The first third of this super-villain origin story works to establish the three most important elements of the entire tale:
-The relationship between “Billy” and “Dr. Horrible”
-The motivations that come from the former to create the latter
-Who Captain Hammer is and why he kinda sucks (but is kinda awesome too)
The show opens with Dr. Horrible recording his video blog. Considering his name is also in the title (and not Billy’s) we need to remember that this narrative is about him and not his (not so) “secret identity.” Although, one of the key points we’ll pick up on early on is that there probably is no difference between the two of them besides self conception.
Dr. Horrible does what any good video blogger does and immediately suffers from the Bill O’Reilly syndrome. In other words, he is more concerned with promoting himself than saying anything relevant. He immediately is distracted by a discussion of the importance of having “standards” regarding “the laugh” when being evil. No, his first thought isn’t what it means to be evil; it’s what it sounds like to be evil. He’s even working with a vocal coach on it. Of course, that doesn’t stop him from applying to the Evil League of Evil. Is it any wonder he hasn’t received a response from them yet? He has no content, literally quantified in only having a letter of condemnation from the Deputy Mayor.
Still, Horrible pushes on, reading emails from his adoring fans, and we see just how inept he is at this whole evil thing. Those bars of gold he stole from the bank? They’re nothing more than liquid that smells like human. He receives an email from “Johnny Snow” who claims to be his nemesis and replies, “Look, I'm just trying to change the world, ok? I don't have time for a grudge match with every poser in a parka.” The thing is that he himself is nothing more than a “poser in a parka.” He’s sitting in his basement talking to a computer pretending to be evil when he can’t even rob a bank properly, let alone get into the ELE. Here’s where one of the most subtle themes of the story come into play.
As we’ll see most strongly in the last act, the Whedons take media and media technology to task in this short, connecting it with image that lacks any substance. And their critique is right on the mark. Consider Horrible and Billy in Act One. He is seen making a video blog, responding to emails, and messing around on his iPhone. All of these actions prevent him from actualizing himself (by actualizing his desires). Instead, he focuses on the image they necessarily need to operate. Think of any YouTube blogger you’ve seen. Think of any Facebook (or MySpace) profile you’ve read. If you really know the people behind these e-creations (instead of recreations, get it), you know they’re almost nothing like them in reality. The internet and its related communication devices are a burgeoning technology that has become focused on image and not content, which is exactly what made the release of “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” so revolutionary. The Whedons used the internet and its devices to release one of the best stories in recent years, due to its depth and quality, during a time when no one else was releasing anything.
Of course, the allure of image and not content attracts people exactly like the main character of this tale, Billy, especially many teenagers and young adults. Billy is certainly meant to represent this demographic, especially a certain male archetype. Why is this age group attracted to image over content? Because not only does the internet and its devices empower those voices that have previously had no outlet (alerting us to the already existing demographic of people who believe they have no image), but it empowers the current youth who have been told their whole life that they aren’t good enough and identity is a lie (because identity is based on self, and there is no self only the collective). Teen and young adult years are already spent struggling to understand the world, adding the stress of a liberal social agenda (as we’ll see Dr. Horrible adopt in a moment) only creates Emo.
Through Dr. Horrible’s responses to his “fan” emails, we begin to see the true ideology behind his quest to become evil (but not his motivations). Though he says he wants to rule the world, he makes much more important philosophical claims.
First he states that what he’s doing isn’t “…about making money. It's about taking money, destroying the status quo because the status is not quo. The world is a mess and I just need to rule it.” Here might be a good place for you to read Francisco D’Anconia’s money speech from “Atlas Shrugged.” Dr. Horrible doesn’t want to make money, put his own work and values into it, he wants to take it, and steal someone else’s work and values. Why? Because those who make money aren’t good people. Their “status” is not “quo.” Why aren’t they good people? We’ll get to that reason in a second. Beforehand, we need to turn to his next claim, his identification of his nemesis, “Ok, dude, you're not my nemesis. My nemesis is Captain Hammer, Captain Hammer Corporate Tool.” It should come as no surprise to us that someone who wants to take money rather than make money vilifies the people who make money, the corporations. It’s why he thinks the world is a mess, he needs to rule it, and wants to change it. He doesn’t like what it takes to make money, and there’s one simple reason for that distaste in his mouth.
Billy believes he is inadequate. No, not Dr. Horrible, he is the image created by Billy through the use of the internet and its devices in response to the corrupt world that he sees (because his inadequacy is everyone else’s fault for having the “wrong” standards, not his for lacking content). Just as the current youth turns to the internet to have an image (because they don’t understand that image is a result of values, not vice versa), so does Billy, and his believed inadequacy is what’s driving this whole evil thing. We’ve laughed at him over the first 3 and half minutes, but as the first song starts we finally understand the profound sadness behind Billy that has lead to the creation of Dr. Horrible (because his believed inadequacy is his value that led to his image of evil).
