The series is about the choices we make. Penny is provided to mirror Dr. Horrible. Given the same sort of disillusionment with life, Penny chooses to try and fix what is broken while Billy chooses to try to destroy what is broken (and build something else in its place). Billy's choices are inherently selfish: given the opportunity, he chooses his own plans over Penny and others. He chooses to steal the Wonderflonium over talking to Penny. He chooses to try and kill Captain Hammer over trying to win Penny through his own efforts. He chooses to try and kill Captain Hammer in Penny's
homeless shelter, putting both Penny and civilians in harm's way, and causes considerable damage to the structure in the attempt.
On the other hand, Penny's choices are more selfless. She's always working to benefit others. When we first meet her, she's trying to get signatures to open a homeless shelter. We later see her working on her phone getting blankets and other necessities for the shelter to open. She tries to help Billy gain self confidence and perspective. While dating Captain Hammer would have considerable benefits, not the least of which is continuing support for her efforts, her actions and body language tell us she's leaning towards choosing Billy, instead. The person who needs her.
Ultimately, it was Billy's own choices that led to the death of Penny. Her death symbolizes the closing of a path to Billy, leaving the Dr. Horrible persona as the result.
- Incidental note about choices-I think that the entire series mirrors the stage version of Little Shop of Horrors in a really, really extreme way.
Good vs. Evil
Are the labels arbitrary, or is there an underlying truth to them?
Dr. Horrible is the protagonist... and a villain. The antagonist is Captain Hammer, who is a hero. Dr. Horrible's wish to take over the world seems at least partially motivated by a genuine desire to improve humanity's lot; Captain Hammer does not care about anyone but himself. Which is really the hero, and which the villain? Do their intentions matter?
Is the binary good/evil distinction too restricting?
Superheroes fight supervillains in this world, while the ordinary people try to stay out of the way. Penny is trying to engage the ordinary people to change their own world, and suggests to Billy that he accept the world as it is rather than as he thinks it should be. At times she seems almost Taoist in her disinclination to assign meaning to random events:
Penny: Everything happens—
Billy: Please don't say "for a reason".
Penny: I wasn't going to. Everything... happens.
Is she right, or is Dr. Horrible right for taking actions into his own hands?
- Taoism teaches that becoming stubborn and set in our ways is a way of becoming stiff. When practicing the two-person Tai Chi exercise of ‘pushing hands’, one's aim should be to allow one's opponent to move in whichever way they choose. If one can stick to them and be willing to change and follow their movements, one will always be successful. One will only get pushed over when one fails to stick and follow or tries to initiate a movement or technique of one's own. Billy tried to initiate a movement of his own. He ended up in a position of power, but without the passion to utilize his ability to do good. Penny, trying to make the most out of what she was dealt, ended up dead as a result of Billy trying to take things into his own hands. And Captain Hammer? A miserable, whimpering puppy who is broken and suffering a mental breakdown as a result of feeling pain for the first time. And here lies the difference between outcome and intent. His status as a hero, however unsubstantiated, enabled him to help Penny open up the shelter; now he is completely useless. Attempting to change the status quo by force, rather than making the most of the situation at hand, resulted in the tragedy that is Act III of Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog. The message seems to be that Taoism would've been the best course of action, but in this world of violence and back-and-forth, it simply does not belong.
The Superman/Batman Divide: The Hero as a force for the status-quo
A theme going back at least as far as The Dark Knight Returns
is that a superhero really upholds the status-quo, rather than any actual idea of justice. This is echoed in Dr. Horrible's repeated desire to "change the status quo, because the status... is not quo."
For this, he is branded a villain. Meanwhile, Capt. Hammer does little to improve the world either, and mostly spends his time stopping villains (Dr. Horrible in particular) from changing anything. Hence, he's a hero. It is true that his word is what finally opens the new homeless shelter, but this is mostly at Penny's behest. There's a certain irony that it's Penny, rather than either the 'hero' or 'villain' who does the most to help the world — which only reinforces the theme: Actual improvement is irrelevent to the villain or hero label! (See Are the labels arbitrary, or is there an underlying truth to them?
An alternative to the "good vs. evil" dichotomy is the importance of how others see us. Dr. Horrible and Captain Hammer, regardless of their intentions, kept fulfilling their expected roles. Dr. Horrible tried to steal and destroy, while Captain Hammer was responsible for the founding of a new homeless shelter. Two events, however, serve as exceptions to this rule, and in both cases the person who did not do the act takes credit for it. Captain Hammer takes credit for stopping the van, while Dr. Horrible takes credit for Penny's death.
