100 Film Favorites – #12: Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog [with honorable mention to Team Starkid]
(Joss Whedon, 2008)
“The world’s a mess, and I just…need to…RULE it.”
We’re closing in on the Top 10! This and the next entry stand fairly toe-to-toe with most of the entries in the actual top ten, so at this point we’re pretty much officially into the “favorite of the favorites.” I’ll probably still make a big deal about getting into the for-real Top 10, but…oh well.
Number 12 in our Countdown is a film with which many internet-savvy readers will doubtlessly be familiar. It’s the story of the titular “Doctor,” an amateur supervillain with aspirations of one day joining the Evil League of Evil, a Legion of Doom-esque governing body/union in charge of regulating the world’s super-villainy. In the meantime, Horrible (Neil Patrick Harris) spends his days plotting heists, developing super-weapons, and musing on the state of modern civilization to the viewers of his vlog. Additionally, as his alter-ego, nebbish everyman Billy, he pines for the affections of Penny (Felicia Day), his attractive redhead neighbor. Though they have long been “laundry buddies,” washing their clothes at the same time at the same laundromat each week, Billy has never gotten up the courage to speak to her.
One morning, while in the act of purloining some “Wonderflonium” he needs to power his latest invention, a Freeze Ray (it stops time…it’s not an “Ice Beam”) Billy unexpectedly encounters Penny, who is stumping for signatures to raise interest in the opening of a new homeless shelter. In the midst of a heist, he has little choice but to blow her off. Using a specially-designed remote control, Dr. Horrible takes command of the van carrying the Wonderflonium and successfully hijacks it…until his nemesis, the superhero Captain Hammer, intervenes. Hammer (Nathan Fillion) knocks out Horrible’s control apparatus with one wallop of his super-strong fist, but this only sends the van careening wildly through the streets. The runaway van nearly strikes Penny, but Horrible is able to re-establish contact with the vehicle and stop it before she’s squished. The dashing but vain Captain Hammer quickly takes credit for the rescue, and Penny, despite initially “wondering what he’s captain of,” is attracted to her hunky “savior.” Miffed that he’s “inadvertently introduced my arch-nemesis to the girl of my dreams, and now they’re probably going to French-kiss or something,” Horrible nevertheless proceeds with preparations for his grand Freeze Ray robbery.
A vlog entry from a bruised and battered Doctor informs us that the caper was a failure: the Freeze Ray needs time to power up, and as Captain Hammer and the LAPD are both avid followers of Horrible’s vlog, he was quickly apprehended (but not before Hammer, Horrible tells us, “threw a car at my head”).
Though the planned crime had raised the interest of the Evil League of Evil, its failure leaves the organization unimpressed. The League’s leader, Bad Horse, informs Dr. Horrible that if he still wishes to join the E.L.E., “now assassination is just the only way.” If Horrible murders someone in cold blood, it will finally prove him “worthy” of joining the high-caliber supervillains in the ranks of the League.
Though hesitant at first, Horrible realizes the one person he wouldn’t mind killing is Captain Hammer, and he sets about constructing that supervillain mainstay, the Death Ray. He plots to spring his trap at a speech by Hammer to commemorate the opening of the homeless shelter (though Hammer isn’t particularly interested in Penny, he has continued to woo her mostly to spite Dr. Horrible, whose secret identity he has discovered).
After a rousing speech/song in which Captain Hammer praises the homeless for being heroes “in their own, not-that-heroic way,” Dr. Horrible paralyzes him with a blast from the now-functional Freeze Ray. Taking a moment to gloat and monologue (as supervillains are wont to do), Horrible finally aims his Death Ray at the frozen Captain Hammer…who has had time to thaw. With a powerful swipe, the Captain swats Horrible across the room, damaging the Death Ray. Hammer pins Horrible down, trains the Ray on him, and fires.
The damaged gun explodes in Hammer’s hands, causing the super-strong hero to feel pain for the first time, a shattering psychological experience which leaves him a weeping mess. Seeing their hero reduced to a wimpy weakling, the assembled crowd regards Dr. Horrible with newfound awe. But before he can relish his victory, Horrible notices something amiss…shrapnel from the explosion has sliced through Penny, leaving her mortally injured. Horrified, he watches her die even as the adoring/groveling throngs form around him.
