Joss Whedon 101: "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog"

From the moment it first hit the Internet in the summer of 2008, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog received near universal acclaim as one of the web's first great creations. With Whedon proclaiming that his future work will be direct to Internet rather than TV, this could be the shape of Whedon's work to come.

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...

Dear reader:

Joss Whedon’s importance in contemporary pop culture can hardly be overstated, but there has never been a book providing a comprehensive survey and analysis of his career as a whole -- until now. Published to coincide with Whedon’s blockbuster movie The Avengers, Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion by PopMatters (May 2012) covers every aspect of his work, through insightful essays and in-depth interviews with key figures in the ‘Whedonverse’. This article, along with previously unpublished material, can be read in its entirety in this book.

Place your order for Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion by PopMatters, published with Titan Books, here.




By the Book

Jack Halberstam's 'Wild Things: The Disorder of Desire' (excerpt)

Enjoy this excerpt of Wild Things: The Disorder of Desire, wherein Jack Halberstam offers an alternative history of sexuality by tracing the ways in which wildness has been associated with queerness and queer bodies throughout the 20th century.

Jack Halberstam

Sotto Voce's 'Your Husband, the Governor' Is Beautifully Twisted DIY Indie Folk-rock

Singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Ryan Gabos releases another odd, gorgeous home studio recording under the moniker Sotto Voce.


Numün's 'voyage au soleil' Is a Trippy, Ambient Ride and Ambitious Debut

Eclectic instrumental trio numün combine a wealth of influences to create a vibe that's both spacey and earthy on voyage au soleil.


L7's 'Smell the Magic' Is 30 and Packs a Feminist Punch

Abortion is under threat again, and there's a sex offender in the Oval Office. A fitting time, in short, to crank up the righteously angry vocals of feminist hard rock heavy hitters like L7.


Can Queer Studies Rescue American Universities?

Matt Brim's Poor Queer Studies underscores the impact of poorer disciplines and institutions, which often do more to translate and apply transformative intellectual ideas in the world than do their ivory-tower counterparts.


Jim White Offers a "Smart Ass Reply" (premiere)

Jesus and Alice Cooper are tighter than you think, but a young Jim White was taught to treat them as polar opposites. Then an eight-track saved his soul and maybe his life.


Ed Harcourt Paints From 'Monochrome to Colour'

British musician Ed Harcourt's instrumental music is full of turbulent swells and swirls that somehow maintain a dignified beauty on Monochrome to Colour.


West London's WheelUP Merges Broken Beat and Hip-Hop on "Stay For Long" (premiere)

West London producer WheelUP reached across the pond to Brint Story to bring some rapid-fire American hip-hop to his broken beat revival on "Stay For Long".


PM Picks Playlist 4: Stellie, The Brooks, Maude La​tour

Today's playlist features the premiere of Stellie's "Colours", some top-class funk from the Brooks, Berne's eco-conscious electropop, clever indie-pop from Maude Latour, Jaguar Jonze rocking the mic, and Meresha's "alien pop".


Plattetopia: The Prefabrication of Utopia in East Berlin

With the fall of the Berlin Wall came the licence to take a wrecking ball to its nightmare of repression. But there began the unwritten violence of Die Wende, the peaceful revolution that hides the Oedipal violence of one order killing another.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Electrosoul's Flõstate Find "Home Ground" on Stunning Song (premiere)

Flõstate are an electrosoul duo comprised of producer MKSTN and singer-songwriter Avery Florence that create a mesmerizing downtempo number with "Home Ground".


Orchestra Baobab Celebrate 50 Years with Vinyl of '​Specialist in All Styles'

As Orchestra Baobab turn 50, their comeback album Specialist in All Styles gets a vinyl reissue.


Hot Chip Stay Up for 'Late Night Tales'

Hot Chip's contribution to the perennial compilation project Late Night Tales is a mixed bag, but its high points are consistent with the band's excellence.


The Budos Band Call for Action on "The Wrangler" (premiere)

The Budos Band call on their fans for action with the powerful new track "The Wrangler" that falls somewhere between '60s spy thriller soundtrack and '70s Ethiojazz.


Creature Comfort's "Woke Up Drunk" Ruminates on Our Second-Guesses (premiere)

A deep reflection on breaking up, Nashville indie rock/Americana outfit Creature Comfort's "Woke Up Drunk" is the most personal track from their new album, Home Team.


For Don DeLillo, 'The Silence' Is Deafening

In Don DeLillo's latest novel, The Silence, it is much like our post-pandemic life -- everything changed but nothing happened. Are we listening?


Brett Newski Plays Slacker Prankster on "What Are You Smoking?" (premiere)

Is social distancing something we've been doing, unwittingly, all along? Brett Newski pulls some pranks, raises some questions in "What Are You Smoking?".

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.