The principles we discuss at Mythcreants are actively at work in countless popular stories. That means if you’re still getting a feel for abstract concepts like tension or karma, you now have an excuse to watch your favorite movie and call it homework. Dissecting stories can help us recognize concepts in practice and apply lessons to our own stories.
Given that, let’s take a storyteller’s look at the first act of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. This is a strong story with two particularly interesting features: video blogging scenes and a protagonist with the trappings of a villain. We’ll spend extra time on the latter in particular, since it’s something that many writers are interested in.
Consider watching as we go; the first act is less than 15 minutes long. To start, watch up until the first musical number begins.
Opening With the Story’s Premise
The premise of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog is that a classic villain is video blogging. Also, this video blog happens to be a musical. Needless to say, it’s unique. The video blog part was inspired by Felicia Day’s The Guild, but productions of this type with big-name actors are still exceedingly rare. That means the premise has a lot of novelty and, therefore, entertainment value. Putting that whole premise in the title advertises this and sets expectations regarding the unusual format. This way, viewers won’t spend the film’s opening sequence puzzling it out.
A villain’s musical video blog will inevitably feel silly. Accordingly, the tone of the film is campy. I wish this was too obvious to be worth mentioning, but these days every studio is trying to produce the next grimdark hit. That means stories are being played straight when they’d be better off with camp. In this case, the camp also allows the film to have a small budget.
So by the time Act I opens, viewers have been promised a villain’s video blog, and the film immediately fulfills that promise. Dr. Horrible, played by Neil Patrick Harris, laughs evilly at the camera and his followers. Then in typical video blog style, he describes how he’s developing the laugh and how important a laugh is to a villain. For stories that have a high-novelty premise like this, focusing on the novel elements is a great way to suck in the audience immediately.
Of course, the premise isn’t the only novel thing happening in the opening. If you’re watching along, you’ve heard the numerous jokes. For the purpose of having a life, I’ve decided not to cover all the jokes, but suffice to say it’s hilarious.
Conveying Important Information Early
During the opening scene, viewers are kept entertained with high novelty, but novelty fades fast. When the villain’s video-blog premise gets old, this will just be a guy talking to the camera – not particularly exciting as films go. So it’s essential to get viewers invested in Dr. Horrible and introduce conflict as quickly as possible. Beyond novelty, the video blog format really matters here. Most films don’t have a narrator that can tell viewers what they need to know to get the story going. That’s why filmmakers often resort to heavy-handed flashbacks or cringe-worthy dialogue.
The video blog premise gives the film a narrator that can fill viewers in. However, this is a form of epistolary storytelling, so the challenge now is to make it feel authentic. In other words, Dr. Horrible has to exposit in a way that’s believable for a video blog.
The exposition starts with him updating followers on the current state of his life in typical video-blogging style. Viewers don’t have much context for these updates, but they learn that Dr. Horrible is trying to get into The Evil League of Evil, which he previously tried to get into and didn’t succeed. This sets up the throughline of the film: whether Dr. Horrible will make it into the league, which represents success as a villain. However, at this point it doesn’t seem important because the stakes are low. Dr. Horrible will feel bad if he fails, but he can try again next year. Accordingly, it gets only a brief mention.
Next, Dr. Horrible answers questions sent by his followers via email. As a tactic for exposition, this works exceedingly well. Since he is taking questions from a variety of unknown people, they can have whatever interests and motivations the filmmakers need them to. Since he is giving answers not just to them but to all his followers, he would naturally offer additional explanation to new viewers. Using this method, viewers learn more about Dr. Horrible, his primary antagonist (Captain Hammer), and the central romance of the film.
Besides staying authentic, the other trick to using epistolary scenes here is smoothly transitioning out of them to standard unfolding action. When the filmmakers are ready to move on, they start by playing the sound of a door opening during the video blog. Dr. Horrible looks away at the source of the sound, and then the camera moves out of his computer to show what he’s looking at: his roommate entering the apartment. Then the camera shows Dr. Horrible sitting at his computer for the recording, and he turns his recording off. This smoothly transitions viewers to the new format.
