Monday, February 18, 2013

Dr. Horrible, the Hamlet of Nerds

Okay, comparing Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog to Hamlet, one of the greatest plays in the English language, is the type of hyperbole writers, especially on the Internet, use to draw in a reader.  I presume it worked on you.

There are points of comparison. Both are tragedies. Both feature lead characters giving themselves over to being people they might not really have wanted to become, at least not at the beginning. Both carry a sense of terrifying inevitability.

Having hooked you with Hamlet, I’m going to carry on about Dr. Horrible.  The film plays on concepts of nerdiness, jocks, and what is the potential tragedy of a world in which nerds can’t find a place for themselves (though they seem to be everywhere). It does so in the nerdy context of superhero films and musicals, the mash up of these genres being geeky itself.

About the Film

Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog was produced as a serial for the Internet.  The film was written by Joss Whedon, his brothers Zack and Jed, and Maurissa Tancharoen to produce something during the 2007-2008 strike by the Writer’s Guild.  It appeared on the Dr. Horrible Web site in three parts in July 2008 and is now available on DVD.

The familiar star of the film is Neil Patrick Harris, who plays Barney on How I Met Your Mother. I don’t enjoy that show much, but fortunately Harris has found other outlets for his performing talent. It is unfair to say Dr. Horrible launched her career, but I think it helped Felicia Day achieve a new level, especially on the Internet.  She is everywhere now and produces the Geek & Sundry YouTube channel.

Plot Summary

Dr. Horrible (Harris) is an aspiring supervillain.  He is seeking entry into the Evil League of Evil, but his prospects are threatened by superhero Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillion).

The pursuit of supervillainy is complicated by Dr. Horrible’s double-mindedness even more than his nemesis.  As his alter ego Billy, the doctor is smitten with Penny (Day), a girl he meets at the Laundromat.  She meets and begins to date Captain Hammer. Hammer recognizes his enemy and flaunts the affair.

Dr. Horrible retreats from the situation and focuses on the League.  They are not impressed with his recent failures, but he can prove himself by killing someone in one of his capers.  He plans to kill Hammer. Things go wrong when Horrible sees Penny at the event where he plans to exact his revenge and begins to experience a change of heart.  Hammer gains control of Horrible’s death ray, which is overloading. In spite of Horrible’s warning, Hammer uses the weapon, which explodes, causing him pain but no apparent injury. Fragments of the death ray hit the crowd and kill Penny.

In one stroke, Horrible loses his love and gains his dead victim.  He is admitted to the League. He abandons hope and embraces evil.  It’s dark stuff for a musical comedy.

Dr. Horrible: Protagonist, Villain, Nerd
Dr. Horrible is a nerd.  As support of this notion, if it isn’t readily apparent, I turn to the characteristics of nerds identified by Benjamin Nugent in American Nerd.  He suggests that people associated nerds with machine like qualities. Nerds seem machine like in that they

  • like working with machines, having interest in technical subjects or complex hobbies, and
  • prefer direct, logical, rule-bound communication to indirect, emotional communication.

In his first appearance, Dr. Horrible is recording a vlog entry in his lab. Throughout the film, he talks about his inventions and uses them. He is clearly at home in the realm of technology. Not only that, he identifies himself with science and technology with his costume: long white (lab) coat, long rubber gloves, and goggles.

While comfortable with technology and talking about it, he is uncomfortable with emotional communication. He has trouble expressing his feelings to Penny, and he has trouble reading the signs that she might be attracted to him. In light of this, he is oddly eloquent on his vlog.  In Quiet, Susan Cain noted that introverts often communicate a lot through social media, and rise to leadership in online communities.  They communicate very well when relieved of the pressures and distractions of face-to-face communications. Nerdiness and introversion aren’t synonymous, but I think it strengthens the case for Dr. Horrible’s nerdiness in his preference for technologically mediated communication that is formalized through a script (an unscripted vlog would not be eloquent) and music (with rules for rhythm, pitch, and rhyme).

Captain Hammer: Antagonist, Hero, Jock

Captain Hammer is the antithesis of a nerd: a jock.  I turn again to American Nerd to help make this diagnosis. Nugent notes that the nerd image was at one time associated with immigrant communities that were rising in population and status. Immigrant pursuit of New World opportunities was shaped by their Old World perspective, so they sought upward mobility in artistic and intellectual professions.

