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Why Dr. Horrible’s Awesomeness Makes Me a Little Sad about Star Wars

Okay – you’re being warned: I’m about to write about Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, and yes, I’m going to talk about the ending, if not all the cool details along the way. So if you haven’t seen it, seriously: Just permalink this post and come back to it after you’ve had some time to watch. It’ll still be here when you get back. Heck, I’ll even post a photo below as filler just so no one’s eyes happen to catch a glimpse of DARTH VADER IS TOTALLY LUKE’S DAD AND RON WEASLEY’S THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE AND ROSEBUD WAS A LITTLE LOST KITTEN SO HAHAHAHAHAHAAAAA!

Okay, so anyway, here’s a 1980s ad for a Battlestar Galactica (original edition)-style New Warrior’s Jacket, and below that, no kidding, my spoiler-laden thoughts on Dr. Horrible and Star Wars.

EEbattlejacket

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Okay, so I finally had time last night to sit down and watch Dr. Horrible in its entirety and I absolutely loved it start to finish. (Sole drawback? I’ve had the opening lines of They Might Be Giants’ “Someone Keeps Moving My Chair” stuck in my head all day long.) I’d been itching to see this project since the teaser came out.

Now I can say it kicked ass and at the same time made me weep just a little for missed opportunities.

Why? First, know this: I write this as a complete Star Wars nut; as someone who clutched action figures by the handful as a kid; as someone who relished the lead-up to every movie release and who still loves double-bladed lightsabers, duels over lava pits and energy cores, space battles with sound effects, Jedi Mind Tricks, podraces, speeder chases and rocket-backpacked bounty hunters.

And yet after I finished watching Dr. Horrible, I realized I’d just seen in 42 minutes all the emotion and powerful storytelling I wanted so badly to find in the six-plus hours of Star Wars prequels.

See, it turns out that Dr Horrible’s story is the Anakin Skywalker “origin” tale I wanted. Yes, seriously.

Consider: From the start, we LIKE Dr. Horrible. Oh, sure, he CALLS himself evil, and he’s aiming to be accepted into the Evil League of Evil, but really, when it comes down to it, he’s just selfish and after a little power – and we get that. Stealing’s okay, but he hedges at killing. So even though we know he’s up to no good, he’s still just a damn likable guy.

What’d we get in Phantom Menace?  A likable kid who wants to fly ships and fix stuff, which is okay and all, but we never connect with him, really. I mean, during the podrace, sure, you’re rooting for him, but it’s strictly plot-related – we’ve got no emotional ties because we just met him.

I’ll grant you that George Lucas was working from behind a pretty big eight ball here: After all, going into Episode I, we already know that Anakin winds up going awfully bad somewhere down the line, and creating tension when you already know how the big picture turns out has got to be tough. Would Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog have worked as a prequel? I mean, if, say, Joss Whedon had given us a story about the character we see Dr. H become at the end of this film, and then provided the “Sing-Along Blog” short as a backstory? Hard to say. Still, so far: Dr. Horrible 1, Little Annie 0.

So, with the bad guy/protagonist (which, after all, is what Anakin should’ve been) in play, let’s look at the good guy-as-antagonist. Yep, I said it: Captain Hammer, after all is THE GOOD GUY, strictly speaking. Fighting crime, aiming for justice, etc., etc. All the stuff straight from the Heroes Handbook. Is he a dick about it? Well, yeah. And that’s what makes him such a great nemesis for Dr. Horrible: We can root for the bad guy if the good guy’s a tremendous jackass. Star Wars prequel parallel here? No less than the Jedi council. Examples:

ANAKIN: “Hey, guess what – found that Sith Lord you’ve been looking for through the last two movies.”

MACE WINDU: “Really? Sweet. Thanks a ton. Stay here.”

or

ANAKIN: “Seriously, Master Yoda – my dreams are all screwed up and I’m dealing with a bunch of pretty heavy demands physically and mentally and emotionally and everything, and really I’m still a hormonal teenager after all.”

YODA: “Let go of everything you fear to lose.”

ANAKIN: “You. Are. Freaking. KIDDING me. THAT’S THE BEST YOU CAN GIVE ME? Sonofa-”

And yet, the story structure of the Prequels has us pulling for the Jedi, even though they play a key role in creating Darth Vader. We just don’t root for Anakin the way we do Dr. Horrible, even though he’s got a Ph.D. in Horribleness.

Next up: Love interest and the tragic loss.

For starters, Dr. Horrible and Penny get more chemistry out of their introductory song in the laundromat than Anakin and Padme get anywhere. And again, for the viewer, it takes no effort at all to get caught up in Dr. H’s crush on Penny and her sweet interest – even when she catches those hints that “Billy” has a sinister side, she can’t help but feel something for him.