Making Dr. Horrible a Likable Character
We’re not done with the video blog intro yet. One of the most essential tasks of an opening is getting the audience to know and like the protagonist. Throwing some nuances aside, character likability depends on three primary aspects: selflessness, sympathy, and novelty. I recommend aiming for at least two out of three. Novelty is already taken care of, so the filmmakers should cultivate at least one more.
Selflessness can be demonstrated by the stereotypical “save the cat” scene in a film, and it’s probably the easiest and most-relied upon way to build attachment to a character. But this protagonist is supposed to come off as a villain, so dramatic shows of selflessness are out. Instead, stories like these focus on damage control. In other words, the filmmakers have to keep the villainous aspects of the character from hurting likability.
Here’s how they do that in this scene:
- When Dr. Horrible describes a recent caper, viewers learn his target was a bank rather than a person. The description also reveals that he uses technology that takes money straight from vaults, so no employees were hurt. He’s not doing any damage that a viewer would care about.
- Dr. Horrible has a motivation viewers can understand: he’s bitter about the problems in society, so he’s lashing out. He says, “The world is a mess, and I just need to… rule it.” This suggests he fantasizes about ruling the world partly because it would give him the power to fix everything.
- He tells a challenger that one of the reasons he didn’t show up for a fight is that “there’s kids in that park.” From this, viewers know that he has moral boundaries; he won’t hurt children.
These tactics are standard for villainous protagonists. It’s questionable whether they are actually villains; what’s important is that they resemble a villain enough that the story gets the novelty of flipping sides. And like similar stories such as Megamind, Dr. Horrible’s quest for villainy is presented as the result of emotional issues he hasn’t resolved. This provides a character arc.
When selflessness is not an option for building attachment, sympathy is a storyteller’s best friend. This is why villain protagonists are always scrappy underdogs instead of slick badasses like Darth Vader or Saruman. Accordingly, the film’s opening bit demonstrates that Dr. Horrible is struggling to succeed in the world of villainy. He was previously rejected by The Evil League of Evil, Captain Hammer keeps dislocating his shoulder, and a mocking follower asks him to show some gold bars to prove that his last heist succeeded.
Dr. Horrible pulls out the gold bars, and it’s actually a bag with some muddy liquid in it. He struggles to justify how his heist was a success even though his gold was transformed into muck. Besides giving him some great spinach, this sequence also supports the throughline by showing viewers why getting into The Evil League of Evil matters to him.
Last, the video blog gets the romance arc going. If you’re watching the film, play through the first music sequence and pause when it ends.
Establishing the Romance
One of the followers sending questions to Dr. Horrible asks him who the “she” is that he keeps referring to on his blog, and the first musical sequence launches. It’s normal in musicals for characters to start singing and dancing without explanation. The music is for the viewer and not really canonical. In Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, it’s possible that Dr. Horrible really is supposed to be singing on camera to his followers – who knows?
In any case, the film alternates between watching Dr. Horrible sing to the camera and flashbacks in the laundromat. There, viewers meet his yet unnamed crush, Penny, played by Felicia Day. As the video-blogging Dr. Horrible sings about trying to find the words to tell her how he feels, the flashback Dr. Horrible tries to talk to her and fails to strike up a conversation. Penny proceeds to do her laundry without sparing a glance. When they dance, it’s clearly a daydream of his.
The storytellers’ goals here are twofold. One, to again position the protagonist as an underdog by showing he’s beneath the notice of his crush. Two, to build emotional investment in the story’s second throughline: the romance arc. Unfortunately, when combined these goals produce a not-so-good result: this sequence comes off as somewhat creepy and stalkerish.
At least the laundromat encounters have remained at the laundromat so far, and Dr. Horrible hasn’t been stalking Penny by following her home or anything like that. But even with that problem avoided here, Dr. Horrible’s fixation on Penny is too strong considering that he hasn’t talked to her. He knows nothing about her other than that she’s hot and she smiles politely when spoken to. Aside from sending problematic messages, this won’t get everyone cheering for the romance. Many women have had a stranger fixate on them in public and felt threatened by it. The central romance shouldn’t remind them of that.
