Chapter 1 of what looks to be a four Chapter series!
Joss Whedon has made his name in the business of powerful female lead characters. From Buffy Summers, to every female character on Firefly, he has created and nurtured an expectation in his audience to see powerful women in his work. It is that expectation to which I attribute the rage observed in response to the demise of Penny’s character in Dr. Horrible.
Many expected, as one blogger put it, there to be an “11th hour reveal of ass-kicking potential” (Holly) to vindicate what was seen as an unusually weak and inconsequential Penny. When Joss instead appeared to opt for the “comic book trope [of] ‘Women in Refrigerators’” (Allen) many fans and feminists vehemently called foul.
While this is a valid criticism, it is my view that the character of Penny is more complicated than this simple plot device.
When considering Penny's character it should not be overlooked that while Billy claims to want “social change” and while Captain Hammer is called a “hero” and gets the homeless shelter opened (which would not have been possible without Penny’s hard work), Penny is the only character actively working towards the betterment of her community in a dedicated and long term manner. One commenter put it; “[Penny] does more for good than both of the other characters” (Zoinkers #126), which I think is a pointed observation. As much as the audience is meant to (and does) identify with Billy/Dr. Horrible and is amused by Captain Hammer, in the end we are Penny (especially those of us in social justice).
We do not have access to the power/prestige of Hammer, or to the genius level creative resources of Horrible; we only have our two feet, hope in our hearts, and a pen for signatures to “turn a life around”; like Penny. Read in this light, Dr. Horrible becomes a cautionary tale “illustrating how caring, generous people are out-shouted, over-shadowed, and often killed by those who feel it’s better to make grand gestures and exercise force” (Zoinkers #137) than to put in the time needed for change from the ground up. Indeed, as I see her, Penny is an incredibly powerful (if tragic) symbol of hope, and her death a demand for change from business as usual.
Penny’s death itself is important not only because it provides the needed catalyst for Billy’s final transformation from “joke, dork and failure” into Dr. Horrible, but because it is so jarring. On first viewing it is easy to accept Dr. Horrible at face value; light hearted, campy and fun. While there are clues of a deeper message and lingering darkness, they are masked by humor and the spectacle of the musical numbers (Shohat and Stam, Dialectics of Presence/Absence).
Penny’s death is so jarring not only because of our identification with her, or her cringe inducing last words (“Captain Hammer will save us”), or even the erasure of her identity viewed in the headlines (“whats-her-name murdered”) but because of its perceived incongruence with the rest of the series. This ending casts a completely different light over the film and forces the audience to re-examine their interpretation of it, as well as their impressions of the two more “active” characters (especially Billy, the one we had been sutured to throughout).