For a glorious week in July, a new and wonderful cinematic event was bestowed upon the world. Joss Whedon, creator of television masterpieces like Buffy, Firefly and Angel, added another medium to his repertoire. He created a free, three episode Internet spectacular, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, staring Whedon faves Canuk Nathan Fillion (Buffy, Firefly) and Felicia Day (Buffy).
Dr. Horrible is Joss’s second musical (he also wrote “Once More with Feeling,” the season six musical episode of Buffy), and he has created an Internet phenomenon. During the initial release, so many people were trying to watch that the server hosting the series actually crashed! As one of those who waited with baited breath I can say that it was totally worth the hassle!
Neil Patrick Harris, who has recently proved his comedy chops playing a ridiculous version of himself in the Harold and Kumar movies and the loveably sleazy Barney on How I Met Your Mother, plays the lead of Billy and his disguised alter ego Dr. Horrible. Harris has reportedly participated in Whedon’s famed Shakespeare nights since the crazy random happenstance of Harris auditioning for Firefly.
Whedon has created a role in which sympathies and perception are skewed, and Harris plays the role of Billy/Dr. Horrible perfectly. He manages to garner enough sympathy that you end up cheering for the villain, while fully acknowledging that he is in the wrong. Captain Hammer, the hero (and “corporate tool”) of the piece, is, by contrast, a conceited jerk that has completely lost touch with his purpose. Captain Hammer is consumed with his heroic personality and celebrity status.
Whedon plays with the idea of alter egos and disguises to create this fictional world. Whedon is the master of the subtle metaphor, and he continues this tradition in Dr. Horrible. He uses costuming to effectively signify the distinctions in alter egos. An examination of the two “heroes’” disguises and costuming choices provides all the necessary aspects of the characters and their important characteristics.
Harrris’ disguise as Dr. Horrible helps emphasize the differences between the alter ego and Billy. Although these two characters are the same person, they are quite different in presentation and disposition. Billy is reminiscent of a scared and angry teenager, whereas Dr. Horrible use his dissatisfaction with the current social and political situation as justification for his evil schemes. These qualities are emphasized with the costuming choices that Joss and his team have made. Billy dresses in a very nondescript manner: his wardrobe is full of solid, somewhat faded colours paired with jeans. The outfits, which always seem a bit immature for Harris, increase the image of a self-conscious, purposefully invisible man who is constantly hiding his anger and evil schemes.
Dr. Horrible, in contrast, is confident in his abilities, refusing to settle for a lesser position in the Evil League of Evil. Billy, by donning the Dr. Horrible disguise, is able to access a self-assured persona who can carry through his schemes. The Dr. Horrible disguise features a pair of extreme goggles and an old fashioned doctor’s surgical gown that is evocative of Dr. Frankenstein. The crisp white lab coat, which is paired with a grey pant and white knee high boots, provides a contrast with the dull darks that Billy favours. The coat, which features the Rod of Asclepius serves to highlight the conflict of a (supposed) medical professional inflicting harm upon the society that he should be serving.
This costuming aligns with the juxtaposition that Whedon creates within the Dr. Horrible universe. Those familiar to Whedon’s works should not be surprised by such a trick. He constantly wants us to question our societal norms. He uses his shows as a medium for examining various aspects and problems that he sees within our society. Whedon plays with our preconceived notions of good and evil to shake us into a critical awareness. He used friendly demons and murdering humans on Buffy to point out that the line between good and evil is often blurred, and we must take care to analyze each individual situation before making judgements.
Captain Hammer also serves as a juxtaposed character. He is the “hero” of the miniseries, but he is also the antagonist. The audience, separate from their world, is able to see the obvious character flaws. These flaws are underlined in the way that Whedon costumes Captain Hammer.
The Captain Hammer “disguise” is simply a blue t-shirt featuring a logo of a hammer and brown khaki pants. It is typically All-American with a practical twist. This Captain does not need an elaborate costume with a skin tight unitard or cape; so convinced is he of his heroics that he is satisfied with everyday clothes. His clothes serve as a beacon of his arrogance.
The practicality of his disguise also provides useful insights into Captain Hammer’s character. Throughout the miniseries, the only glimpse we are given of a non-disguised Captain Hammer is in an autographed photo a fan treasures (insert your own caustic remark here). This image signifies that Captain Hammer has lost his humanity. He is only the hero now. He has lost touch with his basic humanity and his reason for fighting. He has become a showboating buffoon that plays to the crowd. He has completely assumed the identity of Captain Hammer; his Billy counterpart has been lost. This missing factor leads to many of his more obnoxious qualities, like his refusal to sleep with the same girl twice. This lost humanity is likely why his attraction to Penny is so strong. She is the personification of humanity with her songs of rising hope and comfort, and her passion for helping those less fortunate than herself. Captain Hammer attempts to fill the void of his humanity with her.
The characters live in a world of disguises (with the obvious exception of Penny) and as such even their motives are disguised. Billy speaks of desiring social change, but it often feels like he uses that as a platform for his longing for control. It sounds like the claims of a benevolent dictator, singing “the world is a mess … and I just need to rule it.” In a world where disguises are the norm, it would appear that everything adapts a method of camouflage even for their personal beliefs and motivations.