Sunday, July 20, 2008

Dr Horrible's Singalong blog - Act 3 SPOILERS

When I say there are spoilers, I mean it. Go and watch Dr Horrible before you read this post.

I'm still very unsure how to read Dr Horrible's Singalong blog, and the thread at Feministe reveals that there are many ways understanding Dr Horrible's story.

As an origin story I appreciate it; I'd even say it was well done. Not just that there was a lot of the funny clever stuff that I'd expect (the appearance of Bad Horse was pure genius), but showing villains as having origin stories as well as heroes is a cool way of undercutting many of the tropes of an origin story.

I can also appreciate a straight political reading of the story (which is encouraged within the storyas both Penny and Dr Horrible directly discuss how to create change). I don't really mind that the wet liberal who gets sucked in by those in power dies (although not necessarily realistic, as a metaphor it shows the likelihood of that strategy working). I also don't disagree that nihilist, individualists often put their ego before the change they are trying to create and do harm without doing any good. But I don't think any of that says anything particularly substantial, without an alternative (The Chain, Chosen, Graduation, Anne, Prophecy Girl, Jaynestown - Joss does know the alternative).

One of the big questions for me is the depiction of Penny, as the only substantial female character (and it didn't pass the Bechedel test). I actually dislike the 'Joss writes strong female characters' idea, because it is so often referring solely to the female characters who are capable of beating someone up. As someone who was always more interested in Willow than Buffy and Kaylee than River, I appreciate his ability to write interesting female characters, more than his tendency to write so-called 'strong' ones. The idea that the most important female characters to depict are those that can beat up the men who are trying to abuse them, comes perilously close to victim blaming. It's very satisfying to watch Buffy killing Angel at the end of Becoming II, but the death of the robot at the end of I Was Made to Love You, is just as true statement about relationships.

So I have no problem with Penny dying, because women do die when men fight over them (this is from the New Zealand news media today, it's being called a 'crime of passion'). I don't even really have a problem that she is so one dimensional, as we see her through Dr Horrible's eyes, and it is clear that she is just an object to him.

The one thing I did object to was the shot of her in the laundromat with frozen yoghurt, presumably waiting for Billy. The idea is that Billy could have got what he wanted if only he was prepared to treat Penny like a person. If he'd talked with her, rather than built a freeze ray, she would have returned his affections. I really dislike that aspect of these sorts of geek stories, because sometimes people don't love you back. As written it plays into Billy's entitlement over Penny.

I do think that Penny's death and Dr Horrible becoming actually evil was the only way the story could end, and I can see the importance of it as a story. To take us in through the eyes of a low-rent villain, and have us believe him that he's actually the hero, until he's not.

But ultimately, it's not a story that interests me that much. A death ray may be a substitute for a rocket-launcher, but this story didn't have any emotional resonance. The only person whose path was real enough to resonate was Dr Horrible. His loneliness in the last shot, and even the hollowness of getting have truth in them, but for me that is undercut because Dr Horrible's feelings for Penny didn't resonate, and must be, on some level, creepy.

Even more fundamentally, I come back to Grace Paley - because this story was lacking both blood and money. Now Joss has always been kind of shaky on the material reality of his stories (which was what made Firefly so strong), but he's always written about family - actual and created. Without blood there is not heart to his story.


  1. I've been scouring the web the last couple of days to see if I could find anyone who was not enamoured with Dr. Horrible. Everywhere I turned, I found nothing but adulation for a film that I found to be far below the author's main body of work.

    I've written a rather long review of exactly what I felt was wrong with it here:

    But you picked up on something I hadn't noticed, and I suspect it's probably just because I'm a guy living in a world in which guys initiate the vast majority of romantic relationships and end up the "receiving" party in most breakups. I hadn't made the connection that Billy treated Penny as an object to which he felt entitled. Her rather one-dimensional portrayal only seems to bolster this viewing of their relationship.

    What I saw in it was a gilding of the typical geeky-guy obsession over a cute girl. Because of Billy's social immaturity, he finds the prospect of initiating contact with Penny almost terrifying. When he is finally forced to talk to her, he then becomes fully enveloped in a platonic relationship with her, never setting a tone of any sort of romantic interest. As you said, sometimes people don't love you back, and this story only seems to serve as a message of "keep up the hope" for this kind of activity.

    Not to mention, Billy goes on to stalk Penny, and that is just completely glossed over.

  2. Anonymous12:10 am

    That shot of her waiting could also be interpreted platonically, though. I'm not saying it was necessarily intended to be, I'm just saying, people often wait for the friends they enjoy chatting to.
    Besides, any feelings she had for him were really just a crush and she would have gotten over them quickly, imho. Sometimes people don't love you back, yes, and she didn't. (He didn't love her, either, but that's not the point I'm making.)

    Everything else you've said here, I agree with.