The Hero of Dr. Horrible
There is one. Penny is not, as Joss Whedon noted, “a feminist icon for our age,” but she saves lives. No one else does during the running time of Dr. Horrible. Captain Hammer thinks he does, but we know better. Dr. Horrible thinks he saved Penny, too, but he just narrowly avoided killing her by accident. (Whoah, foreshadowing.)
Someone asked Joss at Comic Con what his greatest fear was. Duh. He’s afraid of giant insects and something happening to his children, so his greatest fear is giant insects carrying off his children. Everyone knows that. But this time he had a different answer: “Madness.”
There’s one mentally ill character in Dr. Horrible. Homeless guy in Act III. The other homeless people we don’t get much of a look at, but this one obviously . . . there’s something wrong. That thing that’s almost impossible to define. That lack of a shared reality with the rest of us. Which is an odd thought, considering he inhabits the Horriverse, a reality we only partly share. Interestingly, the part where there’s homeless.
Comic book worlds are (a) unlike ours and (b) like ours, a mix of the real and ideal. The latter provides the escapism. A superhero takes on a sea of troubles and by opposing ends them. The troubles look real enough to give the drama heft, and unreal enough to provide amusement.
Comic book worlds have their own rules, and this one looks like it’s playing by DC’s, old school, where the heroes and villains fight because, well, they’re superheroes and supervillains and their fighting amuses us. No one gets hurt too badly. Dr. Horrible gets a car thrown at his head, and it’s not fatal. It’s a for the blog, LOL.
But the Horriverse looks much like the real world (as portrayed by a studio backlot) and has real problems, including homelessness. Typing as someone with the chronic (but fortunately treatable) mental illness of clinical depression, I think we call them homeless because it’s rude to say crazy. A lot of homeless are the “deinstitutionalized” mentally ill. Home is where they have to take you in, and not even the state will take you in any more, not unless you pose a threat to yourself or others. Short of that, madness, if unchecked, will lead you out to the streets, if you can’t take care of yourself and no one will take care of you.
Joss didn’t specify what it is about madness he fears, but there’s a lot to choose from. It makes sense that he would choose Robin Balzer as the guest star of Buffy S8 issue 10, and all the kudos in the world to Jerrod for taking care of her at home since her mental illness set in. Other mentally ill people aren’t blessed with a Jerrod and must rely on the kindness of Penny, if they’re lucky enough to meet her. Yeah, mental illness can turn your life into a country song (taking away your job, your spouse, etc.) before it turns into a horror movie and takes away your self — everything about you that other people count on, respect, admire, love. I was fortunate in that I could always get a grip on reality even before I got my depression treated — lucky. That’s it. A few neurotransmitters either way, my story could have ended badly. It could have ended with me being unable to tell it, to blog about it, to discuss it rationally. And where would Joss be without his ability to tell stories, to communicate and connect? On the street with those who mutter at the demons in their heads?
These are the people Penny rescues. She does it without superpowers, and it doesn’t look like much fun. She’s self-effacing and self-sacrificing and even a bit self-deluding when she sings about harmony being on the rise. But she is good. Unlike any other character in Dr. Horrible, she does good and has good motives. And she does improve, if not actually redeem, Captain Hammer. He does learn something important from her, if not very well.
Penny’s the most real world character. She does what people who volunteer for the homeless do. She does low status work for low pay and with minimal recognition. Billy, with his little boy name, is cartoon Calvin grown old but not up, Hobbes’ pal finally getting to play out his mad scientist fantasies of omnipotence. Certain he is aggrieved, certain that his triumph is that of good over evil– a certainty Captain Hammer shares in reverse. They are dedicated to solving the world’s problems, as long as the world’s problems are their nemeses. (Zack Whedon‘s comic book had me worried, at first, that the mushortio would simply invert the formula, with good bad guys and bad good guys. Apparently I fell into his well-wrought trap.)
I enjoyed Act I and Act II, singing about “evil inside of me [being] on the rise,” ready for Hammer’s comeuppance. But Dr. Horrible not only rejected comic book formula, but rejected the inversion of comic book formula. Calvin grown older is still sympathetic (as long as that word includes pathetic and his opponent is, by some measures, worse) but his fantasies are no longer the consolations of childhood. They take place outside his head. Making them real makes them dangerous — waking nightmares, like schizophrenics have.
And the world shares his un-reality. Act III is (pardon my duh) a social satire on celebrity. Captain Hammer, like Paris Hilton, embodies a certain kind of fantasy, an escape from the real world and its problems. (She actually gets paid to attend parties; he actually is lionized for bullying a nerd.)
But Penny doesn’t share the common delusion. Yes, she was attracted to Captain Hammer, but only because it looked like he’d saved her life. She thought she was meeting someone like her, a fellow rescuer. Not the worst reason for sleeping with a guy. True, she fell for his smarm, but to be fair his smarminess fell (a little) for her genuine compassion and kindness.
Part of Act III confused me at first. I didn’t understand why Dr. Horrible sang that he felt nothing, until I realized that in his mind Penny’s death confirmed that the Captain Hammers of the world need to be defeated by the (not really) evil (just misunderstood and persecuted) geniuses. He feels no remorse about fulfilling his ambition, because Penny’s death proved he’s aiming at the right targets, the world’s Captain Hammers. He doesn’t see that he got her killed himself. He put his hatred of Captain Hammer before his love of Penny, put defeating him over rescuing her, and thereby demonstrated that he was motivated by something less than love.
Penny’s last words. First we hear them through BIlly’s ears and know what’s dying inside him. But then we puzzle out the surprise ending, to find its logic, and see that the battle between superhero and supervillain was all about . . . nothing. Ego, maybe. Weren’t we laughing, all along, at the intrusion of comic book conventions into a realistic world? Wasn’t the alternative reality’s unreality the source of amusement? Didn’t we enjoy being in on the jokes? Wasn’t it just a joke, the battle between superhero and supervillain, blowing up the conflict of nerd and jock to mock-epic proportions?
Hey, doesn’t Joss make a living telling superhero stories? Seriously. I take this supervillain musical seriously, because he is exploring the limits of his beloved form. He created a world where the battle twixt supergood and superbad just doesn’t amount to a hill of beans, not when stacked up against a good, nice, caring person’s life, or the real world problems of needy people. This is the work of someone who realized he’d wasted his time trying to write a Wonder Woman movie and who then, after the death of Dua Khalil, sought to inspire the community that formed around his awesome fantasies to deal with awful reality. This is strike-Joss, putting off work on comic books to work on something messy, complex, unlikely to succeed, and real. This wasn’t the beautiful metaphor of super-empowering women.
This was the story of a woman with not much power except her own capacity to love, a real woman much like the real heroes of this world. The tragedy isn’t that she dies without seeing who Captain Hammer is, or who Billy is. The tragedy is that she dies without seeing who she is. It’s a real problem.