The established upper class wanted to both maintain its dominance and distinguish itself from lower classes, especially immigrants. They adopted a preference for athleticism and a suspicion of excessive intellectualism. Book-learning had its place, but a boy who would take his place as active leader in business, political, and military affairs needed to learn how to win. Sporting fields and athletic competitions were seen as the classroom for these skills. Athleticism as associated with a certain class (because such vigorous leisure required time and resources).  This magnified the upper class sense of superiority.

We can see this in reflected Captain Hammer. His superhuman physical superiority seems to be a justification for his overall sense of being superior to others, especially the weaker and physically cowardly Horrible. Even his activities as a do-gooder seem to lack a moral motivation outside a vague noblesse oblige. He seems more interested in establishing and maintaining his status. For instance, his support of Penny’s campaign to end homelessness is motivated by the positive publicity he receives, not by love of his fellow man—he does not perceive value in homeless people.

The Tragedy of Dr. Horrible

Dr. Horrible, then, is a classic conflict between a typical nerd and a typical jock, except they are a supervillain and a superhero in a comic book-style world where such people exist. Where is the tragedy?

We’ve already noted the death of Penny. That is enough to make the film a tragedy, but not necessarily a nerdy one.

The tragedy of the nerd is to be trapped in alienation. Admittedly, nerds seem to be increasingly popular nowadays, but the more traditional image of a nerd is of one alienated from popular society because his machine-like qualities are not valued in a culture that sees emotional display and sensitivity as more worthy and human.

Nerds are not naturally loners, though. They have a long history of building their own communities. Science fiction fandom is a good example. Long before the Internet, sci-fi fans built communities of letter writing and zines around popular magazines. Before long, they began gathering at clubs and conventions. This culture carried over into comic book fandom (for more on this check out Men of Tomorrow by Gerard Jones). Nugent notes how a similar community of nerds, also readers popular magazines, formed around ham radio, where technological skill and rule-bound communication were prized.

We’ve noted that Dr. Horrible also seeks connection to a community. He specifically identifies his desire to be part of the League.  His quest for world domination is also motivated by a desire to connect with the wider community of humanity. He wants to take over the world not because he hates people, but because he longs for a logical meritocracy that would rid the world of all the trouble cause by emotionalism, celebrity culture, and doublespeak. In his fantasy, he would naturally rise to the top of such a society.

Captain Hammer frustrates these efforts at connection. He reinforces a culture of athleticism and emotional communication that Horrible cannot participate in. When he finds a sympathetic soul who may be able to help him make that connection, Hammer sweeps her away. At last, Horrible wins entry into a community, but the League is evil and inhumane, and can only serve to further dehumanize its members. The cost to Horrible to finally belong is high; he must turn his back on the rest of humanity and give up the hope of ever loving or being loved by another. He is completely alienated, cut off from meaningful and fulfilling connections to others.

The Sequel

A sequel is reported in the works and expected to be released this year.  I would expect most of the major characters to return.

I imagine many fans would like to see Day reprise her role as Penny, though the character died in the first film.  Because this is a superhero movie, there are several ways around this: time travel, cloning, robotic or holographic doubleganger (it’s a word, and it doesn’t need an umlaut), or reanimation (no zombies, please).  Maybe Dr. Horrible will try all of these things, each effort going more wrong than the last. He could be forced to team up with Captain Hammer to fend off an army of time-travel replicated, cyborg zombie Pennies, but I probably wouldn’t watch it because I’m creeped out by the walking dead.

Making Your Connection

You may be nerd seeking connection, too.  I’ve provided a little information below where you can find out about the people behind this film and the books I mentioned. They’re involved in other things and you may find that work interesting. Please do not cyberstalk them.  I don’t want that on my conscience.

Susan Cain
Facebook: AuthorSusanCain
Twitter: @susancain

Felicia Day
Facebook: Felicia Day
Google+: +Felicia Day
Twitter: @feliciaday
Web site:
YouTube: Geek & Sundry

Nathan Fillion
Twitter: @NathanFillion

Neil Patrick Harris
Twitter: @ActuallyNPH

Gerard Jones
ComicBookDB: Gerard Jones
Red Room: Gerard Jones

Benjamin Nugent

Maurissa Tancharoen

Jed Whedon
IMDb: Jed Whedon
Twitter: @jedwhedon

Joss Whedon
Web site:

Zack Whedon
Twitter: @ZDubDub