Dr. Horrible and Postmodern Heroes

The following is the script for an oral presentation I gave in my Ethics and Postmodernity class. The prompt was basically “talk about anything, so long as you can tie it back to something we discussed in class.” I was originally going to talk about antiheroes, but I kept coming back again and again to Dr. Horrible, so I thought “What the heck.”

Since this was given to my class I was assuming that my audience would be familiar with the theorists referenced, but I think it’ll still make sense if you’re not. Enjoy! As always, let me know what you think… Please?

Oh, by the way, since this is a script it doesn’t have any references, but if you want to know what texts I am talking about I can get you that info.

One of my personal quirks (or whatever you want to call it) is that I am somewhat obsessed with the ethics of fiction—not just the ethics within or promoted by the story, but the ethics of the audience’s participation in the story, and how the one affects the other. Stories matter to me beyond their entertaining or expressive purposes, because stories—all stories, silly pop culture as well as classics—shape our understanding. They live in Lacan’s realm of the Symbolic, and as such they mediate between who we are and who we think we are, what is and what ought to be, and so are inherently ethically significant. This issue is part of the reason I became a Religion major: no other major will let you get away with writing your final paper on the ethics of Harry Potter (which I have done) or will let you focus your senior thesis on the conceptualization and ethical implications of the soul in popular fiction (as I did). Needless to say, this issue occupies me a lot.

One interesting way that fiction interacts with ethics is in the idea of heroism. The hero of a story is expected and assumed to be or to become morally exemplary: they are the “good guy.” This is curious in light of postmodernism where not only are definitions of good and evil variable if they exist at all, but, according to Kierkegaard, the most heroic acts are not ethical and cannot be understood—cannot even be put into language, which is a problem for stories. Does postmodernism abolish heroes, make them irrelevant, or simply condemn them to being ethically tortured? What does a postmodern hero look like?

In light of this issue, I would like to examine Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog as something of a postmodern case study. I chose to look at Dr. Horrible for several reasons. Firstly, its portrayal of heroism and villainy is very interesting and I think is indicative of some much larger trends in postmodern fiction. Secondly, Dr. Horrible itself was created as a perceived act of heroism, and thirdly, the writer, director, and producer of Dr. Horrible, Joss Whedon, is one of my own personal heroes and has had a large impact on my ethical line of thought. Also, I just couldn’t resist geeking out.

So, for those of you who are unfamiliar with it, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog is a 42-minute musical miniseries created for the internet during the writer’s strike that tells the story of Dr. Horrible, a wannabe supervillain, Captain Hammer, the superhero who keeps beating him up, and Penny, the girl from the Laundromat that he has a crush on. I’m going to show you a scene to help demonstrate how the story is playing with ideas of heroism and ethics. To give you some context, Dr. Horrible is in the middle of a heist in which he is controlling a van by remote control.

As you can see (I hope), the story flips heroism on its head, making the self-proclaimed villain the protagonist and the self-proclaimed hero the antagonist. What is interesting to me about this is that while both Dr. Horrible and Captain Hammer could fill the role of hero or villain, depending on how you look at it, neither of them are really antiheroes: we never admire them for their evil schemes in the way we might admire a character cleverly committing the perfect crime. There is still a very strong moral undertone here despite the moral role reversal. Dr Horrible desperately wants to be evil, but he only wants this in order to make a better world. As he says, “It’s about destroying the status quo because the status is not quo. The world is a mess and I just need to rule it.” Captain Hammer, on the other hand, fights evil, but only to indulge his over-inflated ego and to pick up girls. So who is the real hero and who is the villain? Or perhaps, who is more moral, and to what extent are the two ideas connected?

I think Foucault can help in answering this question in his discussion of normalizing judgment. According to Foucault, our definitions of what is normal and deviant come through watching and being watched. Thus, we, as well as the characters themselves, lump Dr. Horrible and Captain Hammer into the roles of hero and villain based on the social perceptions, when in fact there is no “big bad”—the evil comes from the process and the social systems, of which both Dr. Horrible and Captain Hammer are a product. Both characters are constantly being watched, of course by us as the audience, but also within the story: Dr. Horrible has a video blog and is under surveillance by the Evil League of Evil and Captain Hammer is a media darling. Their behavior and self-expectations are governed by the way that people watch them, and the way that they think people are watching them. This is Foucault’s “automatic functioning of power.” Thus, the fact that one acts as the hero and the other as the villain is somewhat arbitrary, and does not necessarily correspond to their moral status. This fits in nicely with the fact that much of the story revolves around efforts being made to establish a homeless shelter: the real villain that needs to be fought is the social system, not any particular bad guy.

