Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Dr. Horrible Inverts, Honors

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 or download it from iTunes.

(Picture: CC 2008 by


B. Nagel said...

An Emmy? That's new. And wonderful.

As you view the video again and again and indoctrinate your friends, family and acquaintances, you will discover yourself singing along. Even when the video isn't actually playing. It's a sickness.

Nice write up, BTW.

Loren Eaton said...

With my freeze ray
I will stop the world!
With my freeze ray
I will find the time to
Find the words to
Tell you how,
How you make,
Make me feel ...

Chestertonian Rambler said...

Here's the real funny thing: he's actually honoring the tragic conventions *as they exist in supervillain literature.*

Mookie (author of the excellent webcomic Dominic Deegan) has a shockingly workable description of superheroes and supervillains:

* Superheroes have power thrust upon them; supervillains build power for themselves.

* Superheroes tend to be naturally strong; supervillains tend to be naturally smart and devious.

* Superheroes are thrust into situations where they have to do the (personally painful) right thing; supervillains (in the best stories) tend to be embittered towards the world--they act out of a philosophical sense of justice, but it is horribly warped or their response is disproportionate. (Think of Two-Face, from Batman.)

* Superheroes tend to end their stories with pain and sacrifice, which they accept and move on. Supervillains tend to be unable to accept their pain, and their stubborn pride results in their (physical or moral) destruction.

What Joss gives us is a straightforward supervillain origin story. His trick is to make us sympathize with the villain--and then, in a final gut-churning reversal, to show full-bore the results of irresponsible self-obsessed evil.

Dr. Horrible gets what he always claims to want, but it is the death of everything that made him adorable and sympathetic.

Meanwhile, as I argued previously, Joss played two genres against each other. In musicals, the bad guy gets the girl and becomes good. He set up that ending. Instead, we got the straight-up supervillain ending, in which the villain gets power at the cost of his humanity. The knife you feel in your gut is the sudden shift in genres.

Loren Eaton said...

That is a very interesting analysis, CR. I think it's pretty dead-on, too. Whedon seems to be emphasizing different aspects of the genre(s) to drive his theme home (although I think the distancing effect still holds true for much of the music, especially the Bad Horse song). It's not completely unlike what Shyamalan did with Unbreakable, emphasizing one section of the archetypal superhero narrative so much that it almost becomes unrecognizable.

Loren Eaton said...

Wait, just thought of something: Captain Hammer is most definitely an inversion of the standard order. Everything he does is out of selfish ambition. Of course, this is a supervillain story ...

Chestertonian Rambler said...

Ever read a Wolverine story? (Kidding somewhat, though contemporary superheroes can be a bit less purely good than Silver Age folk.)

Loren Eaton said...

Would I lose all credibility in your eyes if I answered no? Just hypothetically, of course ...