Whatever you may think of Joss Whedon, it is impossible to deny that his work (especially in the realm of television) never fails to provoke discussion. “Buffy Studies” – the niche of film scholarship that critically analysis Buffy and Angel – is nearly an academic discipline unto itself. There is also plenty of written material on both Firefly and Dollhouse (the former more than the latter). While Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog certainly enjoys a good reputation, I have seen comparatively little writing on it relative to the rest of Whedon’s oeuvre. In this essay, I will examine how Dr. Horrible examines masculinity via its performances by the film’s central characters. I will argue that both Dr. Horrible (Neil Patrick Harris) and Nathan Fillion (Captain Hammer) represent different masculine paradigms and that the film is ultimately critical of Dr. Horrible for succumbing to the same masculine faults that are embodied by Captain Hammer.
Whedon signals that Dr. Horrible is about the performance of masculinity first and foremost by his choice of genre. The musical is a format that demands that its characters literally perform their songs and choreography. Furthermore, musicals have a kind of cognitive dissidence at the heart of them. From the perspective of the other characters, are the performers *actually* singing and dancing or are the musical numbers just peculiar interludes that other characters do not acknowledge? The answer, of course, is that it doesn’t really matter but the logical observer in us can’t help but wonder whether musical performances are made salient to the characters in said musical. Thus, the musical is the perfect venue to examine the performance of masculinity, which is a performance that most men don’t even realize that they are doing.
The choice to work within the confines of the superhero genre once again calls attention to the performativity of the main characters’ actions . Due to the ubiquitous trope of heroes and villains having secret identities, superheroes constantly perform. For example, Clark Kent pretends to be a mild-mannered dope, Bruce Wayne a vapid playboy. These examples are relevant because both characters evoke questions of exactly which aspects are of their personality are authentic and which are performative. Is Clark Kent the “real” person, while Superman is an affected persona that helps to conceal Kent’s identity, or is it the other way around? Most Batman fans accept that Bruce Wayne is the performance while Batman is the real person underneath (an assessment that I disagree with, but that is another essay for another day). The one two punch of the superhero musical invites us to question who exactly is the true persona of both Captain Hammer and Dr. Horrible, and who is a performance.
The super personas of Captain Hammer and Dr. Horrible convey a lot of information about each character. Hammer adopts the masculine-associated title of “captain” and pairs it with a hammer, both a traditionally masculine tool and an object that signals a blunt and basic approach to problem solving (the old saying “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” comes to mind). Hammer seems to have also put the bare minimum of effort into his disguise, slapping a picture of a hammer on a yellow circle background onto a plain black shirt. From this lack of effort, the viewer can glean two key pieces of information. First, we learn that Hammer doesn’t take his super heroics all that seriously beyond his opportunities to inflict violence on Dr. Horrible. Secondly, there is very little that separates Hammer from his non-superhero persona. He is a pair of gloves and a homemade symbol away from being a normal guy, the implication being that being Captain Hammer is his normal life. Billy, on the other hand, has clearly given his persona more thought. He has more elaborate props, such as his goggles, which are purely theatrical and never actually used until he switches costumes at the end. Billy also takes on a masculine-associated “doctor” title but it is to emphasize his intelligence rather than his strength. We also see that Billy puts a lot of thought into his super villainy, trying on new catchphrases and pursing the super villain career path of joining the Evil League of Evil.
Hammer and Horrible figure nicely into a classic nerd vs jock dichotomy, which incidentally sets them up as embodying different masculine paradigms. Hammer is old school masculinity, valuing simple brawn over all else. We see this in the way that Hammer solves problems. He stops the Billy’s heist in Act 1 by punching the van control device and forcefully pushing Penny in the garbage, he tries to impress her on their date by showing off his physical strength on the swan boat and he tries to kill Horrible with his own death ray. Billy is a newer masculinity that is very much a response to the former. He solves problems with his mind, designing technology like the freeze ray and van remote. Billy rebels against the classically masculine norms that Hammer is emblematic of, but he is frustrated that this rebellion means that he can’t have the things that Hammer has. He wants people to think he’s good looking, capable, loveable and more than anything else, he wants Penny’s affection. None of this is meant to endorse Billy’s perspective, as I think the film ultimately rejects it and this will be discussed later in the essay.
One of the crucial takeaways from what I have said so far is that superheroes and masculinity are explicitly paired in the world of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. The story is about two men who represent different masculine paradigms each trying to validate said paradigm by proving that they can attract a woman. It just so happens to be the case that the brains vs brawn battle for Penny’s affection is dramatized through the means of the superhero musical, which calls attention to the specific context of masculine performance that is always present in love triangle stories. Every super-event in the film, such as the wonderflonium heist, Horrible’s off-screen freeze ray test and the showdown at the homeless shelter are all explicitly linked to Billy and Hammer’s competition for Penny’s affection. The heist is performed to get the freeze ray working, which “My Freeze Ray” equates with winning Penny’s affections, the off-screen heist tests the freeze ray and the showdown is a direct response to Hammer emasculating Billy at the laundromat by flaunting his victory in the chauvinistic competition for Penny’s affections.
Whedon makes it easiest to answer the question of “which persona is the mask” with Captain Hammer. Captain Hammer is distinguished from Billy in that he only has one persona that the audience actually gets to know. We never meet his civilian identity, even when he meets Penny at the laundromat or goes on a date with her. Penny doesn’t even seem to acknowledge that Hammer has any more to his life than being Captain Hammer. She tells people that she’s Captain Hammer’s girlfriend, making no reference to a civilian persona. In some sense, in virtue of consistently presenting himself as a superhero, Captain Hammer is always performing. It is no mistake that we are introduced to the character while he is singing and that we spend most of our time with him in songs. Regarding the theme of the performance of masculinity, it is no accident that Hammer is also the most classically masculine character in the film on top of being the most consistent performer. The audience sees Hammer solve problems with brute strength repeatedly throughout, with his muscularity being referenced by both Penny and himself. In addition, when Hammer says that he is “going to give Penny the night of her life, just because [Billy wants] her”, he reveals that he is primarily motived by the prospect of dominating and emasculating his enemy than by any romantic feelings he might have towards Penny.
Contrasted against the consistent, hypermasculine performance of Hammer is the bifurcated Billy/Dr. Horrible. Unlike Captain Hammer, the lines between the Doctor and Billy are blurry. In Doctor Horrible’s first song, we see Billy in the laundromat singing as well. In his second song, aptly titled “A Man’s Gotta Do”, Billy is seen only briefly before the context of the song demands that he shift personas and change into his super hero outfit. The lyrics to “A Man’s Gotta Do” can even be read as Billy’s two personas engaging with one another. As Billy considers abandoning the courier van heist (signaled by his longing gaze in Penny’s direction and the conflicted expression on Billy’s face), the music kicks in and the audience hears:
“A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do
Don’t plan the plan if you can’t follow through
all that matters: taking matters into your own hands
Soon I’ll control everything; my wish is your command”
In the first line, the masculine is explicitly evoked to justify Billy’s continuation of his actions as Dr. Horrible. The second line makes the most sense directed at Billy himself, since he is the one who is in danger of not following through on his plan. This line begins the trend of Billy including the word “you”, rather than “my” or “I”, in his lyrics despite singing to himself. It is tempting to read the final line as the typical claim that a supervillain would make to the public, but it wouldn’t make sense for “you” to shift from referring to Billy in the previous lines of the verse to the citizens of the city in the final line. Instead, we should read the final line as Dr. Horrible shifting from encouraging Billy to take part in the performance of supervillainy to threatening him. In Act 1, Billy primarily moves around in the real world while his Dr. Horrible persona is relegated to the film’s musical segments and one-take blog sequences (the blog is another form of performance, which is why Horrible is seen doing it). The implication is that Billy is still the one in control, needing to be coaxed into performing the heist and hanging on the prospect of a normal life.
The third song, “My Eyes”, is the only one that is performed by Billy outside of his guise as Dr. Horrible. This shift is crucial because it backs up the message behind the song. When Billy sings:
“Anyone with half a brain
Could spend their whole life howling in pain
‘Cause the dark is everywhere And Penny doesn’t seem to care
That soon the dark in me is all that will remain”
He is telling the audience that Dr. Horrible is in danger of taking control of their shared identity (“the dark” being an obvious reference to his supervillainy). As such, we are being shown here that the lines are starting to blur, and Billy is now acting as we have only previously seen Dr. Horrible act.
In the laundromat confrontation between Billy and Hammer, Billy is utterly unequipped to handle Hammer outside of his super villain persona. He frantically tries to leave after learning about Hammer’s arrival, going so far as to leave his clothes behind. Hammer controls the interaction, going on a lengthy monologue while Billy is nearly paralyzed. After Hammer leaves, Billy once again starts singing and quickly changes into the Horrible persona. It is during the song “Brand New Day” that Billy is confident and collected, even as he misses all of the darts that he throws at a cut-out of Hammer’s head. Billy’s fantasy of being a giant who is capable of physically intimidating and scaring Hammer betrays the fact that his fantasy is about no longer being at the mercy of macho guys like Hammer, rather than the social change that he frequently demands. This is a running theme, as we see Billy frequently fantasize about his super villain victories. In “My Freeze Ray”, Billy imagines himself dancing with Penny and sings about them ruling the world. It is telling that Billy never fantasizes about actually ruling the world or having henchmen or followers of his own but only about getting the girl and defeating his male adversary.
In “So They Say”, Billy sings the following:
“There’s no happy ending
So they say
Not for me anyway
Take the chance to build a brand new day”
The line of interest here is “stop pretending”, which gestures toward Billy only being half committed to his performance as Dr. Horrible up until this point. The verse making reference to a “brand new day” pairs Billy’s commitment to his performance with killing Captain Hammer, a decision he made during “Brand New Day” and that the viewer is reminded of by both the chalk board and death ray that are seen during “So They Say”. In “Slipping”, Dr. Horrible frequently refers to himself in the first person but nonetheless reasserts the dichotomy between himself and “Billy” in one of the last verses
“No sign of Penny – good.
I would give anything not to have her see
It’s gonna be bloody – head up Billy buddy
There’s no time for mercy
Here goes – no mercy…”
By referring to “Billy” as both a separate person and his “buddy”, we see that Billy is very close to committing to Dr. Horrible in the same way that Hammer has committed to his superhero persona full time. This commitment is finally realized in “Everything You Ever”, when Dr. Horrible sings:
“Now the nightmare’s real
Now Dr. Horrible is here
To make you quake with fear
To make the whole world kneel
And I won’t feel
Whedon cuts to Billy, in his living room blogging space right before the last line. This signals the definitive shift in who the dominant persona between Billy and Horrible is. Billy now inhabits the space that Horrible used to inhabit, a space that represented confinement in virtue of it being both a space of performativity and a persona space for Billy (his apartment). It is important to note that the lighting in the living room is terrible and the scene seems to be taking place at night, which is highly irregular for the blog (the only instance being after Billy’s off-screen defeat at the Superhero memorial bridge). Also, Billy is recognizably miserable in the shot and appears to be making no effort to engage an audience. The evocation of a major defeat and the lack of any performativity in Billy’s behaviour dispels the notion that Horrible will be performing Billy in the same way Billy performed Horrible. Instead, the takeaway is that Billy has been defeated by Horrible and left in a sate of isolation.
Billy’s character arc plays out through every song and it is ultimately one of self destruction. We see that he is slowly being overtaken by his exaggerated, masculine persona until the persona becomes dominant. This pairs Dr. Horrible with Captain Hammer; whose hyper masculine person is his primary (if not only) one. The final question to answer now is what, exactly, is the point of all this? To answer that question, we will have to take a look at Billy’s relationship with Penny and how it is affected by his adherence to the masculine norms embodied by Captain Hammer.
Firstly, it is made very clear to the audience that Penny and Billy have the possibility for a romantic relationship. After “Penny’s Song”, the two leans towards each other slightly, indicating a mutual desire to kiss. Also, during “So They Say” Penny is eating frozen yogurt, with a second yogurt that is clearly intended for the absent Billy. Whedon puts a fine point on the scene by having Penny excitedly check the door when it opens in the hopes that Billy will show up. This beat is especially important because it conveys to the audience that Dr. Horrible, and by extension Billy’s, participation in the objectifying and masculine competition for Penny’s affections is actually an obstacle in his attaining them. If Billy were not planning Hammer’s murder (and thus not attempting to recede further into his super villain persona) then he could be bonding with Penny. In the homeless shelter sequence, we also learn that Penny is off put by Hammer’s objectification of her and leaves during his speech, telling the audience that she really has no interest in his overt machismo. Dr. Horrible being antithetical to a relationship with Billy and Penny is literalized when the Death Ray (the mechanism by which Billy will “make the nightmare real” and become Dr. Horrible full time) explodes and kills Penny.
The obvious thematic upshot here is that the regression of Billy’s newer masculinity into only a slight variation on classical masculinity is a detriment to men, women and society in general. It leaves Hammer an emotional wreck, Billy defeated and Penny dead. The implication of society being worse off comes from the movie positioning Penny as the arbiter of what is and isn’t good for society. She was the only one of these three central characters who was legitimately interested in changing things for the better. On top of that, she calls out Billy’s flawed plans for social change and is ultimately vindicated by the narrative. For Hammer, social change was a means to get laid and for Billy it was about quelling a growing dissatisfaction and indulging in a power fantasy. Without Penny, and the truly altruistic social change that she represents, we can infer that society will be worse off. This decline is confirmed by what little we see of the city post Penny, with Dr. Horrible robbing a banks and being unchallenged as the ELE’s newest member.
Dr. Horrible is a cautionary tale that laments the failure of nerds to properly change the way that they perform masculinity in response to “alpha male”, strength flaunting chauvinists like Captain Hammer . This theme is also explored in Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s sixth season, where disempowered nerds like Jonathan, Warren and Andrew are presented as far deadlier than any supernatural foe that Buffy has ever come up against (this is made explicit by the controversial killing of Terra by Warren in Seeing Red). In Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, Whedon is once again lamenting that nerds who were shoved into lockers and ridiculed by men trying to assert their dominance chose to emulate this behaviour in a new form rather than to repudiate it.