Does anyone represent the trials and tribulations of the modern day nerd quite as much as Dr. Horrible? He wants what we all want: to build a fairer, more just and equitable society. To be recognized and valued for his gifts and contributions to the world at large. To get through the day without being tormented by the anti-intellectual bullies that seem to get all the glory for somebody else’s hard work. For the courage to talk to the cute girl he sees at the laundromat but can’t quite bring himself to talk to.
Of course, he also wants to join the Evil League of Evil, take over the planet and use his dictatorship to sweep the old order into the dustbin of history, crush his nemesis Captain Hammer underneath his boot-heel and damn near got his crush run over by a car during a robbery-gone-bad… but hey, what’re a few details between friends?
For all of his super-villain ambition, Dr. Horrible is the sort of character we can empathize with and relate to. Every nerd can understand his resentment toward and anger with the world that doesn’t seem to understand or respect him. We have all felt the urge to get back at the jocks and bullies who hog the spotlight for no better reason than that they happened to be at the right place at the right time. We all know the frustration of desperately wanting the person we like to notice us if we could only muster up the courage or find the right words to say, and the pain from when it all goes wrong.
There’s a lot to learn from the not-so-good Doctor.
You Need To Be Self-Validating
From the very get-go, Dr. Horrible wants us to know that he believes the world is almost irredeemably corrupt; in fact, it’s so far beyond redemption that the only way to save it is to burn down the existing power structure – cut off the head of the rotting fish, as it were – and to start over with a new ruler. A benevolent dictator who would usher in a new world order, one that’s more just, more fair…
Which, when you translate for Buffy-speak and a certain level of deliberate obfuscation means that Billy really wants a world that acknowledges him for the cool guy he knows he is deep down and the rest of the world just doesn’t see or recognize. Instead it’s assholes like Captain Hammer, with the muscles and the cool hair who get all the glory, all of the attention and, critically, all of the women.
Dr. Horrible is almost defined by his need to have others validate him, whether it’s by getting official super-villain status from the Evil League of Evil, having the world recognize his genius or even just have Penny validate his coolness by preferring Billy with his hidden layer and unassuming gifts rather than tools like Captain Hammer who seem cool but have all of the depth of a mud-puddle.
The problem is that Billy has lost his locus of control by letting his self-worth be defined by others instead of believing in his own value. He’s looking for others to tell him he’s cool. And that’s part of what holds him back. It’s why he can’t muster up the courage to talk to Penny. It’s why he’s a half-baked super-villain. He lets his need for the approval and validation of others dominiate his thinking.
And yet, all he can come up with are what might be considered nuisance crimes. He’s robbing banks and performing car heists, not holding cities for ransom or demanding millions of dollars in exchange for not dropping a viral mutagen into the municipal the water supply. The fact that Bad Horse and the Evil League of Evil demand that he commit a murder to prove his villain bona-fides1 freaks him the flying fuck out. He’s not villain material, so why isn’t he taking the straight life or even trying his hand at being a super-hero?
Because he wants the “respect” and edginess that comes with being a supervillain. He doesn’t just want to change the world, he wants to rule it. He wants the world to acknowledge that he’s superior to them and that they were wrong to treat him the way they do. He craves the approval of others to fill the hole that he feels in his life. The problem of course, is that this hole will never be filled… even when he has everything he wants.
Girls Don’t Like Assholes
The central conflict in Dr. Horrible revolves around Penny. Dr. Horrible loves Penny. Penny, on the other hand, is dating Captain Hammer… who is only dating her because he knows it hurts Dr. Horrible.
But this is the way of the world, isn’t it? After all, he’s a jerk jock and we all know women love assholes so what’s the point? This is just the natural order of things.
Except it isn’t. In fact, Penny’s pretty clearly interested in her laundro-mate2 Billy. By the middle of Act 2, she’s already having second thoughts about the guy she’s dating, even dropping some pretty sizable hints that she’s unhappy with him and may be looking for someone who actually cares about her. By all rights, her fling with Hammer would have been fairly short-lived except for… well, y’know.
The attraction to Hammer isn’t that difficult to parse. To start with, there’s the fact that he “saved” Penny’s life.
