Superheroes use costumes to define themselves, so do villains. All that silly latex and metal is there for a reason, it’s not just to be a shield. Costumes are crucial a marketing tool, both for the character and creator. Most heroes become a symbol for some broad political or moral issue. Batman, for instance, is a genius at marketing, everything he touches is trademarked, like the Batmobile or Shark Repellent Bat Spray. He somehow convinced the Gotham police to project his signal into the sky anytime they need him. It’s almost insulting, the police are actively advertising the fact that are inept at their job by flashing some bat billionaire’s business card in the sky. The only other people who use spotlights like that are car dealers trying to advertise some big sale. The police could make a phone, but they don’t. Sky beam is apparently the only option because it’s something everyone can see. Victims, civilians, villains. It sells a specific message. Superman does this too, his costume has a giant S on it, just in case you can’t remember his name.
Marketing is everything to these heroes, as it doesn’t just protect their identity, it sells a new one. Villains do the same, take the rogues gallery featured in Batman. Their costumes often change, but they always have a costume. They don’t just walk around in a hoodie. There is an inherent comedy to that, one which doesn’t quite fit the bizarre gritty tone modern superhero adaptations (both comic and film) tend to follow. You can’t call it a uniform because just one person wears it. It’s a costume, not even just a mask, which has incidentally become a normal thing to wear in this pandemic era. People don’t wear full costumes, it’s something reserved for fictional superheroes and villains. One of the big issues I have with gritty reboots is that the premise of a superhero is insane, so why not just go with the insane and make the whole thing as unrealistic or vibrant as possible? Big colours, bizarre and unreal situations, or at the very least, try to not get caught up by taking things too seriously. These characters are hilariously impossible, and that is part of the fun.
There are several superhero works which successfully criticize this costume market. The Incredibles (2004) is a commentary on the need to be special, the role of technology in heroism, and the kryptonite that is ego. The costumes here are also designed by the fabulous Edna Mode, whose distain for capes further relates to the bizarre need and detriment of a costume. They look great, but at a practical level, they are dangerous. The Boys (2019-) takes a different route by following this gritty model but also fully exploring what that gritty world actually translates to. The characters get abused and brutally murdered by self-obsessed ‘heroes’ who are more interested in their market image than in saving the day. The whole hero complex in this example is mass manufactured, and thus totally inauthentic, which incidentally acts as a commentary on the current production of superhero films. These films might be fun and successful, but they also herald the death of the small-budget indie film. It’s hard to compete with mass conglomerate series which rely on marketable heroes and morals to earn obscene amounts of money. It’s important to remember than merchandizing exists in both our world and the film’s world, and both play into a hero’s costume.
“The World is a mess and I just need to rule it.”
One series which does a superb job of critiquing this market is Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog (2008), but it’s hard to estimate how much of that commentary is intentional. It’s certainly become an ironic project, considering the multiple allegations against creator Joss Whedon, who was tremendously celebrated when this was released, and seen as a good guy in Hollywood, someone who would fight for feminist characters. I cannot understate the level to which Whedon projects were glorified, and the current mass conversation happening about these works now. I was part of that glorification, that mass fandom, but upon re-visiting the projects in light of these allegations, I began noticing things, aspects that were dismissed because of the broader revolutionary status given to these works. I am still a fan of these projects overall, however, I think that enjoyment needs to be met with critical discussion. Dr. Horrible still holds up in that it’s hilarious and the songs are catchy, but there are some issues that aren’t fully addressed.
That’s true of Buffy and Firefly too, in fact, Buffy features almost zero people of colour, with the small exception of Kendra, who is quickly killed off, and also features the now famous ‘bury your gays’ trope, whereas Firefly uses Asian culture, and its characters speak Chinese, but it includes no Chinese actors and no principal Asian characters. I should mention that Whedon has blamed studio interference for some of these points. That noted, there are countless articles about this, those that properly discuss these issues and the allegations against Whedon. I will not include a specific link here, just because there are so many discussions readily available online. My point here is from a reception standpoint, the question of what to do with these works in light of these issues and allegations. I believe, and I am biased, that these works can be both. You can enjoy and be critical, you can appreciate what they did while also noting what should have been done. Acknowledge that Whedon was abusive on set, and that the creation of many of these works was deeply troubled. There is the fact that Whedon wasn’t the only creator on these sets, the actors and other writers and staff were involved and often fought for storylines, even Dr. Horrible was co-written by Maurissa Tancharoen, Zack Whedon, and Jed Whedon. Joss Whedon is synonymous with these works, even though he was rarely the only creator, and it’s important to recognize these allegations and that these works went on to have an undeniable influence in modern media. Both are true.
“Destroying the status quo, because the status…is not quo.”
Dr. Horrible has changed since the first time I saw it. Like many Whedon fans, I initially sympathized with Dr. Horrible and his love story with Penny. Clearly, I thought, he is the better option for her, as although he is a ‘bad guy’, he is not that bad. However, upon rewatching it, I realized that much of that impression came from Neil Patrick Harris’ amazing performance, and had the character been played by anyone else, he would have been terrifying.
