Is ‘Dr. Horrible’ Joss Whedon’s Masterpiece?


Buffy the Vampire Slayer is my all time favourite television series. Not only for the content but the way it reshaped the modern entertainment industry, blended and challenged genre tropes while remain accessible and helped take geekdom out of its mother’s basement through its cross-culture appeal. I’m just that kind of geek. I’ve watched the series from start to finish multiple times and it’s still thrilling. The Avengers is possibly the pinnacle of comic book cinema, celebrating superhero culture rather than trying to rework it for a larger mainstream audience. Joss Whedon has made geekiness cool, oversaw an eleven episode series that still has people clamouring for more a decade later and is now tackling Shakespeare.

Having said that, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog could well be his opus.

It’s also his least seen work. Taking the show to the internet instead of the usual channels of television and cinema as a result of the Hollywood writers strike it initially drew in only a relatively small audience. Before long word got out and the awards starting coming in, pushing the viewer numbers further up. Even then it’s tricky for such an unorthodox concept on a small budget to compete with a big name studio blockbuster. It’s profit’s wouldn’t scratch that brought in by far inferior musicals like Sweeney Todd or Hairspray.

Dr. Horrible tells the story of Billy, a wannabe super-villain who is on the verge of making the big time by being accepted into the Evil League of Evil. The only thing he wants more than membership to the ELE is the ability to talk to the girl of his dreams, Penny. During one of his heists he is not only foiled by his nemesis Captain Hammer but the superhero manages to connect with Penny. Torn between his reluctance to actually murder someone and his desire to break into the big leagues, seeing Penny with Captain Hammer may be enough to push him over the edge. The whole thing is, of course, told through a musical.

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The first thing that makes this such a remarkable piece of media is that it fits better character work into an hour than some movies do over two and a half hours. Heck, it does better than some television shows manage over the course of years. The focus is on Billy aka ‘Dr. Horrible’. Although he is given some more backstory in the subsequent comic spin-offs the actual three part series doesn’t dwell on what events brought Billy to this stage in his life, nor does he outwardly express his motivations. It’s the writing and performance (from Neil Patrick Harris) that sells the character. Billy uses his Dr. Horrible persona to give himself confidence, but in reality he’s cripplingly shy and trying to hide his true feelings behind staged interactions, like ‘accidentally’ receiving two frozen yoghurts. He is forever in conflict with himself, torn between trying to gain entry into the Evil League of Evil and earning Penny’s love even though he could never be Dr. Horrible around her. Unable to have both he winds up spiralling downward towards irreversible evil.

At times Billy/Dr. Horrible seems to be prepared to give up his evil pursuits in order to be with Penny, a kind soul who has dedicated her life to helping others. Whilst they share similar ideologies it’s their different temperaments that see them seeking social change through radically different means. Although their friendship grows during the series this basic difference in attitude creates a rift that Billy struggles to close without giving up his dreams. Ultimately it’s a tragedy, as our hero’s inability to work out his priorities leads to his downfall.

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There’s something remarkably truthful about Billy/Dr. Horrible. Even though we only see him through his blog and his evil persona there’s something very…geeky about him. He’s socially awkward, dreams big and wishes he could drum up the courage to get what he yearns for. When Captain Hammer – every part the stereotypical jock in superhero form – gets the girl we have the classic nerd character-type set-up. The feeling that you’ve lost something to the bigger, stronger and cockier figure through you’re own ineptitude may feel uncomfortably close to Whedon’s core audience – especially those watching things online.

Through masterful writing the audience always sides with Billy, even though he directs his anger outward onto Captain Hammer and, to a degree, Penny rather than examining himself. By the end of the story it’s his own folly and inability to learn from his errors, or appreciate what he has (shown when his super-villain friends are trying to get in touch with him towards the end) that lead to his fall, not the machinations of anyone else. Kind of the opposite of what George Lucas did in the shitty Star Wars prequels. Meanwhile his rival and love interest are shown to be growing and becoming better people. Captain Hammer learns to be more empathetic and Penny starts to see them both in new lights. Billy ultimately destroys everyones life, including his own, yet his emotional journey remains sympathetic.

That’s damn good writing right there. And told in a condensed format with musical numbers.

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Yes, the songs. Giving Neil Patrick Harris the chance to flex his vocal skills is always a good idea, and these original numbers are perfect. With adaptations of Broadway and jukebox musicals making up the bulk of cinematic musicals it’s plenty refreshing to get new material, and with a low budget the onus is on the music and not the spectacle. There’s the perception with many cinematic musicals that they have to somehow out-do any stage visuals, but this proves otherwise. Story and performance are the winners here.

I’m starting to repeat myself. Dr. Horrible is funny, emotionally involving and full of catchy tunes (plus there’s Commentary! The Musical on the DVD for extra awesome). Perhaps because of the restrictions on production – limited time and budget – that forced the creative team to bring out their best. As much as I love Buffy, FireflyThe Avengers and everything else Dr. Horrible doesn’t put a single foot wrong. This could be Whedon’s best work.

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And I will never not laugh at Bad Horse.

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