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Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog

Dr Horrible and Spider-Man - a comparison

Wednesday 30 March 2011, by Webmaster

“Memory is a selection of images. Some elusive, others printed indelibly on the brain. The summer I killed my father, I was ten years old.” —Eve Batiste, Eve’s Bayou

“I’m going to destroy you slowly—and when you start begging for me to end it—I’m going to remind you of one thing—YOU KILLED THE WOMAN I LOVE—AND FOR THAT, YOU’RE GOING TO DIE!” —Spider-Man, The Amazing Spider-Man #121

Dr. Horrible: “You idiot!” Captain Hammer: “Dr. Horrible! I should have known you were behind this!” Dr. Horrible: “You almost killed her!” Captain Hammer: “I remember it differently!”

Beyond their origins, finding the single most iconic moment in the lifetime of a superhero is a task even seasoned comic book scholars would find daunting. For instance, Batman has the death of Jason Todd, his defeat at the hands of Bane, his victory over Simon Hurt and many more to choose from. Superman’s death and return, his All-Star adventure, his initial confrontation with General Zod and his final pre-Crisis tale are all contenders. Captain America’s recovery by the Avengers, his assassination by Crossbones and the Red Skull, his failure to prevent a Nixon-like president from committing suicide, and several others are all probable candidates for that slot.

But when it comes to Spider-Man… well, that’s a whole different, much easier story.

Spider-Man has always been an Everyman: struggling to pay the bills, watching over his infirm aunt, haunted by his own past mistakes. And, like a true Everyman, he is constantly haunted by the ghosts of those whose deaths he couldn’t prevent: his uncle, Benjamin Parker. Police officers George Stacy and Jean DeWolff. Former antagonists Ezekiel Sims, Jackson Brice, Anton Rodriguez, Morlun, Angelo Fortunato and Vladimir Kravinoff. Friends and allies like Madame Web, Ned Leeds, Marla Jameson, Mattie Franklin.

None of those deaths, none of his adventures, none of his quiet moments could ever match Peter Parker’s ultimate, most iconic loss: the death of his girlfriend Gwen Stacy at the hands of his arch-nemesis Norman Osborn, the original Green Goblin. Norman died shortly thereafter, of course, but has come back time and time again. Gwen, like Uncle Ben, has always been teased to return: a clone, maybe, or an alternate universe counterpart. But like Uncle Ben, Gwen Stacy has never truly returned.

Not only has the moment become significant for the character on a number of levels, but the Marvel Universe as a whole seems to have changed as a result. Writer Karl Kesel’s 1998 Fantastic Four annual even played on this idea in a very meta way, transporting The Thing to Earth-1961, a world where the Marvel heroes aged realistically over time, with the divergent point being the night Gwen Stacy died, which was, of course, the last time anyone saw Spider-Man.

This, then, is the crux of writer/director Joss Whedon’s Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog: an examination of the tale of the Everyman hero Spider-Man through a slightly different lens, but with a tight focus on the passing of Gwen Stacy. Using Peter Parker’s scientific genius as a starting point, Whedon (who has long expressed a desire to write a Spider-Man comic, having already penned Marvel’s Astonishing X-Men and Runaways), gleefully and almost maniacally incorporates so much of Peter’s personality and history into the villainous Billy Buddy, the erstwhile Doctor Horrible, that it’s a wonder this isn’t a more widely-discussed topic. Billy and Peter share the same awkward loneliness and hunger for human connection, causing Billy to seek membership in the prestigious Evil League of Evil. Of course, this mimics Spider-Man’s early desire to join the Fantastic Four and the Avengers, long before becoming a member of the latter team and still being denied a full-level Avengers paycheck. Billy’s roommate, Moist, is a D-level supervillain, instantly reminding Spider-Man fans of Peter’s days of rooming with Harry Osborn, Norman’s son and the second Green Goblin, who was very much his father’s opposite. Not as smart, cunning, or confident as Norman, Harry could have easily become much more like Moist if not for the Goblin legacy.

Like Peter Parker and his costumed alter-ego, Billy and Dr. Horrible seem to have built their current lives out of some kind of grief-based origin. Peter’s adventures are motivated by Ben’s wisdom: “With great power, there must also come great responsibility.” Peter sees what a colossal wreck his world is and does as much as he can to salvage it as a solo hero, as an Avenger and now as a member of the Future Foundation. Billy is Peter through Lewis Carroll’s looking glass, for with his freeze ray and various other inventions, Billy is armed for his crusade, knowing full well that “the world is a mess and I just… need to rule it.” We’re never quite told what Billy’s origin is, but more than enough scenarios can be surmised based on his behavior and occupation.

As a supervillain, Buddy still doesn’t get the recognition he desires. Looked upon by others the way the civilian populace (especially J. Jonah Jameson) of the Marvel Universe looks down on Spider-Man, he is still driven internally to do what he knows (or at least feels) is his life’s vocation. Standing opposite him, of course, is the beloved, narcissistic Captain Hammer, a sort of composite of the acclaim Norman Osborn received publicly as a scientist amalgamated with the brash arrogance of the Ultimate Universe’s nationalistic, quasi-totalitarian version of Captain America. Billy is quiet, bashful, soft-spoken, self-conscious, depressed, and full of drive. He’s the villain. Hammer is egotistical, self-absorbed, borderline insane, and ridiculously insensitive. And he’s the good guy.

