Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Doctor Whedon's Desperation Play

It's been the big sensation of the summer. In a year when we got several substantial genre films after a long drought - Wall-E, Iron Man, Dark Knight, and the fourth (final?) Indiana Jones film, nothing has raised more heat than Doctor Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. It's been downloaded, it will be released on DVD with a hinted-at "fourth segment," and it has gotten lots of press.

What I am going to say will gain the hatred of Whedon fans. He's a desperate man. True, he has another new series coming out, Dollhouse, about sexy women programmed to be spies and assassins whose brains are erased after every mission. The story's about what happens when at least one of the "dolls" starts remembering. You think you have reason to rejoice, fans? The series will be on Fox, which canceled his promising Firefly as it has so many other shows that didn't make Rupert Murdoch a fortune after two episodes.

Whedon's projects have been troubled. After Buffy the Vampire Slayer, he lost a lot of clout. He wound up writing the X-Men comic for Marvel - which didn't impress the studio bosses having dinner at Morton's. The writer's strike kept him from further official creation. It was during this strike that he came up with Doctor Horrible as a show introduced on the internet.

Whedon has been putting out misleading information on his motives at, some of which I quote (from his "Master Plan" section):

The idea was to make it on the fly, on the cheap – but to make it. To turn out a really thrilling, professionalish piece of entertainment specifically for the internet. To show how much could be done with very little. To show the world there is another way. To give the public (and in particular you guys) something for all your support and patience. And to make a lot of silly jokes. Actually, that sentence probably should have come first.

Whedon is being jocular and cute, the way most Hollywood folk are when talking to the geeks that support their products. But I think he's hiding his anger at the suits, for betraying his projects and making it hard for him to make new series and movies. Thus this attempt at an end-run around the megacorporations and the suits, especially Fox.

So what about it? I know people who love to watch, and even perform in, the "Buffy Musical." They play it like Rocky Horror, acting out the story in front of the screen. The new name for this is "shadow cast." I've tried to watch the episode (forget the shadow cast) and can't get into it. I mean, this was also done for a live-action and animated episode of Xena: Warrior Princess. These musicals are supposed to let characters express their hidden thoughts and beliefs through song. But Joss Whedon isn't a Hammerstein. He's closer to a Richard O'Brien, telegraphing the upcoming verses with every obvious rhyme.

That said...I like Doctor Horrible.

Neil Patrick Harris - who's had a sudden career revival - plays it just right. He's ridiculous when he has to be, but he shows the wounds of an inarticulate nerd, completely bereft of social skills, wanting to connect with a pretty girl but unable to.

And part of that inability is due to him living in a comic book universe, with melodramatic rules. Horrible must be a mad scientist. He is consigned to that life path. He never stops to notice that the pretty, impossibly good Penny can't imagine someone being evil. He believes that she can be won when he presents her "the keys to a shiny new Australia."

The forces of good are simpering, angelically good people like Penny, and brutal, conceited, cocksure heroes like Captain Hammer. There is no room for compromise or gray areas in this comic book universe - a kind of universe that real comic books abandoned a few decades ago.

There were two boys, not too long ago, who held that same view of the universe. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were as bullied as Doctor Horrible. The world didn't pay them attention, so they forced the world to pay attention. Pretty much in the same as that small group of men who boarded some planes on September 11.

Right-wing Fox, and just about every TV network, would never allow a show or TV-movie that might show why a person might become a terrorist or mass killer. Like all conservatives, they want to demonize their opponents and insist on their eradication. Better to display and curse monsters than to wonder if we, possibly, might have turned them into monsters.

By being about a "campy" mad scientist, Doctor Horrible tells the story from the side of the "bad guy." The campiness lets everyone's guard down. Which is why the denouement of the third part changes everything, and has made some people I know burst into tears.

Doctor Horrible's Sing-Along Blog has told the story of the Columbine killings in a better way than any other media project. Better than the pretentious art film Elephant. Better than Michael Moore's ego-driven Bowling for Columbine, which shuffled Harris and Klebold off stage in favor of Moore's anti-gun agenda and his ego-driven confrontation with poor, brain-damaged Charlton Heston. (Moore's film is impressive, and I agree with much of what he says. But it isn't about the people it was supposed to be about, and that pisses me off.)

As for the projected fourth installment, I would say this to Doctor Horrible himself. I think there's a blues song (which I couldn't find) whose lyrics say something like this: when you get what you wanted and lose what you had, you've got no reason to complain.