Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Facinating Case of Dr. Horrible

Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog is another profound offering about living our complicated, human lives.

(If you're not familiar with this movie, see Tuesday's post first.)

We are introduced to "Dr. Horrible" (Neil Patrick Harris) through his video web blog, practicing his "evil laugh." Dr. Horrible, AKA Billy, is an amateur villain who is looking to move up in the ranks into the exclusive "Evil League of Evil."

The thing is, as we get to know Billy, we find that he's very likable and sweet, but very insecure. It's clear that his ethics aren't really immoral: he scoffs at the idea of a battle with a "do gooder" in the park because "there's kids in that park." In fact, he seems to clearly draw the line from doing any violence. He thinks the so called "path of evil" that he is undertaking will make the world a better place...and perhaps, most importantly, give him the courage concerning the girl he's secretly in love with but can't bring himself to talk to, Penny (Felicia Day). The gentle song in the laundromat involves his newest "secret weapon": a freeze ray. The freeze ray isn't the classic "ice gun" or anything that harms someone, but a device that pauses time so he can gather his thoughts and speak is heart (or at least, a coherent sentence) to Penny.

Penny is a lonely young woman who's an advocate for the homeless. She wants to change the world by caring for others. She seems to recognize the gentle nature of Billy almost immediately when they finally speak, and it appears that there is hope for a relationship.

Alas, a twist of fate: Penny is "saved" from a speeding van by Captain Hammer as he attempts to thwart Dr. Horrible's stealing of the final part for his freeze ray. Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillion) is an egotistic, careless glory hound that nevertheless fights for "good." He actually causes the runaway van in the first place when he sends the van out of control (damaging Horrible's controls). He throws Penny roughly out of the way into a pile of garbage bags, and it's Horrible who actually stops the van. Penny, however gets a case of hero worship for Hammer because she believes that he saved her life...and Hammer loves people who worship him (especially, we learn, potential female conquests).

Of great interest is the comparisons between Horrible and Hammer. Captain Hammer is clearly set up as the bully: you can imagine this guy picking on the weaker kids like Billy as he grew up (perhaps even leading Billy to to his evil schemes). There is no doubt that the viewers like and bond to Horrible as opposed to Hammer. There's no doubt who is more genuine and caring, and who is more interested in Penny as a person. You can also make the argument that Horrible is more interested in justice (for he sees injustice in the world) than Hammer, who simply fights "bad guys" because "A Man's gotta do what a Man's gotta do" (as the song goes).

There's no doubt in the viewer's mind that Penny would be better off with Billy than Captain Hammer.

Here's the thing: Dr. Horrible is still ultimately focused on obtaining power, motivated by a belief that seizing power will make things better (for himself and the world). He's not unlike Hammer in this sense, who uses his brute strength to be powerful.

Penny starts to realize that Captain Hammer is not really the real hero she thinks he is. Yes, Hammer has the power to influence the building of the homeless shelter, but he does so only to further Penny's vision of him (and not out of any concern for the homeless). Besides that...he's also a self-centered scumbag. It's only a matter of time before this relationship falls apart.

That same desire for power, however, dooms Penny and Billy from any lasting relationship so long as he pursues power. Consider the telling line about Bad Horse (the leader of the Evil League of Evil), Penny's reaction, and Billy immediately covering it up:

Billy: "I want to be an Bad Horse."
Penny: "The thoroughbred of sin?"
Billy: (gulps) "I meant Gandhi."

Deep down, Billy knows what he's doing is wrong, but tragically sees no other way to make a difference in the world.

It's possible, after spending more time with Penny, he might start realizing what power does and does not give. Billy would eventually have had to make a choice between his "evil ways" and pursuing other avenues than power to make a difference in the world.

This opportunity never presents itself, because Billy is gloated into wanting revenge on Hammer for stealing Penny. He thinks: when I have power, I will have all. He stops spending any time with Penny, and focuses only on the completion of a new death ray to kill Hammer so he will finally gain status into the "Evil League of Evil," in the process "rescuing" Penny from the insincere Hammer.

Irony of ironies, he hesitates when the moment to grab power arises, because he has to do something truly horrible to get it. Would he have pulled the trigger? We'll never know. Of course, Hammer reveals himself to be even more immoral in his attempt to kill Horrible: no hesitation there. The shocking, tragic results (ok, not shocking if you've watched Whedon's stuff before) is both not Billy's fault, and completely his responsibility. He, after all, put everyone in jeopardy by his attempt to seize power.

Of course, the final reality is that the power leaves Billy empty: only "Dr. Horrible" appears to exist at the end...not the conflicted, likable man, but a true villain.

Is he redeemable? Well, that's up to the Whedons', but certainly there's plenty of precedence for villains finding redemption, but it's a long, hard road. Someone will not only have to teach him to love again, but will also have to help him see value in his own life.

Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog was written by writer/director Joss Whedon, his brothers Zack Whedon and Jed Whedon, and Maurissa Tancharoen.


Anonymous said...

You can either have immense power or you can have the girl, but you can't ever have both. It's a common theme in sci-fi and you can turn it into a metaphor for practically everything.

It's also the core philosophy for all of Joss' work!

Kurt said...'s so true!

(Well, at least "you can't have the great love." Buffy would insist on that clarification, even if Willow would be ok with your original comment)