And then…then there’s poor, ill-fated Penny. Generous to a fault, kind, loving, humble, and red-headed, she has the physical appearance of the freewheeling party girl Mary Jane Watson, but all the characteristics of Gwen that made Peter love her so. Billy’s social awkwardness and, of course, his secret identity prevent him from properly wooing her, instead resulting directly in her falling into the arms of Captain Hammer. Almost a commentary on Peter’s unspoken, subtextual fear of being cheated on (strongly hinted at multiple times over the decades), Billy’s plans to defeat Hammer once and for all are crystallized by their romantic pairing, almost as if Whedon himself were wagging a finger at the then fairly-recent storyline that revealed, through flashback, an affair between Norman Osborn and Gwen Stacy that resulted in more personal pain for Spider-Man years after the fact.

In Act II, Hammer tells Billy “I’m gonna give Penny the night of her life, just because you want her. And I get what you want. See, Penny’s giving it up hard. Cause she’s with Captain Hammer.” Holding up his fists, he adds, gleefully, “And these are not the hammer.” Walking away for a brief instant, he wanders back into the frame to make sure Billy knows exactly what he means: “The hammer,” he declares, “is my penis.” Even the sociopathic Norman Osborn had far more decorum than that while violating international law during the Siege of Asgard! His “hammer”—the Goblin—in that specific instance manifested as war paint, not a male bodily organ. Twisted, distorted and still believing himself the hero, Captain Hammer, misogynistic idol of millions, is a funhouse version of Norman Osborn, the violently insane scientist and former American security guru.

The tragedy portion of Dr. Horrible as tragicomedy occurs late in Act III, as innocent bystander Penny is killed in a battle between the Doctor and the Captain, a piece of Billy’s freeze ray embedded in her torso. Not only does this scene visually recall the classic covers of such comics as Crisis on Infinite Earths #7 (featuring Superman holding the corpse of Supergirl) and Uncanny X-Men #136 (a screaming Cyclops holding the body of his beloved Jean Grey), but it dares to make a firm, bold, and controversial stance on the real culprit behind the death of Gwen Stacy.

Some fans maintain that Gwen died from shock sometime during her fall off the bridge, and that Spider-Man would never have been able to save her. Others, including noted Marvel writer/editor Roy Thomas, claim that it was actually Peter’s attempt to save her that resulted in her untimely demise. Thomas firmly stated in the letter column of Amazing Spider-Man #125 that when Spider-Man shot a web line off the bridge in order to pull Gwen up “the whiplash effect she underwent when Spidey’s webbing stopped her so suddenly was, in fact, what killed her. In short, it was impossible for Peter to save her.”

Billy’s terrible social anxiety, his lack of confidence, his fear of properly wooing Penny, his palpable rage at Hammer for dating her before he even had the courage to ask her out, the vengeance he sought as a result of that anger…those led directly to Penny’s death. They are Dr. Horrible’s equivalent to Spider-Man’s fear of loss, his endless grief, his obsession with responsibility, his Herculean burden to save his uncle, his girlfriend, Ned Leeds, Jean DeWolff, and every other friend he’s lost with each life he saves. No matter how many people he saves, though, Ned, Jean, George, Angelo, Marla, and especially Gwen and Uncle Ben will never, ever come back.

As a result of Gwen’s death, Norman is impaled on his own glider in his next immediate battle with Spider-Man. As a result of Penny’s death, Hammer goes into therapy. Wait, no, that’s not right. It’s arguable Hammer doesn’t even notice Penny’s death; his bruised ego and injured hand drive him to a psychiatrist’s couch, something Norman Osborn always despised and knew how to manipulate.

As a result of Gwen’s death, Peter—though he never mentioned it as the reason—used his scientific acumen to find other, safer ways of saving falling civilians, and there has not been a repeat of the death of Gwen Stacy to this day. His grief, of course, over his own personal failures has helped save countless lives, eventually even using his humor as a defense mechanism again. As a result of Penny’s death, Dr. Horrible also fully re-dedicates himself to his cause, finally being inducted into the Evil League of Evil, living the high life of the most elite supervillains, but also developing a cold, nihilistic, emotionless worldview.

Billy Buddy, then, died with Penny, and Dr. Horrible was truly born. However, due to the nature of serialized storytelling, Peter Parker could not, like Karl Kessel once posited, fade into the night for all time after such an unbearable episode. Like Peter and many other superheroes (among them Reed Richards, Scott Summers, Wally West, Buddy Baker, Bruce Banner, and Wade Wilson), “Billy Buddy” is an alliterative name. Oddly, we never find out Penny’s last name.

From a karmic perspective, though, would anyone truly be shocked if it was “Parker”?