Oh, and when she starts dating dickhead Capt. Hammer? AWESOME. What better way to pull us fully onto Dr. Horrible’s side, after all, than to hear the Hammer bragging about bedding Penny? Come on – you freaking CHEERED when Dr. H. hit him with the freeze ray, and when the batteries died and Hammer was revived, your heart sank.

I kid you not: When Penny, dying, whispered “Capt. Hammer will save us,” it was about a hundred times more heartbreaking than anything in the climax of Episode III when Anakin’s making his own turn to the Dark Side. And Dr. Horrible’s final push over the edge into evil – sparked not only by Penny’s death but being forced to take the public blame when it was Hammer who pulled the trigger (while, it should be noted, attempting to gun down a helpless villain in cold blood – very unheroic) – I totally bought into that in a way that I never quite managed to with Anakin’s “I’m trying to save my wife from my bad dreams” turn.

So how’s it end? Dr. Horrible gets what he wants: Power. Recognition. Fear.

He gets almost everything he’s always wanted, and that’s the tragedy.

And dammit, he did it in two-and-two-thirds fewer movies than Anakin.

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August 6, 2008 - Posted by | 1980s, Current Affairs, eighties, Fiction, Film, geek, Music, Science, Web/Tech, Weblogs

3 Comments »

  1. Oh my gosh! I totally agree! I think there is one key difference between Dr. Horrible and Anakin Skywalker that kind of dooms Ani’s case. That difference is… Dr. Horrible’s son NEVER shows up to turn him to the good side. You touched on the fact that we already knew the ending being detrimental to our relating to child Ani’s character, but it’s more than that… George Lucas COULDN’T let us identify with Anakin and believe his side was the best side, because that would mean his original hero, Luke Skywalker, was actually in the wrong! Throughout the prequels, we knew the Dark Side was bad, and that one day, Anakin would come to his senses, so the way he believed now, no matter how compelling, was wrong and he would learn better in time. Dr. Horrible, on the other hand, isn’t backsliding from his destined path… he’s going forward on it. Anakin Skywalker was a hero who got mixed in with the wrong crowd for twenty-odd years, until he was saved from it by his equally heroic son. Dr. Horrible was a villain who, by losing the one he loved, realized his full potential. So, basically, the blame for screwing up Star Wars for you doesn’t fall on Anakin Skywalker… it’s his Rebel son Luke’s.

    Here’s a few funny thoughts for you…

    Both Anakin and Dr. Horrible would have benefited from Master Yoda’s advice. “Learn to let go of what you fear to lose.” If Anakin stopped trying to save Padme, she would have lived (probably). And it was only after Dr. Horrible DID lose Penny that he was able to become the villain he needed to be. Hmm… if he (Dr. H.) had heard and heeded Yoda’s advice, however, he might not have been as affected by her death, and still would have been Dr. Hammer’s weenie punching bag…

    Captain Hammer’s symbolic replacement isn’t the Jedi Council. He’s a by-the-books good guy, who is always chiding and otherwise demeaning the beloved villain (used loosely in Anakin’s case). Come on, you know who it is… Ol’ Obi-Wan! I wonder if Anakin’s fury at the end would be better understood if Obi-Wan and Padme actually WERE boinking off-screen…

    This comparison between the two works yeilds some interesting results… Of course Anakin is Dr. Horrible, Padme is Penny, and, as I’ve decided, Obi-Wan is Captain Hammer. But if that’s the case, then…:

    Moist = R2-D2 (takes care of practical matters, doesn’t affect the plot much, and mostly just provides someone for the beloved villain to talk to, other than himself)

    Bad Horse = Emperor Palpatine (duh, but still, comparing Palpy to a Horse makes me giggle a little… Seriously, though, it’s not just that they are the leaders of the bad guys… they both lack in the looks department, and are both easily underestimated)

    Bail Organa = That homeless guy who patted Captain Hammer on the shoulder (Hammer’s reaction to physical contact with a bum mirrors Obi-Wan’s distaste for any and all politicians)

    The Senate = Those three crazy fans who hang on Captain Hero’s every word until he’s defeated and they start sporting Dr. Horrible t-shirts…

    The Jedi = The reporters (going on and on about how good being a hero is, and left in tears at the end)

    Final thought: Anakin Skywalker killed more people with less motivation to do so (prior to Padme’s death) than Dr. Horrible did after Penny died. So, yeah, Anakin’s reign of terror is doomed to end, and his character is harder to relate to. But maybe that’s because sweet little Ani really was just a sadistic killer at heart? Maybe he’s NOT just like us… maybe he’s just like Jeffry Dahmer or Norman Bates instead?

    Comment by Sister Silence | October 29, 2010 | Reply

    • Thanks for the response! I’m going to respectfully disagree on one point only :) – and that’s your take on Obi-Wan as Capt. Hammer. While Obi-Wan does fit the “by-the-books good guy” in some cases, he’s also got a rebellious streak – he DOES say he’s going to train Anakin no matter what the council says – and he’s also a genuinely good guy, which is something Hammer ISN’T. Hammer may put on a good public show, but he’s a selfish jerk at heart, which I still think parallels much more with the Jedi Council as a whole than with Obi-Wan as an individual.

