If you’re watching along, play through the first song of Act III and pause afterward.
Building Antipathy With Candy
Previously, we went over how the film gets viewers to like the supposedly villainous Dr. Horrible and hate the superficially heroic Captain Hammer. Part of that was showing Dr. Horrible avoid hurting anyone with his crimes, but now, he’s going in for the kill. To keep viewers on board with Dr. Horrible and his violent plans, Act III opens by giving the audience a new influx of antipathy for Captain Hammer and all the people who will grieve for him. So it’s time to cover in more depth how that works.
As the story unfolds, characters generate something called character karma. If the audience thinks the character deserves better than their current lot in life, they have good karma. If the audience thinks they’ve been getting off too easy and they’re due for a fall from grace, they have bad karma. If you want your end to feel satisfying, then it must fit the karma the audience perceives.
While making your characters more or less moral is one way to alter their karma, you can also do it by making them more or less successful. For that, storytellers frequently use candy and spinach.
- Spinach is anything that the audience would consider humiliating for a character. We call it spinach because while it’s not always fun, it’s good for the protagonist and the story. After showing Dr. Horrible struggle to pull off a successful heist and get his ass beat, viewers feel that he deserves better. They start rooting for him.
- Candy is anything that glorifies a character. If you love a character, it’s enjoyable when they get candy, but it reduces their good karma. If they don’t have any good karma to start with, audiences will start calling for their head on a platter.
Accordingly, Act III opens by giving Captain Hammer tons of candy while simultaneously demonstrating that he doesn’t deserve it. In the opening song, viewers see everyone from newscasters to laborers praise Captain Hammer for being righteous enough to support the homeless. A group of three fans is shown wearing Captain Hammer shirts and treasuring a copy of his dry cleaning bill. We learn a statue of Captain Hammer will be unveiled when the new homeless shelter opens.
Viewers know that Captain Hammer doesn’t deserve this candy. Previous dialogue has specified that the new homeless shelter is the result of a collaboration between the city and a charitable group. Penny has worked hard for it, whereas Captain Hammer only called attention to the charity by signing his support. When Captain Hammer sings during this opening song, we find he doesn’t care about the new shelter at all, just that he’s getting positive attention. Also, we learn that he’ll get to have sex with Penny a second time. Similarly, the newscasters are obviously hypocritical, and the fans just want to be in Penny’s place.
Viewers are now ready to watch Dr. Horrible give all these people a big middle finger.
Mourning a Lost Opportunity for Penny and Dr. Horrible
As viewers watch the city break out in hypocritical celebration, the film also delivers quick updates on how Penny and Dr. Horrible are doing. We see that Dr. Horrible has locked himself in his lab, preoccupied with not only perfecting his freeze ray but also turning his stun ray into a death ray. Because of this, he doesn’t go to meet Penny at the laundromat. She buys a yogurt for him and looks toward the door whenever someone enters, clearly hoping it’s him.
Just as importantly, we see the first signs that she’s rethinking her relationship with Captain Hammer. She’s sings, “He’s perfect for me, or so they say. I guess he’s pretty okay.” It’s easy to imagine that if Dr. Horrible just went to the laundromat that day, Penny would be ready to hear the truth about Captain Hammer from him. Dr. Horrible might lose the motivation to kill Captain Hammer, and on top of that, Penny would probably convince him that he can solve humanity’s problems through peaceful means.
Instead, she and Dr. Horrible separately sing about how there’s no such thing as a happy ending, and they should settle for what’s in front of them and hope for the best. As the plot hurdles toward the climax, they are failing in their character arcs and missing an opportunity to succeed with their romance. This is all great setup for the end.
If you’re watching, proceed through the next two songs and pause when Captain Hammer unfreezes.
Delivering a Great Showdown
Next, the film goes right to the unveiling of Captain Hammer’s statue, which is at a party that Dr. Horrible is planning to crash. Viewers have been promised a big fight between Dr. Horrible and Captain Hammer, and this musical film delivers by giving each their own song.
Captain Hammer’s humorous song continues all the trends we’ve seen already in Act III. He claims the moral high ground while simultaneously demonstrating how self-centered he is. What’s more, the crowd rewards him for his hypocrisy, praising him and singing along. Penny, however, feels so humiliated by him that she slinks away and hides along the wall. She is clearly done with Captain Hammer.
Then, after all the spinach he’s gotten throughout the film, viewers finally get to enjoy some candy for Dr. Horrible. He uses his freeze ray to stop his nemesis mid-song, and then he sings his own anthem with the crowd’s rapt attention. Whereas Captain Hammer’s song was superficially feel-good and inspiring, Dr. Horrible’s is cynical and bitter. He asks why the crowd can’t see the lies in front of them, and then tells them to run and spread the word about him. He declares that soon he’ll have everything he ever wanted: cash, fame, and, stated in what might be an afterthought, social change.
Dr. Horrible shoots the ceiling and the crowd screams and runs in a delightfully satisfying manner. As he approaches Captain Hammer to get his business done, Penny peeks out from behind the chairs. She finally recognizes her friend in his villain getup, but it’s not clear yet what she thinks about Billy being Dr. Horrible.
If you’re watching, proceed to the end.
Unveiling the Turning Point
We’ve now reached the climax of the climax: the story’s turning point. As I mentioned earlier, a satisfying end is one that balances those karmic scales. A protagonist with good karma gets the rewards they deserve, whereas characters with bad karma are punished. The turning point in the climax exists to draw a straight line from something specific the main character did that was worthy (or unworthy) to the reward (or punishment) it rightly brought them. This shows the audience that the protagonist succeeded or failed because they deserved to, not because of luck.
In Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, all of this plays out in an interesting way. After the crowd at the unveiling runs away, Dr. Horrible decides he can’t put off killing Captain Hammer any longer. He starts gathering the nerve to fire his death ray. Then the freeze ray starts to fail, distracting him until Captain Hammer wakes up. This sequence is clearly designed to obscure whether Dr. Horrible would have followed through with the murder if given the chance. Even though the film worked to make viewers okay with it, watching Dr. Horrible kill someone defenseless might still turn them against the main character. The film doesn’t do that, but it also doesn’t exonerate him by showing him change his mind.
With the freeze ray out of commission, Captain Hammer turns the tables on Dr. Horrible. The death ray is knocked out of his hands, and once it hits the ground, it starts to spark. This demonstrates that it’s been damaged. Captain Hammer grabs the weapon off the floor, and he shows no reservations about killing his nemesis with it. We already know he’s violent, and after all, Dr. Horrible was about to do the same.
About to be fired on, Dr. Horrible tells him, “Don’t.” This could be because Dr. Horrible doesn’t want to die, but in that case, you’d expect him to say something like “please.” Perhaps he knows that firing the damaged death ray will be disastrous, but we can’t say for sure. Regardless, Captain Hammer ignores him and fires. The death ray explodes. Feeling pain for the first time in this life, Hammer runs off in an incredibly humiliating manner. Unhurt, Dr. Horrible smiles at Captain Hammer’s exit.
Then he sees Penny. She was hit by fragments of the exploding death ray. Her last words to him before dying are a delirious “Captain Hammer will save us.” As Dr. Horrible cries for her, he realizes that with her death, the League’s murder requirement has been met. He sings about his newfound power, but also about his emptiness inside.
This shows us how all three throughlines of the film turn out. Dr. Horrible succeeds at getting into the Evil League of Evil, but he fails both the romance arc and his character arc. What is the karmic action that leads to this outcome? His decision to kill Captain Hammer. That’s why Dr. Horrible created a deadly weapon and why Captain Hammer ending up firing it. This is what I call a prior achievement turning point, because the karmic action takes place ahead of time and its relevance is revealed at the climax. Although, in this case, you might call it a prior misdeed turning point.
In failing his personal growth arc and compromising his morals, Dr. Horrible earned himself some negative karma points. The result is a hollow victory. We see this play out in the final song, showing that while Dr. Horrible is successful and celebrated, he’s miserable. Captain Hammer, on the other hand, has enough bad karma that he’s emotionally scarred and can’t continue his hero routine, even though he didn’t die.
You might be asking, “What about Penny? What did she do to deserve death?” Let’s talk about Penny.
Examining the Story’s Inherent Message
Whereas both Dr. Horrible and Captain Hammer receive appropriately karmic fates, Penny doesn’t. Sure, the film demonstrates she’s too trusting, but that’s probably worth as much good karma as bad. Even Penny’s last line is oddly out of place. She had just decided to hide rather than be seen with Captain Hammer, and now she’s putting all her faith in a rescue by him. She’s delirious, of course, so the issue here isn’t believability – it’s why the filmmakers decided she should be delirious. In her last moments, she makes backwards progress so that Dr. Horrible can sing sadly about how she died an innocent and left the world to villains like him.
Penny dies as a punishment for Dr. Horrible’s sins, not to offer any closure for her own story. In fact, she doesn’t have much of a story in this film. Like many female characters across many works, she’s been deprived of agency, making her less like a character and more like a sexy lamp. The only meaningful choice she makes is to date Captain Hammer in Act I. Technically, she chooses to be done with him in Act III, but that’s not agency because it has no meaningful effect on the plot.
Penny’s death is a classic example of fridging: a pattern wherein a marginalized character dies tragically to develop a privileged character. In this case, she dies because two men fight over her, which brings a famous quote to mind.
In the game of patriarchy, women are not the opposing team. They are the ball.
– Anita Sarkeesian
You might ask, “But isn’t this film offering commentary on how all of this is bad?” Some fans will argue that the film is condemning toxic masculinity, and there are a few details they can cite. For instance, the song “A Man’s Gotta Do” certainly brings toxic masculinity to the minds of those familiar with it. The protagonist starts singing this song only for it to be immediately co-opted by the antagonist to brag about himself. Plus, the plot appears to be about a man that unwisely chooses a toxic outlet for his pain. That choice has bad results, and he’s sorry about it at the end.
To be clear, I don’t know what the actual intent was in making this film, and it doesn’t matter. What matters is whether the average viewer will experience this film as challenging sexist tropes or merely repeating them. I say “average” because we can’t consider this message successful if it’s only seen by those who want to see it.* A contradictory, confusing, or weak message is not deep. It’s just failed communication.
To send a message, it isn’t enough for characters to sing about philosophy a little. Stories inherently contain lessons, present reality in specific ways, and prioritize some people over others. These inherent messages must match what the storyteller wants to communicate. In this case, the strongest argument for an anti-patriarchy message is that this film is a cautionary tale because it comes to a tragic end. But look again: this is not a tragic end. It’s a bittersweet one.
Remember that moment where Dr. Horrible was about to shoot Captain Hammer, but events concealed whether he really would have? As I mentioned, this was designed so it wouldn’t absolve Dr. Horrible – but also so it wouldn’t condemn him. If this was really a story about Dr. Horrible doing the wrong thing, it would have committed to him attempting murder and losing the audience’s favor. But the climax of this film is carefully balanced so that Dr. Horrible will have neutral karma. Accordingly, he succeeds at one of his goals but fails at the other.
While Dr. Horrible is shown to be miserable during the resolution, the audience enjoys the boatload of candy that is dumped on him. He easily succeeds at a bank heist, he has rad parties, and he puts on a sweet new outfit. The same fans that were worshipping Captain Hammer before now worship Dr. Horrible. To most viewers, Dr. Horrible is as awesome as ever, or even better, because he’s gained a tragic backstory.
Does the Film Have an Anti-Stalking Message?
The karmic action and moral dilemma of this film are about whether or not it’s okay for Dr. Horrible to kill Captain Hammer. While that could be vaguely grouped with male violence and toxic masculinity in general, it’s a stretch of the imagination to apply it to stalking. Instead, Dr. Horrible’s ill-gained knowledge actually helps him woo Penny. This validates stalking rather than condemning it.
Plus, and this may be the only time I will ever say this, the storytellers are not that incompetent. In the first of this series, I described in detail how Dr. Horrible’s likability has been crafted with the utmost care. The filmmakers wouldn’t intentionally make him do something so despicable. His toxic behavior is supposed to be laughed off. That’s all.
When I point out how character karma works, some readers don’t like it. “You mean stories are structured so the good guys always win and the bad guys always lose? Isn’t that cheap and simplistic? Is there no room for art?” That’s a reasonable reaction, but it’s based on a misunderstanding. Punishing and rewarding characters is how we make meaningful statements about what is good and what is bad. It’s true that if you punish who your audience thinks are the good guys, your ending won’t be satisfying. But that’s because you conveyed an important message, and your audience disagreed with it.
If you want to include a controversial message in your story, be prepared to make people mad. And if you want to know which stories really have anti-patriarchy messages, simply look for the works that are hated by those who want to uphold patriarchy. A recent reboot starring four women fighting ghosts instead of four men fighting ghosts may come to mind. The 2016 Ghostbusters had a successful anti-patriarchy message because another inherent aspect of the story was working for it: the prioritization of the main character(s).
As I’ve explained previously, trying to write a story where the main character learns a lesson about the value and dignity of more marginalized people will backfire on you spectacularly. In a well-crafted story, the humanity of the protagonist always comes first. A story that tries to condemn patriarchal men by making them the central characters is, at best, a story at war with itself.
In contrast, imagine if when Dr. Horrible came to kill Captain Hammer, Penny got all the bystanders to safety. She stops Captain Hammer from killing Dr. Horrible, only to watch as Dr. Horrible kills Captain Hammer. Disillusioned with the knowledge that her boyfriend was a jerk and her friend is a murderer, she resolves to become the hero the city needs. The film closes as she vows to bring the now powerful Dr. Horrible to justice. With Penny as a protagonist with agency, the film would have been positioned to condemn patriarchy.
But as is, this film is not a commentary on patriarchy, but an expression of it. If that was not the intent, then Joss Whedon and the other filmmakers would not be alone in making this mistake. Time and time again, storytellers declare their work a victorious subversion when all they’ve done is replayed problematic tropes with small and superficial adjustments. If you want to convey a positive message, consider starting fresh instead of giving an old story a new twist.
If it wasn’t clear by my overview, I personally love this film. Overall, I think it is a story of excellent craftsmanship. I especially enjoy that dark ending song where Dr. Horrible gets all the trappings of success but enjoys none of it. But I have nothing to lose by being honest about the film’s failings. And I have something important to gain: new stories that I love and admire just as much, but that do better with the messages they convey.
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