Given the goals of this sequence, the easiest fix would be for them to know each other a little better. I would make them coworkers at a low-level service job. They work alongside each other often and are on a first-name basis. But every time Dr. Horrible (or in these scenes, Billy) tries to have a substantial conversation with Penny, he becomes too tongue-tied to get far. She thinks of him as amiable but introverted, and she doesn’t know that he’s struggling to make a deeper connection with her. He feels unnoticed.
To keep the “she doesn’t even know he exists” status while not being creepy, the film would have to work to establish how Dr. Horrible knows Penny well enough for him to get this attached without him being a stalker. Maybe she wrote a book he loved, and he realized it was her when she signed a copy at the laundromat. Maybe she shows her personality by bringing tons of laundry loads from the local homeless shelter. People get annoyed that she’s hogging the machines, but she’s unfailingly polite to them. This would be tricky to fit into a short intro, but it’s not impossible.
We’re finally done with the opening video blog entry! If you’re following along with the video, watch through the scene between Dr. Horrible and Moist.
Raising the Stakes
A new character enters: Dr. Horrible’s roommate, Moist. A minor villain whose only power is making things uncomfortably damp and slippery, Moist doesn’t have a significant role in the film. He’s there so Dr. Horrible has someone to talk to, and he further cements their status as low-level wannabe villains. In a narrated work that doesn’t need conversation in every scene, he probably wouldn’t be worth including.
Moist hands Dr. Horrible the mail, and it includes a letter from Bad Horse, the leader of The Evil League of Evil. As Dr. Horrible reads it, cowboys appear around him to sing it for viewers. Besides being funny, this silliness prevents viewers from taking The Evil League of Evil seriously. That way they won’t think too hard about whether Dr. Horrible is doing something bad by joining the group.
Before, Dr. Horrible’s efforts to join the league didn’t have significant stakes. The purpose of the letter is to add to those stakes and raise tension. Bad Horse tells Dr. Horrible that the league is watching him. He must prove himself, and if he doesn’t, that’ll be the end of him. Bad Horse asks specifically for “a heinous crime, a show of force (a murder would be nice of course).” Dr. Horrible has to commit a notable crime, but hurting someone is optional.
Once the song is over, Dr. Horrible tells Moist that it’s great timing. Tomorrow he’s going to steal some “wonderflonium” from a courier van, and then he’ll use it to complete his Freeze Ray. There’s been a lot of foreshadowing about the Freeze Ray already. Viewers know that it’s in progress, that it’s supposed to bring objects and people to a halt without involving ice, and that Dr. Horrible thinks it’s a big deal. Clearly this Freeze Ray is important to the plot.
If you’re watching: stop next when Dr. Horrible starts singing “A Man’s Gotta Do.”
Creating a Meet-Cute
The scene changes, and we see Penny out on the street, trying to give people handouts and collect signatures. This brief scene has a couple important purposes. One, it establishes that Penny’s out there so it doesn’t feel contrived when she runs into Dr. Horrible. Two, it builds attachment to Penny. She’s out trying to get help for the needy, showing she’s selfless. But people on the street are ignoring her, and she’s getting discouraged. This makes her sympathetic.
Then the camera moves to Billy (Dr. Horrible). He’s in an alley setting up his wonderflonium heist when Penny approaches for a signature and recognizes him from the laundromat. Billy panics, giving her several different conflicting responses. This begins a great social conflict where Billy is trying to get off on a good foot with Penny, but he’s distracted by the important crime he is committing via his cell phone at that very moment.
This scene accomplishes more than getting Billy and Penny speaking for the first time. It also demonstrates why they would be better together than they are apart. Billy agrees with Penny that homelessness is a problem, and he doesn’t, for instance, suggest that homeless people are at fault for being homeless. But when she mentions signatures, he scoffs. He then explains that she’s addressing a symptom of a bad system, when the system needs to be overhauled. What we see are two people who want to make the world better but have opposing ways of creating change.
That gives them not only something important in common but also something to offer the other person. Billy’s making poor choices because of his bitterness about the world, so Penny’s optimism could help him find a more constructive path. Penny comes off as naive, so she could probably use someone jaded in her corner. Penny isn’t really bothered by Billy’s weird mannerisms, and Billy contributes to a petition because Penny asks. While the naive woman and cynical man are common gender stereotypes, at least they’re well executed here.