“My Freeze Ray” isn’t a tune about a super-villain praising his newest demonic device; it’s a song about an insecure guy bemoaning his inability to speak to his crush, which he believes he can fix by creating the Freeze Ray. He wants to tell her that he loves her hair, but only ends up mumbling (and saying he loves “the air” at the end of the song). He really likes her and thinks he’s the guy “to make it real/the feelings you don’t dare to feel,” but she makes him feel “like a fool/kinda sick/special needs.” This description of his feelings once again demonstrates his insecurities. We all feel vulnerable when we like someone. That feeling doesn’t make you stupid or sick, but he believes he doesn’t deserve to feel it, so he thinks it does. Thus, his supposed good feelings cause him pain. And in the most important line of the song he says, “With my Freeze Ray I will stop the pain.” He doesn’t want to be evil to actually change the world or rule it. He wants to be evil to stop his own pain. What he fails to realize is that to stop his own pain all he has to do is believe in himself. It’s extremely important to note that during the entire song the video constantly cuts between Billy yearning after Penny weakly in the Laundromat and Dr. Horrible singing to his webcam powerfully.
The webcam is turned off, and we get an inside look at Dr. Horrible’s life. He lives with his soon-to-be henchman Moist, a soft spoken guy who is literally so nervous that his super-power is that he sweats a ridiculous amount. It becomes clear that these guys are friends because they lack the same thing: self confidence and self assuredness. Moist, in a cleverly written gag, went on a date with Bait and Switch, and ended up with Switch even though he kinda thought he was supposed to end up with Bait. The Doc then shares his girl story, saying he saw Penny today, and that he is “just a few weeks away from a real audible connection.”
For two guys who are supposed to be so concerned with being evil, they’re both sure to bring up the girls in their lives first, even though Horrible is holding a stack of mail which we soon learn contains a letter from Bad Horse. If getting into the ELE was so important, you’d think Horrible would rip through the mail and his buddy Moist would encourage him. These guys aren’t evil. They’re the typical guys who have fallen into a friendship because they’ve bonded over their inability to connect with the opposite sex. They’re kind of like the comic book version of Seth and Evan from Superbad.
Eventually, Dr. Horrible finds the letter (while thumbing through the mail while mumbling something about Penny) and opens it. The Bad Horse Chorus tells him to commit some kind of caper. Moist is less enthusiastic, pointing out it’s only “not a no,” while the Doc thinks it’s great because he was going to steal Wonderflonium for his Freeze Ray today anyway. We realize something more apparently now. Horrible is looking for worth from outside sources rather than himself. A simple “not no” from Bad Horse sends him into a frenzied excitement because “the league is watching.”
This need for outside approval returns to the image vs. content theme. Image necessarily comes from other people. It’s how they see us. It’s impossible for another person to be inside your head, no matter how well they know you. You are the only person who can truly know your content. That fact is why people who seek outside means of esteem are obsessed with image. It doesn’t matter what their content is (their self esteem), it matters what their image is (how other people see them). At this point we can understand how the two sides of the main character in this narrative represent image (Dr. Horrible) and content (Billy). Billy creates Dr. Horrible because he dislikes himself so much he can’t even create a “real audible connection” with Penny.
The song ends, and we get our first (well, second) glimpse of the hero (hero, not protagonist) of this e-novella, Penny. Dressed very respectably, she is attempting to get signatures to open a new Caring Hands Homeless Shelter in a building the city is going to demolish. She’s happy, energetic, and enthusiastic. In fact, throughout all three acts, she is this way (except, understandably, near the end of the third). Consider how we first met her in “My Freeze Ray.” Even when Billy ridiculously proclaims that he loves the air, she smiles sweetly. She’s always enjoying herself and volunteering to help the homeless. I don’t agree with the altruism is good ethic, but this piece of fiction seems to adopt it (as we’ll see in Act Three with Captain Hammer’s big moment).
After singing, Penny approaches Billy while he fiddles on his iPhone and monitors the van he is trying to hijack, and he finally gets that “real audible connection. Truthfully, the connection is more than audible. He bumbles through the conversation, blinking constantly and saying awkward things. He even scoffs at her attempts at help the homeless ranting that “…they're a symptom. You're treating a symptom, and the disease rages on, consumes the human race. The fish rots from the head as they say. So my thinking is why not cut off the head?” She’s taken aback and questions, “Of the human race?” He retorts quickly, “It's not a perfect metaphor, but I'm talking about an overhaul of the system, putting the power in different hands.” Here is the kicker. She replies sweetly, “I'm all for that” showing enthusiastic interest in what he said, even though she was put off by it and a bit confused (as it was a muddled metaphor). In other words, she is looking for some sort of connection with Billy. Why? Because she is attracted to him. We all play this sort of game, searching for some common bond with someone we’d like to have one with. After he awkwardly says something about not turning his back on a “fellow laundry person,” she says in a very flirty manner, “Well, if we can’t stick together.” The only problem is Billy doesn’t realize what’s going on.