In the final musical number, a shell-shocked Dr. Horrible is initiated into the League (Penny’s death counts as his requisite murder), and he finally takes a seat among the likes of Bad Horse and “Fake Thomas Jefferson.” The last shred of Billy is finally replaced by the Horrible persona, who coldly sings that he has “everything he ever wanted,” but he “doesn’t feel a thing.”
Dark ending aside, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog is a sweet, witty, and wholly entertaining musical masterpiece. It also demonstrates remarkable concision – the entire film is less than 45 minutes long, and leaves you wanting much more.
Dr. Horrible true to its “Blog”(/vlog) name, originated in serial form online, released in three roughly 15-minute “Acts.” Joss Whedon and crew conceived and produced the film during the lengthy 2008 Writers’ Guild strike, as a demonstration of the creative possibilities available to entertainers outside of a guild and studio-regulated environment. The film stars several actors featured in earlier Whedon projects, including Nathan Fillion (Firefly) and Felicia Day (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), and features Whedon’s trademark humor and wit throughout.
The musical numbers are a strong point as well. Though all maintain an element of humor (“Everyone’s a Hero” being a particularly funny one), some of the songs are extremely passionate and emotional, as in showstopper “My Eyes,” in which Billy/Dr. Horrible bemoans the fact that “there’s darkness everywhere, and Penny doesn’t seem to care that soon the dark in me is all that will remain.” Furthermore, the songs reflect a sense of musical expertise, and would be right at home alongside anything on Broadway. My personal favorite number is “So They Say,” in which a great many characters (including a team of news anchors and the members of a Captain Hammer fan-club) chip in their melodious two cents regarding the goings-on as Hammer finds “love” and promotes the homeless shelter.
So yeah. Dr. Horrible. It’s a gloriously watchable send-up which offers a new angle on the superhero genre. It’s also a great testament to the new possibilities emerging for entertainment in the online age. Check it out!
This post is already getting rather long, but I wanted to take some time here to honor another talented team of web-based musical-makers. Though their productions are stage-based (thereby disqualifying them from official inclusion in this “film” Countdown), I would be remiss not to at least mention the truly exceptional Team Starkid.
Begun at the University of Michigan by Darren Criss, Brian Holden, Matt Lang, and Nick Lang, the group rose to prominence when the video recording of their show A Very Potter Musical, a fan-made tribute to / parody of the Harry Potter franchise, went viral on YouTube in early 2009. The show sets itself apart from any other run-of-the-mill fan project through its idiosyncratic humor and the fact that every aspect of the production reflects true talent, from the hilarious dialogue and skilled song-writing to the set design and even some remarkable puppetry.
Later in 2009, the team (named “Starkid” after a bizarre insult that Malfoy hurls at Harry in AVPM) unveiled their second musical production. This time, it was an all-original show entitled Me and My Dick, about the life and times of high school students and their genitalia (portrayed as talking, singing companions connected to their “owners” by leashes). Despite its drastically different subject matter, the show exudes the same zany humor and incredible creative abilities of the Starkid team. Many of the same actors return as well (the “Ron” actor stars as high-schooler protagonist Joey, and “Voldemort” as his penis, alongside “Ginny” as a nerdy girl and “Cho Chang” as her repressed, adventurous vagina).
Over the intervening years, Team Starkid has released a new musical annually, and all six to date are varying degrees of fantastic. Though some Starkids have departed (founder Darren Criss left to play a prominent role in Glee), others have joined the troupe, and it’s great fun to see the stable of actors appear in different roles each year. Though the shows are rather epic in length (mirroring actual Broadway shows, with run-times of about 3 hours each), all are worth watching. Here, quickly, are my thoughts on each:
A Very Potter Musical (2009): The one that started it all. A hilarious re-imagining of the Harry Potter saga. Set in Harry’s “second year,” it crams the events of virtually the entire series (minus several important characters) into one story. Highlight: Quirrell and Voldemort’s parasitic relationship is portrayed as almost romantic in nature.
Me and My Dick (2009): One of the best. Showcases the true originality of the Starkid artists. Though the subject matter may sound vulgar and off-putting, this is honestly one of the best, most innovative musicals I’ve seen in recent years. Highlight: Joey’s heart (played by A.J. Holmes, a song-writer on the team’s other shows). Sporting a top hat and a voice similar to Ed Wynn’s Mad Hatter, the initially wacky heart is a cruel companion, deprecating Joey (“you loser, you!”) at every turn. Also, founder Brian Holden [in drag] makes his stage debut as the “popular” girl’s old, worn-out vagina.