If you’re watching: proceed to the end of Act I.
Introducing the Antagonist
Backing up to before Billy and Penny’s conversation, viewers once again see that Dr. Horrible’s plan to steal the wonderflonium doesn’t include hurting anyone. He attaches a device to the top of the courier van; this puts the van under his control. Penny leaves just as the guard driving the van puts the wonderflonium in the back. Then Dr. Horrible makes the van drive off before the guard can get in.
That’s when Captain Hammer, played by Nathan Fillion, makes his appearance. Like any classic hero-villain duo, Captain Hammer and Dr. Horrible are opposites. For instance, Dr. Horrible is small and brainy, whereas Captain Hammer is a hulk. However, they are opposites in another important way: Dr. Horrible has the trappings of a villain while still being a likable protagonist, whereas Captain Hammer is a despicable character with the appearance of a classic hero.
Captain Hammer’s opening lines of “A Man’s Gotta Do” show him to be a hypocrite. He shows up to save the day not because he cares about helping others, but because he likes the attention. After he jumps on the van and punches the device controlling it, he jumps off, leaving the van to swerve about wildly. While the van is endangering the people nearby, he stops to bask in a bystander’s affection. Nathan Fillion does a fantastic job making Captain Hammer look incredibly full of himself.
These trends continue into the confrontation between hero and villain. Captain Hammer shows up to save Penny from the van, but he does so by roughly throwing her across the alley into a bunch of trash bags. After Dr. Horrible manages to stop the van via his busted remote control, Captain Hammer takes the credit. Then as soon as Dr. Horrible appears to berate Captain Hammer for possibly hurting Penny, Captain Hammer grabs him by the throat. Whereas Dr. Horrible goes to pains to avoid violence, Captain Hammer uses it when he doesn’t need to.
Showing that Captain Hammer is incompetent yet adored by everyone is as important as showing his disregard for the welfare of other people. Just as his disregard shows that he’s selfish (the opposite of selflessness), watching him receive candy he doesn’t deserve generates antipathy (the opposite of sympathy). He now has bad karma, which means viewers will look forward to seeing him get taken down a peg.
Ending the First Act With a Hook
For the plot to move forward, Dr. Horrible has to succeed in getting the wonderflonium. However, if this conflict simply ended with a victory like that, the tension would take a dive. So once this courier van conflict comes to a close, the story needs a new problem or another means of raising tension.
That comes from the romance arc. Since she was lying in a pile of trash bags and didn’t see the van stop on its own, Penny thinks Captain Hammer saved her life. She is instantly enamored with him, and after bragging for a bit, Captain Hammer returns the attention.
Captain Hammer’s focus on Penny allows Dr. Horrible to escape with his prize, but there’s nothing he can do to stop the budding romance. He’s in his villain outfit (which the film pretends is a great disguise), and Penny has no reason to trust him. Captain Hammer would just grab him and beat him up. So Dr. Horrible limps away, his pride injured but his goals intact.
Plot Structure in Review
We’re at the end, so let’s zoom out a bit to look at the overall structure of this film. We’ve seen that it has three throughlines that are woven together.
- The external throughline (main conflict): Dr. Horrible must achieve his dream of joining the Evil League of Evil, or the league will finish him off.
- The intermediate throughline (romance arc): Dr. Horrible and Penny would benefit from an emotional partnership but haven’t yet made the connection.
- The internal throughline (character arc): Dr. Horrible is acting out because he’s bitter about the world. Will he overcome his disillusionment or descend further into villainy?
Having all of this only works because of dedicated multitasking. As we saw, Dr. Horrible (Billy) and Penny had their meet-cute while Dr. Horrible was simultaneously doing a heist on his phone. Not only that, but they discuss their feelings toward the world and his bitterness during the meet-cute. As we’ll see, these three plots are carefully constructed to support each other instead of pulling the story in separate directions.
Next time, we’ll cover Act II and see how the film uses fractal structure to maintain engagement and satisfaction for each of its three episodes.
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