My heart is beating like a drum
Must be, must be in shock
Assuming I’m not loving you to death
So please give me a sec to catch my breath
Her heart’s racing, she’s short of breath, her body is shaking… considering that she just damn near got taken out by a car, it’s understandable that she’s freaked out, no? Except that the physical symptoms of fear – adrenaline surges, racing heart beat, dry mouth – are almost identical to the physical symptoms of sexual desire. Captain Hammer is taking advantage of a condition known as misattribution of arousal; her brain is thinking “Hey, I’m terrified but why? OK, there’s this big hot guy right here… maybe I’m not terrified, I’m just really turned on. That makes sense!”
And there’s a lot to like about Captain Hammer, at least superficially. He’s handsome. He’s smooth. He has almost infinite belief in his own self-worth and he has certainty and self-assuredness that can be magnetic. But deep down… he’s got nothing to suggest the possibility of a long-term relationship or even a relationship that manages to last longer than sleeping together once.
I mean, c’mon. He doesn’t even get to do the weird stuff.
It’s not surprising that Penny starts dating the Captain. She’s lived a life mostly defined by disappointment and now there’s this guy who seems to be in a position to make her dreams come true. She’s overwhelmed by the celebrity, lifestyle and the fact that he’s making her biggest goal – building the new shelter – a reality. And yet… she’s not happy with him. She’s trying to rationalize staying with him because…well, everyone seems to think she should and real life isn’t a fairy tale with happy endings.
Assholes, y’see, may be able to attract the girl, but they can’t keep them… because they don’t have anything to offer beyond the very superficial. So he’s good looking… and? He’s not confident, he’s arrogant and self-obsessed. He’s not helping her out of compassion or a belief in her cause, he’s doing it to fuck with Dr. Horrible and to make himself look good. He can’t even make it a third of the way through a speech about helping the homeless without making it all about how awesome he is. He’s shallow, vain, only cares about himself and he doesn’t really know a damn thing about what makes Penny tick.
Billy, on the other hand, gets her. He’s no Captain Hammer but he’s no slouch in the looks department. He’s quiet, but he’s got intensity. They have a lot of similar goals and dreams in life. He has ambition. He has drive. He has passion and he clearly cares about her.
If only Billy had made a move.
Nice Guys Finish Last
Y’see, Billy made the classic mistake: he was so afraid of rejection that he let it paralyze him into inaction. Instead of walking up to her and saying “Hey, you know what, it’s crazy I see you here twice a week and we’ve never said ‘hello’. I’m Billy…” he freezes, trying to find the “perfect words” to make her fall in love with him. Like many guys, he got hung up on the opener – literally the least important thing about talking to her. All he really needed to do was find a pretext for a conversation. Anything is better than silence.
The problem is that he who hesitates, loses. If you don’t make your move, somebody else is going to make theirs.
And for somebody determined to join the Evil League of Evil, Billy is a little too nice. He’s the classic Nice Guy lamenting the fact that the woman he loves is in love with a jerk and doesn’t see what an awesome person he is. Instead of making his play for Penny or even just admitting to her that he likes her, he sits and sulks in the Friend Zone, even as she’s giving him the sign that she’s waiting for him to make his move.
But Doctor Horrible is a little too wrapped up in his need to get back at Captain Hammer at this point to recognize that. And as a result… he misses his best chance at getting what he really wanted.
Be Careful What You Wish For.
Let’s be real here: we all know that Dr. Horrible isn’t a villain. The only person who refuses to see that is… well, Dr. Horrible. He doesn’t even want to be a villain, not really. It’s just that he thinks it’s his ticket to everything he believes he wants and he can’t seem to let go.
Look at his stated goals: he believes that there needs to be drastic social change. He wants fame. He wants fortune3 He wants glory and adulation. And he wants Penny.
On a practical level, this would be far easier to achieve in a legal manner. He’s a legitimate scientific genius who has figured out a way to stop time and teleport solid matter. Licensing that tech would put him in the same scientific pantheon as Hawking or Einstein and bring him riches beyond dreams of avarice. The level of influence he would have would be more than enough to influence society and bring about the new world he dreams about… not to mention building Penny’s homeless center with what would amount to pocket change for him.
Unfortunately he’s so caught up in the idea that he needs to be a supervillain – that he can force the world to make amends for everything that’s happened to him that he misses out on what’s most important to him. He ends up with everything he thinks he ever wanted: the fear of the city, status as a super-villain, even humiliating Captain Hammer… and it doesn’t mean a thing.
A little less time focused on elaborate revenge fantasies, less time worried about getting the approval of others or defining himself as a dork and a loser and he might have had it all – the riches, the fame and the girl.
And in honor of Dr. Horrible’s TV debut: a special bonus: