I realize how pretentious of me it is to say that most people didn’t get Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, but I do. But I just saw so many people talking about what a clever inversion it was of good vs. evil, or referring to it as a straight-up origin story of a villain, whereas I think the really clever aspect of it got mostly missed. The story has jack to do with good or evil; in fact, it’s explicitly about how incredibly meaningless those terms are. What does signify, in the DHSAB universe, is people as a collective vs. the individual.
Dr. Horrible is unique in his little world by virtue of *having a perspective on the world.* Captain Hammer in his narcissistic way and Penny in her kindly way are both, as Dr. H says, treating the symptoms – they’re looking at life in isolation. Am I awesome? Will you sign this petition to open a shelter? They’re not critical of anything. Hammer is a Big Fucking Winner, and he likes things exactly the way they are. Penny’s characterization is kind of subtle – you have to listen carefully to the lyrics she sings in her timid, little-girl voice – but she’s clearly someone who’s wrestled with sadness and disillusionment just like Dr. H, but her disillusionment only barely extends beyond the bounds of her own life. Once she’s being wooed by Captain Hammer, as far as she’s concerned, the world is suddenly a better place – “finally becoming wise,” which seems obvious to her because she herself is happier. Both of them are people who want, themselves, to be happy – they’re ordinary in that way; they’re just like everyone else. (Penny is smart enough to be slightly troubled by that viewpoint – she is *not* as happy as she feels like she ought to be, but she doesn’t understand the source of the disconnect, and she dies without doing so.)
Dr. Horrible is a ball of outrage and despair. His enmity with Captain Hammer isn’t because one of them is good and one of them is evil, it’s because Dr. H hates and resents the fact that *no one but him* seems able to see how self-serving and petty Captain Hammer is, what a half-hearted sham his “heroism” really is. Dr. Horrible wants a world of truth, however ugly it is; he doesn’t want to kill or get rich, really, he wants to be heard when he screams about what’s wrong with the world, and what drives him insane is that he knows he can’t scream loud enough to make that happen. Even as he’s on the point of assassinating Hammer, he looks around the room and is haunted by the reality that no one will see why he’s doing this, no one can hear him. He’s just distant thunder, in spite of the fact that he has truth on his side.
If you identify with that description, I wouldn’t be surprised. Most comic books have an underlying conservative ethos (more on that in a minute); DHSAB subverts that into the outraged scream of the progressive soul. The fix is in, your Important Men are selfish and false, nobody wants to hear the truth, people don’t understand anything but fear and are easily manipulated by shiny, pretty things and the lies that the talking heads feed them from the tv screen. Think I’m reading too much into this? Remember that DHSAB was written as Joss Whedon’s WGA strike project, and remember that he is the union organizer who famously warned people in the last days of the strike not to trust the men of power, and not to forgive them. This story is absolutely a screed about helplessness in the face of power that, corrupt or not, is still in power – and about a world where most people just won’t or can’t see it.
Captain Hammer’s act 3 song is an incredibly twisted piece of satire that cuts several ways at once. Everyone’s a hero in their own way? Well, we’re supposed to want that, aren’t we? That’s democracy, that’s empowerment, that’s populism. Yes, We Can! Yes, *you* can change things – sort of, a little bit. Less than the Important Men, but you matter, too! It’s something we want desperately to believe, and something that seems impossible to attack on moral grounds. And yet, and yet. Look who’s selling you this vision of empowerment. Look who wants you to believe it, and ask yourself, as you go about performing your small personal heroics, whose interests are served by fixating you in the minutiae of your own life, in showing you that your place is to be a hero *in your own way.* Not in theirs. The first half of act 3 is daring you to look up at the podium and ask yourself *who benefits from individualism?* And if what you see is that it’s the individuals of privilege – the special people, the talented, the fortunate, the blessed – then who is everyone else sitting in the peanut gallery, raptly attentive and swaying in their seats to the sound of the Important Man passing down his wisdom? Really let yourself think about that scene, and then see how soundly you sleep tonight. About like Dr. Horrible, I bet.
I think the reason that Penny’s death has raised so much ire and strikes people so much the wrong way is that what it does is derail DHSAB from this purpose, its actual narrative through-line. So, what have we learned today? Dr. Horrible makes a dreadful mistake when he loses control of his anger and becomes violent for the first time, because violence begets violence, live by the sword die by the sword, blah blah blah. His punishment for crossing the line is that he literally and figuratively murders the best part of himself – his human connection to Penny, and also the simple part of himself who seemed decent and had an inner life and cared about the truth. There is no more Billy, the nice guy from the laundromat; there’s only Dr. Horrible. How are we as an audience supposed to react to that? Five-sixths of the film is about the righteousness of fury in the face of pettiness and corruption and a system where bad people profit off the foolish and intimidate the ones who can see. The last sixth is a cautionary tale that suggests that Billy would’ve been better off if he’d left well enough alone and kept bringing Penny frozen yogurt. They don’t fit, which is why Penny’s death seems so unnecessary and arbitrary: from a narrative point of view, *it is.* It’s lazy. It’s an emotional manipulation that allows the story to step sideways and avoid carrying to any logical conclusion. Essentially, she dies because the writers had come up with a story too harrowing for them to end honestly. Instead the end it with a ball of cliches – the too-good-for-this-world woman, the pyrrhic victory of achieving worldly success over personal contentment, violence begets violence blah fucking blah – that are emotionally effective and artistically executed enough to distract us from the basic fact that nobody knows the answer to this. Nobody, even those of us who can see it happening, really know what to do next.
But what the hell, it’s still less offensive than The Dark Knight.
