The musical is a dying breed; there is little room left for the genre in the world of cinema or in the imaginations of filmmakers. The reason for the decline has to do with a myriad of variables, but money is the real issue here. The musical became less and less popular throughout the years and audiences seemed to turn to other genres for their entertainment (Transformers: Dark of the Moon made over $900,000,00, ugh). I was not even enthralled with people harmonizing on screen at a young age; I just always knew there was something I didn’t like about the genre. Musicals are a way to focus more on style and less on substance, so maybe that’s why I never cared for them. Let me rephrase what I said in my Hipsters review, just because I don’t like musicals, that does not mean that they are garbage. I may have problems with the genre but many adore it and I am not attacking those (or you!) for having a preference.
There are some musicals that I do enjoy though. Hipsters would be a recent example and its genius comes from commenting on individuality within society as well as the importance of said individuality. A film like Hipsters contains both great song and dance numbers while still having a pertinent message. Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog is a musical that follows this formula and in doing so, made an impact on me. I had no idea what this musical was about or how it was created when I first watched it on Netflix Instant close to two years ago but it starred actors that I liked, so I took a chance. Neil Patrick Harris appears on screen donned in a doctor’s outfit with gigantic goggles attached to his head and is speaking into a webcam, addressing his fans. He is of course, playing Dr. Horrible, a villain intent on getting into the Evil League of Evil by creating a Freeze Ray and robbing a bank. I was hooked by the crazy characters of Dr. Horrible and when he started singing, I didn’t care, because it was clever and humorous. The jovial attitude, presented with a comic book story, was enough to win me over.
Before I get into what makes this musical a cut above the rest and talk more about the story, let me first talk about Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog’s inception. Let me also say that there will be spoilers in this post about the outcome for the characters.
You know who Joss Whedon is, right? If you don’t know about this wonderful, nerd of a man, he is the guy who created Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the series), Firefly, Dollhouse, and a few other esoteric projects. Whedon is also directing the Avengers movie, so he is more relevant than you might think (if you’re scoffing!). He is a man is concerned with bringing high-quality geek material to the public and has never thought to compromise something just because it’s limited in appeal. I might be preaching to the choir at this point, but Whedon is a respectable name in the industry and among nerds. All Hail Whedon.
Anyways, during 2007 and 2008, Hollywood faced a writers strike and numerous projects were put on hold. In this space of unfortunate time, Whedon got together with his brothers Jed and Zack. They were on a mission to create a project that would be independently funded by themselves and would have their friend-actors in it. $200,000 is what the web series cost and that was not even to pay for the actors, who agreed to do it for free. After being released on the web, the series was received with unanimous praise and it was awarded with many accolades. Whedon and company were able to get distribution for the series via DVD and Blu Ray, which was met with even more approval. The sales would be used to pay off the expenses and give the actors a cut of what they deserved. At this point, Whedon has said that they have met all expenses and the actors have been compensated.
So what makes Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog so amazing, you ask? It would have to do with the subject matter and the punches that the script is willing not to pull. The script is funny, yes, but the outcome is what really makes this story stick out. We will get to the ending in a bit but let us look at the story before we begin that part of my “argument”. Neil Patrick Harris plays Dr. Horrible who is a low level villain looking to make his mark on the world by joining the Evil League of Evil. He receives a letter from Bad Horse, the leader of the League, which states he has to commit a newsworthy crime in order to be accepted into the hands of the League. This is all well and good but things become complicated when Dr. Horrible’s private life infringes on his mission.
At the Laundromat, there is a girl named Penny (played by the beautiful, Felicia Day) who washes her clothes on the same day as Dr. Horrible (in public he goes by the name, Billy) and he has fallen in love with her beauty. He is not in his villain-outfit here of course, and she sees him as an everyday guy. Dr. Horrible wants to prove himself to not only the league but to Penny as well, to impress her. Little does he know that she is a do-gooder, the exact opposite of him and she wants to build shelters for the homeless in the surrounding area. Dr. Horrible, while trying to rob a truck full of material that he needs in order to finish his Freeze Ray, is distracted the sudden appearance of Penny. He ignores her and ruins any chance he might have had at making an emotional connection. The juxtaposition is made clear at this moment, the light and the dark side. Penny represents goodness in everyone while Dr. Horrible is the villainy.