      Comment by jrbooth | November 1, 2010 | Reply

  2. I just discovered Dr. Horrible recently… can’t believe it. I think the problem is that I was never into Buffy, so I was never tied into the Whedon-verse. My wife and I just watched all of Firefly last year and I just learned about Tabletop and Felicia Day’s Geek and Sundry channel on Youtube, so I guess I’m catching up AND came at it backwards at the same time.

    All that being said, I expected, after 4 years out there in the ether, that there would be a LOT more commentary on Dr. Horrible vs. Darth Vader, but this is one of the few posts out there at all that I could find! The first time I watched it my reaction to Act 3 was utter shock that they took it in that direction. Then a few weeks later I re-watched it, knowing, and it became so clear that THIS was the Start Wars prequel trilogy done RIGHT, as you put it, in two and two-thirds fewer movies! Even the three act structure follows the logical stepping-stones that Lucas should have followed.

    Act I: Rudderless but talented (anti) hero is a striver who wants to achieve. There is a girl that he pines for, but the one talent he doesn’t have is the ability to talk to women. Like many nerds, he mistakenly believes that he can win her over with great acts. We can see that he has the seeds for evil, but it’s clear that it’s more misdirected energy and the desire to be loved. Also, because he’s always been a nerd who has been stepped on by successful society (Capt. Hammer, jocks, etc.), he has a bit of a chip on his shoulder against society that he thinks makes him a subversive figure, but he has yet to really act on that belief in any way that cements his future. From Lucas what did we get? Virgin miracle birth perfect 10 year old relives the basic plot of Stars Wars: A New Hope. A throwaway story. We should have had a Luke-aged Anakin as a slave on Tatooine with a grudge against the Republic, who then helps the Jedi win their victory on Naboo and agrees to be trained. And none of that “he’s too old” BS. That wound up just being a way to blame the Jedi Council because all they know how to do is train perfect little robot Vulcans, and Anakin was too old to be programmed like that. I always thought that was a weak excuse for their failure. I always believed that Jedi should have been discovered by their talents and trained in the same manner as Obi-wan and Luke (although “discovered” is the wrong word when someone has been watching you his whole life!).

    Act II: The embodiment of the “society” that he feels is unfair winds up winning the object of the (anti) hero’s affection. At the same time, there is a counter-culture organization that is trying to recruit him, which is probably actually more evil than he is at this point, and that ups the ante by forcing him to do more than he is really willing to. However, when it’s revealed just how much of a dick his nemesis is, it justifies “just this one act” – the slippery slope. What should Lucas have done here? Well, one major complaint with the prequels is the lack of a Han Solo character. Who does Captain Hammer remind you of? Exactly. Put him in a position of societal power (so Anakin already dislikes him) where he would have access to get to know Padme, say, a Senator? Introduce him in Act I as a likable rogue and romantic foil, and by Act 2 push him to a be dick, to a less cartoonish degree than Captain Hammer. By now Anakin can decide that the Jedi are a bureaucratic joke that will never help improve the galaxy, and that he needs to help Palpatine take over but needs to kill someone in order to get Palps to teach him. He decides by the end of the second act that this Han Solo character is his target.

    Act III: Plan goes wrong. Padme is killed because of the plan, but not directly BY his hands. She’s actually killed somehow because the Han Solo character IS a dick. But this crushes him to the point where he is truly willing to embrace Palpatine / The ELE. He dons a new costume. He embraces it, but somehow the viewer is left with the nugget of good in him. Lucas, of course, would have to wind in the fight with Obi-wan and the injuries that FORCE the suit on him, and Whedon has the flexibility of that last cutaway for “I won’t feel… a thing” that made it obvious that Billy / Anakin is still in there, which wouldn’t work in the Star Wars format, but with some creative thinking the same could be worked in.

    All in all I think that the arc between Obi-Wan and Anakin would also be improved. In Act I Anakin is only just discovered by Obi-Wan. In Act II he is a student, but the choas of war has them separated and torn apart (just like in AOTC). In Act III Obi-Wan discovers just what his student is become and decides he as to stop him. Maybe Obi-Wan stands in for the malfunctioning Freeze Ray that foils the Plan, that then gives the Han Solo character the chance to try to kill Anakin in cold blood that actually results in killing Padme. Then Obi-wan and Anakin have their showdown when they are both enraged… Anakin at Padme’s death and Obi-wan at the fact that his student has become this… I would have like to have seen and Obi-wan that himself almost walked the line of the Dark Side.

    Anyway, enough said. Great post. I can’t believe there aren’t more like it out on the interwebs. It feels good to get my basket of thoughts down on… paper.

    Comment by Erik | September 24, 2012 | Reply


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