I’m gonna preface this essay (that’s not a rant) by outright saying that I love Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. One of the many things that makes it so wonderful, though, is its deconstruction of its villain protagonist.
But I’ll get to that in a bit.
Villain protagonists are fun. Whether it’s light like someone with his Freeze Ray trying to impress Bad Horse or as dark as trying to pull off a successful suicide bombing, there’s something to be said for when we find ourselves cheering for the bad guy.
Roald Dahl did it in one of his short stories. “Genesis and Catastrophe” is about a child’s birth. The child’s sickly, pretty much immediately derided by his father and so on. He’s the underdog, basically. You want that kid to live. And succeed, and win. And then you find out that kid was Hitler.
That’s right you were cheering on everyone’s favorite personification of evil. Roald Dahl set up his story so you’d want him to win until you realize you were rooting for Hitler to be delivered into caring hands. You monster.
Equally horribly fun is Four Lions and the titular four wannabe jihadists. The protagonists are four English Muslims who want to, well, do the jihad thing. So we’re watching four men who figure a man’s gotta do what and man’s gotta do as they attempt to blow themselves up (and several others with them). Ordinarily, it wouldn’t be a laughing manner, but Four Lions is a comedy and as such it’s hilarious. It never slows down quite enough for us to really think about the repercussions of the actions and does take a somewhat tragic tone towards the end. Point is, though, we’re cheering for, well, terrorists. There’s a hint of tragedy, but it gets buried in the humor.
So villain protagonists are a fun twist. How exactly does Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog deconstruct that?
Dr. Horrible (or Billy as he’s also known) isn’t actually evil. Sorta. The first time we see him he’s practicing his evil laugh. He wants to impress Bad Horse. But there’s this girl too, Penny, who he also wants to impress and woo. He’s layered, torn between being Dr. Horrible and Billy. His nemesis, the superhero Captain Hammer, thwarts both plans. Dr. Horrible wants a brand new day where he can both be accepted into the Evil League of Evil and win Penny.
Now, in a normal story this is the part where the villain would reform and save the day and get the girl (see Megamind). But not in this deconstruction.
So they say everyone’s a hero, but Billy isn’t. He’s the villain of the story, that’s the hand he was dealt. He just happens to be the main character. As Captain Hammer continues to interfere with Billy’s hopes of being evil and winning Penny, he finds himself slipping further and further towards being an actual villainous villain. At first he never wanted to hurt anyone but as the musical enters its third act, he’s both ready and willing.
And well, without spoiling it (seriously, it’s on Netflix. Go watch it now), Billy gets inducted into the Evil League of Evil. But it comes at the cost of his other dream. He commits to one side but, as the end of the final song “Everything You Ever” suggests, he might not be completely sold.
What makes Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog so darn compelling is that we’re watching a good guy play the bad guy’s role. He’s nice, he’s caring; it’s the ‘hero’ that’s the good-for-nothing reprobate. Our expectations are turned on the head as we cheer on Dr. Horrible and we see what happens when he succeeds. Unlike Four Lions where they succeed and that’s it or Megamind where he reforms or “Genesis and Catastrophe” where we know he goes on to do evil; in Dr. Horrible we see the cost of Dr. Horrible’s success on his psyche. He won, but lost himself.
Villains like the Joker or Count Rugen are such fun since they’re just so evil. They aren’t lovable in the protagonist sort of way, heck, they’re hardly sympathetic. It’s the sympathetic villains we like for a protagonist, but Dr. Horrible is one of the few where we actually see the consequences of his actions. In this one we see what it actually means to be a villain protagonist.
And it’s an amazing musical.
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