Marvel's ongoing journey to trawl their second-tier characters and bring them to the big screen has now yielded the relatively obscure Doctor Strange. A superhero sorcerer created by artist Steve Ditko in the 1960s, Strange hasn't in fact appeared in live-action form since a TV movie way back in 1978; but that's all about to change now that Sherlock's Benedict Cumberbatch has donned the cape to bring the character to a whole-new generation. Directed by Sinister's Scott Derrickson, the movie is the story of brilliant yet arrogant neurosurgeon Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) whose life is effectively ended when a car crash destroys the nerves in his hands. Embarking on a voyage of discovery to the Far East, he soon becomes the disciple of the Sorceror Supreme known as The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a mystical being who opens Strange's eyes to extraordinary new planes of reality, inaugurating his eventual transformation into world-saving superhero Doctor Strange.
Acclaimed for its eye-popping visuals that turn the world as we know it inside out, the movie also features a classy cast: in addition to Cumberbatch and Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mads Mikkelsen, Benedict Wong and Rachel McAdams also bring heft to what is essentially another Marvel origin story. Meanwhile behind the camera the film gets a stirring injection of mighty gravitas courtesy of Michael Giacchino, further cementing his status as the modern day John Williams whilst also injecting a witty note of psychadelic atmosphere. Disappointing as it is that Derrickson didn't reunite with his Sinister composer Christopher Young (now there's someone who's crying out for a Marvel movie to score), Giacchino's work here is terrific. Building on the robust sense of heroism heard in the recent likes of Jurassic World, Giacchino here places emphasis on Far Eastern texture, olde-worlde instrumentation and psychadelic tone to envelop the listener in Strange's reality-altering universe, in the process further earmarking himself as an action composer who continues to mature and develop with each new assignment.
Broadly speaking Doctor Strange as a score is divided into two aspects of the title character's personality, one for the magical potential latent within him and the other for his ultimate emergence as a magic-wielding superhero. The brassy latter theme in fact bears an uncanny resemblance to Giacchino's Star Trek theme but the composer so effectively dresses it up with a host of intriguing ideas that he just about gets away with it. The piece first emerges on the full force of the brass section in rip-roaring opening track 'Ancient Sorcerer's Secret' from beneath dark choral work representing villain Kaecilius (Mikkelsen), establishing the musical battle to come.
After this initial salvo the theme is actually deployed surprisingly sparingly until the score's closing stages, instead teasing the listener with little bursts that hint at Strange's burgeoning superhero powers, and alternating with the character's theme of potential. The hero theme is pitted against modernistic synths, harpsichord and booming choir in 'Mystery Training', on enveloping electric guitar and glockenspiel in 'Reading is Fundamental', on increasingly operatic voices, light percussion and sitar in 'Inside the Mirror Dimension', and again on harpsichord and yearning strings in 'The True Purpose of the Sorcerer'.
Rotor-blade style electric guitar and electronics begin 'Astral Doom' but it's the final three tracks where the hero theme really hits the roof. 'Hong Kong Kablooey', 'Astral World's Worst Killer' and, especially, the spectacularly rousing 'Strange Days Ahead' all hit pretty aggressive heights full of glissando choir, percussion, bells and sitar, the full impact of the brass section reinforcing Strange's status as the world's latest saviour. It's dense and accomplished action writing with the latter track approaching the rhythmic adrenaline of genre masters like John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith; it's just a shame that, as with so many Marvel scores, the theme only really gets a memorable showcase towards the climax, no doubt being set up for a future Marvel movie where it likely won't be used.
Strange's personal theme is first introduced in the outstanding, contemplative 'The Hands Dealt', a fluid piano piece that is surely one of Giacchino's greatest tracks to date, humanising the character amidst all the visual weirdness. By applying a host of different textures to the theme Giacchino is able to turn it inside out and cleverly depict how Strange is changing as a man. 'Post Op Paracosm' again runs with the harpsichord motif, building into choral ecstasy but abruptly cutting out. The former instrument again leads in the brilliantly titled 'Hippocratic Hypocrite' (the best of the composer's characteristic track puns) whereas the piano mixes with the sitar in the latter half of 'Ancient History', the Western doctor absorbing the stylistics of Eastern mysticism as depicted through the music.
The finale brings everything together smoothly, Strange's potential theme treated to one final harpsichord arrangement in 'Go for Baroque' before the ending suite, 'Master of the Mystic, End Credits', really allows Giacchino to let loose with a host of prog rock guitars, woozy sitar-led mysticism and a defiantly idiosyncratic tone largely unheard of in Marvel scores (outside of Ant-Man, that is). Little wonder Paul McCartney, on viewing the recording sessions, noted a similarity to The Beatles' 'I Am The Walrus.' Providing a counterbalance is the choral Kaecilius theme interwoven through 'The Hands Dealt', 'The Eyes Have It', 'Sanctimonious Sanctum Sacking' and 'Smote and Mirrors', effectively lending a sense of apocalyptic doom although it remains somewhat amorphous and ill-defined.
Giacchino is of course the latest in a long line of esteemed composers to join the Marvel Cinematic Universe including the likes of Alan Silvestri, Brian Tyler, Patrick Doyle and Christophe Beck. The scoring history of the MCU has been spotty to say the least, the style and quality of the scores varying wildly; happily Giacchino's Doctor Strange is easily up there with Silvestri's Captain America: The First Avenger, Brian Tyler's Iron Man 3 and Christophe Beck's Ant-Man, lending stylish panache and a sense of wit that elevates the music above standard blockbuster fare.
It's undeniably true, as many journalists have recently debated, that the lack of overraching Marvel music continuity is frustrating (although that will hopefully change if Silvestri's Avengers theme is threaded through the upcoming Infinity War), but that shouldn't blind people to the quality of individual scores like Doctor Strange. Rich in its soundscape and with plenty of memorable nuances to go along with its sturdy thematic ideas, it's another success for Michael Giacchino and one that further cements him as the premier adventurer score of the modern age.