The Man Who Murdered the Funny Death
I’ve just about recovered from the emotional bomb blast that was Act III of Dr. Horrible. I still have not recovered from Felicia Day e-laughing at my silly song, and I’d prefer not to recover ever, since I haven’t played “Walking on Sunshine” that many times in years. Until I saw Act III, and then it was back to “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” the Tori Amos version, which somehow transforms it into a good song. (Turning “Walking on Sunshine” into a good song would, however, just be wrong.)
Act III = totally uncompromising. I should have expected that, since on this project Joss and his were beholding to no master, but I remember distinctly in one interview him saying that he was not the kind of guy to write a movie you walked out of saying, “I don’t know how I feel about that,” because, he said, he just wasn’t that cool. You knew how you felt about “The Body.” You knew how you felt about the death of Tara. You knew how you felt about the death of Buffy, both times. Death by violence and death by disease and death by supernatural causes fit in the Buffyverse.
But the Horriverse was a safe and silly place until the death of Penny, a fun send up of superhero and supervillain conventions. The conflict between Dr. Horrible and his nemesis was jokier than professional wrestling, taken seriously by the participants, because that’s what made it so much fun. The villain survived having a car thrown at his head. An exploding ray gun — clearly labeled “Death Ray” — with duct tape, humor’s own hardware — made the superhero bawl like a schoolyard bully. How could a Death Ray cause a death? You know, of someone who mattered?
I don’t think it was a mistake or an aesthetic error or a dip into the old bag of tricks, because death is a trick only if love is, or vengeance.
The trick is keeping death off of the stage. This story leaves you pondering your love of cartoonish violence. Because I remember really enjoying Act II, which started with the protagonist singing about the evil rising inside of him and ended with him resolving to kill his nemesis. This was not a universe without death. But it was the funny death. “A murder would be nice of course.” I’ve mentioned before, discussing Firefly’s “The Train Job” with its henchman cartoonishly sucked into an engine, that I’m against the funny death. I know it was The Rush Job, a weekend’s work done because the networks didn’t like the pilot, and that Joss’s original vision for Firefly was that killing would cost, would have more weight than a piano falling out of the sky, and I actually love most of “The Train Job,” but I thought he lost something with that one scene.
He’s got it back.