The show was created during the writer’s strike of 2007-2008, when many artists were suddenly available, and Whedon financed the three-part series himself. It was released online, eventually for free, which made it a rather unprecedented project, except for the fact that Whedon got the idea from Felicia Day’s series, The Guild (2007-2013), and later cast her as Penny. The show follows Dr. Horrible’s attempts to join the Evil League of Evil while fighting his nemesis, Captain Hammer. Horrible, whose real name is Billy, is in love with a woman named Penny, who does laundry on the same day as him. He is absolutely obsessed with her, even though they have never spoken. Simply put, the show is essentially about a guy who wants to be evil and has created this whole narrative where he rules the world with a woman he doesn’t know but has unfairly idealized. In any other world, this would be incel behavior, but this is superhero world, where evil involves a freeze ray.
Billy’s stalking is played for laughs because his attempts to follow Penny are often ludicrous. After Penny and Captain Hammer start dating, he follows them to a soup kitchen, wearing a ridiculous mustache, and watches them as he pours soup back into the pot rather than other bowls. He later hides in a bush, singing, only a foot away from Penny. He has clearly been stalking Penny for awhile because he has a picture of her, taken from a bush, and knows that she likes frozen yogurt. There are also some troubling lyrics, take the song “My Eyes”, where Billy sings, “Cause the dark is everywhere and Penny doesn’t seem to care and soon the dark in me is all that will remain”, which again, they have had maybe a handful of conversations by this point, so why should Penny care let alone know this? It’s implied that Penny might have feelings for Billy, or at least early ones, but she never says as much. What I find interesting, however, and perhaps the saving issue here, is that the narrative asks you to criticize Billy. He is not a good person, he announces this several times, even in the first moments of the show, when he introduces himself by practicing his evil laugh. There is some sympathetic character here, but again, I think that is Harris’ performance.
“And sometimes there’s a third, even deeper level, and that one is the same as the top surface one. Like with pie.”
There is a whole storyline in Harris’ other project, How I Met Your Mother (which has also not aged particularly well), where the characters discuss the Dobler-Dahmer Theory, named after Llyod Dobler from Say Anything (1989) and the famed serial killer. They argue that certain behaviour, even well-intentioned, will always come off as creepy if the person viewing that behavior isn’t interested in you. They use classic ‘80s movies as examples, like holding up a boombox in someone’s yard. If you didn’t like the person holding the boombox, this would be insane. If you did, it would be romantic. It’s technically the same behaviour, just in different contexts. What the show doesn’t say is that the fault lies with the person who assumed something would be romantic but isn’t, as they have misconstrued or dismissed the other person and put them in an uncomfortable and unfair position with this grand gesture. Billy often operates through this model, as his behaviour comes off as quirky and funny, but never entirely. For example, there is a scene where Billy digs a spork into his leg while laughing, and the camera just lingers a moment too long as he continues to awkwardly laugh as Penny notices his leg.
We unfortunately never find out what Penny’s response to all of this would have been, as she dies and is ultimately just a vehicle for Billy’s full descent into evil. She falls into that popular category where women in superhero stories are just used to further the male’s plot. My reading of Dr. Horrible is that it’s somewhat aware of that, which is why it ends right after Billy is admitted to the Evil League of Evil. It doesn’t linger to find out what Penny’s death does long-term, it just ends with Billy looking straight at the camera, dead and hopeless inside. That is Billy’s takeaway, but not necessarily the show’s message. In that final sequence, we see news reports about Captain Hammer’s injury, and Dr. Horrible’s rise to fame, but in each of these shots, Penny is unnamed. She is just referred to as Captain Hammer’s girlfriend or whats-her-name. Not even Hammer’s fans remember, they are too busy worshipping their new icon: Dr. Horrible. Hammer is too busy receiving extensive therapy after getting slightly cut and experiencing pain for the first time. Penny doesn’t matter at all, and the show is saying something through that.
“Or if that was you, could have been someone else- I mean I’ve seen you.”
Penny is the only hero in the entire story, which is funny considering their world has literal superheroes. Hammer, of course, is a selfish bully who is just using Penny to get back at Billy and become more popular by seeming ‘down to earth’. It’s evident that both Billy and Hammer are using Penny, but she only realizes that Hammer is using her in the finale. Both figures need Penny to say something about themselves, whereas she doesn’t need either of them. It’s great that Hammer convinced the mayor to give Penny a foreclosed building so she could build a homeless shelter, but she was already working on that before he arrived. While Hammer and Horrible are busy working on elaborate schemes and fights, Penny is doing a thankless and difficult job that actually makes a difference. The show argues that Penny’s version of heroism is the only appropriate and selfless kind, but by killing Penny, it also suggests that this version will never survive because the odds against it are too high. Hammer is too busy playing this hero role to listen to Billy’s warning about the death ray, ultimately endangering everyone. Billy was also caught up in his own evil versus good theatrics, which led to Hammer breaking free and the death ray malfunctioning. This brings me back to my point about merchandizing, as Hammer is a parody of the superhero strongman and notably, his rather basic costume does not disguise his identity. He doesn’t actually have a name in the show, even Penny calls him Captain Hammer. He is, however, aware of his brand or identity, and knows that Penny will help his image. Both he and the media have reduced her to two things: she is a vegetarian and she helps the homeless.
Billy also condenses Penny into this virtuous ideal that can somehow redeem or validate him. Like Hammer, Billy is also very aware of his image. The evil in this universe is commercialized into a single domineering league that requires a letter of condemnation and appropriate evil behaviour to belong, like robbing a bank or killing someone. Evil and heroism are jokes, but Penny’s plight isn’t. She might not wear a costume, but she is still a symbol to these men, which is dismissive of her as a person. We don’t know her backstory because Billy is the one telling the story, it is his blog after all, but the series kind of uses her too. She is vehicle for both Hammer and Billy’s story, and the show’s broader commentary on true heroism. So where does that leave us? I think it’s clear that there is something to Penny, little hints about her own story and opinions, but we just don’t get more. The show criticizes this placement, but I am not sure how conscious that criticism is. Being a real hero in the show is pretty boring, it’s convincing people to sign their name, they “don’t even have to mean it”. It’s not getting your statue in a homeless shelter just because you put your name on that petition.
“I wanna be an achiever, like Bad Horse.
The Thoroughbred of Sin?
I say that this portrayal is ironic, because ultimately Horrible’s characterization signals this broader ‘I am a good guy’ conversation around Whedon’s work and persona, and I think Dr. Horrible is already having part of that conversation, I just don’t know if its creators are aware of that. I imagine so, but it’s hard to say given that Horrible is often viewed as the ‘hero’ in the fandom. Did Penny have to die for this conversation about the superhero genre to happen? No, but that is what the show goes with. It’s a parody and a drama, which means that it still relies on the very things it criticizes or jokes about. I also recognize that my conversation here is ironic considering Whedon wrote and performed a whole song in the accompanying Commentary! The Musical (2008) about his disdain for picking things apart. The song is called “Heart (Broken)”, and in it, he laments about people who turn to artists demanding some detailed explanation of their art. His point is that people are always looking for some beating heart in art and want to take it apart, and that creators often don’t have answers. Sometimes it’s as simple as liking a certain shot composition, and any further meaning is entirely the audiences’ responsibility. I really liked the song when I first heard it, again, before any of these accounts where widespread. It actually defined some of my early thoughts about critical analysis, and my opinion now is that nothing I say or do, nor anyone else (creator or otherwise), can really control or define a work. No opinion is absolute, and no one is an authority. Sure, the creator might disagree with you, and that is okay. You might disagree with the creator, also fine. Each person will approach a work differently, from their background and interests to the very mood they are in when they watch a project. If you are keen enough to notice a reading, and everyone makes them, and you combine that with enough evidence, then you are right. Just not more so than any other perspective.
I will say it’s extremely ironic that Whedon made a project which criticizes the mass commercialization of heroism and the tropes associated with that, and then went on to create several superhero films, including The Avengers (2012), which was the third highest-grossing film of all time. A film which spawned a river of never-ending merchandise and relies on extreme and impractical male gaze for its depiction of women like Black Widow. What’s even more ironic is that Whedon allegedly made more money creating Dr. Horrible than The Avengers, which made 600 million dollars domestically. Take of that what you will.
“And I won’t feel a thing.”
I still recommend Dr. Horrible to people. I know I am biased, but I also know that I feel differently about the project having rewatched it. I think there is a lot to be said about it, both praise and criticism, and I think both of those things can exist. I am probably a bit of a hypocrite because I can return to Whedon adjacent projects, but I won’t watch certain creators, those who I don’t care to name on this blog. Whedon has never faced any criminal charges, if that is of any note in this comparison of people I will not even mention the blog. I think it’s an ongoing conversation, especially as this fandom was so strong, and still is. It’s just moved from Whedon, sort of sliced him away from these works, separating artist from art (what Whedon’s song implied that he wanted while still owning this media) by focusing on the other people who were involved. I am somewhat critical of that approach, as although I agree that other people should receive more due credit in these projects, I worry that this avenue will erase accountability. That it will somehow excuse the toxic and abusive behaviour Whedon perpetrated on those sets or suggest that one’s enjoyment of a project is more important than the recognition of that abuse. I think a bit of both is needed. You have to acknowledge background, even if it’s inconvenient. It’s not a reflection on you or your enjoyment, it’s just something that needs to be noted as a form of viewer accountability. I find it similar to my approach to superhero films, because they can be a lot of fun, but their success also comes with larger consequences in the industry. Dr. Horrible is concerned with labels, evil and good, and the conscious marketing involved with those terms, when the reality is more of an overlap. Both are true. There is no accountability in Dr. Horrible: Billy never faces criminal charges; Hammer gets all the help he needs. Penny simply disappears, and Hammer’s fandom moves on to a new shiny figure. The show is critical of that, we should be too. It parallels that impulse to just enjoy things without considering their broader context. These terms- good and evil, hero and villain- are complicated, but that overlap is not an excuse to erase silenced figures like Penny or the very real people making accusations.