Sep 7

These are not the hammer.

Posted by A Writer


It took a while, but I've finally entered the Joss Whedon world.  It's actually hard to imagine that I've been out of the loop on this guy for this long; anyone who did Buffy, Angel, and Firefly (plus the Serenity bonus round…and even the screenplay for Toy Story!) has serious street cred, and Whedon's got more than most (hell, his father was a screenwriter for The Electric Company, which is cool, even if I don't really understand why that show would need a writer).  He's got a huge number of fans (Whedonistas, Whedonivas, Browncoats…and probably lots of other names, but you get the idea), a crazily impressive career, and now, to top it all off, he's got an Internet musical about a bizarro supervillain played by the former Doogie Howser.


Yes, I'm of course speaking (as every Whedonista knows) of Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, which came out a couple of months ago (I know, I know, I told you I was way behind the curve here).  It's really just your typical boy meets girl, boy loves girl but also secretly intends to take over the world, boy has to deal with arch-nemesis who also is interested in girl musical blog…which makes about as much sense in practice as it does in theory.  But for most of the show it really doesn't matter; Neil Patrick Harris is funny and appealing as Dr. Horrible, and everyone drops pop culture references, puns and jokes like they're going out of style (my favorite: the head of the League of Evil, which Dr. H desperately wants to get into, is Bad Horse. Nickname: "The Thoroughbred of Evil.").  Add in some funny inside jokes for people who have ever read a superhero comic book in their lives, and some reasonable production values (it's even got some decent music!), and you ought to have a solid satire of most of these supervillain origin stories.

Until, that is, the end.  And if you haven't seen the whole thing yet, go now and come back (I'll still be here, I promise), because I'm about to say a lot more about it (in other words, SPOILERS AHEAD).

Back?  Settled in?  Good.  Now then, how to put this…Um…


So Acts One and Two present a kind of light-hearted parody, with plenty of humor and fun…and even a mildly entertaining love story (albeit a vaguely creepy one, given Dr. H's evil tendencies).  And just when you feel you understand the mood of the show, and are ready for Act Three (again, SPOILER ALERT!!!!!!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!)…

…Penny dies, and Dr. H gets into the League of Evil, and the whole thing ends.  Everyone loses.  Really.  Roll credits.

I'm not sure what thing annoys me the most about this ending, so I'll just throw out my top three:

1.  It's completely incoherent.  The ending is utterly, completely and totally off from the entire tone of what preceded it.  Now I understand that Whedon is known for playing with genre conventions and winking at his audience the whole time (Buffy is pretty much entirely founded on screwing with typical horror movie tropes), and that he's never so happy as when he's killing off characters, but still–there's a difference between cleverness and tone-deafness, and this is a whole lot of the latter.  That Dr. H. goes on to get all the evil he ever wanted, but still feels vaguely angsty about the whole thing, doesn't change the complete illogic of the way the mood flips.

2.  It's pretentious.  Whedon actually claims that this work is a standard "tragedy," and therefore the ending fits within that tradition.  Uh, no.  First of all, I'm sorry, but this is called Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog for a reason, and it ain't to draw upon tropes from Euripides.  (The chief bad guy is freaking called Bad Horse, for God's sake!)  It's a light-hearted parody until we hit the last three minutes, when it takes a hard right turn into pathos for no particular reason, other than the idea that "bad stuff happens to good people" which is a. not always true and in any case hasn't been unique as an artistic concept in twenty years and b. a pretty lame message to deliver, if you've decided you need to deliver a message at all in a movie which has as one of its villains "Fake Thomas Jefferson" (no, I'm not making that up).  Second, tragedy is supposed to be transformative, cathartic.  What exactly is transformed in any of the characters?  Or the audience?  Do we feel purged from the experience of watching someone die thanks to a defective death ray?  Yeah, I don't think so either.

3.  It's at best absurdly conventional, at worst flat out sexist.  Penny is the only truly innocent one in the entire show, and as is the case with every standard horror movie, the innocent (and naive) has to die somehow.  (Of course, she does have sex before getting killed, so maybe that's the trope we're dealing with.)  Either way, the idea that Whedon, who has made a career out of creating strong female roles (though I'm a little more skeptical about how liberating Buffy really is than the Whedon fans seem to suggest), would even toy with sending the wrong message on either of these cases is mind-boggling.  And no, I don't buy that showing a single newspaper headline calling her "What's-Her-Name" is presenting some kind of deeply satirical message.  Gotta do better than that.

What it comes down to is that DHSAB is really disappointing, and it makes me seriously question if the rest of Whedon's work is as overrated as this.  I'd like to think it isn't–the Browncoats can't all be wrong, can they?–but given the worshipful treatment it's gotten everywhere, you have to wonder. And if the rest of his work demonstrates these kinds of bad decisions, I don't think I'll be wearing this anytime soon.

Leave a Reply