Years ago, I went to see the stage version of The Lion King in London. As the lights went down and people stopped talking, knowing that the show was about to begin, a kid one or two rows in front of me piped up. “I don’t like lions!” Well, tough, kid, you’re going to get lions, whether you like them or not.
Most people like lions, if they keep their distance and don’t attempt to eat you or your loved ones. What many people don’t like? Musicals. Some people don’t like action films, others aren’t really into horror movies, but I don’t think there’s a single genre that as many people claim not to like as musicals. To be honest, though: until a few years ago, I would have said the same, though I may have qualified it a bit more – I don’t like the Platonic ideal (i.e. the pretentiously formulated stereotype) of a musical that people may think of when the genre comes up. At the same time, some of the films I liked best growing up were musicals, such as Hair or Jesus Christ Superstar. I’ve even rewatched some musicals that didn’t click for me when I was growing up, like West Side Story, and I’ve come to greatly enjoy them. Similarly, “Once More With Feeling” is one of my favourite episodes of Buffy the Vampire Killer, and I’d defend its artistic merits as much as I would those of my favourite less jazz-handy episodes.
I know I’m once again half a year (or more) behind the rest of the internet – but I finally got around to watching Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, done by the Whedon brothers and some of their mates for a song and a half.
A lot has already been written about Dr Horrible, perhaps the world’s first internet-spawned super-villain musical starring Doogie Howser, M.D. So, not to bore people too much, let me fast-forward through the important bits (skip to the end!): I liked it a lot, the songs are infectious, it does have rather major tonal shifts, to the extent where some people thought that the ending sucked because it turned a light-and-frothy lark into something dark and depressing. Several critics accused Joss Whedon of doing what he always does (make the audience care about characters only to do horr- erm, heinous things to them) and of creating a female character that was supposedly a sexist cliché with no life or meaning of her own beyond what she meant to the male protagonists/antagonists.
While clearly some people might not enjoy Dr. Horrible, I do think that those who were surprised by the darkness of the ending weren’t really watching this. While the tone of the first two acts is largely fun and witty, there are some major scenes (and, perhaps more importantly, songs) that hinted at less fun things to come. I mean, honestly, people! Didn’t you watch the beginning of Act II? Or Penny’s song?
That’s also where my problem with the second main complaint comes in, namely that Penny (or “Whats-her-name”, as her close friends of the press know her) isn’t so much a character as a plot device. For one thing, clearly all of the three main characters are primarily stereotypes (with a couple of individual quirks, because otherwise it wouldn’t be Whedon). If Dr. Horrible is bad because Penny isn’t a character of Chekhovian richness, what about Captain Hammer, corporate tool? If any one character remains barely one-dimensional, it’s him. And yes, Penny is definitely also a projection pane for all the “nice guys” out there who secretly carry a torch for the nice, shy, somewhat nerdy girl with the cute smile, just as Billy is a perfect identification figure – which makes the ending more effective, in my opinion.
But what makes her a richer character than some have acknowledged is how, to some extent, she is complicit in what happens. Penny isn’t blind to Captain Hammer’s less charming qualities, but she projects her own needs onto him as much as Billy projects his onto her. Listen to her laundromat song and look at her face while she sings it, and it’s obvious that the character isn’t some Mother Theresa of the Laundromats: her niceness, her need to help others, these are a self-willed resignation that she’ll never get what she really wants, so the best she can hope for is to try and make things better for others while she’s pretty much given up on herself and her own wishes. Once the Hammer-man enters the pic, she can pretend that he’s her means of being happy, until even she can’t ignore his downright idiocy and vulgarity. But all of this is an act of will on her part: to do for others what she cannot do for herself, to resign herself to Captain Hammer because, well, it’s not as if she could do any better, could she?
I could spout some more pseudo-psychological drivel here, but I’m going to spare you. If you haven’t seen Dr. Horrible (and my post so far hasn’t turned you off it), do check it out. Get the DVD and you’ll even get Commentary! the Musical, Wiccan subtitles (?!) and fan-submitted application videos to the Evil League of Evil, such as this one: