‘We appear to find ourselves in a bit of a-‘ ‘don’t-‘ ‘-grey area.’ ‘-say that! Can we just get through one damn day without saying that?’ July 25, 2008Posted by dolorosa12 in fangirl, reviews.
Tags: dark knight, dr horrible, evil, fangirl, joss whedon
A few warnings and disclaimers before I get into this post. The first is a warning that this post is ABSOLUTELY SPOILERIFIC, so if you haven’t seen Dr Horrible or The Dark Knight and want to, read on at your peril.
Disclaimer #1: I hadn’t seen anything Batman-y since I was three years old and watched the cartoons on TV. I went to see The Dark Knight because Heath Ledger has been one of my favourite actors since he danced down the school sports arena singing I Love You Baby to Julia Styles in 10 Things I Hate About You.
Disclaimer #2: I am a Whedonista of the worst kind (no, I don’t say ‘Browncoat’, because I became a rabid Joss fan before Firefly). A fantastic quote by CowboyCliche on Whedonesque pretty much sums up my position: ‘You realize, if Joss were to make a thread telling us to take to the streets and riot, our only question would be, “pitchfork or torch.” ‘
So bear this in mind when reading what I have to say about the matter.
Well, unless you’ve been doing the online equivalent of hiding under a rock for the past two weeks, you’ll know that Joss Whedon’s latest project, Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog has been a cult internet hit. You might’ve watched it. You might be planning to download it on iTunes. Or, like most of my real-life and online friends, you might’ve been subjected to a series squeeing fangirlish discussions of it and its brilliance.
I’m not going to provide a full, essay-like analysis of the essence of Dr Horrible. That’s being done perfectly well on Whedonesque, on Facebook, and on LJ groups like drhorriblesing. No, what I want to do is talk about a specific aspect of Dr Horrible, and indeed of all Joss’s work – the notion of evil. I’m going to compare it with how evil is presented in The Dark Knight. And, just so you can be perfectly clear what you’re getting yourselves into, I’m going to say that Dr Horrible does a better and more nuanced job of exploring this theme.
Dr Horrible typifies a few key Joss Whedon beliefs. The first, and one that no-one besides me seems to have noticed (if I’m wrong, point it out, please) is opposition to solving problems with grand symbolic gestures. Joss has adamantly expressed his opposition to this on many occasions, the most notable being on Buffy. I’m thinking in particular of the several episodes about Jonathan (‘Earshot’ and ‘Superstar’) where he attempts to fix his problems in dramatic ways – first by killing himself at school, secondly by using magic to make himself the most powerful and loved person in the world, both times with utterly disastrous consequences.
In those Jonathan episodes, his plight is conveyed with a great deal of pathos and empathy, but there is little doubt about the moral message that underpins each episode. Jonathan may be a pitiful character, but his attempts to fix his life are wrong in their drama. He needs to help himself on a smaller scale.
This theme is, of course, writ large in Season 6 in the figures of the Trio. Here is evil that is utterly banal (shout out to Hannah Arendt) – three bumbling nerds who make robot girlfriends, have a van with a horn that plays the Star Wars theme and don’t know how the plural of ‘nemesis’ They’ve decided that being ‘evil’ is the way to fix all their problems.
And this, in essence, is what Dr Horrible is about. We know less about Dr Horrible than we do about the Trio, and because we’re watching Dr Horrible from his perspective (and because his hammer-fisted nemesis is so unlikeable) we empathise with, and cheer for, him in a way that we do not for the Trio.
Joss has a way of getting us to cheer for sociopaths, though. What is Spike, after all, but a serial killer? What is Angel but a self-pitying former sadist? Why are we so quick to forgive Willow for her Season 6 evilness? It’s because we see them in all their nuanced, messy, humanness (even if they’re not human). Dr Horrible is no exception. His real-life alter-ego, Billy, is a bumbling but witty (as only a Joss character can be) man who is quietly in unrequited love with the girl he met in the laundromat. He brings her frozen yoghurt. He stabs himself with a spork. He has a PhD in Horriblenss. What’s not to love?
And yet…and yet there’s always an ‘and yet’ in a Joss show. In this case, it’s one of Joss’s other pet themes: be careful what you want. You just might get it.
Billy wants, desperately, to get into the Evil League of Evil. His arc is showing how he gets there. Throughout the film, we’re all cheering him on, wanting him to fulfill his evil potential. He has to kill someone to get there? So what, it’ll probably be Captain Hammer, that unpleasant ‘corporate tool’, and the world will be better off without him. We all forgot that we were watching a Joss creation.
Be careful what you wish for, the consequences are always monstrous. So, Billy kills someone, but not the someone he expected. He enters the ELE with a bang. He becomes the evilest of them all. As others have pointed out, his ‘real-life’ persona, Billy, gets banished to the blog and Dr Horrible takes over. And he learns the true nature of evil: to be always alone, and always lonely. It’s a terrible story (in the sense of ‘filled with terror’), and it’s spot-on. Hell isn’t other people. Hell is being alone when surrounded by other people.
Which segues nicely into my discussion of The Dark Knight, a film about a lonely and alone guy who has a responsibility to protect the people around him and yet remains distant to preserve his sanity.
So, what can I say? I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting, but I guess I was underwhelmed.
Yeah, Heath Ledger was amazing, yeah, the film was ‘dark’, but no, it wasn’t thematically complex, deep and meaningful, ‘Hollywood at its best’. It took a fairly cop-out-ish route and explored the notion of the fine line between heroism and villainy. Through the prism of the war on terror.
That was my main gripe. If you take this analogy to its logical conclusion, The Dark Knight condones torture, rendition, Guantanamo Bay and all the iniquities of the ‘war on terror’. Let me explain.
The basic stance of The Dark Knight is thus: The new villain (the Joker) has no discernible motivation (this is shown several times when he gives different ‘explanations’ for his scars) for his ‘evil’. Thus, the ‘good guys’ decide, he revels in chaos – in fact, he’s chaos incarnate. And this new breed of evil, one that cannot be reasoned with, cannot be controlled in the usual way. The law is powerless to stop it. We need a new kind of hero, a ‘dark knight’, one who is prepared to descend to the same evil level to defeat the evils of chaos. In other words, terrorists have no desire or motivation other than to spread chaos. They want nothing, they have no grievances, therefore we have carte blanch to use all manners of evil, extra-legal methods to defeat them.
Which strikes me as morally abhorrent.
The Dark Knight is a simplistic film that masquerades as being something much richer in meaning than it actually is. It makes heroism out of cruelty and writhes piously and deceptively in a false exploration of the brutalising effects of the ‘war on terror’ on the American soul. It masquerades as a film about grey areas and moral ambiguity, when in fact it is simply two-and-a-half hours spent deferring its inevitable and disquieting conclusion. It is, in other words, pure evil.