Saturday, July 24, 2010

Review: Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog (2008)

Director: Joss Whedon
Starring: Neil Patrick-Harris, Felicia Day, Nathan Fillion

Penny: You're not really interested in the homeless, are you?
Dr. Horrible: No, I am, but... it's a symptom. You're treating a symptom while the disease rages on, consumes the human race. The fish rots from the head, so they say. So I'm thinking, why not cut off the head?
Penny: [pause] Of the human race?
Dr. Horrible: It's not a... perfect metaphor. 

Long gone are the days when superhero films could only be cheesy, substance-less action flicks. With the advent of films like The Dark Knight and the ill-fated Watchmen movie, we see superhero films reaching the mainstream with an added dosage of introspection and psychology for a new kind of depth, whether people like it or not. And who better to exploit this to the full than Mr. Joss Whedon himself? This…is Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog.

I remember seeing the name for this movie a lot and thinking, wow, that can’t possibly be good. But like that clich√© goes, never judge a book by its cover, and that rang true with this well enough. Dr. Horrible (as I will abbreviate the title to from here on out) is just a joy to behold on every level. Literally everything you could ask for is here, and all condensed down to a manageable and admirable 40 minute mark. We’ve got great characters, we’ve got snappy, witty dialogue, we’ve got some good jokes, and we’ve got some tragedy as well. Everything you could ask for, brewed up into a succinct statement of enjoyable filmmaking. There’s no room here for bullshit or tedious extravagance, all of that is eschewed completely.

The most interesting thing you will first notice is that the main character Dr. Horrible, played by Neil Patrick Harris, is, well…very obviously the “antagonist.” But yet he’s also the one we’re supposed to root for in this story. It’s because he’s a rather woebegone figure, a silly, introverted guy who makes videos on the internet and gets awkward around pretty Penny (Felicia Day) from the Laundromat. His evil plans are only a modicum more sinister than those of a certain Professor Chaos from one animated cartoon series I will not name…but yes, the comedy in this plot point actually comes from the fact that he is trying to do something so sinister that it will get him into the “Evil League of Evil,” which is apparently very prestigious. And also run by the ‘thoroughbred of sin,’ Bad Horse.

His enemy is Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillion), the protagonist of the series, who is made out to be a condescending jerk-ass with a huge narcissism complex and a lot of swagger. Unfortunately, he also manages to get with Penny; much to Dr. Horrible’s woe…don’t you see where this is going? The way the roles of protagonist and antagonist are reversed and juxtaposed against one another is very subtly complex, seeming obvious to any viewer right away, but also rooted deep enough in the story to make you think about what’s going on. It’s nothing too in depth, just a really well written about-face of the traditional roles of hero and villain. And Nathan Fillion does a brilliant job as an annoying jackass. The whole thing has an undercurrent moral about corruption in society, and the way people always have ulterior motives whenever they do things. Nobody is honest, and especially not Captain Hammer, who does everything he does mostly for his own ends. Ironically, it is Dr. Horrible who seems to be the most honest character in here, because he makes no excuses and doesn’t try to pass off his villainy as anything other than what he is – a regular guy with a “PhD in evilness.”

If you hate musicals, this will be the one to set you straight, or at least the one exception to the rule. The songs here are outstanding. All of them are incredibly well written, syncopated masterfully and sung with a lot of emotion. You’d think this would come off like some kind of dumbass ironic hipster thing, being a superhero movie with a bunch of cheery songs in it, but it doesn’t, entirely because the material is so damn good. I especially like “Brand New Day,” sung by Neil Patrick Harris; a really cool industrial metal-ish tune that has some really cool, menacing vocals and a killer stomp that I really dig. But all of them are good. They’re done with a very easy-going wit and a metric ton of charm that is nearly impossible to shun.

Joss Whedon’s works are always endowed with a maddening mixture of comedy, drama and a moral message that over-arches the whole thing, and under a lot of less talented guys, this mixture would suck. Some people will tell you that this makes a film tacky and directionless, but really in the hands of the right director, there is no greater force. Whedon succeeds here because he’s a storyteller, and a masterful one at that. There is a heavy degree of theatrical pomp here, but then on the other hand, this is just so well constructed and so air-tight that you feel completely relaxed watching it. It takes a lot for a new movie to be so good that you just sit back and watch it, without trying to analyze it or look for flaws or anything. Dr. Horrible is one of those movies. There are no flaws. You just sit back and let it roll, like a fine waterfall, right into the pool of life. This is fun. It’s a movie for movie lovers at heart, and I cannot recommend it higher. A movie so good it just defies words in general.

Now give me a sequel, goddammit! Where are you, Whedon?