[24 March 2011]
With a name like Dr. Horrible, a character has a lot to live down to. By the end of Joss Whedon’s webiseries, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, not only has Dr. Horrible discovered his true nature, but audiences discover a skewed perspective on the traditional hero story that emphasizes a growing moral darkness in the real world.
During the writers’ strike of 2007-2008, the Whedons—brothers Joss, Zack, and Jed—and Melissa Tancharoen decided to put on a musical. Of course, as Joss Whedon illustrated so well in Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s musical episode, “Once More With Feeling,” the writers used the conventions of musical theater to make some intriguing points about life and the nature of heroes. With Dr. Horrible they flip the hero epic on its head by introducing new lyrics for the genre’s well-worn refrain.
The project not only filled the strike time for writers (and thus actors) waiting for a resolution, but it added more fuel to the fiery transformation of the hero story into the glorification of the villain. As well, Whedon (who doubled as director) initially made the story available only online, although the Emmy award-winning series later became available on DVD and as an iTunes download. The initial web-only viewing gained a wider audience for webisodes and created an instant web classic. Since then, Dr. Horrible’s story has been immortalized in comics and on stage, and, fans hope, will return once more to the web with a new adventure. Although a sequel has been rumored almost since the first act went live in July 2008, Dr. Horrible hasn’t yet posted a new blog.
A World Where Villains Win
Dr. Horrible’s creators collaborated with a winsome bunch of actors, including perennial Whedonverse favorite Nathan Fillion as “hero” Captain Hammer, Felicia Day as activist-with-a-heart-of gold Penny, and Neil Patrick Harris as villain wannabe, Billy/Dr. Horrible.
During the early scenes, Neil Patrick Harris’s performance harkens back to the actor’s early days of TV innocence as earnest, wide-eyed Dr. Doogie Howser. Dr. Horrible hardly looks like his moniker. Instead, he seems shy and socially ill at ease in his attempts to get ahead with the girl of his dreams, Penny, and his potential new boss. He creates a web blog outlining his plan to join the prestigious Evil League of Evil, run by crime lord Bad Horse.
Smirking at popular culture, Bad Horse is indeed a horse, and his henchmen come straight from the days of TV Westerns’ white-hatted sheriffs and black-hatted outlaws. Dr. Horrible hardly seems capable of joining such a league—he can’t get Penny to notice him, much less foil the resident good guy, hero Captain Hammer. His attempts at causing mayhem backfire spectacularly, making this junior villain a sympathetic character. Viewers probably identify more with him than with smarmy do-gooder Captain Hammer.
This hero knows how to run a photo op and score with the groupies who follow him. Hammer hits on truly virtuous Penny, who only wants to help the homeless. The hero helps her only in order to get what he wants—her “virtue”—and to show Dr. Horrible yet another way in which he has failed. Hammer performs good deeds to ensure the desired amount of citywide swooning over his latest heroic act, as shown on the nightly news.
This portrayal does what Joss Whedon has done best in series like Buffy and Angel: illustrate none too subtly the smooth self-interest of those in power, whether demons masquerading as lawyers (Wolfram & Hart) or “heroes” like Hammer running a city. The outcasts in his TV stories often become the true heroes, such as high school vampire slayer Buffy or vampire-with-a-soul Angel. In the Whedonverse, the monsters (especially vampires) sometimes can be redeemed.
In Dr. Horrible, the apprentice villain is the outcast, and according to countless traditional hero stories, he, of course, should be. This story’s social outcast is not looking for redemption or a way to help humanity. Whedon, however, carefully sets up a story in which viewers like the “wrong” character—Dr. Horrible. Hammer does make this choice fairly easy—Fillion gloriously goes overboard in a parody of his earlier Whedon role as Captain Malcolm Reynolds in Firefly, a dark hero who, for all his self-interest, manages to fight the good fight. Hammer, like Reynolds, likes to take the path of least resistance and get a job done as easily as possible, but, in both series, unexpected complications arise…
Lynnette Porter is the author of Benedict Cumberbatch, In Transition: An Unauthorised Performance Biography (MX Publishing, 2013) and The Doctor Who Franchise (McFarland, 2013), and the author/editor of Sherlock Holmes for the 21st Century (McFarland, 2012), among many other books and chapters about television or film. She writes the monthly PopMatters column Deep Focus and wrote two essays published in PopMatter's Joss Whedon book (Titan, 2012). Dr. Porter is a professor in the Humanities and Social Sciences Department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida.