Monday, January 10, 2011

Why Doctor Horrible is the perfect romance hero

First, happy new year. Hope 2011 fulfils its potential for you.

Now, onto Doctor Horrible. If you don't know who he is, (why not??) he's the star of a 2008 web short by Joss Whedon, the genius behind Buffy and Firefly. Doctor Horrible's Sing-along Blog is a 45 minute mini musical about a wannabe supervillain (there just aren't enough musicals about supervillains). While Doctor Horrible is an evil genius, his alter-ego, Billy, is a shy young man who can't even afford his own washing machine. He has to go to the local launderette, which is where he meets Penny and falls in love with her. His rival in both aims is Captain Hammer, a somewhat cheesy superhero beloved of both the population and Penny.

Where it gets interesting for me is here: consider the traditional character structure of a romance novel protagonist. They must have a goal, motivation, and conflict. In other words, what he wants, why he wants it, and what's stopping him from getting it. Now, as I mentioned, Doctor Horrible is a 45 min musical. That's pretty damn short. I've written long books, and I've written short books, and one of the first things I learned switching between the two is that in a short book you just don't have the space to mess around making your GMC complicated or imprecise. Or do you?

With Doctor Horrible, The GMC seems simple. He wants to be a supervillain and join the Evil League of Evil. In his words, "The world is a mess, and I just need to rule it." But what's stopping him? Captain Hammer.

This is what we can call External Conflict. When you start to ask about his motivations, it gets a bit shaky. Doctor Horrible goes on about the world being a mess, about humankind being insane, that "the world's full of filth and lies," but it never seems quite genuine. It seems like an excuse.

And that's because Doctor Horrible isn't who he really is. He's Billy, a shy young man without his own washing machine. And here we discover his real goal, his real motivation, and his real conflict. What he wants is to be somebody, "not a joke, not a dork, not a failure."

He's too shy to even talk to the girl he likes, and even though he wants to be somebody else, someone cooler, more exciting, someone who can right the world's wrongs, he doesn't know how. "Though I swore to eliminate the worst of the plague that devoured humanity, it’s true I was vague on the 'how'." He's not the sort of guy who can become a superhero and be beloved of the people. He doesn't even know how to talk to the people. He's been a dorky loser all his life. The other superheroes would laugh at him. But what about being a supervillain? Oh yeah. Then he'll get the girl, and he can beat that annoyingly handsome and popular Captain Hammer into the bargain.

But what's stopping him from achieving this? That's right, it's Penny. Penny isn't just pretty and sweet, she's a genuinely good person. She volunteers at a local homeless shelter and is proactive in raising money and awareness of her cause. How can a supervillain hope to win the heart of a woman like that? And how can someone who's in love with a charity worker possibly join the Evil League of Evil?

So Doctor Horrible has two goals, but they both cancel each other out. And this is the reason why he's never achieved either of them. But when Captain Hammer steals Penny from under his nose ("I’m gonna give Penny the night of her life, just because you want her. And I get what you want") he decides he's had enough trying to win her the traditional way. He's going to become a supervillain, rule the world, and then "Penny will see the real me, not a joke, not a dork, not a failure. And she may cry, but her tears will dry when I hand her the keys to a shiny new Australia." He redesigns his evil, but not fatal Freeze Ray into a Death Ray. He's had enough of being Billy the failure. It's time to become Doctor Horrible, supervillain and success.

And how does this all resolve? Oh, okay, I'll tell you, but it's spoilerific, so I'll put it below the fold.

Remember how I said he turned his Freeze Ray into a Death Ray? Well, that's literally his fatal mistake. Early on, he sets out his views on this: "Killing is neither elegant nor creative." He freezes Captain Hammer, intending to kill him, but deep down Billy is still inside Doctor Horrible, and he can't really make a convincing Death Ray. It malfunctions, and who does it kill? That's right. It kills Penny. And in killing an innocent, he instantly becomes infamous as a superhero and meets his goal of joining the Evil League of Evil.

He can't have both things he wants. He can only have one. His killing of Penny is accidental but it's a direct result of him making the choice to be a supervillain. Only afterwards can he realise he's chosen the wrong path. When in the last number, Everything You Ever, he sings: "Here lies everything, the world I wanted at my feet," it has a double meaning (I mean, of course it does!). Penny's the world he really wanted, and the only reason she's at his feet is because she's lying dead on the ground.

So, okay. In a romance novel the heroine wouldn't die. But the hero would have to lose her, or face the prospect of losing her, to realise how shallow the alternative is. In a romance novel, this would be the black moment, when all seems lost (but can be regained!). Because it's Joss Whedon, however, we end with our heartbroken hero relinquishing his humanity, with Billy switching off his geeky, wannabe-villain blog ("Now the nightmare's real, now Doctor Horrible is here, to make you quake with fear, to make the whole world kneel. And I won't feel... a thing."), and finally becoming the supervillain he always thought he wanted to be.

Oh, who am I kidding. This is Joss Whedon. He could bring Penny back to life if he wanted.

But that's why I think Doctor Horrible is the perfect romance hero. He thinks he wants one thing, but really he wants another. And in getting one, he has to lose the other. In Doctor Horrible's case, he just gets the wrong one.


  1. I never liked Penny, I thought she was a bit pathetic, not seeing Captain Hammer for what he was, or recognising Billy's devotion to her. She was a bit 'lay down and take it' for my liking. Doctor Horrible needed a forceful, determined woman. Er, like us, in fact.

  2. Yes, but she did begin to see him for what he was towards the end, in So They Say she didn't seem entirely convinced he was as perfect as everyone told her, and she was definitely inching away from him when he told the assembled reporters about their sex life...

    But yes. Me and Doctor Horrible. We could rule the world, and get that silly horse out of the League, too.