Out of the blue a hero shows up to stop the robbery, this character goes by the name of Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillion). This ham of a superhero prevents Dr. Horrible from making off with the van and simultaneously saves Penny from getting run over by it. Penny is floored by this man who seems to be all about helping people like she is and embraces him. Dr. Horrible, who is disgusted by these turn of events, is able to make off with the materials he needs because of Captain Hammer being distracted by the beautiful, red-headed girl.
That was the first act; the second act revolves around the tension between the three characters and Dr. Horrible being torn between trying to win Penny over as well as getting into the Evil League of Evil. After a failed robbery attempt (with the Freeze Ray), Bad Horse requires Dr. Horrible to murder Captain Hammer or Dr. Horrible may face certain death himself. He is unsure whether or not this is the right thing to do until he finds out that Hammer is only trying to sleep with Penny out of spite. Below is the humorous scene in which Hammer reveals this true motives:
Thus ends the second act and we are forwarded into the third and final act. This is the act that people are torn about because it diverts from what a musical should be. Captain Hammer is announcing in a press conference that he intends to rid the city of the homeless. Penny is there to support her now boyfriend, Hammer, and all seems well until Dr. Horrible breaks through the doors. He fires his Freeze Ray at Captain Hammer and is successful at putting the meathead in a stasis. Dr. Horrible then goes to use the Death Ray to finish the job, but the weapon fails. Captain Hammer breaks out of stasis and attacks the Doctor, taking the Death Ray from him. Hammer aims the weapon at Dr. Horrible now, but the weapon explodes, causing immense pain to Captain Hammer. This is the first time he has ever felt pain and cries like a child for his mother. Dr. Horrible believes he has won until he sees that Penny has been hit with shrapnel. Before she dies, Penny says to Dr. Horrible that Captain Hammer will save her. The irony rings true here he has murdered his antithesis, a vision of everything he didn’t represent. Dr. Horrible’s tragic victory gets him into the league but we are left with him staring at the camera, out of character in the final shot. Watch the final song below:
The brief, yet detailed exposition is necessary in defining why I love this musical so much. I partly did it to inform you or to remind of you of the events in the series. The story is not what you come to a musical for. Musicals tend to end happily and the characters never face life changing decisions at the end, or to be more precise, life destroying decisions. Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog is not afraid to throw the viewer on their head and find a conclusion that actually makes more sense. Dr. Horrible’s love for Penny was genuine but he was not able to be his normal and evil self around her. This complication would have led to a relationship full of lies and would likely end unhappily. Did she have to die for him to see this? Not really, but there is another point that the script wanted to make. Dr. Horrible had to kill pure, goodness in order to become true, evil. Penny represented the last bit of humanity that Dr. Horrible had, she was the final test on his path to villainy.
Captain Hammer on the other hand represented those who achieve for the wrong reasons. People get involved in helping others for the sole purpose of being recognized or getting famous. The wrong reasons drove Captain Hammer, which is why he was defeated. He enjoyed the attention and hid behind a mask of falsity. The world needs people like Dr. Horrible or Penny, those who are fully invested in their causes, even if it means sacrifice. Of course the last shot makes you wonder if Dr. Horrible was happy with how things played out. I for one would like to think that he has found his place but he has regrets and will have to face those ghosts for the rest of his evil career.
Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog is unique in its premise and achieves a level of storytelling that is not commonly found in musicals. The musical attacks everything a musical stands for and it does it in a way that is comical and tragic. I always tell people about this little gem because I know that everyone will find something to love about the story. Even if you don’t care for the ending, the script makes a point about love and power, but don’t let me keep telling you, watch the whole thing sometime and remind yourself why this is a musical worth noting.