The internet is full of Marmite.
It gets stuck in the tubes and causes slowness, and that's why the latest US episode of your favourite TV series took so long to download and crapped out in the middle.
OK, actually, what I mean is the internet is full of things that everyone seems to either love with the power of all-caps, or hate with all the force of LOLcats. There's no middle ground here.
Of course, the reason for that is because if you're a little bit 'meh' about something, or you think it's OK but nothing to blog about - then you don't blog about it. So the only opinions that get expressed in the big old wide blogosphere are OMGAWESOME or RILLYANGRYSMASH posts. And sometimes, everyone liking something is enough to get the people who didn't have much of an opinion, start to get annoyed at the people who do and feel the need to post about how awful something was, and dichotomies form.
And no one is more prone to forming these love/hate divides than Joss Whedon.
Me, I'm pro-Whedon, in a lot of ways. By which I mean I love much of his Slayerverse work and I love Serenifly, though I recognise they can be annoying. I do not much care for Angel, I didn't like his work on Runaways
, and the concept of his upcoming TV show The Dollhouse
actively makes me uncomfortable. In general, I often think he's a good writer. He's certainly an intelligent
writer; he tries hard and his work can be fun to dissect
In case you've been living under an internet rock the last week, Joss Whedon recently produced an online three-act video called Dr. Horrible's Sing-a-Long Blog
. It can no longer be streamed for free, but I think USians at least can buy it from iTunes. If you're a filthy ferner like me, I'm afraid your time has passed.Dr. Horrible
is a comedy set in a Superhero world, starring Neil Patrick Harris as a second rate potential supervillain trying for membership into the Evil League of Evil, Nathan Fillian as his arch nemesis Captain Hammer, and Felicia Day as a woman they both like. Most of my friendslist liked it
. Some didn't
. But people are talking about it
. A lot
. Assume spoilers in all links, and in what's following:
There are three main characters in the story; and actually only two supporting characters, and that's if you're generous about Bad Horse. 45 minutes of story, small cast. The three characters are:Dr. Horrible
The eponymous protagonist played by Neil Patrick Harris. The show opens with him demonstrating his progressing 'evil laugh' for his video blog, charting his rise to supervillaindom and his wish to join the evil league of evil. Dr. Horrible (real name: Billy) is a sarcastic, nerdy inventor with revolutionary ideas politically, but his true motivation appears to be to make something of himself, specifically to impress girls. Specifically one girl, who we'll get to later. His ambition is personal, but his alignment is dictated by his politics: he has rather ill-conceived (demonstrated by his fumbling when he tries to explain them) ideas about how the system is corrupt and has to be changed radically to improve, and this has led him to supervillainy. His ambition to succeed in that area comes from his very human belief in himself and the hope that the girl he likes might look twice at him if he were someone.
Dr. Horrible is above all, a pathetic, reactive character. We know he's intelligent, because he's an inventor, and we know that he knows he's capable of great things (morality aside), but he's still working on it. His primary motivation is the girl, but he never works up the courage to approach her himself. He responds to events, but doesn't initiate them. The first heist we see him attempt is for a part he needs for his freeze ray, and an attempt to be accepted into the Evil League of Evil. Everything else that happens in the story is his reaction to things happening around him. He appears to be the archetypal Nice Guy™
- the guy who misses out on the girl because he never bothers to talk to her, then blames everyone else for his failure. As a Joss fan, I believe that he's probably what happened when Andrew Wells finally got his way and seduced Warren Meers, bearing his love child.Captain Hammer
(Nathan Fillian) is the Hero - capital H because that's a job description, not his role in the narrative. He's strong, not too bright, and both utterly full of himself and convinced that he's immortal. (You can tell why I'm thinking about picking him up as an RP character, can't you?) Things are right because he does them, but he, even more so than Horrible, acts entirely reactionarily. He shows up to foil Horrible's plot, and finds a girl who he dates because - well, it's implied he dates a lot of the girls he rescues. He persuades the Mayor to dedicate a homeless shelter because the girl wants it. Later he discovers that Horrible likes the girl and he mocks him for the fact that he, Captain Hammer, got her ("The Hammer is my Penis"). He's never been seriously hurt and has no checks on his behaviour: when, in the climax he his hit by a death ray and it physically hurts him, he has a mental breakdown because it's never happened before.
Hammer is set up to be the jock bully to Horrible's nerd, but they're both as pathetic as each other. Hammer acts for his own glory and goes along with what society expects from him because he likes the limelight. There's very no more to him than his high school footballer persona because there's never needed to be. He's highly stupid and childish and above all, ignorant of everyone around him.
Which of course, leads us to the girl herself:Penny
(Felicia Day) is the girl from the launderette who Dr. Horrible is creepy!stalkerish!infatuated with, but won't talk to her. Penny is involved with campaigning for a new homeless shelter, and it is she who first approaches Billy to ask him to sign his petition, from which she pushes a conversation. She later approaches the man she believes saved her from an out of control van, there's a
moment of quick mutual infatuation
duet, and they start dating, while keeping up her friendship with the laundry man she first talked to on the same day.
Penny is sweet, kind, and acts as a contrast to both the male characters: she is the 'idealistic princess' archetype who knows what she wants and has a higher purpose: it's Hammer who accomplishes the deeds for her, and she doesn't appear to mind that, but she is never reactive in her actions: she initiates the first contact with both men (interrupting them in their macho endeavours in both cases).
