elfman wrote a music score for the mood in the film. With music themes for the madness, the magics, the mystery, and the characters. Dr. Strange has not main music theme but never mind. Music Elfman is most better with epic quality for the mood and the energy, on the super – hero. Brass, strings, chorals, tympanis creates a epic music score in the natural on the film. It’s Elfman music score! I wanted a new music theme for the Dr. Strange, but never mind. My head hurts with Giacchino’s music theme. It is very spastic. So good luck to Elfman. hope not to continue wasting his musical talent on such films Dr. Strange. Sorry for my English! My stars for Elfman are just for the amazing music *****. Thank’s. Elfman means music quality in the music cinema.

    • May 11, 2022 at 2:13 pm

      I mean… I disagree entirely that Dr Strange is a boring character, so there’s that to begin with. As for everything else you say… you’re entitled to your opinion, but I honestly have no idea what you are trying to say.

      • ANASTASIOS 99
        May 11, 2022 at 3:25 pm

        Thank’s for the answer. Because i don’t know good english, sorry. I mean with few words, Elfman is better composer from Michael Giacchino in the film Dr. Strange. Michael Giacchino is good composer but his theme for Dr. Strange I don’t like it. Elfman wrote epic music with music themes for the mood, the nature, for emotions, about magic, horror, mystery, heroism in the film. I don’t like Dr. Strange like a hero. I prefer others heroes, Batman, Hulk, Superman, Iron Man, Captain America, Thor. I haven’t listen memorable music theme for Dr. Strange. Michael Giacchino theme is annoying for me. I want a music theme memorable for Dr. Strange like Batman and Superman for example. This soundtrack like a Hulk soundtrack, without music theme for the hero but the mood, energy, science. Michael Giacchino is more “childish” composer. In the second film Elfman has epic quality. I hope understand me. Good night.

  2. Richard
    May 14, 2022 at 9:01 am

    I was thrilled to hear that Elfman was taking over the reins with the latest Doctor Strange – I’ve never been a fan of Giacchino as (personal opinion) his themes are never developed, never satisfy, and never really create anything other than a breathless but empty ride. It’s a huge upgrade to first class – a composer who ranks alongside the greatest names in the soundtrack world.

    And Danny hasn’t disappointed – a huge, bombastic, thrilling score perfectly suited to the movie. Yes, it’s “a lot” but that’s the movie – it’s hardly a shrinking violet. A great addition, and one in the canon that I’ll actually listen to more than a handful of times.

  3. Jorden
    May 16, 2022 at 2:55 pm

    This score was an interesting one for me, with me ultimately leaning towards being disappointed. Danny Elfman does great work in general, while I often find myself feeling that Giacchino’s scores fall just short of being great. Solid, pretty good, but rarely great.

    Giacchino’s Doctor Strange score was one of my exceptions to that, with the instrumentation and sound palette he used for the film being very compelling, suitable for the character, and with a solid theme and scoring throughout. The first Doctor Strange is one of my favorite MCU scores. Of course, the musical inconsistently across films with different composers should be completely expected at this point in the MCU, but that doesn’t make it any less disappointing in this case.

    The scoring Elfman did was all solid, but it just felt like another Elfman score, it could be swapped out for many of his films and would fit just fine. I very much wish the same Doctor Strange theme and unique instrumentation already set by Giacchino had continue for the second solo film for the character, even better would have been just bringing back the same composer.

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