One of the most astounding things about the 21st century is the breadth of our entertainment options. While kings had to hire traveling minstrels to tickle their ears, we have digital devices that contain more music than royals ever heard in their lifetimes. The Alexandria Library amassed hundreds of thousands of manuscripts over centuries, but we can rival that selection with a few clicks of a mouse. Such riches come at a cost to storytellers. If audiences have access to almost everything, if they know all the tropes backwards and forwards, how can you keep them from dismissing your work as derivative right off the bat? For many in the genre field, the accepted approach has become to turn all the conventions on their heads in increasingly outlandish ways. Consider Joss Whedon’s Emmy-winning short film Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, a superhero musical that casts the not-so-intimidating villain as the protagonist.
Dr. Horrible is in a bind. As he’s said on his vlog, he’s trying desperately to get accepted into the Evil League of Evil, which is helmed by the diabolical Bad Horse (aka The Thoroughbred of Sin). Yet every time he tries to commit some felonious deed to curry the League’s favor -- say, stealing a batch of wonderflonium or wreaking havoc with his time-freeze ray -- heroic Captain Hammer stops him dead in his tracks. No one understands that Dr. Horrible doesn’t want to rule the world for its own sake. He’s interested in thwarting the corrupt and aiding the downtrodden and, well, impressing Penny, the cute girl he sees every week at the laundromat. But when a heist goes terribly wrong and Penny ends up in danger, who should come to her aid but (yup, you guessed it) Captain Hammer. Seems the suave superhero wants to spoil Dr. Horrible’s ambitions in both lawbreaking and love.
Although deconstruction isn’t my cup of tea, it’s impressive to watch how thoroughly Whedon dismantles the superhero genre. Dr. Horrible is the antithesis of the cackling archnemesis. Slight and shy, gawky and incompetent, he acts like a member of the chess club who secretly wants to become starting varsity quarterback. Always striving and never succeeding, he can’t even get his maniacal laugh right. Captain Hammer's archetype undergoes a similar switch up. Forget any pretentions toward nobility and self sacrifice. This is a preening, crass, loutish “hero” who only wants to steal the spotlight, bed the girl and move on to the next escapade. And the Broadway-esque songs that periodically pop up act almost like a musical distancing effect, constantly reminding us of the story’s silliness, its intentional incongruity.
Almost -- but not always. If inversion was all Whedon was after, the film would be merely a pomo exercise, technically excellent and ultimately empty. But it isn’t. When the final song begins, a realization starts to worm its way into your mind, the thought that by profaning one genre Whedon is subtly honoring another, namely that of tragedy. The final note falls like a hammer, driving home the theme that a wrong choice can wreck you, destroying your soul even while it seems to be giving you the very world. Unexpected, heartbreaking and powerful.
You can watch Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog for free at Hulu.com or download it from iTunes.
(Picture: CC 2008 by 'Scratch')