Now, as an action movie, I liked DK as much as the next fangirl; I’d be lying if I said otherwise. Bat-cycle fast! Aaron Eckhart pretty! But I’m going to punch the next nerd who tells me that it’s “the year’s smartest summer film” right in the face, because the plot is the most morally bankrupt thing I’ve seen come out of comic books since that one Heroes for Hire cover. For Christ’s sake, the whole emotional payoff of the movie is that Batman and Gordon collude to cover up the crimes of the city’s DA because they think it will make Gotham City *feel better* if they can continue to believe that some people are just too radiantly good to cause harm. If that makes any goddamn sense to you whatsoever, I hereby revoke your right to complain about anything your own government chooses to keep from you because you’ll feel better if you just don’t know.
But under the “your Important Men are acting in your best interests, we swear – just look over there, please” layer of bullshit, there’s another, sicker layer of wtfery, and that’s the fetishization of the Lone Hero, the One Man Who Can Save Us. The movie is all about whether or not Bruce Wayne dares to surrender that role to Harvey Dent, which everyone involves seems to agree would be much better, if it could be done. To deconstruct: if we could manage it, it would be much better if the One Man Who Can Save Us were an elected lawman rather than a rich vigilante. Which...okay, given those options, sure. But what kind of person still seriously believes that Saving Us is some kind of legitimate job, and we just have to pick the guy who’s best at it? Okay, that’s rhetorical. Plenty of people believe that, and it’s what keeps Jesus Christ and presidential campaigns in business. But at best, it’s a hyperconservative worldview that seeks a return to some kind of imaginary top-down utopia, be it the family patriarch, the philosopher-king, or Caesar single-handedly defending the gates of Rome. To buy into the Dark vs. White Knight, you have to be the kind of person who can swallow the whole concept of “the hero Gotham needs and/or deserves,” in order to get to the paramount importance of preserving Gotham’s faith in that hero *even if said faith is built entirely on misinformation and lies.*
And that’s what really enrages my inner Dr. Horrible. The filmmakers don’t give a fuck that it’s a lie. The characters don’t give a fuck that it’s a lie. Hell, the audience doesn’t give a fuck that it’s a lie. Our faith should be “rewarded” (what a patronizing fucking statement *that* is), and if our faith was in bullshit to begin with – if we had faith in the concept that good men never do bad things, that pain and suffering don’t truly touch the honorable soul, and that sheer, self-serving villainy is responsible for all the suffering in the world – well, it’s still better for us to have the comfort of our misplaced faith than it is for us to possess the truth. That’s the worst, most vicious, most dangerous message I can frankly imagine coming out of a 200 million dollar summer blockbuster. That couldn’t be more corrosive to true human potential if Chris Nolan were getting a paycheck from Satan himself.
I Believe in Harvey Dent? Sure, I do. I absolutely believed in him as a character (Ledger’s performance was amazing and I’m glad to see it being praised, but sorry to see it overshadowing Eckhart’s equally amazing work in this movie), as his *actual character.* The guy who wanted to do right, but didn’t know how to handle the overwhelming reality of his own powerlessness. The Joker’s goal was to break Dent by showing him that you can’t create a world that excludes pain no matter how hard you work at it (interestingly, the Joker’s mental narrative for the world reminds me of nothing so much as the theme of Serenity), and thereby to render Dent’s life, wholly devoted to the work of saving the world, a meaningless disaster. And that’s pretty much how it went. Plenty of people lose loved ones, even in terrible, vicious ways, without becoming Batman villains, but those people are able to release their sense of control, to accept that life’s just *like* that sometimes, and that suffering may or may not have meaning, but the important thing about suffering is that it’s unavoidable. Harvey Dent ultimately couldn’t accept that; his belief that suffering *should* be unavoidable, that it’s something that should not happen to people who make their own luck, made him fragile in the face of the entropy that the Joker embodies. I believe that just fine. I think that’s a story that should be told, inside and outside of the Batman universe. I believe that we’ll all survive this world just a little bit more intact if we learn a little humility about the usefulness of our sense of order in the face of the universe’s chaos and the ability to suffer without losing sight of who we are. That’s a good story, and that’s the story that Batman and Jim Gordon don’t think you and I are fit for.
Oh, and just to add insult to injury, I think the story’s most vicious twist wasn’t the grossly cliched murder of Rachel Dawes, but the murder of Bat!Brian. There was a lot of talk in Batman Begins of “inspiring” people, but this movie gives us the one man who seems to have been genuinely inspired, and it treats him like shit. He’s pudgy and sort of nebbishy and he can’t kick ass like Bruce Wayne and he doesn’t have a mad scientist on the payroll, so it’s safe to treat him with contempt, even though he’s out there trying to do the exact same thing that Bruce is, with one hell of a lot less chance of surviving. They made him whine his question about what makes him different from Bruce, and they gave Bruce some kind of snappy comeback that, I can’t recall, had something to do with being a nebbish with bad fashion sense? Something that certainly didn’t answer the question, because the only honest answer to it is that in the Batman universe, only one guy gets to be The Guy, that job’s taken, and nobody else should bother showing up. It’s apparently vaguely embarrassing that some people think otherwise. Who do they think they are, anyway?
When Brian dies, he’s in tears, about to be tortured for the world to watch. But when the Joker asks him why he does it, he says that Batman inspired him to live his life in less fear than before. *To the Joker,* he says this. Would you have been able to string a sentence together? Would you have been able to look Heath Ledger’s Joker in the face and say he didn’t deserve your fear?
Everyone’s a hero in their own way? Maybe, maybe not. But that dude was a hero in every last fucking one of them that’s really worth something. I wish that movie hadn’t used him to prove how little we all matter when grand deeds are afoot.