Jocks and Nerds: Deconstructing the Superhero Narrative in Dr. Horrible

I love Dr Horrible.  I love Neil Patrick Harris and Felicia Day and Nathan Fillion.  I love the nerdy references and Bad Horse and the fact it exists at all.  I mean, it’s a musical about superheroes and supervillains.  When I found out it was like Christmas and my birthday all in one.  It is a gift to humanity and the internet.

Mostly, I love the fact that the entire plot reads like a high school drama.  It’s a musical about a science nerd’s desperate quest to join the cool kids clique, talk to the girl he likes and avoid/triumph over his bully, after all.  Said protagonist spends nearly all his screen time doing domestic chores and angsting in his bedroom to his online diary about how “The status.  It’s not quo” and talking to online ‘friends’ and would-be nemeses.

The whole thing is a bitchy commentary on the superhero genre.  It’s so great.

And there are many, many tropes to send up.  Like the descriptive villain name (“I have a PhD in Horribleness!”), the MacGuffin of a mysterious magical substance (Wonderflonium), the Hammer Horror style title card and the obsession of mutual nemeses bordering on Foe Yay (Captain Hammer is the only one who recognises Horrible in his RL persona.  Coincidence?  I think not!).  Their enmity is reduced to playground level, up to and including the latter dating the former’s love interest out of spite.  It’s like a pettier version of Superman and Lex Luthor. 

Hammer and Horrible face off

That being said, I kind of love Captain Hammer.  He’s a melding of Captain America and Thor, at least in name.  Big and muscly and, in appearance, at least, an All American hero.  His first appearance is a self-referential nod to Thor’s dramatic arrival, landing on the quinjet in (the Whedon directed) ‘Avengers Assemble.’  Except, Captain America, in canon and fanon, is an idealist who “[doesn’t] like bullies”, while Thor’s source of power rests on his being “worthy” of wielding it. 

Hammer really is the Schoolyard Bully.  In flashbacks he’s shown cheerfully beating up the obviously physically weaker Dr Horrible.  He draws it out too.  More noble super heroes tend to take out their opponents with one swing, minimising their suffering.  Captain Hammer, not so much.  (To be honest, I can’t decide which is more cartoonish, the One Punch Man skit or the prolonged attack with no lasting damage?) It’s straight out of an eighties high school drama, though; the Nerd up against a brick wall while the Jock punches him in the stomach. 

Though Hammer does have the whole Loreal/Wind in His Hair moment on top of the van (pretty sure that’s a reference to Chris Hemsworth’s flowing locks).  And a fabulous singing voice.

Captain Hammer: Here to Hunkily Save the Day

Given he doesn’t actually carry a hammer, I’m fairly certain his name exists for the Thor reference.  And to give Horrible the opportunity to dub him: “Captain Hammer: Corporate Tool.”  Which, aside from being my favourite pun ever, brings up an interesting point.  Folk heroes have always been used to push agendas, and comic book Superheroes, with their narratives of Super Strength triumphing over Evil and the protection of Truth, Justice and the American Way, are definitely that.  It’s telling that during the heyday of the Comics Code (1954-1980s), with strict censorship driving many violent, erotic or subversive works into the underground comics scene, the superhero narratives of Marvel and DC continued to be produced relatively unchallenged, becoming the cornerstone of the US comic book industry since the sixties.  During a period of pretty aggressive US foreign policy too.  Hmmmm…. In any event, as poster boys for physical strength, the superheroes of yesteryear were Establishment, like Captain America in-universe, selling war-bonds.  And you just have to look at the SayNoToHydraCap drama to see that the politicising of superheroes hasn’t changed.

They also have the potential to be Tools (LOL) in every sense.  It’s interesting that the trendsetter of the genre, Superman, was originally imagined as a villain.  His name is a reference to Nietzsche’s concept of the Übermensch, or ‘Super human’ (a kind of ideal, uninhibited model of humanity), appropriated by Nazism among their racist ideologies.  That proto-Superman’s strength is actually a threat to society.  And Captain Hammer, with his super strength, invulnerability and potential ability to fly (it’s unclear whether his arrival on top of the van was a result of jumping, flying or falling) has got to be partially a homage to Superman.  In this case fulfilling his bullying potential.  There’s a reason Buffy Studies exists, you guys.  Whedon knows his onions.

The Dr. Horrible Love Triangle in a nutshell

 Of course, just to lower the tone, the true mark of Hammer’s status as antagonist is his objectification of Penny.  It’s all so high school: the Jock (undeservedly) Getting the Girl then using her for sex, while the Nice Guy gets Friendzoned.  Typically, the Girl in question slowly starts to realise the Error of Her Ways, chooses the Nerdy Friend over the Stud and everyone Learns a Lesson about What Truly Matters, coupled with social or academic success for the (male) protagonist. It’s cliche, and ‘Dr Horrible’ follows the script pretty closely until *SPOILER ALERT* it’s horribly, horribly averted.  Thanks a lot, Whedon. Though, I guess, this too is a Superhero trope.  Poor Penny gets Gwen Staceyed and everyone else gets something out of her death.  Hammer gets his Comeuppance and Horrible gets notoriety, entry into the Evil League of Evil and the Tragic Past suited to a Classic Villain, like Darth Vader or Magneto.  Though, to be fair, the blatant accessorisation of the Love Interest trope is lampshaded.  “Girlfriend of Captain Hammer Murdered!”, “Country Mourns Whats Her Name!” News Headlines announce. 

 Horrible’s resulting character development is genuinely saddening.  Given Penny’s role in his life as an advocate for Direct Social Action through volunteering with the homeless (rather than, you know, plans for World Domination), I’m guessing that the “social change” aspect of Horrible’s Evil goals may have fallen by the wayside.

It’s a little funny that deep philosophical thought about the nature of humanity led to the creation of a character that popularised an art form characterised by being shallow and violent.  So, I guess, it’s fitting that a work of popular entertainment about superheroes, especially one as supposedly frivolous as a musical,  should bring the conversation full circle with a critique of the superhero genre.

In song.

Originally published on Whedonist, the Joss Whedon fansite and blog.

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