Review: Dr. Horrible’s Sing-along Blog

(Updated 2 PM 2008 Jul 20)
The latest Joss Whedon effort, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog is a short musical made available on the Web and starring Neal Patrick Harris and Nathan Fillion (better known as Doogie Howser and Capt. Malcolm Reynolds, respectively). The plot revolves around the titular villian — more like, villian wannabe — and his twin quests to be invited into the Evil League of Evil and to win the heart of mild-mannered activist Penny. Harris captures the awkward offness of the maladjusted Dr. Horrible while Reynolds takes a nice turn as the arrogant and obnoxious (and more than a little crude) hero Captain Hammer.

Short form: 4 out of 5.
Long form: spoilers after the fold.

The music was surprisingly good. Neither Fillion nor Harris will ever take home the Grammy (and Felicia Day as Penny is noticeably weak). But all of the actors are earnest. In this bittersweet tale of B-list heroes and villains, that actually comes off as appropriate. None of the characters can quite get their life the way they want it; why should they be able to sing? I suppose Joss Whedon was bitten by the songwriting bug during “Once More With Feeling” from Buffy the Vampire Slayer; the songs here are of comparable quality.

The plot is relatively straightforward, as I suppose an abbreviated, three mini-act play requires. There are a few nice twists on the old superhero routine. Dr. Horrible is a well-drawn conflicted character who seems honestly upset at the terrible shape of the world but who decides upon exactly the wrong way to effect change. It being a Joss Whedon piece, it’s a given that before the end (SPOILER WARNING) a beloved character must die. Seriously, I love Whedon but he’s got to work out the issues that keep dragging him and us through that patch of ground. We get it, OK, Joss? The work is Serious.

Character development is minimal. Captain Hammer starts off as a luggish jock of a superhero, and stays that way pretty much until after the Big Moment. Penny is likewise a little cardboard. There’s a hint, right at the Big Moment, that she’s seeing things more clearly but by the end that’s back in doubt. Dr. Horrible, on the other hand, is well fleshed-out and is an interesting character. He’s pathetic as a supervillain but at the same time is a lovable loser. It’s clear he hasn’t done any actual big-time Evil; he’s mostly a geek hanging out in his basement and recording a video blog. At least, he is at first. But as he watches his archnemesis waltz off with his One True Love, Dr. Horrible darkens. Likewise, his confused justification for his evil — the world is a bad place, so it might as well kneel to him — transmutes into a deeper, truer cause. If there is a purpose to this musical, it’s to examine the fall of a mostly-normal person.

It’s not clear to me if there’s any chance of a sequel or if we’re expected to make our peace with the Downer Ending. I suppose there’s room for more adventures of the conflict between Dr. Horrible and Capt. Hammer, though that would betray the original a little.

All in all, this was pretty good. Whedon et al are attempting an unusual method of distribution, putting it all out there for free and adding paying options only later. I’ll probably bite and get the DVD version.