A Very Potter Sequel (2010): Actually primarily a prequel, this show is set during Harry’s “first year.” AVPS introduces Lupin and Sirius Black, and the main conflict concerns a time-traveling Lucius Malfoy attempting to kill Harry before he has a chance to defeat Voldemort in his “second year.” I saw this one as something of a let-down after the innovation of the Starkids’ previous show. It’s still good, but easily my least favorite of the bunch. Highlight: The “Lucius” actor channels David Bowie from Labyrinth, garbed in super-tight tights and prancing around the stage.
Starship (2011): This just might be my favorite of them all. The team returns to top form with another “original” show (though the story borrows heavily from Starship Troopers and The Little Mermaid, with a bit of Avatar / Pocahontas thrown in). The protagonist, Bug, a resident of a world populated with sentient insects, longs to be a “Starship Ranger,” a member of an interstellar military force similar to the Starship Troopers, Toy Story‘s Space Rangers, or really any “space marines” in contemporary media. The only problem – Starship Rangers are primarily human, while “bugs” are assigned a mission by their queen which they must follow until they die. Taking a page from Little Mermaid, Bug strikes a deal with the sinister Pincer (a huge scorpion), who has the capability to link Bug’s consciousness, Avatar style, into the body of a human. This allows Bug to befriend (or infiltrate) a group of real Starship Rangers who have crash-landed on the planet. Intrigue and conflict ensue as the two groups, human and insect, discover their mutual fear and hatred of one another (in a song strikingly similar to “Savages” from Pocahontas). Can Bug bridge the gap between the two worlds before both are destroyed? Highlight: Basically everything. But specifically, Dylan Saunders’ (“Dumbledore”) dual role as Pincer and Tootsy Noodles, a good ol’ farmboy Starship Ranger who falls in love with the crew’s defense robot, Mega-Girl, and summarily croons the most touching love ballad ever sung to a robot. Additionally, the various “bugs” are created with the group’s most intricate puppetry to date.
Holy Musical, Batman! (2012): A parody of the DC Comics universe. In this take, Batman (Joe Walker, AKA “Voldemort”) is by far the world’s most popular hero, with Superman (Brian Holden) relegated to the role of sadly sitting alone at his “Fortress of Solitude.” When a new foe emerges to lead Batman’s rogues gallery (the Joker-like “Sweet-Tooth,” played by new Starkid Jeff Blim), Batman and Superman must reconcile their differences and team up (with the rest of their “super friends”) to thwart the rising threat. This one was another down note for me, mostly because I felt it under-utilized Starkid stars Dylan Saunders (in bit parts as Green Lantern and Scarecrow) and Lauren Lopez [“Malfoy”] as Commissioner Gordon. Highlight: Alfred revealing that he made up Lucius Fox so that Batman would feel like he had more friends.
A Very Potter Senior Year (2013): This one just might top Starship as the best show the team has ever done. Though only half-realized (it was put on as a staged reading at a Harry Potter convention), the show is nothing short of incredible. AVPSY is set in Harry Potter’s seventh year, and Harry and friends are getting ready to bid their school goodbye. But they are thrown back into the fray for one last adventure when Tom Riddle, Voldemort’s younger self, begins regaining power through his enchanted boyhood diary. Highlight: Again, everything. The entire show is about saying goodbye: Harry saying goodbye to Hogwarts, the world saying goodbye to the Harry Potter franchise, and the Starkids saying goodbye to “Harry” actor Darren Criss. Highlights: A scene in which Harry has journeyed to Godric’s Hollow, only to find that a statue of him that once stood there has been demolished, to be replaced with one of Spider-Man. “Oh. That’s okay, I guess,” he says. “I love Tobey Maguire.” But the construction worker (who may or may not be a spectral manifestation of Dumbledore) reveals that the statue is of Andrew Garfield. One franchise begets another, and the world simply has to move on. Another highlight: A.J. Holmes returns to the stage for the first time as Gilderoy Lockhart, charmingly smug in a performance almost as good as his Heart role.
Next year’s show is already underway. Twisted will combine the format of Wicked with the story of Aladdin, telling the classic tale from Jafar’s point of view and shining a sympathetic light on the vizier. I have no doubt that it will once again be a funny, well-written, and skillfully performed bit of musical theater from a group of stunningly creative young artists.
Brian Terrill is the host of television show Count Gauntly’s Horrors from the Public Domain. You can keep up with Brian’s 100 Film Favorites countdown here.