In 2008, Joss Whedon released Dr. Horrible’s Singalong Blog – a musical superhero web series in three acts. His intention was to write and produce a relatively inexpensive story for an online release that could circumvent the writers’ strike.
Dr. Horrible followed Whedon’s musical tradition — many Buffy fans remember the show’s one sing-son episode, Once More With Feeling, affectionately — but the series was informed by writing a tad sharper and more nihilistic than Whedon’s work on Buffy or Firefly. Whedon and his team of writers and composers, comprising his brothers Zack and Jed, and Maurissa Tancharoen, built out a super-villain’s origin story that didn’t feel gimmicky or frivolous. In typical Whedon-fashion, the series ended with a raw gut-punch of violence, and gave us two contrasting shots of the protagonist, one as a super-villain and the other as a lonely, defeated man. It is a perfect, encapsulated superhero story, both primed for a sequel and transfixing enough to stand alone. Marvel would do well to pay attention.
This is how you build a villain with staying power
Fans and critics tend to agree that, although Marvel’s films have largely been successfully watchable and fun, the franchise has yet to settle on a cinematic villain with the potential to be a multi-film threat. Thanos is going to be a big deal for the Avengers, Guardians and maybe even Defenders in the next phase of releases, but no one’s arguing that he’s a nuanced or interesting character. He’s just a big deal because Marvel has told us that he is.
The closest equivalent to Dr. Horrible in the MCU is Loki, whom the franchise actually gave quite a bit of backstory in Thor, The Avengers and Thor: The Dark World. They’re both comical characters, they’re both ethically difficult to root for, and they both express low self esteem and a blind desire to rule societies for no reason, other than deserving more than what life gave them.
In Loki’s case, world domination is a replacement for the paternal love he feels he didn’t receive. He hopes to claim stake in the entire universe in order to make up for not belonging to any place in particular, neither Asgard nor Jotunheim, where he was born. In Dr. Horrible’s case, or, rather, Billy’s case, he’s actually a typical “Nice Guy” who believes he deserves feminine attention from the girl he has a crush on, because he’s smarter than her boyfriend. The viewer doesn’t have to identify with Loki or Billy to understand their motivations, but it helps to have an emotional foothold when following their actions as they play out onscreen.
Comedy isn’t just one-off punchlines, it has to be intrinsic to a story
Granted, Whedon’s work is typically full of pithy little soundbites, but he’s also fantastic at coaxing his actors into pristine comedic timing. Some of the jokes in Dr. Horrible are so bent on the visual that it’s impossible to get the full effect of the show through just its soundtrack, though every song on the album is pretty funny, too.
Whedon’s mark is obvious in the Marvel films he did direct, and his absence is glaring in the films that came out following his burnout. While the original Avengers film employs a pleasant rhythm, moving its attention from brawls to goofy bits and back to punch-outs again, Civil War was a largely dour tapestry sprinkled with a sparse number of laugh lines.
When Bucky asked Falcon to move up his seat in Cap’s old car, for instance, the audience in my screening laughed almost maniacally, and suddenly, like their laughter had been trapped behind a dam, and that one exchange had punched a hole in it. The Russo brothers, who directed Winter Soldier too, are slated to direct the Infinity War movies. Though they’re not strangers to comedic writing, and count Arrested Development among their credits, the Russos will potentially play casualties to the slow decay in Marvel’s epic storytelling. The scope of its cinematic world is growing at an alarming rate, and without careful recalibration of individual narratives, the MCU runs the risk of bloating out beyond recognition.
Comedy is the great equalizer, and discovering what makes each character’s journey joyful and even funny is a good way to hone in on a central through-line for each individual MCU film. Think of Ant-Man, one of the MCU’s biggest surprises: because it endeavored to be funny above all else, the film didn’t leave fans with the sense that the larger Marvel universe had been temporarily lost or forgotten during its run-time. We laughed, we heard the characters refer quickly to Iron Man, and nothing hurt.
Hint at a larger world without disrupting the narrative
Within the first few minutes of Dr. Horrible, the audience learns Billy’s primary objective, the characters he needs to impress, and exactly how the power struggle between superheroes vs super-villains works, in this particular universe. Of course, the narrative device at work here is Billy’s “video blog”, which allows Whedon to write explication pretty easily. Dr. Horrible effectively explains everything he’s about to do, and everything he’s just done, in a low budget style. We never see much action, but Neil Patrick Harris delivers a compelling description. More importantly, two characters other than Billy — both Penny (a non-super) and Moist (Dr. Horrible’s sidekick) — reference Bad Horse, a super-villain who calls himself the Thoroughbred of Sin.
Some of Marvel’s attempts to hint at a larger universe during its smaller stories are effective, but most are clunky. Remember that “flag waver” line in Jessica Jones, when the series’ heroine described the Avengers as if she either didn’t know their names (is that likely, at this point, in Marvel’s fictional New York) or didn’t care. If Jessica Jones doesn’t care about other superheroes, or even know much about them, why would viewers feel compelled to explore the rest of the MCU?
Orchestrate memorable music
Dr. Horrible is, obviously, a musical, so its soundtrack is one of its primary merits, but the use of music in the MCU films hasn’t really been memorable. The only great superhero theme to come out of contemporary film of late was Wonder Woman’s short theme in Batman v Superman, and Marvel doesn’t have anything to combat that track with.
Imagine how gorgeous some of the MCU’s team-ups could have been, if the production company had thought to thread individual heroes’ themes into a recognizable musical crescendo? Star Wars employs themes for each setting, and for important characters, and Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is still memorable for its unique melodies. Fans can still tell when we’re in Rohan just by listening to a soundtrack — why shouldn’t Wakanda, for instance, have its own theme?
Since Joss Whedon is, in his own words, happily divorced from the MCU, creators of future films and Netflix series are unlikely to look toward Whedon’s low-budget works for inspiration. That’s unfortunate, because Dr. Horrible would be particularly useful to the creators of the Defenders series, and the eventual team-up on Netflix.