One could also look at heroism in Dr. Horrible in light of Lacan. Much of Dr. Horrible’s conflict with Captain Hammer is really an identity crisis, where his understanding of who he is and who he wants to be, again, created in part by his blog, which acts as a mirror, does not match up to the reality. Evil is his Ideal-I and his goal, but it is based on a false perception of what evil is, and thus his supposed villainy dictates his behavior without dictating his identity. When he finally does achieve his goal, that is, when he gets into the Evil League of Evil, he finds that he does not like it as much as he thought he would: he has encountered the realm of the Real. Jumping back to Foucault for a moment, Foucault talks about how we tend to categorize people based on their actions, and thus if someone does a heroic act, they are seen to be ontologically a hero, or perhaps if someone is a protagonist they are seen to be ontologically good, but by flipping the stereotyped roles, Dr. Horrible seems to be agreeing with Foucault that such categorizations are false, and it uses Lacanian reasoning to make that point. Perhaps we could also throw in a bit of Judith Butler in here in her idea that subversive parody liberates by de-stabilizing categories.

The discussion of Foucault is especially interesting in light of how the musical came to be. As I said, it was created during the writer’s strike by Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, among other things. I’d like to show you a clip of Joss Whedon from the Dr. Horrible panel at the 2008 ComicCon explaining why he made it. The video was taken by a fan so it’s a little shaky. (start at 1:08)

So, Dr. Horrible was created partly as a way of further protesting television studios as the strike was trying to do, and partly as an exploration of the potential for commercial television on the Internet, and it was done so with the air of heroism, of making things better or more just. Interestingly, this heroism seems to have nothing to do with a leap of faith, and judging by the success it has had, it is not absurd (perhaps it’s a little bit weird, but that’s another issue). This was not by any means the first web series, and Joss was not the only person during the strike who was thinking about using the internet as a way of circumventing television executives. If there was a leap of faith involved, it was that people would actually be interested in the project, but since Joss Whedon, as well as the main actors, have very well-established fan bases, the leap was not very big.

The heroism here is Foucaultian, not Kierkegaardian. The creation of Dr. Horrible is an insistence on the irrelevance of hierarchical power, and an assertion of capillary power. It both used and championed the power of the audience, or of micro-power, through word of mouth, social networks, and free content. Thus, it was heroic not for doing something ethical or by virtue of the absurd, but for its insistence on the Foucaultion truth about the real nature of power.

I’d like to jump back to Joss Whedon, who is, as I said, one of my heroes. By calling Joss my hero, I am not merely saying that I am a fan of his work. It has to do with him as a person. And yet, I know next to nothing about him personally. He is not my role model, and I often disagree strongly with the things he has to say. As far as I am aware, the only Kierkegaardian leaps of faith that he has made involve pitching really weird ideas to studios and hoping they will have a good response—hardly an Abraham or a knight of infinite resignation. He is my hero for the simple fact that he can and does take a medium like television, which is often considered to be somewhat brainless, and an idea as absurd as a blogging supervillain, or a cowboy in outer space, or a vampire-hunting cheerleader, and create something that makes me want to think about the kinds of things I’ve been discussing. He pushes and challenges while entertaining more effectively than almost anyone I’ve encountered. Perhaps that is what a postmodern hero is: not a “good guy” or a moral model, but someone who pushes us, the audience, to confront our own ethics and challenge the ethical comfort zone. They may or may not do anything “by virtue of the absurd,” but they point out the absurdity in us, and I think Dr. Horrible does a very good job of doing that. For a postmodern world, that may be as heroic as it gets.


~ by ntertanedangel on June 30, 2010.

2 Responses to “Dr. Horrible and Postmodern Heroes”

  1. Hi, I know you wrote that quite a while ago but I just came across Dr. Horrible and tried to read more about postmodern heroes. I want to write a paper for uni about heroism in The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter but can’t seem to find any good literature on postmodern heroes so I am highly interested in what texts you were referring to and any other recommendations you might have. I hope you read this and answer – that would be amazing! Thanks! 🙂

    • Sorry it’s taken me so long to reply to this. I hope I’m not to late to help with your paper.

      The works that I referenced in this paper are “Fear and Trembling” by Soren Kierkegaard, “Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison” by Michael Foucault, and “Gender Trouble” by Judith Butler. I don’t think we used any one specific work of Lancan’s in my class, but if you look up Lacan’s idea of the 3 realms of the Symbolic, the Imaginary, and the Real that would be a good place to start. Kierkegaard talks the most about heroism directly, but he’s also rather hard to follow.

      Also, Travis Prinzi writes a bit about Harry Potter as a postmodern hero in his book “Harry Potter and Imagination: The Way Between Two Worlds.”

      I hope that helps. I’d love to read your paper when you’re done.

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