Dr. Horrible and Megamind
I've often heard it said, by critics and fans alike, that Megamind
is like "Dr. Horrible: the Movie". On the surface, it seems like an easy comparison: Both main characters are super-villains with a knack for invention, comical minions, a cocky arch-nemesis, and a lady who ends up changing their entire perspective on life by the end of the film. But is it a fair comparison? Besides their obvious outward appearances, Megamind and Dr. Horrible are actually at odds with one another.
First, let's look at Megamind. Megamind is loud and proud of his status as a super-villain. He dresses in a lavish black cloak and skintight latex outfit, adorns all his gadgets with spikes, states every sentence with wicked bravado, and with every crime, he puts on an extravagant light show to rival a KISS concert. More importantly, he is in it for the Evulz from the get-go. In his own words, being bad is the one thing he’s good at. He has his goals- take over the city, destroy Metro Man- but as we quickly learn, his goals are short-sighted at best, and when he does reach his goals, he has no real plan to expand on them, nor the drive to do anything else. He just wants to play the villain forever.
Dr. Horrible, on the other hand, is a more humble, practical villain. He dresses in a plain white lab coat with matching gloves and goggles, standard equipment for any scientist in a lab, and certainly easier to equip and wear . When out in public as his secret identity “Billy”, he is quiet, casually dressed, and overall a seemingly normal guy who blends in with the crowd (though it helps that he doesn’t have a giant blue head). Even as Dr. Horrible he is very reserved, only laughing maniacally once and very rarely raising his voice, even when ranting on his blog. Even when performing crimes, he tries to keep a low profile throughout his various thefts. As far as goals and motives go, Dr. Horrible is a well-intentioned extremist. He despises the status quo of society and humanity in general, and believes that through villainy he can accomplish that goal.
And that is where the two villains greatly differ: the status quo. In Dr. Horrible’s Sing-A-Long blog, he states that he believes that the world is corrupt and insane, and that by rising through the ranks in the world of villainy, he can make the world a better place. But Megamind’s only desire to play the villain, like playing the role of bad guy in an endless Saturday morning cartoon show. Even when he wins and finally takes over the city, not only does he feel unhappy, he feels that the villain winning the battle against good is simply wrong, and goes out of his way to restore order. One villain wants to dismantle the status quo, the other wants to maintain it.
- To add on, Metro Man is actually sick of the status quo and only acts like a jerk to try and get a rise out of the people who worship him. Also, while Captain Hammer pushes Dr. Horrible into villany, Metro Man pushes Megamind into being a hero. There are many more differences I could point out but the point is, besides being in the superhero genre, these works can pretty much be considered mirrors of one another.
The final conclusion to make about Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog comes with the realization that it was senseless. Dr. Horrible's main objective is to be able to change the world and make it a better place by climbing the villainous ladder until he was powerful enough to make a difference. By the time he gets there, he's become so jaded by Penny's death that he likely doesn't even try anymore. It's possible that this is how the Evil League of Evil operates. They make sure that those who enter have no goodness or optimism left. It's possible that every member, maybe even Bad Horse, once had positive aspirations. But in order to be a part of the ELE, 'Billy' had to die and Dr. Horrible had to take over. There's no room for optimism and attempting to improve the world in a true villain's domain. Only cynicism and pain. In order to reach the position of power where he could make a positive difference, Dr. Horrible had to reach the point where he would no longer attempt to. A villain isn't supposed to help fix the world, they're supposed to take it over, cause chaos, and/or destroy it. A hero's job is to make sure that doesn't happen and to defeat the villain. By presumptuously targeting those who may become villains, based on stereotyping and assumptions, heroes practically create the villains by beating the optimism and hope out of them. The heroes create the villains via humiliation, then fight them once things have taken their natural course, all the while simply taking the stance that they were right in their original assumption.
As Penny demonstrated, the only ones who can truly make a difference are those who go unnoticed. They get killed in the crossfire.
Billy Buddy never stood a chance. None of them did. Their choices could have affected the outcome, but the situations and the environment they were placed in influenced them so thoroughly that they were doomed to make the mistakes they did. Everything happens.