To sum up the plot, then:
Billy likes Penny; Billy uses his infatuation with Penny to motivate himself towards making a name for himself as a supervillain, at which he's not doing too well. Penny finally talks to Billy while he's busy with a heist, which Hammer interrupts. Hammer's attempt to foil the heist is ill conceived and macho, and resulted inpenny's life being put in danger. Horrible and Hammer both act to save her, but she only notices Hammer, interrupted his showdown with Horrible to express her gratitude.
She dates Hammer while maintaining her new friendship with Billy, unaware that he's stalking her and Hammer. When she finally introduces her new firend to her new boyfriend, Hammer recognises Horrible and brags about how he's dating her now, and how he's going to sleep with her to spite his nemesis. This drives Horrible over the edge and he starts plotting to kill Hammer, which just happens to be along the lines of what he needs to join the Evil League of Evil. He stops talking to Penny in his obsession and tracks them down to the dedication of the homeless shelter Hammer secured to impress Penny.
Hammer gives a speech about heroics, and his cruel heartless bragging in it disgusts the girl, who moves to leave, only to be interrupted by Horrible with his new Death Ray. Hammer and Horrible fight: Hammer turns the Death Ray on Horrible and it explodes, the flying shrapnel hitting Penny as a consequence. Her dying words to Billy are:
It’s OK, Captain Hammer will save us.
Horrible loses her, then he turns even more evil and joins the Evil League of Evil, loosing all his connection with humanity. His blog becomes a place where he pretends to be Billy.
Or, in the words of Anna
, commenting on Feministe
Two boys fought over a toy until she broke.
It's FORTY-FIVE MINUTES (including songs) of superhero narrative. It's funny (Nathan Fillian delivering the line "The Hammer is my penis" is worth the non-existent price of admission alone), it's simple, and it's small. So why the big giant fuss? Why all the debate about Penny? Why am I writing so much, here?
Because it's Joss Whedon. And Joss is made of Marmite. And you can't let marmite happen without blogging about how wonderful it is or how nasty. Because my corner of the blogosphere in particular is made up of vocal feminists who, whether they like it or not, have an overexposure to Slayers and Browncoats. Because people love debating whether Joss is a great feminist
or a disgusting rapist
. Because when you're frustrated with the way women are treated in fiction, you can either hold up the Slayerverse or Serenifly as 'yay Joss!', or you can throw up your hands and say
Oh fortheluvvaBob shut up about Buffy and River, already!
. Because people watched Dr. Horrible because
it was made by Joss the Marmite of feminist fiction, and every single person who watched it knew they were watching something made by the same guy who deliberately subverted the ditzy blonde victim in an alley trope and made a lot of money out of it.
And so, what are you supposed to do when the Buffy guy produces
Two boys fight over a toy until she breaks
Well, you can:
a) laugh at the penis line and get on with your life.
b) complain about the trope and how sick you are of seeing it.
c) argue that there's a larger purpose to it all that's not as misogynistic as it appears.
There are a lot of people doing all 3 of these. If you opted for a), I doubt you've read this far anyway. Go! Be a productive member of society! It's the b's and c's being interesting: the b's I've observed seem, on the whole, to not be fans of Joss' other works. The c's are more firm followers of his. They are reading the piece in the context of the larger works, and their arguments usually mention him by name. Me, I don't know which is more valid; I think works have to be judged on their own merits and in context. But I do find the arguments interesting, particularly in regards to Penny.
I think Joss’s point was in the cross fires of male pissing contests, women suffer. Penny died because Dr. Horrible and Capitan Hammer were trying to destroy each other. The Nice Guy and the Jock were so busy trying to take the other one down, neither noticed Penny was still there and in harms way. I see it as a good example of how in the cross fires of the patriarchy, women get hurt. They get spoken over, hushed, turned into sexual objects, and killed.
Meggygurl commenting on Feministe
Me, I viewed it as a tragedy in the classical sense: people act stupid and selfishly, and no one's happy at the end. I've just exchanged my Fables
collection for Manga!Hamlet
, and while the plot isn't the same
, the structure is. People are crap and everything falls apart. Penny dies because the boys fought over her. Captain Hammer goes insane because he's selfish and stupid and not emotionally equipped to deal with suffering. Dr. Horrible, through his own actions and inactions, loses the girl he loves, falls into a spiral of self destruction and loses touch with his humanity.
Boy, you kill someone, everyone makes a fuss! Yet I still feel differently about this than what I've done before. It's a tragedy, classically structured. Usually death is meaningless and arbitrary in my work, to reflect life, but this is the old brew.
Joss Whedon proves me right in the Washington Post
There's a lot of good reading in the links included in this post, and I kind of feel I've written a lot without actually saying much, but I think that reader interpretation is what's important here, not authorial intent. It seems most likely that Joss, Neil, Nathan and Felicity were just having a laugh with a high budget, and didn't construct any deliberate meaning. I was certainly willing to let the whole thing slide by as something that was fun to watch, but the way in which messages and ideas can be read into it is just one of the things that makes Fandom so great.♥
Don't ever change, you guys.[Further reading: Feminste | A Nerd at Peace | An interview with Joss Whedon]
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