As the van peels away he ignores her and she peels away from the conversation disappointed. Billy walks away bemoaning, “She talked to me. Why did she talk to me now? Maybe I should...” We’re not exactly sure what the second half the sentence is, but as he launches into the first line of the last song of the act, we get the impression that he is considering going back after her. He sings, “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do,” a platitude that often means going against your own desires to fulfill an obligation or responsibility. The irony here is that Billy’s obligation is to being evil and the whole reason he wants to be evil is to prove himself to Penny, which he has already started to do without the evil and is now preventing himself from doing because of the evil.
Billy changes into his Dr. Horrible garb as he belts out the first verse of “A Man’s Gotta Do.” The key lines seem to be “don’t plan the plan if you can’t follow through” and “all that matters: taking matters into your own hands.” Both demonstrate the irony of Dr. Horrible, he’s making a plan and taking things into his own hands, but it’s the wrong plan, and the former line seems to signal that on some level Billy is aware of his mistake. You usually say such a thing only when you are convincing yourself to go through with something. The former line also contrasts Dr. Horrible in an important way from the other man in Penny’s life, Captain Hammer, who we are about to meet. Dr. Horrible is thoughtful and calculated. Hammer is not.
The second verse starts, and Captain Hammers flies onto screen. He sings, “nothing here to see/just imminent danger, in the middle of it, me” and “the day needs my saving expertise.” He is full of the confidence Billy is lacking. He punctuates the first verse by punching the remote control device, sending the van careening out of control. He then sings the second verse with the same bravado, punctuating this one by pushing Penny into the garbage to save her from the oncoming van (which is stopped by Dr. Horrible anyway). Hammer is clearly impulsive and focused on action. Everything he does is immediate and bold. Horrible is not.
It’s no surprise Billy would create an opposite image to counteract Hammer, he is a powerful image and in many ways the exact opposite of Billy. Dr. Horrible even confronts Hammers, exclaiming that he almost killed Penny (which is true, he is the one who sent the van out of control), but only gets a hand to the throat. Hammer, in his limited and self centered perspective, states that, “He remembers it differently.” He is the hero after all. It’s also no surprise that Penny is immediately grateful to Hammer. She was about to die and he (apparently) saved her live. She stands up from the garbage and, in shock as the liner notes tell us, thanks Hammer for saving her. The act is at its very end and the theme of the overarching narrative is apparent.
Dr. Horrible represents “the nice guy,” Captain Hammer represents “the asshole,” and Penny is the girl who is caught in between the two. The third verse is shared by all three characters as they delivering overlapping lyrics that demonstrate their place in the dynamic and it effect on each of them. Hammer is predictably braggadocious, “When you’re the best, you can’t rest, what’s the use/There’s ass needs kicking, some ticking bomb to defuse/The only doom that’s looming is you loving me to death.” Penny is understandably confused (she was almost hit by a van and then pushed in the garbage) and falls back on her positive outlook on life, “You came from above/I wonder what you’re the Captain of/My heart is beating like a drum/Must be shock/Assuming I’m not loving you to death.” Horrible is embittered and angry, “Stop looking at her like that/Did you notice that he threw you in the garbage?/I stopped the van, the remote control was in my hand.” As Hammer and Penny stare into each other eyes, the act is punctuated with Horrible slinking/sulking away from the van while proclaiming “Balls.”
The way we leave each of these characters is important, as it leads us into Act Two. We’ve just met Hammer and only know of his ego and bravado. Penny is understandably confused and smitten. Hammer does have all the makings of a hero after all, but there is her laundry buddy. Horrible has begun a downward arc. Notably, he is focused on Hammer and comparing himself to the hero. He wants the credit for what Hammer is taking credit. He commands Hammer to stop looking at Penny “like that.” Why is he concerned with what the guy is doing? Shouldn’t he be concerned with what’s going on with Penny? She nearly died and is obviously confused. Why doesn’t Billy try to console her? Because he’s Dr. Horrible, and Dr. Horrible is Billy focusing on pain. In his mind, that pain comes from what he’s not, and what he’s not is what Hammer is. It’s not about Billy and Penny anymore (it’s about Horrible and Hammer), so much for their real audible connection.